I often tell my athletes that not every race can be about obtaining a personal best. Some races are merely stepping stones to other races, because nothing gives us the information we need about how our bodies will handle racing in the way that doing a race does. With that in mind, I toed the line yesterday at the Colorado Half Marathon in Ft. Collins. I had one objective and that was to get a clear evaluation of my health.
It is always risky lining up for a race when there is almost 100% certainty it will not go well. To be honest, if one of my athletes wanted to do a race with the circumstances in which I raced, I would have said no. But, I needed unequivocal information that only a race could provide.
Here’s the backstory. In October, I had surgery whereby my xiphoid process was removed and two titanium plates were fitted to stabilize three ribs that were so hypermobile they were actually rubbing against each other. I felt bionic.
Initially, I was euphoric over the improvements in my breathing and the decrease in my overall pain level. I became more productive in my work life, I slept more soundly, and my running was on fire. I was over the moon.
At some point in late February, I noticed, ever so slightly, that on some runs I was laboring to breath. Then I noticed some discomfort in my ribs. I was no longer sleeping well. My performance in races was lackluster. My strength, which was coming back nicely after surgery, started regressing to the point I could no longer accomplish exercises in the gym that were easy in January.
I conferred with the surgeon, my pain doctor, physical therapists – nobody has had a good answer. I thought swimming might have been causing problems, so I took 3 weeks off. I changed my physical therapy regimen. I backed off the running. I changed my gym routine.
Things started to turn around, so I decided the half marathon was a good test to really see if there was a difference. There wasn’t. The race was terrible. I ran hard for 5k after which time I ran it in easy, and that was enough information to know that my ribs just aren’t functioning properly. The plates have stabilized my ribs so well I can’t expand my rib cage anymore – it is like breathing with a resistance tube tied to my rib cage. The intercostal nerves, which were quiet for several months, have awakened and are making themselves known with annoying pain patterns.
Now I am faced with a dilemma for which there is no good solution: have the plates removed which will allow for better expansion but will leave my ribs hypermobile and rubbing against each other or keep the plates where they are, but I will always have a governor on my ability to breathe deeply. Either way, there will be continued pain involved. Injuries suck.
It has been pointed out to me by more than one person that it will not be the end of the world if I don’t race anymore. That’s true, but that totally misses the point. The struggles I face with my ribs extend well beyond racing and training. Being able to breathe and having functional ribs are crucial to everyday life. I want to be able to do activities that right now I am unable to do.
Anyone who has faced a chronic illness or chronic pain, particularly athletes who rely on a finely-tuned body, searches endlessly for answers to their plight. I know many athletes who have tried to overcome chronic fatigue syndrome, Achilles issues, plantar fasciitis, back pain and other conditions, and the story is always the same; they cannot find a good solution to their problem which leaves them frustrated.
It is naïve and insensitive for bystanders to pass judgement on those of us seeking the answers to our health issues. I would fly to the moon and back to resolve my rib problems, and I imagine if the moon offered solutions to the woes of other athletes, I would not take that flight alone.
Racing is a luxury, but it is also a beacon of health and wellness. For sufferers of chronic conditions, being able to race effectively is an allegory for life; if we can race well, then our bodies are functional and healthy and that bodes well for everything else we do in life. To all of you who are dealing with a chronic condition, do not give up the fight.
I know for myself, finding the answer to my rib problems extends way beyond being able to race. I already gave up racing triathlon. If I have to quit running races, then I know that my body has failed on a level that will affect my tasks of daily living. I have to solve this problem. At 45 I am no longer the spry, doe eyed triathlete who went to the Olympics, but I have a long future, and I want racing to be a part of it. I have to! I made a pact with my good friend Colleen DeReuck, who just turned 51. We decided that wherever we are in the world when she turns 80, we will convene at cross-country nationals and run the race together. At least that gives me plenty of time to get things sorted out.