A word that really resonated with me this year has been COURAGE.
I started reading Ryan Holiday's COURAGE IS CALLING: FORTUNE FAVORS THE BRAVE, and it felt really timely in my life. I reached a point where I really needed the courage to keep believing in myself and in my dreams, and I had to trust that my effort would finally start to pay off. It has been nearly two years of not really competing and I have nothing to show for all the miles I logged or the hours I spent in the gym.
Over the December holiday, I came across a French expression, Bon Courage, which means “Good Courage”. I like this because "Good Luck" refers to something out of our control, while having "Good Courage" is a choice we can all make daily, whatever we may be facing. We can choose to be courageous in the midst of adversities, scary situations, or during the things that challenge us and take us completely out of our comfort zone!
"Bon courage is an essential French expression for offering verbal support before or during a difficult task. It's like saying good luck, instead, it means to have good courage in French."
Turns out I was going to need a lot of courage for what lay ahead in 2022...
My year ended on a high, having had one of the best running months in a long time, after a constant health battle during 2021. I felt strong, was healthier, and was able to do consistent, high mileage, quality workouts, and solid long runs. However, in the middle of December, I took a hard fall in the gym, when the TRX trainer came loose from the hook on the gate. I was in a lot of back pain and had to take a few days off. I recovered and resumed training, but, subconsciously, I must have compensated. I recall my brother and dad, while on the bike, pointing out that I was leaning slightly more backwards on runs and my form looked a bit different.
I started my year with a good weekend, including a medium long run on the first Sunday without any pain. The next day was a recovery day with only two easy runs, before a short Tuesday workout, as I planned to open my 2022 season with a 15 km race on the 8th of January. After the workout on the grass I felt a strange pain in my left heel. I have been experiencing more tightness under my plantar than usual, but it didn't bother me when I ran or when I woke up in the morning, so I was almost certain it wasn't plantar. After doing my cooldown and gym session, I could feel something was wrong while walking around at home. The next day I woke up in pain and I didn't run. I decided to book a session with my physio instead. I kept resting, hoping I would be fine for the race on that Saturday, but the pain got no better and I was forced to take the rest of the week off.
The next Monday, I did my normal, easy morning run, but it was painful, and afterwards I was aware of it the whole day. I saw the physio again and he wasn't too concerned. He thought that it wasn’t too serious and that the inflammation probably just needed some time to settle. He suggested that it was a strain and that, if we taped it, hopefully I will be able to run the next day.
I didn't run and booked an MRI instead, it felt more than just a niggle. I haven't been injured since February 2019, never needing to take more than a day or two off, aside from my planned/scheduled rest days. But this felt different.
It happened so fast and unexpectedly. The MRI showed a stress fracture in my left calcaneus.
This was my first stress fracture; since I started competing competitively, at the age of 16, I have never had a fracture or bone stress injury before. It could have been due to a multitude of factors: the fall, the difficulty of proper periodization, due to race cancellations and postponements over the pandemic, as well as just the reality that running is a high impact sport that comes with risks. It was heartbreaking to receive the news that my 2022 was not going to look anything like I imagined.
At first I kept hopes that I would be able to maintain some of the marathon fitness I have built up over the summer and still make a comeback in time to race at the South African Marathon Championships in May and seal a qualifying time for the World Championships in Eugene, taking place in July/August. I cross trained hard and didn't even tell people about the fracture - I just thought that I will stay fit and then try my best to get ready so that, when I am able, I can hit the ground running. I wasn't ready to give in - I thought if I just stayed positive and kept working hard that I could still make it. I knew it wouldn't be easy or perfect and that I won't be able to reach the same level that I could have if I was doing proper marathon training, but I was determined to make it work, and confident I would still be able to compete if I am able to line up on the day - even if it was a very unconventional or short build-up.
But that is not the way it works, the body has its own time-line and you can't force healing. Depending on the severity of the break, and where it is located, it may also take variate time for the fracture to heal. It is a slow process that can't be rushed, and it will require a lot of patience, perseverance… and a shit load of cross training!
During this recovery process I have been using different forms of cross training - at first it was just the pool for aqua jogging, followed by the spin bike, every day, along with a lot of hours in the gym doing strength and rehab exercises throughout the whole process. I have seen huge improvements in my strength and power, as well as the amount of weight I am able to lift. I have been able to work up squatting and deadlifting 1.5 times more than my body-weight for 4 sets of 4-8 reps and more or equal to body-weight on single-versions for the same amount of sets and rep range. I am now also seeing the benefits and difference in my power output translating to speed on the road, especially uphill and against the wind (which used to be two of my biggest weaknesses!)
In February, I was fortunate enough to test out an ElliptiGo (Read more about the best cross-training for runners here) which ended up becoming my main form of cross training during the recovery months, and is still part of my routine to supplement my running. I do all my "double runs" on the ElliptiGo. I am slowly returning, and am still far from my regular mileage or workouts. I’m allowing my body to fully heal - to make sure I don't risk relapse while the bone is still fragile. It takes up to six months for a calcaneus fracture to fully heal.
It took me 9 weeks before I could start with a 3 km run, which is less than my typical warm-up distance before a workout or race. I slowly progressed and ran easy for a full month before I could attempt a simple 1:1 x 10 Fartlek. But progress isn't always linear, and, shortly after, I sprained my other foot's toes while miss-stepping on my first off-road run. I was forced to take a full week off to let the inflammation settle.
I saw an orthopaedic doctor and was advised by both him and my sports doctor that it won't be possible, safe, or realistic to run a marathon in the first six months of this year and that I will have to reframe my goals and expectations for 2022. It was mentally difficult to let go, since I have been working so hard for this goal and dreamt about it for ages, but I have accepted the reality. I also realised that I have been extremely fortunate the past few years, since I have overcome back injury related to my car accidents in the USA, which were severe.
Up to 60% of runners have or will experience an injury severe enough for them to put away their running shoes for several weeks or months. It is a reality of a high-impact sport, and unfortunately a large percentage of those injuries are bone stress injuries. I have been very fortunate in my 10 years of competing in the sport to not sustain a bone-stress injury before. I do attribute this to my consistency with strength training, pre-rehab, mobility training and, most importantly, my diet and recovery. I am especially diligent about my pre-and post run/training fueling. I make sure I start my training fueled and never train or run fasted, as it slows your recovery and can mess with your hormone levels, as it elevates cortisol in the body during, and after, training. The moment I finish training I also try to get some nutrients and hydration back into my body as soon as possible to speed up the recovery process. I am incredibly lucky to have Powerbar on my team who helps make this a little easier and digestible (and also highly convenient and tasty!).
In the meantime, I am shifting my focus to shorter distances, and working on developing my speed before I attempt the high mileage and workload that comes with training for a fast marathon. The marathon won my heart, and it is where my team believes I have the most potential in the long run, but for now it will have to wait.
During these past few months I struggled to share and be open about my experience navigating through this injury, and, as I said, I was still hopeful that somehow I could make it work and make a smooth, fast comeback. There was just so much uncertainty, and I wasn't sure of the timeline or how long I would be out for, either - to be honest, I am still not quite sure how long it will take before I can return to my normal training volume and previous fitness level. I also didn't want to make a bunch of excuses or make it look like I wanted people to feel sorry for me.
The main reason why I didn't share this publicly earlier was the financial implications involved. As a professional athlete, you are paid to race and perform. Both this injury and my health struggles were something out of my control, but it ultimately resulted in me losing my biggest sponsor and main source of income. Without this support, I am no longer able to cover the costs of my medication and it continues to place a big financial burden on me and my family.
But now that I have lost everything over the past two years - I realized I have nothing more to lose!
By choosing to share my journey I can perhaps help someone else and make a positive impact on their life in some way. I know that without my support team - my parents, family, close friends, manager, doctors and therapists - I certainly wouldn't have made it through this challenging time. They are in fact the ones who carried me, kept believing in me and allowed me to keep going. They are the reason I am still fighting!
As stated before, I am well aware that running injuries are part of the sport and that dealing with a stress fracture or even more than one bone stress injury during the span of a career is a ubiquitous occurrence. I truly am incredibly thankful that I haven't had a fracture before, although I have had many accident related injuries, or injuries caused from weaknesses/imbalances as a junior athlete. I have also definitely had my fair share of setbacks and time away from the sport, due to my struggle with chronic health conditions. That being said, I want to acknowledge, and sympathise, with any runner or athlete that is currently injured or has dealt with an injury before. Feel free to reach out if you just need someone to talk to or if you need some ideas about cross training to help maintain fitness.
Every setback makes me appreciate running even more. The last two years have been hell - the pandemic, combined with my health battles, stole a lot of opportunities from me. However, it has not been able to take away my passion for the sport, my determination, or my fight! Neither has this injury - it is simply another chapter in my story, not one I would look back on with fondness, but, as cliche as it sounds, as one that made me stronger and more resilient.
"I believe that my best athletic days are still ahead of me." - Hillary Allen
I just need the courage to keep going and not give up. The story is not done yet, the rest is still unwritten.
Thank you for making the time to read this post and being invested in my athletic journey. I appreciate your support.