Monday, March 21, 2016

It's Been A While -- Blame A Full Hamstring Avulsion

I know; it’s been a while.  Over a year in fact.  I used to blog weekly, and then I just – stopped. 
There was no reason or message behind it.  I just felt like I was writing the same things over and over again; work hard, make good food choices, admit you’re not perfect, and pick yourself up when you fall down.  Been there, said that.

So, why am I back?  I’m not really sure.  It’s not like I’ve started mountain climbing or running ultra-marathons (and you read it here first; neither of those will ever happen).  Now that I’m thinking about it, I’m probably writing again because yesterday was the NYC Half Marathon.  No, I didn’t run it.  In fact, I haven’t run one step since the NYC Marathon on November 1st, 2015.  

No, I haven’t given up.  If I did, I certainly wouldn’t blog about it.  Who’d want to read that?  No, the reason why I haven’t run in over 4 months is that I’m injured.  I mean, VERY injured. 
Now that I think about it, the injury started last year in the middle of the 2015 NYC Half Marathon.  No, that’s not true.  The injury started at about mile12.6 of the 2015 NYC Half Marathon.  But before I get into it, I need to give a quick run-down of the relationship I have with that race.  Frankly, it’s poisonous.

Like every reckless relationship, it started off great.  In 2010 I ran that race for the very first time, and got my half marathon PR (for you normal folks, that’s runner speak for “Personal Record”) of 2:11:11.  But things started to go south the following year when I missed that PR by a measly 8 seconds.  Then, during the NYC Half Marathon in 2013, at about mile 6 I thought “Wow, I’m rubbing a really bad blister.”  Well, that “blister” ended up being a stress fracture (and proof that I really don’t know how to read pain correctly), which landed me in a medical boot for 13 weeks.  In 2014, I had an OK race, not great, like when you’re still with this person but the relationship is over and you just don’t want to deal with the breakup.  Then last year was the final straw.

The NYC Half Marathon takes you on a tour of Central Park, then down 7th Avenue to Times Square where you bang a right, run to the Hudson River, then turn south and just keep going until you cross the finish line.  Somewhere after mile 12, you run into the Battery Park tunnel, where it is dark and REALLY ANNOYING PEOPLE start shouting so that it echoes and cuts your brain in half.  Well, in that damned tunnel, I was busy cursing out the REALLY ANNOYING PEOPLE under my breath, and didn’t see the pothole before I stepped in it and pulled my hamstring (or so I thought).  I screamed out, but everyone probably thought I was joining the echo game, so people looked over and nobody stopped even though I had stopped and was holding the back of my right thigh.  I tried to run again, but basically just limped the last half mile or so, ending with my very worst half marathon time at that point of 2:30:35.

I spent the rest of the spring and much of the summer with back issues that also started at that race, and times that were about a minute slower than my usual slow pace.  My hamstring would talk at the end of long runs, but nothing I ever thought much about.  On August 1st, my running partner, Rita, and I were going to do a 12 mile long run, training for the 2015 NYC Marathon.  Before we started, she asked me if I wanted to cut it to 9 miles and I said no, wanting to do the whole thing.  It was Hades hot out, so at about mile 4 or 5 when we saw a trail head and Rita asked me if I wanted to try trail running, I jumped at the idea.  And what a great idea it was.  It was a good 10 degrees cooler and all shade.  Ahhh.

Then it happened.  A second or two after my watch beeped the 9 mile mark, I suddenly went flying.  I’d love to say I caught my foot on a rock or something, but we all know that with me it’s possible I tripped over a big shadow, or an ant jumped into the path and threw me off.  Whatever it was, all I knew is that one minute I was vertical and the next I was testing gravity (which was working just fine).  I flew out like Superman minus the powers to fly, and slid a few feet down the dirt trail.

And, I didn’t get up.  I couldn’t.  Not at first.  Poor Rita had no idea what to do to help me, and the slew of swear words coming out of my mouth weren’t giving her any direction.  I knew I had done something to that same damn hamstring, but this time it was bad.

I didn’t want to scare Rita, so I forced myself to stand.  It took several minutes before I could put any weight on it at all, and finally I could limp enough to move in a forward direction.  We both knew our run was over for the day, and even laughed that Rita actually got the 9 mile run she had wanted instead of the 12.

Now, here’s the problem with injuring yourself at mile 9 of a 12 mile run: you’re three fucking miles from home, and your fucking leg feels like someone snapped it off your body and then tried to glue it back on.  Rita and I called our husbands, but neither was reachable, so off we trekked (well, Rita trekked;  I hobbled).  After about 2 miles, Rita reached her husband Phillipe, and he came to our rescue, picking us up and dropping me off at home.  It was late; that last 3 miles took longer than the first 9, and the last time I had been in that much pain I at least had a child to show for it afterwards.

For the next 3 months I did my weekday runs in the pool, which didn’t feel real great.  On the weekends I did my long “runs” but definitely earned those quotes I put in there.  I’d walk for one minute, and then “run” for two, and repeat.  Ad nauseum.  Usually I had to give that up after the first few miles and just walk.  My hamstring was killing me, and I always felt like I was going to fall.  I knew what that felt like, so I was slow (very slow) and kept myself upright.  I finished up the 9 races I needed to qualify for guaranteed entry in the 2016 NYC Marathon, going so slowly that I got swept off the race course twice and gained an even slower half marathon time of 3:24:57 for the Staten Island Half Marathon (and if you ever want to completely destroy a runner’s self-confidence, just drive up alongside of them and say “the race is over and we’re opening up the roads to traffic. If you want to keep going, you’re going to have to move to the sidewalk”.  Trust me, that’ll do it).

I actually did the marathon, against the opinion of every single person who felt like giving me one.  I had gone to some quack – I mean, doctor – a few days after the injury and he said I had a moderate hamstring pull and would be fine in a few weeks, so I figured I was fine though I knew that there was no way it could be.  I finished the marathon in 6:50:55, actually thrilled that I had done it in under 7 hours, and still with about 1,000 people behind me (and the NYC Police tried to sweep us off the course at about mile 20, but every single runner just ignored them and kept going.  That was by far my proudest moment as a New Yorker).

A few days later I went to a new doctor.  I actually went for my back (didn’t want to get into it all here, but throughout all of this I was having major back issues), but I casually mentioned my hamstring, and after asking me questions she said, “Umm, Alison, you do know that regular hamstring pulls don’t take 3 months to not heal, right?” She sent me for an MRI for my hamstring and a few days later called me with the news: I had what was called “complete hamstring avulsion”, with the tendons for all three hamstring muscles completely torn off the bone they were supposed to be attached to.  And not only that, but the hamstrings had retracted and were 5 cm away from where they were supposed to be.  Not good (though in hindsight, that 6:50:55 marathon time didn't look so bad considering I did the whole damned thing with no functional hamstrings in my right leg).

That phone call led to a date with a surgeon in mid-December, who had to pull those hamstrings up and sew them back into place (by attaching them to anchors she drilled into my hip bone, but I didn’t want to write that so that you didn’t get grossed out ).  Not only that, but since it had been months since the final injury (and many months since the start of it in the NYC Half Marathon), my hamstring and sciatic nerve had scar-tissued themselves together and she had to dissect them from each other. 

The brace
After one night in the hospital I was sent home in a brace that went from just under “the girls” all the way to my knee.  It wrapped around my waist and my thigh, holding my hip at a 10 degree angle.  I was allowed zero weight on it for 2 weeks, and then an increase of 25% body weight over the next four.  I slept on the couch for a month, took sponge baths via the kitchen sink, and was at the mercy of my husband and kids for food and clothing (and quick sidebar: my family rocks.  The three of them pitched in and did everything, from making my food to putting on my socks, feeding the cats and cleaning the litter boxes.  If I learned one thing through this, it was that I am one of the most blessed people on this planet).  The first time I left my house in 2016 was January 29th, and that was just to go to the doctor.  For the first two months of the year, I think I wore shoes 4 times (and they were always tied by somebody else).  

I’m out of my brace and back at work, but I still can’t do anything.  I go to physical therapy twice per week (and since the physical therapist is not at all hard to look at, I don’t mind that part that much :-), but can’t really do much else.  One day I swam for 10 minutes and it set me back for a week.  When I come home from work I am exhausted and just lay on the couch like a lox.  It hurts to sit so I stand most of the day, and now my bad back is jealous of all the attention my leg is getting and it’s letting me know it.  And yes, I am the same person who has finished 6 marathons.

Now, I’m down, but I’m not out.  No, I will never run the NYC Half Marathon ever again.  Let’s call it like it is: that race makes me its bitch every year.  I hope to be running by June, and doing the NYC Marathon on November 6th.  My PT is not as optimistic. Regardless, I will be back to running, whenever that is.  I am taking it slow this time, though, so that hopefully this will be the last injury I ever write about. Oh, stop laughing.  It could be true.

I don’t know when I’ll write another blog entry.  But when I do I hope I help you out, give you some encouragement, and make you laugh along the way.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

All The Work, One Step At A Time

Today I want to talk about two separate incidents that occurred over the last couple of weeks.  The first was at my gym.  I had finished getting dressed and was packing up my stuff to head off to work when a woman came up to me and said, “I love your six pack abs. I was checking them out while you were getting dressed.  How do you get a stomach like that?”  As her comment was extremely flattering (yet mildly creepy), it took me a minute to find my voice, but at last I got out one word: “Crunches.”

The second incident happened at my Weight Watcher’s meeting this past Friday.  There is a new member in our group who was explaining how she did on Thanksgiving.  Generally, she did great; she doubled up only on vegetables, passed on the stuffing, and even went for a walk with her family after dinner.  But before she could give herself credit for her work, she said something about how she did have a small portion of pie, so she wasn’t perfect and therefore didn’t really get it right.

So, these are the two things I want to talk about (no, not my abs and Thanksgiving dinner).  I want to talk about effort and knowledge.

When you’re given a task at work, do you just tap one button on your keyboard and the project is magically done?  No (though if it is, I would really like to borrow your keyboard). To produce results, you have to do the work behind it.  Want to build up your cardio endurance?  Start running.  Want more defined abs?  There’s one answer: crunches and planks until you want to die.  Yes, it’s hard to do.  But it’s not impossible.  If you put in the work (and I mean really put in the work; going to the gym once and then stopping for a burger and a beer on the way home and then never going back doesn’t qualify), you will see and feel the results.  It takes a bit of time, but it can be done.  And that brings me to my second theme: knowledge.

That woman in the Weight Watchers meeting was upset because she wasn’t “perfect” on Thanksgiving.  But I believe she was at her second meeting.  Now, have you ever seen or participated in a martial arts class?  If so, you may know that they have a ranking system that is illustrated in class by the various color belts that people wear with their uniforms.  Black belts are masters, white belts are newbies, and those in the middle are all the other colors depending on skill and experience.  The instructor of the class would NEVER expect a white belt to do some of the moves that a black belt can do, or at least not do it as well.  And you can’t go from newbie to master in a day.  You have to learn how to perform the moves, and practice.  A lot (said the woman who reached the belt level just below black belt twice in two separate schools in two different states).  The woman at Weight Watchers is a healthy eating white belt.  She doesn’t know how to avoid seven different desserts all staring at her after Thanksgiving dinner, especially when everyone around her is tucking in and enjoying themselves.

So, that’s my lesson for today.  Do the work, and take it one step at a time.  As something gets easier, move yourself up a belt (or a notch in your belt that’s getting bigger), and make it a little harder and then practice that.  Do the crunches, and as they get easier, add on some more.  Learn how to eat a healthy holiday dinner, and once you’ve gotten that down, learn how to get desserts to stop talking to you and calling you by name.

And finally, take credit for your hard work.  If you work your ass off on a project at work and the boss says, “Wow, this is fantastic!  Great job!”  Do you say, “Thanks, but I had a really hard time getting that analysis right”No.  You take the credit for your work and move onto the next item on your to-do list.  So take the credit for the gains you make in your personal life.  Don’t say, “well, I went to the gym 4 times last week, but I was really lazy on those other 3.”  Celebrate the 4 days (though not with a burger and a beer :-), and plan your next step.  Before you know it, you may have a random stranger give you an extremely flattering (yet mildly creepy) compliment to start your day.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Taking Directions From The Cheshire Cat

Remember the story of “Alice In Wonderland”?  In my favorite part, Alice is walking through the woods when she comes across the Cheshire Cat, and Alice strikes up a conversation with him:

“Can you tell me, please, which way I ought to go?” asked Alice.
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where – ” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“—as long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “as long as you walk far enough.”

This is kind of how I’ve been feeling lately.  I worked so hard for months to train for the marathon.  I ate right, ran a million miles a week, cross-trained, got as much sleep as I could.  I planned vacations around my training schedule (and here’s a hint: for vacation visit your best friend who is also a runner, and you’ll find it’s really easy to get your runs in.  You may even get to run with her dog, too, which is just a lot of fun).  But now the race is over.  I ran through what felt like a tornado for over 5 hours, missed the podium by a mere 41,000 or so places, and proudly wore my finisher medal as I limped the few blocks to my car (that Wil already had running and warmed up, God bless him, though he didn’t get my telepathic message to pick up a hot chocolate for me and have that waiting, too) and went home to the comforts of an enormous meal and a hot bath.  But, now it’s over, and I feel like I’m walking through the woods without any direction, and without an invisible cat to help me out.

I think a lot of runners feel this way after a big race.  You’re so focused on this goal you’ve set for yourself, that it’s all you do or think about for months, but then when you’re done you have no idea of what to do with all your free time (or how to eat a lot less and to end your love affair with pasta).  So now what?

Well, I think I have the answer: make a new goal.  It doesn’t have to be as adventurous as a marathon, but it has to be something.  And that something has to be kind of concrete.  Have you ever had a goal to “lose weight,” “start running,” or “be more organized”?  Well, those goals are nice to think about, but they’re not likely to happen.  If you want to be Alice and just get “somewhere”, then yes, the cat is right.  Just keep walking, and you’ll eventually get there, but wouldn’t it be better to have an endpoint and a map to get there?  When you get in your car and turn on your GPS (which I pretty much have to do every time I drive somewhere; I swear, I have the sense of direction of a chair), do you just hit start, or do you have to tell it where you want to go first?  Right.  You give it the destination, it gives you the route and you follow it until you get to where you’re going (occasionally getting confused when it tells you to take a left into a concrete wall or when it says “Recalculating” while you’re in the middle of a bridge that you've been driving over for several minutes).  The best way to achieve something is to think about what you want, then figure out how to do it.  Only then can you start working on your project.

I have a few goals set up for next year: an Olympic distance triathlon in September, 3 or 4 shorter triathlons in the spring and summer, a few half marathons and some 10Ks.  Oh, and of course the NYC Marathon in November 2015.  Some of those are too far off to start working on right now, so for the moment my goal is to keep up my fitness, keep down my weight, and start my training plan for my first half marathon next year (which will either be in mid-March if I make it into the NYC Half Marathon by lottery, or mid-April if I don’t) with a good running and fitness base.  I’ve set up training schedules that I’ll follow as much as weather and life will allow, and food-wise I know I have to keep doing what I’m already doing (minus the pre-marathon love affair with pasta).

I don’t want to just keep walking and end up somewhere.  I want to keep following the paths I’ve been on, and get to more and more destinations.  Granted, it would be a lot more fun if I had a cat to talk to along the way.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

What Does It Take To Admit You're Successful?

At Weight Watchers, they have these things called “Bravos”.  They’re little green stickers shaped like stars with the word “BRAVO” in white across the middle.  Your meeting leader gives them to you if you let him/her know of some kind of a behavior change that you’ve made for the better (for example, being stressed at work and going for a walk at lunch, rather than being stressed at work and walking to McDonald’s for lunch where you order and eat three different items that all start with “Mc”).  I know the BRAVOs sound corny, and maybe a little ridiculous, but you’d be surprised at how good they are at making you realize that you’re making changes for the better and sticking with them (no pun intended).  Because, really, losing weight isn’t about dieting.  It’s about changing the behaviors that made you unhealthy in the first place.

At any rate, why on earth is a grown women rattling on about star shaped stickers?  Well, a week ago Friday was my first meeting after the marathon.  My leader Maggie asked if anyone had anything they wanted to brag about, and I shot my hand up like that nerdy kid in school who was dying to give the answer to the teacher’s math question (that was also me, by the way).  When Maggie called on me, I said that I had just run the NYC Marathon.  I gave a brief story about it, and talked about the wind and how it was by far the hardest physical thing I have ever done.  Then I explained that I’ve done marathons before (five now, but who’s counting?), but the reason why this is a behavior change is that the old Fat Girl I used to be would have quickly given up on anything that was so difficult.  I would never have pushed through, because I never believed I would succeed.

The meeting attendants clapped, and Maggie gave me a chain of Bravo stickers, estimating that there were about 26, one for each full mile of the marathon.  Then others raised their hands to discuss their Bravo-worthy achievements and the meeting continued.  At one point, Maggie tried pointing out a similarity between me and another member, and she something like “and Alison is a runner --” and I cut her off.  I said, “Uh, no.  I’m not a runner.”  Maggie finished her point with the other woman and then then turned to me and asked, “Alison, you just finished a marathon (again, my fifth, but who’s counting? :-), and you don’t consider yourself a runner?"  I had a one word answer: “No.”  Maggie’s next question to me was, “What will it take for you to tell yourself that you’re a runner?”  I came up with the intellectual answer of: “I guess I just need to believe it and accept it.”  That was apparently the right answer because Maggie left me alone and continued on with the meeting.

For the last week or so, I’ve been thinking about that meeting.  Yes, I know I’m a runner, but I’m always too scared to admit it to myself.  Why? Well, the reasoning is kind of weird.  I guess I keep thinking that if I tell myself that I’m a runner, an athlete, or a person who lives a healthy lifestyle that it will all just go away.  Somehow, I think that if I tell myself that I am no longer Fat Girl that she will coming banging down my door with a large meat lover’s pizza and then make me eat the whole thing and wash it down with a 2 liter bottle of Coke.

I’ve been thinking about something else all week, too.  I’ve been thinking about that last marathon.  Every now and then, I play different parts in my head: looking at all the spectators who cheered us on by name, hearing that roar of the crowd that met us when we turned onto First Avenue from the Queensboro Bridge and how that felt, my sister whispering encouraging words in my ear at mile 11 when I was already feeling beaten.  I thought about turning onto Central Park South and knowing that it was almost over and I was actually going to make it.  Mostly I thought about after I crossed the finish line, and while I was being herded out of the park thinking about the enormity of what I had just accomplished.

Flash forward to today, where a funny thing happened.  It started innocently enough.  I have a black running turtleneck with a big hole in it and a new black turtleneck sans hole that I had just bought to replace the other one.  Every evening I pack the next day’s work clothes into my gym bag and then don’t see them again until I am getting dressed at the gym after my workout and shower the next morning, so I didn’t want to accidentally grab the black turtleneck with the gaping hole in it and be stuck having to wear my coat at work all day to cover it (I’m talking very large hole in the back.  Don’t ask; just keep reading).  I went to put the ripped turtleneck in my running clothes drawer and realized it was overflowing with a mix of summer stuff I wasn’t going to need for several months (sigh), and winter stuff that I had been pulling out of the pile stored in my closet one freezing day at a time.  I shifted my workout drawer from summer to winter (again, sigh), and then decided to take care of the other clothes in my dresser.  I took a pile of summer stuff to my closet, and as I climbed the step ladder that is permanently in there (and where is your 6’4” husband when you need him?), my eye fell on some clothes in the back of my closet.  These were clothes that hadn’t been worn in years.  They’ve been hanging in my closet for so long that they have actually collected dust on the shoulders.  They are my fat clothes.

Yes, that’s right.  I’ve been at my goal weight for close to 5-1/2 years, and I still have enough clothes to dress a baseball team’s worth of women who are 5 feet tall and 70 pounds overweight.  I turned away from that part of my closet, climbed the step ladder and put away the pile I was holding.  Each time I went back in my closet to exchange seasons, I’d look at the fat clothes and then look away again, like the way you used to look at the person in high school that you were absolutely in love with but who didn’t know you existed (admit it; you had that person.  We all did).

When I was done with the piles, I left my closet and was about to leave my room.  But, I didn’t.  I thought about last week’s Weight Watchers meeting.  I thought about Maggie asking me what it was going to take for me to admit that I was successful. I thought about the answer that got Maggie off my back but that I couldn’t actually accomplish:  I needed to just believe in myself and admit it.

You clearly know what happened, or I wouldn’t be writing about this.  Yes, I turned back around, went back to my closet and packed up all of my fat clothes.  There are women out there who are trying to get back on their feet and get jobs, but they don’t have the proper clothes to wear to work or even to an interview.  And I have a small wardrobe of clothes that don’t fit anymore and are never going to again.

I kept one item (actually, two. The first is a dress that frankly I always loved and still cannot part with.  And to everyone who knows me and whose heart just stopped for a second, yes I really do own dresses, and yes, I actually have one that I loved and wore frequently).  The second is a pair of pants that I have never worn.  I bought them years ago.  When I bought them they were snug but I loved them and told myself that in a month or so I’d fit into them (with no plan on how I was going to do that).  I put them aside, and several weeks later I put them on to pin and then take to the tailor to get hemmed (and all of you tall girls have no idea how much money you have saved in your lifetime being able to buy clothes that didn’t need to be shortened).  But, they were way too tight.  I could barely get them up and certainly couldn’t close them.  I remember taking them off and how disgusted I was with myself.  I had put them back in my closet, never to be worn.
I still won’t ever wear those pants.  They’re too big now (and still too long.  Why hem pants you’re never going to wear?), but I want to keep them as a symbol of where I was and where I am now.  I think that will be my favorite part of the story when I talk about it at Weight Watchers next week and get a new Bravo sticker.