Burning Runner: The Ol’ Injury Fandango

Week 19: In his final month of preparation for the Zappos.com Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Half Marathon, T.J. has been dancing around a nagging knee issue.

Written by: T.J. Murphy

November 5 was a strange day, one that (unbeknownst to me at the time) sent me tumbling down into an injury that I haven’t been able to shake.

The day started early while I was in New York City for the marathon. I went to meet a bunch of runners at the Apple store on 5th Avenue in Manhattan (the big glass cube near the southeast corner of Central Park) while it drizzled rain at 7 a.m. It was chilly, and the warmth created by the two-mile jog to get there didn’t last long. By 7:15 my teeth started to chatter, and the group I was expecting to meet never materialized. Whatever. So I jogged to a Starbucks near the New York Athletic Club, bought some tea, and stayed warm while I waited for another run to start, a group jog in Central Park organized by Asics, at 8 a.m. This turned out to be very cool, because two Asics stars—Deena Kastor and Ryan Hall—were both there for the easy 3-miler. It was a small group so I wasn’t shy about getting a few minutes of time to chat with both of them. Deena was her usually bright, enthusiastic self and I prodded her with questions about the coach who guided her to world-class status, the legendary Joe Vigil. She loved talking about Coach Vigil and mentioned that she would soon be on her way to Alamosa, Colo., to be a part of a statue-unveiling ceremony honoring Vigil at Adams State College (While coaching cross-country and track at Adams State over 28 years, he amassed a win-loss record of 3014-176). She also told me that Vigil, at 80-years-old, was still zipping around the globe speaking at coaching conferences and seminars. I was happy to hear this.

I also had a few minutes to chat with Hall, who I knew must have been having a bit of a rough patch because he’d decided to withdraw from the Chicago Marathon and had also decided to part ways with his coach, Terrence Mahon. This was my assumption anyway—regardless, he was, as usual, very easy to talk to and very down to Earth. We were jogging maybe 9-minute pace, which made me wonder what it’s like to be a guy who can run 4:50 miles during a marathon and how 9-minute-pace must feel. Like taking a nap?

After the Asics run I jogged back to my hotel and then went cross-town for the expo at the convention center along the Hudson. Before I knew it the clock had struck 5 p.m., and I had been on my feet in a way I hadn’t since the old days when I sold running shoes. Walking toward the subway my right knee started buckling on me—it would hyperextend and send a firecracker’s worth of pain through my leg. I had one last event to attend that day and the more I walked or stood, the more often my leg buckled. I tried walking and standing in a variety of ways—testing out different stances and bizarre styles of walking and noticed I was catching the eyes of New Yorkers–not an easy feat. My limp disintegrated into a stagger and I would later describe what I must have looked like as someone who just got shot in the knee.

The first thing you want to happen as a runner when an injury surfaces is for the injury to mysteriously disappear just the way it appeared. I somehow figured that if I kept walking around I would jar it all back into place, but of course this logic collapses and becomes stupid. All it did was get worse. When I finally got home that night, I made my last trip of the day to the ice machine and then tried to freeze the injury into oblivion.

That was nearly a month ago. I’ve had a few days where I walked and ran like normal, but it’s never lasted. The knee keeps going out on me. The good news is that it’s not cartilage damage or anything requiring surgery. Rather, the location of the pain—the inner border of the kneecap where the patella tendon and lateral retinacula attach—suggest a form of classic Runner’s Knee, as it were, or more formally “medial patellar retinaculitis.” Whatever you call it, it’s been annoying the hell out of me for the last 3 weeks.

With a goal race looming the problem of course is trying to figure how much running you can get away with while (ideally) getting rid of the problem and most certainly not making the problem worse. I backed off and took a few days completely off, did tons of icing, took anti-inflammatories and kicked myself for letting my strength work lapse in October (I had similar problems about a year ago and it was by consistently doing some simple straight-leg quad-strengthening exercises the problems went away).

Confronting an injury while training for a goal race is a bit of a puzzle. From my many years of dealing with running injuries I have assembled the following basic approach to it:

  1. Don’t fall into the temptation of feeling sorry for yourself. In the grand scope of things a running injury doesn’t merit any sort of standing as tragic. It’s just a speed bump. Best to keep your spirits up and commit to learning from it.
  2. Cling tight to Dr. Timothy Noakes’s “4th Law of Running Injuries: Virtually All Running Injuries are Curable.” He’s has 10 of these laws in his book “The Lore of Running” and I’ve always taken comfort in them, from the 1st “Running Injuries Are Not an Act of God,” to the 6th “Treat the Cause Not the Effect” to the 9th (and my favorite) “Avoid the Knife.”
  3. When it comes to training, resting, cross training, rehabbing, it’s all about being patient, listening to the body and persisting. Persistence and patience can sometimes knock heads, and generally speaking persistence should yield to patience.
  4. Seek out expert advice from doctors, physical therapists and the like who run. This is an abstract from the 8th Law of Running Injuries: Never Accept as a Final Opinion the Advice of a Nonrunner.”

Noakes, in fact, gives additional recommendations in discussing the 8th Law—“Your adviser must be a runner…Your adviser must be able to discuss the details; if not, together you will get nowhere…If your adviser can’t cure your injury, this failure should hurt him or her as much as it does you…It is patently ridiculous to accept advice from someone who is antagonistic to your running…Your adviser shouldn’t be expensive.”

While I appear to have danced through the ol’ Injury Fandango (as best I know this was coined by John L. Parker, Jr. in “Once a Runner”) I can’t say I’m perfectly clear of it, but I have the green light to run in the Zappos.com Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Half Marathon this coming weekend. However, I have to face facts and know that breaking 1:30, my original goal, just isn’t going to happen. While running injuries aren’t an act of God, nor are breakthrough running performances. If you can’t do the right work you’re not going to be able to hit the right race pace.

While I’m certainly disappointed in this realization I also know how the chemistry of running injuries and denied goals can work. American running coach great Dr. Jack Daniels talks about this in the DVD lecture sold at McMillanRunning.com. He says running injuries ultimately lengthen running careers—that you get so ticked off from blowing it that you promise you’ll come back and “really show ‘em next time.”  I have to admit that my blood is already stirring with this brand of heat.

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T.J. Murphy is the Editorial Director of Competitor Magazine. He can be reached by e-mail at burningrunner@gmail.com.

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