"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Achilles's Heel

And on another note, I had a feeling this was going to happen sooner or later:

With all the running lately, my Achilles tendon decided to flare up. Ugh!

All the Greek gods had nice butts...
A million years ago  10 years ago, I was going through a phase where I was so allergic to horses, I would go into anaphylaxis around them. I kept Lucero, but we had a family friend that would do his stall for me, because just that would make my trachea close up. That's what it felt like. I could feed and water him, and pet him briefly, but even grooming was out of the question. It was a huge, huge bummer. This was close to the time I was graduating from my bachelor's, which also meant I was carrying an extra 20 lbs around.

I needed to exercise, so I decided to pick up running. During my freshman year of university, one of my classmates was this girl who did mid-distance running. She was ripped. I had never seen a woman that fit before in my life. I wanted to look like that. So I took up running with that goal in mind. Also, it didn't require a gym membership nor fancy equipment.  However, I had always tooootally sucked at sports. Any kind of gym (PE)-type sport, I sucked at. Volleyball, softball, basketball, you name it. Except for horseback riding. And the high jump. (Go figure; I shocked the pants off my high school class when I qualified for the high jump division for our annual field day and got 2nd place for my class among the entire high school-I cleared a five foot jump before I was disqualified.) Oh, and fencing. I took fencing as an elective class in university and discovered I was really good at it, to the point where I was selected for the university team, but the team was never made official. My weapon was the sabre-it is the only one of the three (foil, sword aka epee, and sabre) with which you can strike as well as poke (with the sword and the foil you are only allowed to poke). They call it "touching with the edge of the sabre's blade." Uh-huh...I beat all up all the boys in our class. Haha...

Kapow! Fencing with sabres. See? "Touching with the edge of the blade."
Back to the subject. So I took up running. And I signed up for a race, a year in advance. The race was a 10k, of all things. The World's Best 10K, on the Teodoro Moscoso Bridge in San Juan. I had never run a mile, and here I was signing up for a 6 mile race. I figured a year was plenty of time to train.

So I bought books on running, subscribed to Runner's World, purchased a pedometer, and started running, alternating running and walking. My ultimate goal was to run the entire 6 miles, especially when I discovered that not only could I run a whole mile (physical ed teachers take THAT!), I could run three! 6 miles should be easy, right?

I was met with adversity.

One day while running around my boyfriend's neighborhood, completely zoned out, I missed an exposed pipe in the sidewalk, tripped, and fell to my knees. When I got up, I realized I had a giant hole the size of a penny on the inside portion of my patella. I could see the ligaments underneath through that hole. And blood was trickling down my leg. An elderly couple saw my bloody leg as they drove by and  stopped to check on me. They happened to know my boyfriend's parents, and gave me a lift to the house. We debated going to a doctor for stitches, but it was a solid hole, and I figured might as well leave it open to let it drain.

The next day, I hobbled to the university walk-in clinic for x-rays. My knee had swelled so much it hurt to wear jeans, and I had to drive using my left leg. The x-rays were clean. After 2 weeks of resting, icing and NSAIDs, all of the swelling had disappeared and the wound was healing well, but it hurt like crazy still. I dragged myself to my regular doctor. He looked at the x-rays and examined my knee, and decided to try...acupuncture. This doctor was awesome that way: when Western medicine didn't work, he resorted to Eastern.

He put the needles in my patella, then stuck what looked like small pieces of cigar to the needles. He lit the "cigar" pieces on fire, and I felt the heat travel through the needles into my skin. It didn't hurt nor burn; it just made my entire knee feel pleasantly warm.

Acupuncture with heat
The treatment lasted 15 minutes.

I had hobbled into that clinic. I walked out, no limp in sight. The pain had disappeared as if by a magic wand. I have very mild arthritis in that knee now, and the patella sometimes feels loose if I'm not working out regularly (so yeah-totally know how horses with stifle issues feel), but...WOW. I believe in that stuff now. I was told to wear a knee brace for the next 10 days, and then I could start gradually re-introducing running.

I followed the doctor's directions to a T. Soon I was able to go back into full gear. I still have the scar on my knee from that wound.

Running with my brother on Arroyo beach
And then my left Achilles tendon started to throb.

It would throb in the morning and at the beginning of a run, then I'd warm up out of it, so I continued to run. I was running 5 days a week, but I wasn't being great about stretching.

And the pain started to get worse.

And worse.

And since I'm a stubborn workout maniac (I may have sucked at sports, but I was great at interval cardio and strength training prior to this, and like I've mentioned before, I have the determination of a bulldozer...), I continued.

And then I had to stop, because my Achilles tendon started to SWELL. Actually, after one particular run I was shocked to discover there was so much swelling that I couldn't feel the tendon at all-it was twice the size it should be. Palpating it hurt like crazy. Icing wasn't helping to bring the swelling down all the way.

And then I bought the book Running Injury-Free by Joe Ellis. And reading his book, I realized I probably had a partial tear of my Achilles tendon.

So I stopped running for awhile. For a couple of months, actually, and joined a gym so I could cross train on the elliptical machines and in Spinning classes. And I stretched, and stretched, and stretched after exercising.

The book's influence didn't stop there. The book mentioned that a common cause of running injuries is using incorrect shoes. So I went to a running store and had my stride analyzed. And discovered that I couldn't have been using worse shoes for running...I'd been using trail New Balances that were made for overpronators, making them very rigid. I underpronate, which means I need a flexible, cushioned shoe. The guy at the store pulled out a pair of Asics and Sauconys, I don't remember which models but they weren't the super popular ones at the time. Both felt like walking on clouds. They had a little track inside the store where you could jog to try out the shoes. (The store was awesome; it closed shortly before I left the island. :( ) My tendon didn't hurt at all either of them. I ended up buying both pairs of shoes.

As it turned out, the Sauconys were too cushy, and would make me sore if I wasn't careful. The Asics were perfect. I started running again, slowly. And with an ankle brace.

And the Achilles tendon healed remarkably well. I've always felt the fact that it's weaker than my right, but it healed smoothly-no lumps, bumps or thickening.

And I ran the damned 10K. And I watched Paula Radcliffe break the world 10K record at that race, too. And I made the stupid mistake of not paying attention to the course map. I figured, "The race is named after the Teodoro Moscoso bridge, so it'll be just the bridge!" I remember thinking I hadn't thought that bridge was 3 miles one-way when we'd driven over it, but oh well. So coming back over that bridge, I was flying, running all out thinking, "Almost there, almost there!"...And as I was running past it, I realized that the finish line was on the opposite side of the road blocks, in the other lane: there was still another half of the race left! Going uphill. I ran-walked the last 3 miles and finished in 1 hour 20-some minutes. But I finished!

My biggest frustration with the entire thing was that I'd lost maybe 3 lbs during the whole ordeal.

After that stressful year, I lost interest in running for awhile, and just focused on the gym. On Spinning, on strength training, and putting miles on the elliptical. I'd do distance "runs" on the elliptical, and on days that I got bored with it, I'd do hill workouts and interval training on the treadmill. I was putting in 5 miles per session easily.

The gym had several personal trainers. You could pay for sessions separately, but your gym membership included a monthly fitness evaluation, with body fat % measurements, by one of the trainers. At that time, the trainer would also do a strength routine for you depending on your fitness level and goals, and they would take you around and show you how to use the machines so you could perform the exercises in correct form. Basically, you ended up with a free trainer session once a month.

I hated the first trainer that evaluated me; he reminded me a LOT of one of my most hated phys ed teachers from school.  One of those super-fit hard asses that frowns upon the unfit. (Can you tell gym class traumatized me??) I missed the next couple of months' evaluations because I didn't want them done by him. And then after the race, I asked for another eval, and as luck would have it, I had the opportunity of having it done by a different guy.

This guy looked like a pirate. Full beard, glasses, big guy with a belly, but with huge shoulders and arms that told the tale of years and years of major strength training. He wore leather cuffs on both wrists. He looked like a barbarian from a medieval war movie whose time machine got stuck in a gym.

That's when I learned what a good personal trainer is supposed to be like. Super laid-back; he listened to my goals and took the time to really check my form and show me how to adjust the machines so I could get the most benefit from the exercises. I could ask him questions on the floor and he would happily answer them for me. He noticed when I was improving, when the weights went up, when I exercised longer, even though I wasn't an official training client. And his workouts really, really made a difference. He changed my entire gym experience. And I lost 20 lbs.

During one of my fitness evaluations later, it somehow came up that I'd done the 10k the year before. He asked why didn't I try it again. I told him about my injuries. He gave me a routine that would strengthen my body in a way that allowed it to run without further injuring itself.

I followed it. And signed up for the race, only 3 months before the date.

I did my distance runs, both the year before and during those 3 months, at El Parque Central (Central Park), a gorgeous park with trails in the middle of the San Juan metro area (among other things; it is a huge, huge sports complex that was inaugurated in 1979 for the Pan Am Games, which gives you an idea of its size and diversity). If you ran there with any sort of regularity, you started to recognize people. There was one lady in particular that had the looks of a long-time marathon runner. You know the look: 9% body fat, wiry as all get out, gazelle legs. I used to shuffle around the trails, struggling during the first year, and have her run past me in the opposite direction, always with a smile and a nod. She'd go past me 3 times in the time it took me to do 1 lap around the park! I secretly admired that woman, and yearned to be able to run that effortlessly one day.

I saw her again during the 3 months of training prior to my second 10k. I was going at 10 minute mile pace, flying (for me) down the trail, head up and just enjoying the music on the iPod. As she came up in the opposite direction, I saw her recognize me, give a huge smile, a nod, and two thumbs up.

That was 9 years ago. It is still one of the big highlights of my time spent running.

I ran The World's Best 10K again, alternating 5 minutes running, 1 minute walking, for the entire 6 miles (hey, Jeff Galloway runs his marathons like that), and finished in an hour and 5 minutes, feeling like I could run at least another 3 miles. Remember the year before? I shaved an entire 15 minutes off my time, despite run-walking the entire distance.

It was awesome.

Ready to rumble, pre-race

After the race, with my completion medal and Gatorade.
Not long after that, I heard about Flonase, and that's when I started taking hard-core allergy medications, which allowed me to go back to riding. I started running less, and at the end of that year, I moved to FL, where I took up cycling instead for a while. I had a hard time running on 100% flatness-I missed the varying terrain of PR.

My first thought when we arrived in Alexandria, VA, on that dark night before Sandy hit the Northeast, and we realized that there are hills here, was "I can start running again!"

Running and just working out in general absolutely changed the way I trained and exercised horses, because I had felt firsthand how awful it is when you push too hard too soon.

So now? Cross training in the gym, maybe for a couple of weeks. Then running on trails only (not concrete/asphalt) for a while, while going back to walking more than running. Wear an ankle brace and wean off of it again. For those of you that look forward to the running photos, I'll start that up again once this is better. The pain is dull, mild, and infrequent-it's just a mild tendinitis right now; I just don't want it to get to the same point it was before. For now, I'll just do a weekly workout summary.

And did anyone notice? I did, the minute she was diagnosed: same leg as Lily. Left hind. And technically, the same part of our anatomy. The Achilles tendon on a horse is above their hock, but their suspensory does the job of our Achilles tendon: support the entire body's weight, and allow the foot to flex up and down. So yeah-this is why I've been so cautious with her rehab. I know exactly how she feels!



  1. Empathy is a really good quality to have when rehabbing a horse. Interesting to hear your story!

  2. Empathy is definitely essential to rehabbing horses! And also when working on getting them fit. :)