I’m fused

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The back of my spine is fused.  This is the first time there’s clear evidence.  My surgeon felt there’s no way to tell from an x-ray less than a year out. A week ago I got a cat scan and just got the results today.  There’s a lot of bone growth in the back and still a lot more growth that will happen going forward so things can only get better.  There was concern that one of the screws went into my l4/l5 disc, but the catscan showed it did not.

Everything is good.  My running is going very well and I’m thinking of training to race come this September.  I just don’t blog anymore.

My 11 year old daughter is running…

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But not with me.  Definitely not and the possibility seems to be totally out of the question for now.

Today, after coming home from a fantastic run at Rockefeller estate park, my daughter announced “I ran 2 miles!” as I was entering the door.

It seems two weeks ago, she “went for a jog” with a friend of hers around the neighborhood.  The development we live in has a main road that goes around in a loop for very close to a half mile.  0.485 miles to be exact.  They did 1 lap together, and since then my daughter has been continuing this on her own,  So far it just seems to be Saturdays and today was the third week.  

Last week, she went out alone with the intention of doing 3 laps, and before I could get a chance to try and join her she was already out the door.  I did see her pass by once looking like she was going way to fast.  I have no clue how long it took her but she came back all flushed and out of breath and claimed to do just two laps.  

I offered on numerous occasions to run with her whenever she wants.  I mentioned I could teach her how to run at an easy pace.  My offers are always met with a kurt response “no thanks!”  Not sure why, but she seems to want to do this completely alone, and as much as I would love to do something like this with her, I try not to push myself on her.  I’d rather she keep doing it without me than not doing it at all.

I’m just really happy shes found this to be an interest, especially if she can find all the benefits in running that I’ve found.  “Running” now gets included in the list of activities such as gymnastics and cheerleading when she tells other people what activities she enjoys doing.

Today, I gave her my old garmin 305.  The big red clunky thing that looks very retro.  She seemed excited about it for a few minutes.  I’ve also introduced her the idea of logging her runs and explained the reasons why with great difficulty.  Nonetheless, she was willing to allow me to set her up with sporttracks today, which is the software I use for my log.  We then entered her 2 mile run into it together.

She says she plans to do something again tomorrow.  I still have hope she might let me join her :)


5 months out

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Tomorrow will be 5 months since my surgery.  I’ve already started running about a month ago, starting out with slow paces and low mileage and running by feel.  Originally the plan was to begin 6 months out, but my surgeon said I would not be putting anything at risk if I wasn’t feeling pain.  

Its been a bumpy start, always paranoid and worrying about the smallest aches, freaking out about any tightness in my back and wondering what it means and if it’s something to be concerned about.  In this situation, I just had to take it slow and one day at a time and abandon any intentions of having some sort of consistency.  I was just grateful for the days I could do 4 miles without stopping.  4 turned into 5, then 6 on occasion and 7.5 just recently.  Most runs being on a treadmill to minimize impact and also allowing me to just hit the stop button and call it quits if I needed to.

This morning, I went out at 5am and did 5 miles at 7:13.  Running outdoors in the cold and dark, I really felt like myself.  I still have a long way to go, but I’ve never been more optimistic than today.


How it has felt…

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This was originally written as a Facebook post by Eileen Dougherty Smith. She is recovering from the same condition as I am and has, in fact, had the same surgery as I did a few weeks before me.  After reading this, I asked if I could post it on my blog.

Admittedly, she is currently facing more challenges than myself, but her story captures all frustrations I’ve been feeling since dealing with this.  It’s a good read and it expresses what I’ve been thinking better than I could do myself. With her permission, she allowed me to post it here.

How it has felt to become lost in chronic illness…

I am used to being physically strong. Naturally competitive, to the point of being a wanker, I’ve always pushed myself to the limit of my physical endurance. I was never content to come in second or third place, it always had to be first. When I ran, I pushed myself so hard to win that I would almost burst through my own skin, straining to move ahead of anyone who dared pass me. There was never a time I considered myself weak. Of mind, maybe sometimes, but of body? No way.

I could rearrange the large furniture in a room in a few hours, decided I hated it and move it back. I could hike mountains and walk for hours through ancient cities, like I did back then when I was young and strong and I was exploring the world. I never got tired, not really, truly tired. My body was one thing I could always count on to be there for me; strength was my constant companion.

I can still hear the cheers of my drunken friends in that Portuguese bar where that huge South African man challenged me to arm wrestle him — and I won!

It never once occurred to me, in all my life, to consider what it would feel like to be disabled. I tried for the sake of friends who had those problems, to empathize with them but I never really could imagine what it felt like for them. I never judged, never have judged people anyway, but I certainly didn’t understand.

Now I’m on the other side of a disabling illness. I’m improving, though I have far to go but I know things could be worse, I know this.

I have degenerative disc disease and spinal arthritis. The doc still isn’t sure that I don’t have ankylosing spondylitis but time will tell, I suppose. Most of the time now, I have to walk with a cane. So much of the time, I feel broken and self-pitying, maybe much more so than if I had been born this way. I have no frame of reference for this, no concept of what it means to not be able to do everything I want to do in a day. My old life is now just a memory as I consider which of laundry, dishes or showering is most important on the agenda because I can ONLY do one of those per day. I could shoot for two, but I’d put myself out of commission for days afterwards by expending too much energy and I’ve discovered it’s just not worth it.

Most of the time I think of myself as a whining child, pathetic for being so overwhelmed by a comparatively minor chronic illness. I know so many who suffer with so much more. What the hell makes me think my suffering is so damn special?

I think of my husband, who is snoring softly beside me as I write this. He believes in me and supports me so deeply, he has put a good deal of his life on hold to help me cope with the daily frustrations of living. For me, simply standing at the sink doing dishes only lasts about 20 minutes at a time because the pain becomes so bad, so fast. He is always ready to jump in and take over. He is always ready before I even know I need him.

I wish for the gift of my strength back, so that I can use my powers for good, not just for competition. I’d like to show him how I can assemble a child’s bed, clear a yard of debris, do ten loads of laundry, change the oil in the car, make a gorgeous dinner, sing three kids to sleep, and still be awake and ready to be with him later. At one point in my life, I could do that. I want to WOW him with that person and give him the feeling that he might have married a superhero…but that doesn’t seem to be on the agenda; at least not anytime soon. Fortunately, he is sensitive enough to my pain to understand that whatever I can give in a certain day is my best and he loves me just for trying.

My children have adapted nicely to mom’s slowness and clumsiness. They know now that if mom so much as stumbles, even slightly, that grabbing hold of my arm is a good idea just in case I fall. They know that only minor contortions of the body can result in mind-numbing pain for me. They know I can’t bake cupcakes for school and drive the carpool for lacrosse and sew on patches for scouts and get dinner on the table at five and make sure they all have clean clothes every day the way I used to. My family is now accustomed to accepting and expecting so very little from me that it shames me. But they’re okay with it; they love me just as I am and accept my limitations.

Friends send cards and letters and emails, constantly checking in. My family sends meals and drops by with magazines or a new knitted blanket for me. Everyone understands and accepts that this is who I am now.

So why? Why can’t I accept it? Why am I so disappointed? So broken? If everyone else can love me for who I am now, can see past the me I used to be and love me just the same for how I am now, why can I not see it? Am I afraid acceptance means defeat? Am I afraid of dying this way? Of never becoming more than what I’ve dwindled into? I see the playing field cleared of all my potential and all the goals I wished to accomplish. Instead, the goals that stand in front of me now are things most people take for granted, like walking without dragging a leg behind. I’m not satisfied with these goals and I want to break the glass ceiling of my condition to push past and become myself again. But I can’t. Not now, at least. And that’s where I remain stuck, frozen in time as the woman who drags her leg. And this is all I can know now and have known for over two years; I only pray that there is improvement in sight. But even while that thought still occupies space above my head, I’m already angry at myself for thinking it. I’m so lucky compared to so many. What right do I have to feel such pity for myself when I have been so blessed?

The key, I’ve found, comes in redefining what it means to be blessed and to be victorious. It takes time and patience with yourself to accept your limitations and forge ahead anyway. It takes patience and courage to build yourself anew after you’ve been so shattered.

The new person that I become as I emerge from this time may not resemble someone I recognize, may not be anything like the past incarnations of myself. Until this point, though I’ve reinvented myself plenty, this is the first whole body reinvention I’ve done. This time, instead of showing love for my own broken heart or sadness, I’m trying to show my broken body that ME, the spirit of who I am still resides inside and I still believe in myself. I still believe my body can do more than I hope or expect. But I require patience to move through each day with love and kindness for myself as I heal. Constantly berating myself and feeling disappointed has done nothing whatever to help towards my healing; I had to find a better way. I am choosing to love and care for me the way I would for someone outside myself who was in my circumstances. The people I love care enough to show me how much they love and believe in me. It would be pitiful were I not able to do the same for myself, to show compassion for one that they all love so much.

This has not been easy to redefine. It’s never been easy to rebuild yourself and rise from the ashes. I’ve spent so long dwelling in the ashes, losing myself in isolation and fear. But in showing myself love, I feel a new time coming, a new energy forming. I finally feel like it’s time for me to RISE, to take my place in the sky among those who can fly!

7 week follow up.

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Last Thursday I had my 1st follow up with my surgeon.  It was the standard 6 week follow up, but it got postponed until the 7th week. After taking some X-rays he declared everything looked good and he relieved me of the no bending, lifting, twisting restrictions.  Oh man, what a relief.
I’m so glad not to have to worry much about this anymore, mostly because I keep catching myself violating the restrictions without even realizing it. The twisting one is the worst to adhere to, especially working in New York City.  Just walking from Grand Central to my place of work, I cannot go more than 5 minutes without having to choose between twisting or bumping into someone.  Today it’s manageable, but when I first started going back into the office 3 weeks post op, neither of those were good options.
Also, I’m now able to go back to the gym and allowed to use the elliptical. I’ve always hated this thing in the past and would only use it if I was injured. Just getting on the elliptical has always instilled me with a sense of failure.  I don’t know many other runners who would choose to use the elliptical other than when they’re injured. Nonetheless, I was happy on Saturday when I got my first opportunity to do something other than walking.
Things were a bit scary at first and I wasn’t sure if this would work out. I first got on thinking I would take it slow and easy by starting out with a low resistance. The irony is that low resistance actually gives a feeling of more impact on each step and I felt it in my fusion every time my foot came down.  Increasing the resistance seemed to lessen the impact and I was able to do a full hour.  I worked up a good sweat and and my quads were burning by the end.  I was pretty happy by the time I was done and I felt great the whole day. This was definitely a feeling I missed, and I really started to feel like my old self again.  But, I still hate the elliptical so I’ll be counting down the months.
In regards to walking, I’ll be continuing that as well.  Partly because my daughter has been joining me on my walks during the weekend.  She’s basically a couch potato and watches way too much TV, so 3 weeks ago my wife and I have limited her to 4 hours a week and only within specific hours of the day.  I sometimes give her an opportunity to earn more TV time if she does something physical.  Basically, an hour of physical activity for an hour of TV time.  She’s 10, so the complaint she gave when I first enforced this rule was “What should I do?”  I suggested walking 4 miles with me and she accepted.
Initially, it was a lot of attitude on her part during our walk because she felt forced into this.  I hate to admit this, but I haven’t often been able to have any meaningful conversations with my daughter for longer than I can remember.  It’s not that I haven’t tried, but it’s been a real struggle to get her to engage.   Plus, whatever free time there is between us she is spending it watching TV. So, for the most part our first walk was done in silence until we found some common ground.  Of course that common ground was about TV, but at this point I’ll take anything.
It seems she’s a fan of Mad TV, and although I never heard of the show at the time, I mentioned I was a collector of Mad magazine when I wasn’t much older than her.  We weren’t sure if the two were related until I described Alfred E. NeumannSpy vs Spy, and how every issue included a spoof on a movie. The conversation eventually led to the movie Avatar, since there was an episode that did a spoof on it. And since she never saw the movie, I offered her to spend her tv time watching it with me.
Since then, we’ve been talking about her thoughts on Avatar and what the sequels might be about now that Jake “Smelly” is no longer running around as an avatar.  I was also surprised to hear of her comparison to Native Americans. So, OK, it’s an obvious comparison, but coming from a 10 year old I’m allowed to be impressed.  Other topics of discussion have included fashion, her desire to be a fashion designer, her desire to learn to use a sewing machine, our foster dog, her friends, her not wanting to go to Germany in the summer, among many other things.  As our conversations have become more varied, our walks have become longer. Sunday she walked over two hours with me and covered 8 miles.  Mostly because she wanted to earn the extra TV time, but that’s good enough for me.  I was quite proud of her to seeing it through the whole way.  We walked along the route where I used to run every morning and I spoke to her about my running which is something she never cared to hear about.  This time the conversation consisted of a lot of questions and sympathy on her part which I really appreciated.
If I knew it would come to this I would had the surgeon open up my spine years ago.


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So what’s happened for the past 2 1/2 years? Where have I been? Well things have pretty much been a shit show in terms of running. Hence, out of frustration I shut the blog down because my struggles with coming back wasn’t something I liked thinking about. In hindsight, I regret not blogging about it because it would have been beneficial to have captured the details and things I’ve learned along the way. Long story short, I’m not out of the woods yet, but finally I’m on my way to recovering and being fixed.

The hamstring issues eventually did subside after much physical therapy. Wasn’t until April of 2012 was I able to start running well again to the point where I was building the mileage and speed work I wanted. I got to the point where I was planning some races, running really well, excited and enjoying everything again. Even thought about returning to the blog.

And then I developed iliac crest pain syndrome in August of 2012. This is a bizarre pain at the top of pelvis on the side where there’s a ligament. It’s another form of tendinitis or overuse (or in my case, more likely misuse). Initially, I wasn’t overly worried since I had this on my left side for a very short time and assumed this would be gone relatively soon. Plus, I was glad to see something different break rather than my hamstrings. Gave me confidence in an odd way that hamstrings were holding up. How naive I was to think this was a good sign somehow.

The only thing is, this shit didn’t go away and continued to linger until the end of the year, thereby causing me to miss all the 2012 fall races I was hoping to do. So, I got a cortisone shot not knowing what else to do. Did it help? Yeah, mostly, but was never completely gone. Just manageable.

End of the year 2012, I was ramping back up again hoping the spring would be when I’d be able to start racing again, and things certainly looked that way. I did have a lot of odd twinges that were off. Couldn’t really understand them, nor can I explain it, but looking back things never felt 100% right after recovering from hamstring tendinitis even when there weren’t any obvious problems. But more specifically, I would be running a tempo in January of 2013 and have to stop because I felt something wrong with my Achilles. I would stop to check it and there would be nothing wrong, and I was confident of that, because I knew what Achilles tendinitis felt like from experience. There would be something in my ankle, but couldn’t quite locate where it hurt when I was running. Weird pains in my right shin at times. Other things I don’t even fully remember.

Then in March 2013, the straw that broke the camels back happened. I’m the camel by the way.

I was at a wedding and when it came time to lift the bride, I was the first one to try to get her up. I felt a bunch of pops in my tail bone. Not even what I considered my back. I thought, “wow that felt weird, like nothing I ever felt before”. It didn’t hurt, so I wasn’t overly worried.

As a habit as a run, I was still incorporating pt exercises consisting of eccentric weights to prevent reoccurrence of hamstring tendinitis. Only, for whatever reason, after a short run I did the next day that totally felt off, it was as if someone was stabbing me above my ass when I tried hold any amount of weight with my leg. And oh yeah, more popping.

I dismissed it because I was still doing runs at a pace I wanted. Then all of a sudden, my right hamstring in the middle felt as if it was torn. This wasn’t tendinitis. It was too low. I didn’t know what it was, but it hurt like hell when my leg would be brought forward while running. Fine otherwise every other time and didn’t hurt to the touch.

Back to an orthopedist I went. This guy took some X-rays of my back and told me I’m basically fucked. I was convinced he didn’t know what he was talking about. He told me about a condition I had which I first learned I had in my mid 20s. To explain, I need to go back a bit.

All during high school and college I suffered extremely from back pain and sciatica issues in my right leg. In my mid 20s, when I was working and had my own health insurance that was somewhat decent, I went to see a chiropractor who wound up helping immensely with my pain. I have a low opinion of chiropractors, and if you read previous posts, you will know I think most of them are full of shit and are no better than used car salesmen. For instance, there’s one in the shopping center near me who advertises weight loss through chiropractic treatment. However, I’m sure there’s some benefits to be gotten from a chiropractor who knows what they’re doing, doesn’t believe they have all the answers to fixing any problem you throw at them, and isn’t looking to just suck you in just to make a buck. Unfortunately, the chiropractic industry, IMHO, is full of snake oil salesmen. But, I digress.

This woman, I believe, knew what she was doing. She took X-rays and explained to me about a weakness I needed to be careful about and the fact that my spine was attached to my sacrum at a lower point than most. Nothing to worry about but I needed to watch it didn’t get worse. I was 20 something, so yeah, whatever that meant. All I knew was I was feeling better, so I didn’t give it another thought.

That is, until the orthopedist was pointing to the X-ray saying something about grade 3 and that I needed to readjust my life style. Meanwhile, I was thinking, “you idiot, my back doesn’t hurt and hasn’t in almost 20 years”. I knew I had this and it never stopped me before, why now?

This orthopedist is a back specialist, so everything to him is going to look like a back problem. I’m thinking, “You jackass, I came here for a problem with my hamstring. Can we talk about that?” His response was there’s nothing wrong with your hamstring and all your prior problems are related to this. Everything for the past 2 years is because of this. What I didn’t realize at the time is the slip I had 20 years ago progresses to just over 50% off my sacrum, and recent events exacerbated it even more. This is something I was born with, and being middle age, it’s become unstable and is starting to catch up with me.


The vertebrae at the red arrow should be where the black one is

I rolled my eyes and said, listen, can you order an MRI on my hamstring so I can find out if it’s torn. He rolled his eyes in return and agreed.

Next few days, being at a loss for what’s going on and not having any answers as to why my hamstring hurt all of a sudden, I began contemplating this possibility. I googled spondylolithesis and read about it. I was shocked to read the symptoms. I realized I had symptoms I wasn’t even giving thought to. I had this burning sensation on the top of my middle two toes for longer than I can remember that felt like they were scalded with boiling water. I assumed it was from rubbing within my shoe while running. It felt as if the skin was blistered. But when I touched it, it felt fine. Couldn’t find where the skin was damaged. I didn’t understand it, but it wasn’t a major problem in my life so I gave it no thought.

I was also tripping while walking lately. I couldn’t understand why the ground was so uneven and affected me so much. But, my right foot often hit, or scraped the ground while bringing it forward.

This was the result of my nerves being compressed between my last vertebrae and sacrum. After sometime, when the hamstring issue subsided, I tried running again. My leg was not responsive in some odd way.

One day while coming home from work, I was crossing a wide street where the traffic is closer to what you’d find on a major highway in terms of the amount of cars and their speed. Everyday I would run across this street. But this time, while sprinting my legs buckled and disappeared out from beneath me. I lost control of them completely while they were still moving. I almost hit the ground, but luckily regained control as I was falling and got across the street.

Something was quite wrong and I was extremely scared. I went back to the orthopedist and we agreed an MRI on my back would make more sense than my hamstring. It showed the slip was causing severe stenosis and compressing nerves.


My MRI showing compression on the white spinal canal at the red arrow

I sent the MRI to a surgeon at hospital for special surgery. Shortly after he agreed to see me. He explained to me that nerve damage was occurring and it often becomes permanent if it’s not addressed. He recommended I get a spinal fusion which is a brutal surgery and typically takes a year to fully recover. I decided to book surgery for the fall and give myself the summer to contemplate whether or not I really wanted to go through with it.

Eventually, I was able to run again during this time, and did low mileage every alternate day. I was never able to get the pace I used to have and it felt a if I had a log tied to my lower back. I came to terms I would probably never race again, but if I was running I might learn to be content with what I could do and avoid surgery. But, I also kept thinking about how this thing is going to be getting worse, and the impact of running would be furthering my slip. I knew myself well enough that I wasn’t going to stop, even though I decided to briefly at one time or another. Some of the neurological issues were also getting worse at times, like the foot drop that was causing me to trip on occasion. I reasoned that although I was not in pain and suffering today like most who have this condition, I had no guarantee that this wouldn’t be the case 10 years from now. Down the road it may be harder to fix and being older I may not be in the condition to recover as well.

On September 27th I had my L5 vertebrae fused to S1, which is part of my sacrum. The surgeon lifted my spine and pulled it back carefully as much as he could without causing further nerve damage. I have 2 carbon steel rods implanted along with 4 titanium screws to hold things in place while the two vertebrae grow together. In addition, there is an implant in between the vertebrae and sacrum referred to as a peek cage where the disc (or what was left of it) used to be. I decided to go through with this with the expectation of being in excruciating pain during recovery based on what I’ve read from others. The surgery also requires that I be restricted from bending, twisting, and lifting anything heavier than a gallon of milk. Otherwise, the fusion is put at risk.


X-ray taken while I was still on the table post-op

The recovery over the past 5 weeks has been full of discomfort, but so far has been pretty smooth with the exception of a few bumps. I walked with a cane and back brace first 2 weeks. Day 9, I walked 1 mile in 39 minutes and I wrote it in my running log. Walking is the only form of exercise I am allowed at the moment, and it’s strongly encouraged since it helps promote the fusion to take place.

I’ve been walking as much as time allows since, and have been gradually increasing distance and time on my feet. I managed an 8 mile walk in a little over 2 hours just recently and have been averaging 6 miles per day, usually broken up in 2 walks with one in the morning and the other in the evening. This is what I will be limited to until my fusion starts to take place, and then I can start physical therapy. In 2 weeks from now I get follow up X-rays to see if there is any bone growth.

My surgeon is more optimistic than my orthopedist was and feels I will make a 100% recovery. I can starting running again after 6 months and I have vowed to take it slowly until 1 year out in order to allow my fusion to fully mature with no risk. I feel like I have very little room for error, and as a result, I’m taking a very different approach to this. I’m being extra conservative. I won’t be setting any goals or timelines, and ill race again when I’m ready.

Then I’ll break 3 hours in the marathon.

Slowly getting consistent and slower


I’m starting to run again with some sort of consistency now. Before it was a day here or there scattered with no running days in between. The biggest measure of improvement is the fact I’m starting to feel like myself again, and by that I mean the antsy feeling throughout the day of when I’ll be able to run again isn’t so predominate.

Even if the mileage is something I would scoff at 3 months ago, I’m happy to be getting that little bit in. The hamstrings are tight immediately after, but I stretch it out, and for the rest of the day they’re actually pretty good. It’s now a habit of mine to constantly test things whenever walking anywhere. Stepping up on curbs with an overstretched stride or leaning into my step when walking up inclines have become the two most used methods for assessing how things are. When no one’s looking, I’ll even do a little trot or jog sometimes. That pulling feeling is almost gone. At times I even expect it to hurt and I find myself backing off a bit as a reflex when testing it, and then when there’s surprisingly no pain, I wonder if it’s because I reflexively backed off, or if it’s truly significantly better.

Things still aren’t 100% right though. It’s hard to tell if it’s the injury, loss of fitness, or the fact that my muscles are so overstretched they have as much bounce as wet sponge. Or, am I just super aware of every little twinge or ache because I am so scared of exacerbating the injury? The fact remains, however, I am now slow. I don’t care about the speed. Or at least, I try not to. I was hoping I could bounce right back into training once I was past this injury, but I can see I might very well have a long road ahead of me. I’m giving thought to skipping a fall marathon this year. I’ll have to decide later in the season based upon how things go. I think my only hope may be Philly again since its so late in the season. As much as I would like to have something like that to focus on, part of me would like to just ditch the idea completely. Even now, I still struggle with not putting pressure on myself to maintain a certain pace when running and I’m not even fully recovered from being injured. I think giving up on the idea of a fall marathon, and racing for the rest of the year might be better for me in some ways.

I’ll take it easy for the summer and maybe decide then.

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