You may wonder why a 36-year-old “lady mommy” (my daughter coined that) and runner would call her blog “Creaky Joints.” I mean, Shalane Flanagan is in peak performance and she’s 35 years old. Ten of the female Olympians on Team USA in Rio were also moms. What’s with all this old lady business?
One of the things I’ve been loathe to bring up, especially in the throes of my newfound love of Prozac, is my chronic injury.
Within a year of completing my first marathon at the ripe-old age of 19 (Marine Corps Marathon ’99, Washington DC, time: 4:06), I developed a debilitating stress fracture while training for what I thought would be my first olympic distance triathlon. At first, I thought it was just a pulled muscle. I was popping Aleve like crazy. I was limping. I couldn’t sleep in certain positions. The pain would wake me up out of a sound sleep when the Aleve wore off. I know. I know! But I was 20, it was the summer, I was working 2 jobs on the Cape, and I was getting ready to enter my junior year of college.
A few weeks later, my mom was helping me move my stuff into my apartment in DC. I was visibly wincing on the stairs. She took one look at me and brought me straight to the Georgetown Medical Center. Two doctors sat me down in front of my x-rays and asked me if I could see, first, the long line down my left femur.
“Wait. Are you sure hair didn’t fall over the lens? Is that a scratch on the glass?”
“No, it was a ridiculously long stress fracture in your femur,” said the men in white lab coats.
“But how’d I get that??” They had an answer to that, too.
“See that gray mass at the top of the femur? See how it’s not white, like the other areas of strong, healthy bone? You have a tumor, and we’re going to have to take a biopsy. And by the way, you’re lucky you didn’t break your leg. Here are some crutches. Stay off it.”
Wait.What? Huh? The good news was, the tumor turned out to be benign. An orthopedic surgeon at Beth Israel Deaconess in Boston performed surgery on me that fall. He took out the tumor/cyst and injected the bone with steroids and bone mass taken from my hip and the bone bank. My femur was supposed to regenerate slowly over time. He told me to stay off it. He said, “no marathons.”
I logged many, many hours in the Georgetown swimming pool that winter and spring. Within a year I was running again. Within three years, I was living in Vail, Colorado, and skiing every single day. I knew my leg wasn’t 100%, but I avoided over-taxing myself and just… you know… flirted with disaster throughout my twenties. I became convinced that my injury was manageable as long as I stayed fit, cross-trained extensively, and sought out low-mileage marathon training plans. Eventually I gained the confidence to run a few more marathons: the Nashville Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in ’08 (time: 4:11) and the Boston Marathon in ‘o9 (time: 4:09), on my home turf. I ran that one with no pain, but also with no gas left in the tank. I was burnt out and no closer to breaking 4 hours.
And then… the babies. Oh, the babies, and the weight gain that comes with babies. All the pain and discomfort and sleeplessness came back, radiating from my left hip. I was once again wincing on the stairs, favoring my left leg. Soon after my first child was born (In 2012, and I was 32), I paid a visit to my old orthopedic surgeon at Beth Israel. He was still there, 13 years later. He gave me an MRI and said, “Creaky Joints” (No, he didn’t really call me that), “you need surgery. You should probably do it before you get pregnant again.”
“Really? What kind of surgery?”
“We need to put a steel plate in your hip.”
“What? Wouldn’t it be easier if I just took all this weight off?”
He looked at me. I looked at him. He said, “Think about it.”
I did think about it. I thought about it between feedings, diaper changes, and cooing over my beautiful son. And then I got pregnant again. Like, right away. So I stopped thinking about it.
With two babies, I decided that I didn’t have time to get a steel plate put in my leg. I mean, just writing that sentence is absurd to me. Of course I didn’t want to be off my feet for ten weeks to recover from that surgery. My most recent MRIs showed that the fracture had healed but the bone had never regenerated. In my mind, this was the same femur that had carried me far and wide my whole life. So I took my original tack, which was to get fit, cross-train extensively, and seek out low mileage training plans.
And it started out OK… It really did! I lost all the weight, and then some. Go, me! The pain abated, for the most part. I was picking off races. 5Ks, 10Ks, and 3 half marathons in 2015. I thought I was on target to finish my first marathon in 7 years right around 4 hours. But then, half way through my marathon training plan for the Vermont City Marathon, the other shoe dropped. I started to feel that ol’ dull ache in my hip. A new pain had crept into my right knee. I suspected my biomechanics must be off, because I’d spent so long compensating for my bad leg. I was plagued by doubts and fears. I got depressed.
And here we are.
I love running. I do. But I can only push myself so far. I have real physical limitations. But sometimes I can’t help but wonder how good I could have been, if not for this tumor? I mean, I ran a marathon at 19. I got bit by the running bug early. I remember so well the confidence I felt, early on, that I would break 4 hours, that I would qualify for Boston someday.
This past year, I fell in love with running all over again. It’s got me wondering if I shouldn’t get the damn plate put in. I don’t know what it’s like to run on a strong, healthy leg. Why shouldn’t I want this? And the older I get, the more aware I am of potential long term repercussions. I could end up with arthritis or other joint problems if I don’t fish or cut bait. And by fish, I mean get the surgery. By cut bait, I guess I mean give up high impact training. Running. Nope, not happening.
So this is all percolating. I’m off to the Y for an injury prevention – errr, I mean strength training session now.
Should I get the surgery?
Am I just a wimp?
What am I afraid of?
Have any of you dealt with orthopedic surgeons before?
Anybody out there with steel plates???