Looking out the window of this Delta Jet at the Minneapolis Skyline en route to Des Moines, IA, it’s beginning to dawn on me finally that I’ve reached the point where I’m ready to get out and compete again. Truth be told, I doubted for a significant part of the past 12 months if I’d ever be back. It’s been a year to the day since I last set foot on a track to race.
That day, it was the Penn Relays and I had come off an altitude camp severely limited by a recurrence of my Achilles tendon injury that had wreaked havoc on my build-up from a relatively successful indoor season. I remember telling Irish great and team manager that day Sonia O’Sullivan I didn’t think I could run, having been unable to even do a stride the day before. With only one workout total in the previous 5 weeks, I secretly told my agent Chris Layne it’d be a miracle if I split under 4:10. He laughed and made a comment about talent being talent. I managed to grit my teeth and muscle out a 3:58 mile split for my team, solid under the circumstances but mediocre given the standards I’d set for myself. I walked off the track that day and told everyone closest to me I wouldn’t set foot on one again until I had put my Achilles issues behind me. No half measures, no patch up jobs. Find the underlying causes, and deal with them.
I didn’t realize at the time how difficult taking those steps back to finally find the cause of my injury would be. It meant missing the 2013 outdoor season and the World Championships. In my mind, after London, that was to be my comeback. There were days I thought about going on a crash course of hard training and painkillers to try and get back and make it, but the people closest to me kept reminding me of the promise I had made to myself and them to get myself right. I am so grateful to them now for giving me that perspective.
Summer of 2013 was spent rehabbing. Hours each day in the gym strengthening the tendon and glutes/hamstrings. I didn’t cross train, devoting all my energy to building muscular and neural strength. I figured if I could get my body back right, fitness would come later. I was irritable, my girlfriend and friends found me difficult to be around I’m sure. Seeing your friends, rivals, teammates do what you had set out to, well it’s like standing at the window looking in at a party and knowing the door is locked. I was happy for them, but let’s the honest, that place is not fun for anyone.
Having undergone the rehab plans outlined by my physios, it was time to get a final consultation in the early autumn from renowned Swedish Achilles specialist Dr. Hakan Alfredson. He did scans and tests and told me that although my strength had greatly increased all around, I would still be limited because there was friction between my Achilles tendon and plantaris tendon, a genetic issue I was born with that had exacerbated my problems the previous two years. He suggested I undergo surgery there and then to take it out. I had a decision to make, here in the operating room of a clinic in northern Sweden, thousands of miles removed from those I was closest to. It was probably for the best because it was time for me to take ownership of my situation. Face up to what needed to be done. We decided to do it. I went under the knife October 1st.
Post-surgery, I returned to the US, to Tallahassee, FL. It was time to now, during recovery, to re-discover the love for a sport I had felt betrayed by for a long time. I came on board as volunteer Coach for FSU, my school, the team I love more than any other. Contributing to the success and improvement of other athletes helped deflect attention away from my own running and allowed me perspective. It was a terrific experience. By the time winter came around, I felt ready to take those first steps back from surgery and begin running.
I probably had unrealistic expectations surrounding how my body would bounce back from the procedure originally. I suppose one thinks, “hey, go under the knife, take out the source of the problem and bam, let’s crack on”. It didn’t work that way. Surgery had left a whole host of other issues. I still wasn’t able to do a single calf raise on my left leg. Atrophy, weakness had set in. It was time to build from scratch. By now it was December and I knew those guys I had watched at Worlds in Moscow were back in the full swing of training. I thought, “They ran a whole season, went on a few weeks break and are still back ahead of me.” When those doubts come in to your mind, you need to have good people around you. In Coach Rowland, asst Coach Nick Johnson, Bob Braman and my agent Chris Layne, I had advisors with tremendous experience in the sport. They set my head right.
Day one early December is was 4x30seconds jog on the underwater treadmill with 5 minutes recovery. By the end of December, I could jog a few minutes at 8minute pace outside with long rest. Man, it burned in my chest!! I hadn’t done a lick of aerobic exercise in months. We built slowly; I spent Christmas in Eugene and got a small break new years to disappear to my getaway of choice, an electronic music festival. Besides that, it was cranking through rehab maintenance and building week on week. By mid-Jan, I could do runs outside up to 5-6 miles. I realized that no-longer dreading runs due to the pain allowed me to embrace each run that much more. I felt liberated, free. I began to dream of summer 2014 races, the final straightaway, the crowd. It all felt real again, tangible. Some days, I would be running and could almost feel the presence of the race again, as if running had taken on purpose again. I wasn’t just on the comeback from injury, I was moving forward towards competition. That switch in my thought process was when I knew I was back mentally.
Physically, I still had a way to go. February came, and our OTC group went to Tallahassee, FL for winter camp. I was able to do some tempos and workouts finally, though granted at a very conservative pace. I didn’t care; I was progressing each day and could finally run up to an hour a day. It may not seem like a ton for an elite athlete, but for someone who had been cooped up in a gym for an entire summer, it felt fantastic to be out grinding on the trails and dirt roads of my Florida home away from home.
March arrived and we embarked to altitude. I was finally in decent enough shape to jump in workouts with my teammates and not get dropped like a bad habit. Being solitary on my own plan for so many months made it strange running with others. I still brought my ipod out every run and workout out of habit. We progressed, together under the watchful eye of Coach Rowland. Even though I was only a few weeks removed from jogging on the underwater treadmill, I felt back at home on the track. The splits may not have been spectacular, but for the first time since 2011 I felt back in my own body, healthy and fully equipped to move forward. I would look for nods of approval from Coach that my form looked solid without hitches. Surgery changes your neural pathways, as does chronic injury. Even though you might be running with perfect form, you just don’t feel normal. You’ve been cut up; your constitution has been altered. It takes time to adjust to that I suppose.
My plane is landing now; I’m almost at Des Moines. One year removed from my last race, the nerves are starting to present themselves again. The good kind, the kind that signify it’s time to go to work. On Saturday, I will toe the line. I may not have months and months of workouts done yet, but I’m healthy, excited and inspired by all the positive messages I’ve received in these past twelve months. Thank you so much for your support. Just getting to the line will be the culmination of the hardest part of this journey. When the gun goes off, a whole new one will begin, one I’m excited to take with you all. I hope you enjoy the show.