Highs and Lows on the Road to Recovery

Time typically cures all wounds, but full recovery can sometimes take forever

As much as runners like to convince themselves otherwise, injuries and running are annoyingly intertwined. The annoying part comes when you’re trying to recover from one.

Sure, many run-centric injuries are avoidable and they usually get better with time, focus and healthier running habits. Others are normal niggles that come with being an athlete. Which is why I didn’t give much attention to the unusual twinge in my left ankle after a trail run last summer. I chalked it up to arthritis. I was 46 and have been running a lot of miles. It happens. As for the low-grade fever and lethargy, I was sure that sleep, cross-training and a rest day would help. And they did. After an inspired tempo run, I was feeling solid about my training for the 2016 New York City Marathon—another on my World Marathon Majors quest!

But within two hours of completing my tempo run I was dripping in rivers of sweat, trying not to faint or vomit, and suddenly I couldn’t put any weight on my ankle. This all happened on a back-to-school night, no less. Instead of going straight from school to the hospital, I went home—major mistake. Where, with zero medical training and after a little research on the internet, I decided I had a stress fracture in my talus bone.

Two days later, finally sitting in a doctor’s office, my doctor said nothing was broken, but he wasn’t sure what was wrong. He took fluid from my swollen ankle and sent me off for an MRI in addition to the X-ray. Again, no answers, except for a big fat “NO!” when I asked if there was any way I could run a 40-mile trail race in two days. As if.

It was Labor Day weekend, and I spent pretty much all of it feeling like dammit and writhing in pain. I’ve birthed two kids, and this pain was a whole new level of “awareness.” If this wasn’t a broken bone, what was wrong? Nothing made sense. My doctor texted the day after Labor Day saying I had to come in to see him immediately. With several looming deadlines, I balked, but his persistence was convincing.

He walked into the exam room to find me curled up on the exam table under a blanket—definitely not my normal state—where he announced I had a staph infection in my ankle and it was moving toward my knee. He needed to operate immediately to clean out the infection in an attempt to save my leg.

“Today doesn’t really work with my schedule,” I said. “What about Thursday?”

As you can imagine, that wasn’t well received. He then mentioned amputation and death, which, while dramatic, finally caught my attention. I went into surgery and spent the next three days alone in the hospital on a cocktail of Percocet and morphine, continuously asking if I would be able to go to surf camp in San Diego the following Monday. That was another “NO!”

The day my training for the New York City Marathon was inexorably halted.

When I went home, the reality of the situation began to hit me—no more friendly nurses and powerful painkillers (I stubbornly refused all prescriptions). It was a flight of steps, IV antibiotics, bed rest, my shell-shocked family and me. Running and my independence became a distant memory as I battled waves of nausea, fevers and searing pain. Time does wonders for healing though, and so does modern medicine. Within five weeks, I was off meds. Soon thereafter I said goodbye to the crutches; after about seven weeks, I was done with the boot, too.

But I wasn’t me. Running for hours in the mountains, dancing late into the night, hiking with my kids, hopping on a plane for an adventure with friends in the name of work—all those things were out of the question for the time being. So, I shut myself off from the world. I spent days staring at the cream-colored wall in my bedroom. I didn’t return phone calls or texts. I stopped writing. My one constant was going to physical therapy, and the hope that with hard work, I would return to normal, whatever that meant. I was all in, both religious about my appointments and doing the exercises at home multiple times a day. But even that wasn’t enough. When I was discharged from PT and all my doctors at the end of December, my mobility was still limited. I was able to do whatever I wanted, to what ability was up to me.

Game for the challenge, I threw myself into yoga, walking, running (OK, just a few steps at first, but it counted), swimming, skiing and simply enjoying the feeling of moving. While I was no longer sick, my body still had a long way to go. Recovering from a bodily infection, I was learning, was much different than getting over injuries like plantar fasciitis or Achilles tendinitis. Working out three days in a row resulted in having to take two days off, I repeatedly came down with colds and ear infections, my mobility actually worsened once I started running and skiing, endurance that I spent years building was gone and my already creaky lungs (from sports-induced asthma) were wracked with coughs that took multiple rounds of steroids to beat. Whipping myself into shape was literally destroying me all over again.

At 10 months out from my diagnosis, I’m starting to find some peace. Yes, the tears and frustration still happen, and the limitations of my post-staph-riddled body are a mystery to me. And my mobility, balance and endurance still aren’t where I would like them to be. But, there’s more self-love and kindness. If I need sleep, I get it, and anti-inflammatory foods are my mainstay. I ran a 10K in May.

And recently I went on my first 10-mile run since August. It was slow and hobbled me for days, but running with friends in an amazing place was worth it. I don’t know what my running future holds, if I’ll ever complete each of the six World Marathon Majors events (a marathon sounds like a really long way right now!), run another ultra on the trails or toe the line at another Ironman. I definitely want to, but my body and I are in this together. We’ll see.

A year ago, I thought my fastest marathon was yet to come. Now, I’m thankful to be alive, to see bodacious poppies swaying in the breeze as I run past, to ride bikes with my daughters, dance into the night on the beach, enjoy a chill run with friends and to soak my feet, both of them, in a refreshing mountain stream.

A happy moment after running the Bolder Boulder 10K with my daughter (who beat me badly!)
Allison Pattillo
Allison Pattillo writes about running, health, nutrition, gear and travel from her home in Colorado. When it comes to gear, she’s a fan of tall running socks, short running skirts and wearing her hat backwards. Even with a BQ and a few podium finishes (all triathlons should be run, bike, canoe!), Allison finds more inspiration from running in beautiful places and exploring on the run instead of the numbers on a stopwatch. She looks forward to the day when she finds her ultimate running dog, which, at this point, may be more bulldog than border collie.