It’s been exactly one year since I had ankle surgery, and it’s been both harder (physically) and easier (mentally) than I expected. After finally having my first pain-free run in nearly three years just a few weeks ago and looking forward to a fall full of base training, I can’t imagine not having fixed my ankle. But if I had known how long of a process it would be, I’m not sure I would have taken the plunge.
A few days before the Sir Walter mile last summer, my left foot and ankle completely locked up. I had no power to push off, and there was very sharp pain whenever I did. Lining up on the start line, I had a feeling it would be my last race of the season. I didn’t know it was the last time I’d really run for over 6 months. I saw several different doctors, and with my history of previous injuries for about a decade in that area, I was looking for answers.
I learned that I had a subtalar coalition in my left ankle and a longitudinal tear in my posterior tibial tendon. Essentially, the coalition (which is a genetic condition) is extra bone growth in the joint that was slowly growing over time and increasingly limiting my foot/ankle’s mobility. The tear started in the tendon directly over this coalition some time early 2016 trying to hold everything together, and I’d been babying it ever since.
There was hardly any indecision. I could either continue to semi-train with various injuries cropping up every few weeks and constant pain when running, hopefully trying to have another solid season of around 4:05 or 4:06 for the 1500 but unable to progress, or I could try to completely fix the problem and have a shot to really train. Three weeks after this diagnosis, I had surgery in Chicago.
I originally wrote this blog a little differently, leaving out a lot of my emotions and thoughts about the process. It was more a statement of facts. A chronicle of what it’s taken this past year to begin to recover and how far I still have to go. I originally chose to write it this way because it reflects how I processed this past year: this surgery was my choice, and right or wrong, I didn’t feel allowed to dwell on the challenges or struggles. So many other parts of my life are great. The inconvenience of some time off running needed to be kept in perspective because it could be so much worse. There were good and bad days, but I had locked away any self-pity. I had made a decision to fix what was broken, and I would stay the course.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t one of the most challenging years of my career. I hit a new low in physical fitness and had to slowly claw my way back out. I still lack so much aerobic strength. There’s always a new sense of appreciation for running after going through an injury, but I had learned that lesson long ago. I’ve approached each run with gratitude for some time, regardless of how difficult or uncomfortable it may be. Instead I wanted to share what it means to keep your eyes and your mind fixed firmly ahead, not swerving in long-term goals despite the obstacles that arise. I don’t know if my dreams will come true, but I’m going to do everything in my power to keep chasing them.
My doctor is amazing. On my consultation visit, he spent nearly two hours talking one-on-one with me about everything wrong with my ankle, my options, what the surgery would entail, and what recovery would look like. I was so grateful for his expertise and finally finding a concrete reason for many of my injuries.
I spent some serious time bonding with the couch this month. To prevent swelling (and the concurrent pain with swelling), I had to keep my foot elevated 50 minutes out of every hour for the first two weeks. The first week was the worst. With my leg elevated on a pile of pillows, I constantly lost circulation, which was painful. If I moved it at night, it was painful. I didn’t like my medicine and didn’t take much, which meant it was painful. Weeks 3-4 my foot was elevated 40 minutes out of every hour, and weeks 5-6 30 minutes of every hour. Thankfully I had family and friends bring meals, my husband to lay out my daily supplies within arm’s reach of the couch, a weekly Starbucks drink from one of my training partners, and lots of Sudoku, all to keep my sanity.
That 6-week appointment had been shining like a beacon of light since surgery. And it was a great visit: my doctor gave me the all-clear to begin weight-bearing and walking in a boot. So I skipped out of that appointment room, right? Wrong. I had no idea how painful it would be to try to put weight on a limb that hasn’t touched the ground in 6 weeks. I shuffled out of there still using my crutches and gingerly placing a tiny bit of weight on my booted foot. That first night I took about 5 steps on my own without crutches and was so proud of my progress from that morning.
During my second week of PT (8 weeks after surgery), I tried out the Alter-G for the first time. I ran 5 x 2 min run, 1 min walk at about 13:00 pace at 20% body weight, and it was shockingly painful. I was a little alarmed that every step felt like a shockwave went through my foot even though I was so light I could barely touch the treadmill. My ankle was also very still and limited in mobility, so my walking pace was super slow with a nice limp. I did countless hours of rehab, trying to slowly improve my mobility and learn how to walk and run again because my foot was moving in a way it never had before. That’s the part I didn’t quite understand beforehand and would continue to realize throughout the year: this wasn’t a simple injury to recover from. After 27 years of moving one way, my foot and ankle had to learn a completely new way to land, roll, and push-off now that it had full mobility. That doesn’t happen overnight.
January was full of cross-training. Probably the most I’ve ever done before, a little over 800 minutes a week. I progressed on the Alter-G from about 50% to 80%, still doing my little 2 min run, 1 min walk. I was probably a little obsessive with my cross-training this month; when that’s all you can do, that’s all you do. I couldn’t wait to start running again because once I hit the ground, it would be smooth sailing (I thought).
This was a frustrating month. I got the all-clear to try running on land at the beginning of the month. I’m not sure why I assumed it would feel good when it was still painful at 80% on the Alter-G, but it definitely hurt on the ground. And my foot was too weak to fully push off, so after a few minutes I was favoring it more and more. I ran on the ground about twice a week from around 5 minutes to 15 minutes. I kept thinking I was turning a corner, just to have pain in new areas and new sensations flare up a few days later. My doctor told me I could run more than I was, but it was too painful to do much. The days until outdoor were starting to tick away, and I felt helpless watching them fly by as I got further and further behind my planned comeback. This was the first of many times I had to learn that your body doesn’t follow a set schedule. It heals at its own rate, and the fitness follows at its own rate.
I continued running on the ground about twice a week, slowly building up to 4 miles by the end of the month, but still feeling quite a bit of pain, especially sharp pain on the top when pushing off. I starting wondering not when, but if, I would ever run again without constantly worrying about pain in my foot. I thought surgery was supposed to fix the pain! I still struggled even walking for long periods, and my foot would swell up and get sore if I stood too long.
I tried a few strides at the end of the month. It was painful, and my foot was a little shaky supporting me, but I counted it as a win. I’m such a planner (not always a good thing in this context), and I was constantly looking two, three, four steps ahead. My mind was already racing ahead to when I’d be ready to compete again.
Outdoor season was upon me, and I was getting a little antsy again. All winter I had been telling people Don’t worry, I’ll be fine by outdoor. It’ll be back to normal and you won’t even notice I took a break! I think I was convincing myself more than them.
I began some light tempo workouts on the Alter-G, and a few weeks later I tested the waters on the track with 2 sets of 4 x 400 @ 86. The cadence felt good, but it was so tiring. By the end of the month I had done two workouts of 10 x 200 around 32-35, and I’d ran up to 5.5 miles straight with 20 miles on the ground the last week. Looking back now, I realize how little training this is, but at the time I convinced myself I was nearly race ready and fit.
I planned my first race back for May 4th, but I had a bit of a flare-up and took the first week of May off running. I tried some broken runs the following week, with the first few steps of every segment being very tentative as I felt sharp pain on the top of my foot. But it slowly improved, and although it was still very present, I was able to run through it by the end of the week and start up light workouts again.
I ran my first race back at the end of the month (800 in 2:10) that I was woefully unprepared for, but I was so excited to be back out there. It was a different kind of fear on the starting line. I didn’t wonder if I could pull off a PR or win; I was trying to hold back the terror that I was making a huge mistake thinking I was ready. Finishing that race felt so freeing; even though I was well back in last place, I remembered how to race and push myself, and my foot made it 800m in spikes. People afterwards came up and asked Amanda, what’s wrong? Are you hurt? and I had to sheepishly admit that no, I just wasn’t fit. I was a little quieter about the fact that 2:10 was actually a good time based on my training.
I went to USAs because I’m an eternal optimist. I thought maybe, just maybe, I’ll light it up and sneak into the final. I had been running about 25 miles a week for the past 6 weeks, and the few 1500s I ran went better than expected. But you can’t fake fitness, and it was a sign of the coming summer of races: I got really good at running around 68-69 sec/lap, but I had no ability to change gears or respond to moves. I’m still glad I went to race because going to USAs helped me feel like a real professional again. I had my most recent doctor appointment at the end of this month, and I was thrilled to hear that my tendon was finally back to normal size (it had atrophied to less than one-third of the usual size before surgery). I was ready to take some steps forward in training.
I was determined to put together a solid summer of races, so I amped up the training this month. I increased from 28 to 42 miles a week over 4 weeks, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been so tired from training in my career. Every workout was an all-out effort. Every easy run was a slog. I’m so grateful for my teammates helping me out with those days.
I still had some sharp pain when starting to run and especially when sprinting and pushing off, but it was manageable. My cross-training dropped dramatically because I was just too tired to do much of anything. I was finally running decent mileage, and my workouts were getting better and better. Practice was becoming fun again.
August is one of my favorite months as a professional runner. I love local track races at night under the lights, with the homestretch becoming a tunnel of screaming fans. I’ve had some of my best races at these events, and the emotional high of winning is hard to beat.
This year was a little different. I never like to count myself out of races before they start, but there was no way around the fact that I just wasn’t very fit. I was no longer the runner who could respond to every move and gear change. My kick was nonexistent. Some people would choose to train instead, and that’s often a wise decision. But for me to feel engaged in the sport, I had to get out there. I enjoy running, but I love racing. Even if my body wasn’t ready to win, I could work on training my mind and learning more from every time I got on the track.
And so I raced. And raced. And raced. I ran nearly every track mile in the states this month and was consistently in the mid- to high- 4:30s. A breakthrough seemed just out of reach each time, like the next week would finally catapult me back to the runner I was the previous two summers. We backed off the workout intensity so I went into each race feeling great, but that breakthrough never happened. Stepping on that starting line as less than your best isn’t easy. My confidence comes from knowing I’ve done everything in my power to best prepare myself for that race. This time, my “everything” was a little different. I kept apologizing to race directors, saying I’m sorry, I’m just not quite as fit as the runner I used to be. I really thought I’d be faster by now! I’m just grateful you let me in! I know that my self-worth doesn’t come from my race results, but at times I felt guilty not performing up to expectations.
My last race was a win, and it felt so good. I went all-in earlier than I anticipated and didn’t worry about if I’d have enough to hold on. I have to thank Kellyn Taylor for making an aggressive move and helping me break down that mental barrier. After so many sub-par races on the track, mixing it up with a road mile was just what I needed to break out of that pattern.
I took a short break after the summer season and then eased into some light jogs. At first I thought I imagined it, but by my first week of training back I knew it was finally true: my left foot was 100% pain-free and felt exactly like the right foot, 11.5 months later. The first few steps of every run since are a wonderful, but slightly alien, feeling. My body had been broken for so long and now it’s healed. Injuries may still be ahead of me, but for now I’m embracing this moment.
I still have a very long way to go to get back to the 4:03/4:25 shape I was in two years ago. My lack of strength still surprises me sometimes when I try anything resembling a threshold/tempo. And I honestly thought that I’d be so much more fit by now; it’s hard to not compare yourself to others coming back from injury and wonder how they did it so quick. But everyone’s trajectory is different, and this is mine.
I was very quiet about this surgery over the year because it was easier to take it day by day than to try to reflect on where I’d been and how far away my goals were. But injuries and comebacks are a part of being a runner. If there’s one thing I can pass on to other injured runners, it’s that you can’t rush fitness. Keep your eyes up and focused on your goals every single day. It may take longer to get there, and the path may be more circuitous than you planned, but keep the faith and keep moving forward. That’s my focus, each and every day.