A winning combination

It had taken me just 71 minutes to reach the summit of Snowdon and I was in with a chance of achieving my best time for the International Snowdon Race.

Could my legs get me back to the finish in Llanberis fast enough? Just six months earlier I’d had surgery on my right knee to repair a torn cartilage. Since then I’d completed a tough marathon, but this was different – a drop of some 3300 feet (1000 metres) in less than five miles. There was only one way to find out …

Sweet tea

I wanted to be sick, could barely breathe and had to be revived with cups of sweet tea …

In my early twenties I’d had to pull out of a five-a-side football match after almost collapsing. It was both a surprise and a wake-up call. I’d never thought about my fitness; it was just something I’d taken for granted. And, in retrospect, ignored.

Things changed. Appalled and frightened in equal measure, I started exercising – cycling to work, playing badminton and tennis, and running.

In the intervening years, it’s running that I’ve stuck with. Perhaps it’s because you need very little equipment (though a good pair of shoes is essential), or maybe it’s about getting out whenever the opportunity arises, without needing to book a court or make up a team.

Inspired

I was 48 before I did my first marathon. Watching the London Marathon on television shortly after completing the Yorkshire Three Peaks walk inspired me to move from running a few miles to training for 26. After all, if I could walk 25 miles or so in the hills, why shouldn’t I be able to run that far?

My first application to run London was rejected, so I took up Edinburgh’s offer of a guaranteed place for their 2005 event. A gruelling 26.2 miles nursing a bruised metatarsal head in my right foot was followed by a week’s camping and walking in the Cairngorms which, in retrospect, wasn’t the best thing to do; my legs would have preferred a good rest.

London followed the next year – my shrieks of delight at getting the acceptance letter must have been heard streets away – and at the time of writing, I’ve completed 22 marathons.

Off road

It was during a walk in the Yorkshire Dales that I first thought of running off road. Descending a steep scree-covered hill near Cautley Spout, I watched a runner come up the slope, skirt the rim of the waterfall and descend on the far side.

His figure silhouetted against the evening sky, moving (apparently) so easily across what I knew to be difficult terrain filled me with a longing to run like he did.

So I started running off road, which largely meant running up, down and around Moel Famau in the Clwydian Hills near my home in North Wales.

It wasn’t easy. I had to convince myself to overcome a number of physical and mental barriers. There was a point at which I didn’t think I could run uphill without stopping. Or run for an hour. Or run a mile in less than eight minutes. Or run downhill without losing control and falling over.

The challenges came and went. And still do …

Torn cartilage

In September 2016 I had a pain in my right knee that wouldn’t go away. After wasting a week self-medicating, I hobbled into Grosvenor Street Physiotherapy for an appointment with Vicky Kelly.

She diagnosed a medial meniscal tear – a torn cartilage – and advised me to get the knee scanned. With just six weeks to go before the Snowdonia Marathon, all that I wanted was to be up and running again as soon as possible.

Thanks to Vicky’s expertise and advice (and liberal amounts of Ibuprofen) I ran the race, but the damage was done. I was in constant pain, unable to get comfortable for more than a few minutes in any position. I wasn’t sleeping properly and my work (which largely involves sitting in front of a computer) was suffering as my attention focused on the pain rather than the job at hand.

My local GP was, in all honesty, hopeless. Both the doctor and the practice physiotherapist greeted my request for a scan with a smile. Their attitude seemed to be that, because I could run a long way, there was no problem. It was only when I paid for a scan privately, and thereby provided incontrovertible proof of cartilage damage, that I was referred to a consultant at the local hospital.

He was both sympathetic and understanding and, in January 2018, I had an arthroscopy. The remaining cartilage was tidied up and the bits floating around the knee joint were sucked out.

Slow progress

So, no more pain and back to running …

Hah! If only.

Sadly, I wasn’t prepared for either the severity of the post-operative pain or the amount of rehabilitation required.

Despite having a painful knee, I had kept running right up until the day before the operation, reasoning that the fitter I was the sooner I’d be up and about again. Not great distances, but enough to keep my legs, heart and lungs in decent shape.

The post-operative exercises started as soon as I got home. Just simple activities, like walking up and down stairs, but enough to stop things seizing up. Six days after the operation, I managed a three-minute, relatively fast-paced walk outside, and the day after it was six minutes (with my diary recording ‘Tiring!!’).

Less than two weeks after the surgery, I was taking my dog out for 45-50 minute walks. Although I was determined to get fit and back to running as soon as possible, it was another month before I risked a run.

Jogging a mile around a local field, with soft grass underfoot, was absolute heaven. During the seventh week after the surgery I’d been feeling really low, but that short, gentle mile convinced me I could get my fitness back. Six days later I ran 2.5 miles in 23 minutes.

Leaner and fitter

It is almost two years since my knee stopped working properly. Over that time I have performed exercises almost every day, with the aim of equipping my body to cope with increasing amounts of activity.

Without the guidance and support of Vicky Kelly I would have had no idea of what to do, when or how often. The programme of exercises she devised has not only strengthened various muscle groups and improved my flexibility, but also enabled me to regain my normal walking and running gait.

Surprisingly, I feel better than I did before my knee gave way: physically I’m leaner, fitter and more flexible; mentally I’m tougher and more confident in my ability to cope with setbacks.

Positive approach

The psychological side is of no small importance. When my knee first gave up, I was advised by various people to rest, take things easy and to give up any thought of running, never mind of doing a marathon.   

But I wanted to run Snowdonia Marathon Eryri; it might have been just six weeks or so away, and I could barely walk, but I wanted to run it. If I tried, I could be on the starting line; if I didn’t try, I’d never know if I could have done it.

At no point did Vicky suggest I was being unreasonable in my demands. If she thought I stood little chance of moving from limping wreck to marathon finisher, she showed no sign of it.

Our face-to-face sessions became as important for their emotional impact as they did for the physical benefit I derived. I wasn’t alone; someone with very real skills and expertise was helping me move ever closer to my goal. I am certain that the positive approach adopted by Vicky was a significant element in my success.

A winning combination

And success there was: in October 2016, I completed the Snowdonia Marathon and then ran it again the year after (when my time of 3.56.53 was just five minutes slower than my best) along with Trail Marathon Wales and the Snowdon Race. All four events run with a torn cartilage.

There have only been two post-operative races so far – Trail Marathon Wales and the Snowdon Race – but with better times achieved for both than in the previous year, it feels as though things are looking up.

I took up the challenge of the Snowdon race to mark my 50th birthday. Over 10 years later I can’t believe my luck that not only am I still completing and enjoying tough events, but still putting in decent performances.

Although the torn cartilage could have put an end to my ambitions, it didn’t. Instead, Vicky’s expertise, advice and support, coupled with my determination, proved to be a winning combination!

My bid for a best time at Snowdon failed by two seconds. I managed 1.51.45, with my best time being 1.51.44 in 2013. So the challenge to improve continues …

NB This article was written in July 2018.

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