It was Sunday morning and I was getting ready for my longest run since injuring my back and neck–a little 5 miler after which I would meet up with my run crew for brunch. I was bent over the sink, brushing my teeth, when it snuck up on me. I sneezed and immediately knew something was wrong. I was paralyzed in the position for a moment and afraid I wouldn’t be able to stand back up.
But let’s back up. If you’ll recall, about two weeks after my marathon I suffered a back and neck sprain. It was a perfect storm of a few things that lead to it including but not limited to an already tight back from marathon training, being sick in bed for several days, running a trail race in cold conditions, then hanging out for hours in the bitter cold. I saw a physical therapist a couple of days after the race and have been seeing her ever since.
Through November I worked mostly at home so I could stand while I worked. I stretched twice a day and did some short, easy running twice a week. In December, I was able to add some strengthening exercises including some light weights and up my running to longer (4-4.5 miles) easy running three times a week. I was still in pain pretty much all the time, but it was significantly less and there were days when the pain was barely noticeable. Last week my physical therapist told me I could start adding stairs and hills to my training and try going a little longer. She was optimistic that I would be able to run (not race) a 10 mile race that I am signed up for in mid-January.
On New Year’s Eve I ran the Midnight Run in Central Park. It was a packed scene and we decided not to drop our bags. My pack wasn’t very heavy (it only contained a jacket), but it wasn’t a running pack so I ended up holding on to the straps the entire time. By the end of the hilly race, my back and shoulders were pretty sore. Disappointingly, I decided to skip my New Year’s Day hike the next day to allow my body to recover. By the next day, Saturday, I was feeling better and able to do my strengthening exercises and on Sunday morning I was ready to run my 5 miler. Until that sneeze.
Less than 24 hours after that dreaded sneeze, I was in my physical therapist’s office getting a massage, ultrasound, and muscle stimulation. My doctor told me that my back is spasming, likely because I injured a disc during the sneeze. For the next few days I am to stand instead of sit as much as possible, do my stretches multiple times a day, and ice my back. And no running. I’ll see her again on Friday to assess how I am doing.
I’ve had friends express concern about me not having an MRI or X-ray. I trust my therapist and from what I have learned from my own research and she confirmed this morning, the protocol that we would follow even if I got an MRI or X-ray and they saw something would be much the same. My pain, while significant, isn’t something that I want to take pain killers for and my therapist is fine with that. The only thing that might be different if I went to specialist is the option for surgery, but typically a therapy approach is followed first and surgery is only used a last resort. At this point, I don’t think surgery is a route to consider. My therapist and I are both optimistic that this can be healed naturally and as long as I show improvement that will likely be the case. This sneeze situation is coincidental to my current injury and my therapist believes that in a few days the spasming will subside and we can get back to my previous recovery protocol.
The fact is that for this type of injury it will take about 2 years before I am fully healed. That doesn’t mean I will be in pain or active recovery for that long, but it will be that long before the risk of relapse isn’t significantly higher. During that time (and for the rest of my life if I want a healthy spine) I will have to keep a good maintenance routine of stretching and strengthening. This would be the case even without injury as I start to run longer and more technical trail. The fact of the matter is that I am older and have some degeneration, have had poor posture most of my life, and I haven’t been taking care of my back. My massage therapist repeatedly told me through marathon training that I needed to see someone because my spine motility wasn’t very good and my back muscles were always very tight. And in regards to stretching and strengthening I did very little to help myself. Even if I hadn’t strained my back and neck, the sneeze while bent over could have had the same impact because of the condition of my spine and back strength.
So what does this mean for my running? Well, no running for now. I am going to give up my spot in the mid-January race and focus on recovery for as long as it takes. At some point, I will be able to run again. It may take weeks or months to get back to it with any kind of real schedule and I don’t even know how long it will take to get back to technical trail or long distance. Those things don’t really matter right now, though. I know that when I am able to get back out there, I will just be happy to be running. I have always seen running as gift that I am so grateful for. Less than 3 years ago, I didn’t think I could do it anymore. This time I know that I can. It is just going to take some time.