Bouncing Back: Seven Things I Learned on the #RoadtoBerlin (Part 1)
By Gates Palissery
It was January 18: a dark, snowy, icy morning. I went out for a training run—the Atlanta Marathon was next on my list of 50 States, 50 Marathons, and I thought the sidewalks would be clear enough to run. I’m from the mountains in the northeast and lived in Chicago, a bit of snow seemed like no big deal.
I was wrong.
Half a mile in, running down a small hill, I slipped on ice. I describe it as rolling my left ankle, but to the extreme. I carry my phone with me when I run so when I tried and failed to stand back up, I called 911. They sent an ambulance, which struggled to get up the hill to where I was—that’s how bad the weather was.
They did x-rays in the ER. I knew before the PA said anything that it was going to be horrible news—I was in pain just sitting in a wheelchair with my foot propped up.
The verdict: I had a trimalleolar fracture. My ankle was broken in three places at the bottom of the tibia and fibula, which, fun fact: is about as bad as an ankle break
can get. Surgery was scheduled for the following week, where the
y would put plates and screws in both sides of my ankle to help the bones heal. I would be in a cast, completely non-weightbearing, for 6 weeks after surgery, then I’d have to be in a walking boot and doing physical therapy for weeks after that.
My entire slate of spring races was cancelle
d in one afternoon. No Atlanta Marathon, no Flying Pig Marathon in May because I wouldn’t be able to run by then. In the week between breaking my ankle and surgery, my concerns turned to the fall: would I be able to run Berlin? My surgeon said September was far enough away that I might be able to.
The thought of cancelling all of my Berlin plans was unbearable. I absolutely refused to accept that I wouldn’t be running Berlin. Be
rlin! Where Kipchoge set a world record! One of the World Marathon Majors! I could NOT miss this race. I would not.
So began my #RoadToBerlin, an incredible 250 day journey. I documented every single day between breaking my ankle and the day I ran the marathon on Twitter, and in doing so, a pattern of important lessons emerged.
After 6 weeks in a cast, my bones were completely healed, but my muscles had atrophied to the point where I had to essentially relearn how to walk.
I really had to contend with the fact that you can’t jump straight back into it after your injury heals. It was frustrating and concerning—there were many times where I started to question whether I’d be able to run again and train for a September marathon.
I was in a walking boot, so I decided to start small and do what I could. Every day after I got home from lab, I’d go for a walk. I started with half a mile then slowly built up to a mile, a mile and a quarter, a mile and a half, two miles.
I discovered that I actually like walking. More importantly, walks gave me metrics I could use to help track my progress. How far I walked, how fast I walked, what my splits or heartrate were—every day that I walked a little bit faster or a little bit farther, that was a little more strength and mobility that would get me back to running again.
One mile at a time. One day at a time.
Cross-training is important!
Cross-training is extremely important to all runners, no matter what you’re training for. I’ve incorporated it in my training routine for years, and everyone should be doing it regardless of injury or not (in fact, it helps prevent injury). This blog post is a great discussion about cross-training for runners: https://www.runwithcaroline.com/cross-training-tips-for-runners/
If you’re wondering how I maintained any cardiovascular fitness while recovering, the answer is cross-training.
When I was in a cast, I knew that I had to do something to stay active. Anything that involved using both legs wasn’t an option, so I turned to upper body and core strengthening workouts. YouTube is a wealth of resources—Adapt To Perform, run by a paraplegic, is one channel I relied on for good workouts.
I started physical therapy 4 days after my cast came off. I was not about to waste any time getting into PT because to me, it was a critical part of my recovery, the best way of getting me back to running without risking further injury. I was in PT 3x/week for about 12 weeks, and most sessions lasted at least an hour. My therapy started with mobility and then transitioned into rebuilding strength.
Outside of PT, I would cross-train on my own and track my metrics. For strength and stability, I started a series of exercise
s that were compound movements, first with bodyweight and then slowly adding weight with dumbbells and/or kettlebells. To get a good cardio workout in, my physical therapists also recommended activities like the elliptical (which I tried once but it caused pain so I stopped) and aquajogging (I didn’t have access to a pool). For me, cardio was getting on the stationary bike at the gym (or,
later, my own bike) and intensifying my daily walks.
I still cross-train 3-4 times per week. Weight lifting, pilates, walking, and yoga are an integral part of my training routine. I’m more than happy to share my workouts with anyone who’s interested! Cross-training is important!!
G O A L S.
Set goals for yourself.
Yes, this sounds like generic advice. And it is. I generally don’t find it helpful because when I’m going to do something, I just figure out how to get to that point, do the thing, and get to where I want to be.
But coming back from injury is the kind of thing where you can Just Do It (as Nike says). When you’re recovering, you literally physically cannot do things, you can’t run without potentially making things worse and setting yourself back even more. How do you even cope with that?
For me, it meant having things to work toward (goals, if you will). The Berlin Marathon was the light at the end of the tunnel, but I needed those guide lights to get me there. In the beginning, it was relearning how to walk, but after that, I needed something more. I needed something realistic and manageable to keep me going on a day-to-day basis.
This is where my metrics come in: I tracked my metrics for every workout because I needed to establish my new capabilities and then handily defeat them in favour of better ones. I was working towards more reps in the gym, faster walks, a better heartrate on my bike. I was incrementally working to get to a fitness level where the rest of me was prepared to run when my legs were.
Recovery isn’t a straight line, there are peaks and valleys, even the best-laid plans, etc. All this to say, be flexible in your goals. I tried running a half marathon in mid-May because I thought I was ready. I was not.
I ran about 5k then realised I was really hurting because I was pushing myself when I wasn’t ready. I was doing too much, too hard, too fast. SO I switched from my goal of sub-2:30 (my PR is a 2:08) to a new goal of finish in the middle of the race.
Check back next week to read Part II of Bounce Back...