A few days ago I had a long discussion with my brilliant Melbourne-based physio Ali Low and my new athlete manager Tim Cole. We were talking about an injury that has literally stopped me in my running tracks – over the past 10 days or so, I have been forced into the pool and stressing on a daily basis about the fact that I’m well….not running.
Their view was that whilst there may indeed be something causing aggravation in my hip, the sense of pain is being over interpreted by my brain. This is causing me to sense incredible pain, and in response, my brain shuts down the muscles around that area.
Let’s be clear: all the MRI scans I’ve had of the area are negative. Negative for stress fracture, negative for any major injury. Negative for everything other than some minor wear and tear expected of someone “my age” (yup that’s what 47 years on the planet does for you!).
Ali has done all the clinical tests, bending my hip every which way, poking and prodding my back and testing everything she can think of. Everything shows up negative.
There is literally no clinical explanation for the pain I’m feeling.
And yet, there it is – every single time I run, walk or put my foot down. Absolute, excruciating pain. Pain that radiates down from my hip through my upper leg. Pain I can’t pinpoint. Pain that’s becoming my familiar unwelcome friend, lurking in the corners of my body and my mind. Occasionally shouting from the rooftops that it’s still there.
As I lay on Ali’s treatment table, I spoke with her and Tim to understand what was going on – not in my hip or my leg, but in my mind. Because Ali and Tim think that the biggest part of the problem now, is in retraining my brain and to making it understand that this isn’t another stress fracture. That the alarm signals being sent to it from my hip are actually minor. That it needs to ignore them, allow the rest of my body and muscles to work, and to carry the load it’s designed for.
What’s interesting about this is the power of our minds. Ali illustrated this by telling me the story of a pain expert who was walking down to a waterhole one day, and felt a stick slap against his leg as he walked through the undergrowth. He wandered down the water, and dived in. Soon afterwards, he started feeling ill. Fever, vomiting and general unease. Later at the hospital, he learned he had been bitten by an extremely venomous snake. That slap on his leg was actually a snake bite. He survived the ordeal, but only just.
Several months later, he was walking to the same waterhole, and felt a slap on his leg. He panicked and began feeling pain up his leg and became nauseous and started vomiting.
But this time it was a stick. The sickness he was feeling was his body’s memory of the previous event – something so serious the body and mind had remembered and stored it vividly. The physical reaction he experienced was the mind’s way of protecting itself – of telling the body “when this happens, you need help”.
For three months last year I ran with pain and severe soreness in my hip. A red flag was first raised last October, we did a scan, I did rehab, and got back to running in November. It wasn’t until almost six consecutive 100-km running weeks later that I was diagnosed with a 2.1cm stress fracture in my sacrum.
It was an incredibly painful experience. Not only for the physical pain, but perhaps almost more for the mental and emotional challenges that ensued. I had to delay the start of #RunningDry.
The road to recovery was long and painful, but training has been going well. This week, however, all those memories have come back to the surface. The fears, the foreboding feeling when you know something is not right but you can’t work out what it is. It just seems bad. So bad.
And so it is this that we’re testing out now. Can we use that same strength of mind that senses fear and pain, and that dreadful sense that something is wrong to flip the body into knowing that actually all is okay? Can we train my brain to understand that the pain I’m feeling is that of minor aches and pains? Can I convince my mind that I’m ready to start running again?
When Ali and Tim first had this conversation with me, I laughed. I thought they were joking.
But today I went for a run. Not much I confess – 10 intervals of 90 seconds of running and thirty seconds of walking. It was a grand total of 15 minutes of running, far from 42 km and 5 hours I’ll be doing daily come November, but it was 15 minutes more than I have done in the last 10 days.
I’m in pain when I’m running, but surviving. And slowly, the pain is becoming more manageable. I’m breathing, relaxing and just gently jogging in places where the natural beauty reminds me of the power of the planet to heal, and to celebrate each new day.
I’m trying to run in places where I’m reminded of how nature inspires me and where I can start to tap into the power of my mind to heal my body. To tap that same strength that allowed me to run across 7 Deserts and down 6 Rivers.
I’m beginning to realise that if my mind is strong enough to propel me to finish physical feats I never thought were possible, and to move me step after step closer to my dream of a more water-wise world, then maybe it can heal the machinery I need to get it there.