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The Long Road to Recovery is made up of Small Steps

I’ve been hesitant to share this chapter of my story because I know that so many people have also been affected by problems during the covid years. I’m not insensitive to the challenges many people are still facing but I hope my story might be helpful to others. The Running Granny is all about taking small steps towards goals and challenges. When we get knocked down it can be really dispiriting to have to go back to the beginning and work through it all again and it’s focusing on those small steps that’s so important.

I’ve been a recreational runner for eleven years. I love the feeling of being outside, the challenge of pushing myself, and the sense of accomplishment I get when I finish a run or event. However, over the past two years, I’ve been sidelined by both injury and illness.

For anyone enjoying a sport whether competitive or recreational anything that causes you to take time out can be devastating, taking away the ability to do what you love which is incredibly frustrating. Sometimes injuries and illness are only temporary setbacks and often seen as opportunities to come back stronger after a period of rest and focused rehabilitation. Sometimes though they can take you out for a much longer period of time.

Two years ago, after training for and completing a tough mountain challenge, my 62@62, I was probably about as fit as I’ve been ever been. Shortly afterwards while out on what should have been an easy jog, I suffered a recurrence of a decades old knee injury and limped very painfully off the hill with the aid of poles. Scans revealed multiple problems in the knee and a lengthy rehab program followed.  Then eight months later while working through this, I had Covid and went on to develop post viral syndrome, or Long Covid, including symptoms of brain fog, fatigue and, cruelly for a runner, painful Covid toes.

The Road to Recovery

It’s been a long haul. It’s taken a year to completely shake off the brain fog and fatigue and to start to improve fitness. I started by doing very light exercises, walking or easy cycling short distances as the fatigue in the early months would allow.. Gradually, I increased the frequency, duration and intensity of my workouts.

One of my biggest challenges has been psychological. Not only was it incredibly frustrating abandoning plans for challenges and events, but limitations to physical activity meant I wasn’t getting my regular ‘fix’ of the outdoors with the ‘feelgood’ impact on my mental state of the activity itself.

There has also been the fear of re-injury which is an ever present risk for one knee, and I’m having to learn to trust my body again. Being sidelined for this extended period also makes me anxious about participating in events and I’ve lost confidence despite completing a couple of events testing my recovery.

Earlier this year I felt I wasn’t making much progress and had plateaued.  I didn’t seem able to rebuild my strength and endurance despite the long covid symptoms decreasing (except the toes which are still really painful). I began to believe I was unlikely to regain anything like my former level of fitness and this was making me feel quite miserable. There are still many challenges I’d like to attempt but I was starting to lose motivation.

I had two goals for this year but to have any chance of getting to the start line I decided I needed help from an expert, someone unencumbered by my emotions who could take an objective view, talk to me realistically about my ambitions and then develop a plan towards tackling them. I decided I would benefit from the help of a coach. There are many great coaches in ultrarunning, some of whom I know personally, but none, so far as I could ascertain had experience with coaching women of my age (over 60) let alone with a variety of injuries – which is why I’d always been my own coach. I tentatively approached the one person I believed might be able to help with no expectation of them having the capacity, or indeed the desire, to take me on…..but to my surprise they were prepared to do so.

Managing the long term injury

Producing a training plan isn’t as straightforward as it might be. If I want to continue to run for some time to come then I need to protect my knee. Two years ago when I discussed this with my consultant it was agreed that I would offload foot miles in training to reduce the load through the knee. Cycling would be ideal. Last year I included cycling in my activities, not least as it was easier to pootle around on a bike than it was on foot when the Covid fatigue was at its worst. The problem is was that as the fatigue lessened, it was easier to put on shoes and just go for a jog/run. To motivate me to cycle more, and run less, I needed a goal, and a big one that wouldn’t be achievable unless I actually trained for it.  After a bit of deliberation and being inspired by my friend Dan completing the Lakesman Ironman triathlon last year, I decided I would enter the half distnace Lakesman. This involves a 1.2 mile open water swim, a 56 mile bike ride followed by the standard 13.1 mile half marathon.

Just the thought of it scares me. But as the saying goes, “If your dreams don’t scare you then they’re not big enough”. I’m not much of a cyclist and even less of a swimmer, I’d not even been in a pool for years; I’m very slow and prone to experience an unpleasant condition called swimming induced pulmonary oedema, SIPE, which affects breathing.

I’d made the decision to enter the Lakesman before I started working with my lovely coach and had commenced a weekly swim in the local pool to start to acclimatise my body to deal with the SIPE.  My coach included swimming and cycling activities in my plan and increased swimming to twice a week and recommended I get some swim specific instruction. Now, I’ve tried this in the past but not made any progress but a friend suggested I take a different approach and re-learn to swim with a friend of hers. Somewhat sceptical of anyone being able to turn me into a swimmer and it being rather late in the day with fewer than eight weeks before the event, I decided I couldn’t be any worse than I already was and signed up for a Learn to Swim course and some open water instruction.  At that point it was already looking as if I would not make the cutoff time allowed to complete the Lakesman swim so I had nothing to lose. No one has been more surprised than me to find that after four pool and two open water lessons plus a couple of practise sessions with other friends, it looks like I might have a chance of not only doing the distance but coming in within the time limit.

Whatever obstacles loom large in your head when you try to visualise the path to your dreams, there will always, always be people out there who are only too willing to give their time and expertise to help you overcome them.

As to the cycling, the focus has been to increase the time in the saddle to the point where I can cover the required distance and I just need to go at a pace where I will still have enough in the tank to do the run.

Progress

Within a few weeks of working with my coach I could see with the program they developed for me it was possible to improve. It is hard work. I don’t like routine but the plan is sufficiently varied I don’t get bored with it. I like to get out with friends and some of the activities are a good fit for them too plus it’s a great motivator for me when my running buddy gives me a target to chase although I felt like a whiney child, “not another hill”, when two friends took me on a hilly cycle ride recently.

Even though I’m feeling much better now, it’s been challenging to think about taking part in events or take on my own challenges. I’m not as fit nor as strong as I was but I’m determined to keep training and pushing myself to see what I can achieve.

The triathlon is my first challenging event but it really is only in the plan to make sure I use the bike to train rather than all on foot.

The real goal this year is to run Wainwright’s coast to coast as a personal challenge. 190 miles from St Bees to Robin Hood’s Bay. I’ve done it before as part of an event but it’s such a great route and I’ve wanted for some years to do it again. I’ll write more on this once the triathlon is out of the way.

Thoughts for others recovering from injury, illness or Long Covid

I’d encourage you to never give up on your dreams, sporting or otherwise.  It may be a long road to recovery but it’s possible. It’s hard work but with determination and support from friends you can make progress, albeit maybe at a glacial pace. Things I’ve learned on this part of my journey:

  • Have more patience and set realistic goals: keep on with those small goals that you can achieve then gradually increase the difficulty as you get stronger. Don’t expect to be able to return to your old self in a hurry. Listen to your body and take breaks when it tells you to.
  • Ask for help as there’ll always be people who want to support you.
  • Stay positive as it won’t all go smoothly. Remember that even when you’re fully well you have good days and bad days.
  • Keep a focus on your goals and don’t give up.
  • Every journey brings new friends and new opportunities.
  • Remember you are stronger than you think.

I’m motivated to keep at it because I love running and I love having a target. I also want to inspire others who are facing similar challenges and to show that it’s possible to overcome adversity and achieve your goals – which for me is to keep running – after all what else would the Running Granny do if she couldn’t run?

A river cuts through rock, not because of its power but because of its persistence