Burning Runner: Rising From The Ashes Of Injury

Ultramarathoner Brian MacKenzie is the founder of CrossFit Endurance.

After missing his 2010 goal race due to a knee injury, T.J. Murphy is committing himself to good health in the new year.

Written by: T.J. Murphy

In early November, just weeks away from my goal race at the Zappos.com Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Half Marathon in early December, my knee went on strike. Walking, running, standing—you name it—my right knee buckled in pain. I’d been training diligently for a year, with a focused buildup since July for a season finale half marathon.

As my co-workers will attest, I proceeded to go on with life and my training as if little had happened. Limping around the office, afraid to bend my knee in any fashion because of the rim shot of pain it caused, I was asked many times two questions: 1) What happened to you? And 2) How are you going to race in Las Vegas? I vividly recall my pat answer.

“It’s nothing. Just a little inflammation. No biggie!”

And with alarm in their eyes they’d reply: “You can’t be serious. You don’t honestly think you can run?”

“Here’s the hilarious thing,” I’d counter with a conspiratorial laugh. “The pain only affects my walking. Running? Don’t even notice it! Isn’t that hysterical?”

Just a riot. The whole truth was that, yes, I was slogging through daily runs, but each workout was a high-wire act requiring desperate levels of concentration on foot placement. One false step and and my right leg collapsed comically beneath me. Trick knee meets trap door.

I iced, I stretched, I did strengthening exercises. I popped Advil and went that didn’t work, I reached for the hard stuff, Aleve. I’d take the pill and then 20 minutes later talk to myself about how magically it worked, how it blew out the swelling and all was back to normal. Somehow I managed to run six days a week through November, including a few tempo runs and interval workouts, all the while limping through my day. Runs got shorter and  shorter and paces bled away speed like a sliced artery. “Tapering!” I claimed. How lucky I was that this was all strangely working to my advantage, I told myself over and over. You lucky, lucky dog!

On December 1 I dressed and wobbled my way outside for a lunch run. I wound up my motivation to concentrate like a steel spring and  (gone were the days I could let my mind wander during an endurance run) stumbled into forward motion. One hundred yards later I drooped to a complete stop. Whatever fiction I’d held together in my mind for a solid month had made itself apparent: I wasn’t running; I was just grinding muscle and bone. All I needed to finish the job was to try and sneak my way through a half-marathon competition.

I walked back to the office knowing that my goal to run a sub 1:30 half-marathon was long gone.

I stopped running altogether, and with my new self-honestly giving me time to consider the mental closet I had crammed the memories of my last ten years of being a runner: Injury, the blues, start running again, injury, depression, gain weight, more injury, back goes out, get sick of it all, force myself onto the soft and quite intolerable confines of a treadmill, lose some weight, and on and on. I eked out some races through it all, but I don’t recall ever feeling really good in the last decade. However, 2010 was a good year relatively: I lost a lot of weight, ran consistently throughout the entire year, and seemed like I was on track to be a version of the person I was in the 1990s. I had come to accept that rusty joints, stiff muscles, mild to medium limps, and frequent injuries were a byproduct of all my years of running and the fact that I was in my 40s. It was just part of the bargain. Right?

But is this a correct assumption? Is this the way it has to be?

I had no answer, but due to a story I began working on last summer for Triathlete Magazine—a story on Crossfit Endurance (crossfitendurance.com), a concoction brewed up by a power-lifting ultra-runner in Costa Mesa, Calif., named Brian MacKenzie—I had come to learn about others like myself, a shamed population of ground up distance runners given new hope, who were realizing transformational revitalizations in their lives as athletes and runners and in their general health. Crossfit Endurance is based on many of the foundations of Crossfit, an approach to fitness and athletics that combines unbridled sports science thought with a minimalistic, high-powered training methodology that—as opposed to the traditional way most runners follow a very rigid, one-dimensional training path—slays sacred cows and uses variation in training and draws on the best applications available from many different sports. Subjects like nutrition and mobility training are just as front and center as metabolic and cardiovascular types of exercise. And when you talk first-things-first about what Crossfit emphasizes most to newcomers (and veterans alike), it’s technique first, consistency second and intensity third.

In working on the story I talked with the likes of Guy Petruzzelli, a professional triathlete based in the Chicago area, who rebounded from a car accident early last summer by training at a Crossfit gym. His return was rapid, blowing his doctor’s mind, and his fitness took such a quantum leap that he has since fully embraced MacKenzie’s system, despite the radical difference from the way he’d trained his entire life for endurance events. Petruzzelli described to me the beating his ego took when he first went in the Crossfit gym—here he was, a professional endurance athlete, and the women were kicking his ass. He described a process where humility was his greatest currency as he slowly acclimated to the high-intensity, high-variance system that required not dozens of hours but handfuls. His success was so startling that he had no choice but supplant his old ways with the new ones. (For more on Guy’s story be sure to pick up the February issue of Triathlete Magazine, on newsstands now).

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