Breaking the Cycle: Spinning my way through Achilles Tendonitis (by riding my new bike into the ground.)
I went to see my doc today.
I rarely go to the doctor.
Only when I am about to die do I go, so this was unusual.
Not being able to race is killing me.
I guess I am being consistent.
Last May (2021), the bursa behind my heel started to speak up. Scream at me, really. It was irritable and cranky and didn’t enjoy running. So, like any “good” long distance runner would, I noticed the issue and decided I don’t care what my achilles says, I am a runner so I will figure it out. Sometimes things hurt. Most of the time they get better.
This isn’t the first time that I have had a cranky achilles. This is the first time I have noticed it swelling up like this. But the next day it was not swollen. So I wasn't sure what to make of this initially.
Back in 2015, I had the same type of feeling. By backing down on volume & speed, it eventually became a non-issue. I went on to train just fine and set life-time PRs in every distance from 5k to 50 miles. So I wasn’t too worried back in May 2021.
So this time, once again, I backed off, felt better, started to rebuild. It would flare up again, so I would back off again.... repeat for a year.
I didn’t stop running completely (until now) because:
(1) I was registered for the October 2021 Boston Marathon, a race I trained for after sepsis tried to kill me for year straight. I got back into peak shape and qualified for it with a 3:03 in January 2020. It was very meaningful BQ and I wanted to a least be able to show up and enjoy the day.
(2) The achilles didn't bother me consistently. There would be plenty of perfectly pain-free days in a row, even weeks in a row, then a random flare up that would lead to 2-3 days off just to be safe. I reduced my running down to 2-3 days per week only if I didn't feel any pain. It seemed like I good plan.
I had worked through an achilles issue before, but it wasn’t 2015 anymore. It was 2021. I was 6 years older in 2021 and everything seems to take longer to heal for me now.
As much as I would love to say “age is only a number”… my Achilles disagrees. Training age is more than "just a number". it represents accumulated wear and tear on a hard working body, a body that needs to be taken seriously, listened to, and treated with respect.
I only have this one and it has done good work for me. I have been dumping unnecessary parts as they break down on me for years now (my breasts, half my thyroid, random teeth. Getting older is fun! :) If you are not yet over 40, start saving money for your teeth now, you will thank for this in about two decades!)
With high hopes of running Boston, in August, right on schedule while going out for a 20M long run, I made it to 6.5M and my calf popped. I was over compensating and couldn't take it any more. It wasn't obvious to me that this is what I was doing until the calf popped .
I shut down marathon training. I healed relatively quickly and ran 1:40 half marathon in Utah in September (the downhill course helped to make that possible by putting no stain on the my calves or achilles.)
That week in Utah was rejuvenating. We ran and hiked everyday. 10 miles per day on our feet climbing to over 10,000 feet whenever possible. Nothing hurt. Nothing flared up. I could do anything I wanted to do. I felt like I was healed! I was ready to start training again.
I thought I could get enough mileage in to simply show up to Boston just for fun. But then my calf popped again on mile 1 of an easy jog on a flat road one day after we got home from Utah.
And I knew in was over.
No Fall Boston.
This is stupid.
In late October 2021 I discovered that I could spin and row and my ankle/achilles was ok with that. I started to go 2-3 times per week and it was helping me feel like I was still an athlete.
I still had races on my calendar that were paid for deferrals. Races I wanted to run. I wanted to see a starting line. I wanted to cross a finish line. I wanted to talk about running with runners while running. I wanted to feel like myself again.
But as each race got closer, I knew they weren’t going to happen. I could run sometimes without any pain but then randomly my Achilles would flare up again. It had no logical reason. Sometimes it hurt after a run, sometimes it didn’t hurt at all. Sometimes, I could walk all day, but then sometime mid-dog walk it would flare up. It was not consistent.
Then in March 2022, my right arm started to join in. Apparently I strained something in my arm. From rowing? or lifting? or both. Or maybe from something else? Sleeping poorly? Writing too many treatment plans when I am at the hospital? I have no idea what happened.
I stopped going the gym in March and it continued to get worse through May. I didn’t feel like going if I could not row of lift. I was getting less enthusiastic about my 4:30 am alarm for spin class. I just wanted more sleep and I wanted to spin when I felt like it not when there was a class.
With almost 6 weeks away from the gym, my arm was getting worse. My athlete-self was degrading and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
So I made the appointment for my physical today to figure out why my ankle, my arm, even my abdomen (with pain that wakes me up at night), my shoulders (that each decided to take some time off during last year) all seem to be giving me trouble.
My doc is maybe in his 70s. He is an orthopedic specialist, but practices primary care. He is the opposite of histrionic. He very thoughtful, conservative, an excellent diagnostician, a bit of a comedian, and seems to be at a point in his life where he is ok with just clearly calling things he sees them.
“You are beating yourself up. You have tennis elbow. That is why you can use your arm.
You have achilles tendonitis. That is why you can't use your foot.
I can inject you, but that isn’t a solution. The ankle may not get better, ever. You have overworked it. YOU ABUSE YOUR BODY!
The arm, now that may be fixable. If you can ride the bike, do that for a while.
[Walks out of room... returns.. Hands me two handouts] Here are some exercises that can help you recover. This is better than medicine. (*And this is why I really love this man)
... and you need to find a new job, one where people don’t need to see what you can do to want to work with you! You need to take it easy on yourself. You aren't 21 anymore!”
He then shows me the newly healing wound on his head. Said he fell down his stairs. Hit his head on a pipe. Gave himself a concussion. Needed staples. Was told to take 3 weeks off but only took one… And said "That is how life seems to go lately. The demands work puts on us makes us ask things of our bodies that really aren’t reasonable… yet we do it. We feel like we need to do it. If you can find a better way, find it.”
I looked at the handouts he gave me. I said “I'm not ready to stop training but I will do these exercises.”
He said “Oh, I know you will!... You’re done here. Go home. Good luck. Take it easy. Use the bike for a while.”
Since I started running after my cancer treatment in 2007, the only time I stopped running was when I had sepsis and an internal abscess for a year that needed 4 surgeries to close it.
In between those two time periods I became a streak runner and ran daily for 7 years. Sepsis was my reason to end my streak. It didn’t feel like I had a choice.
This does’t feel like I have a choice any more now either. I need to stop running for a little while. Maybe not very long. A few days? Another week? Another month? I don't know yet. When my achilles is ready I will know.
I am tired of running a little, feeling good, thinking I am ok, getting my hopes up, then experiencing an achilles bursa flare up (Doc said, “Well, that means you are about to tear it.")
I rode 130 miles in the first 7 days and realize that I have been a super frustrated endurance athlete without any comfortable outlet for my identity for a LONG LONG TIME.
I have found a new home for now.
The SCHWINN is a decent bike. There are some pros and cons.
Pro -: I paid $850 total (after tax) and it is a “Good Enough” machine. I think the SCHWINN bike can be found on sale ofter for about $500 if you wait. I wish I knew but it wouldn't have mattered. I can sync my Garmin to the bike and broadcast my HR to the peloton app. Comes with universal SPD pedals and a set of cleats which are the same pedals that my gym uses. I will go back the gym eventually.
Con - WHY does it not tell me my watts or my power? It can do it. It just doesn't. But I am working on this. I may find a solution. The free JRNY app is useless to me because you can only sync one thing at a time to the bike and I choose my watch and I cant use the JRNY app without a machine synced to it.
I considered Peloton but I didn’t want a bike that cost $1200-$2000, would require me to pay $44 per month for the app (starting in June), and required me to get spin shoes that were different than what I would use if I did want to go back to taking classes at the gym.
I considered Keiser for around $2000 because it seem like it will last a million years. But I don’t have $2000 right now for this.
The SCHWINN seemed to be the best deal I could find on a bike that had less complaints than the other cheaper bikes I looked at. Except for some common complaints of pedal malfunctions (which I honestly think is caused by people pedaling backwards and not realizing they are unscrewing the pedals by doing that).
So now what?
Now I spin... like right now, right after I hit publish I will go to my garage, and free my soul
I set a personal goal to spin at least 10 minutes per day daily for 30 days. Today will be day 9. Once I hit 30 days I will buy myself some spin shoes. I want to make sure I am using this bike before I invest more into it. I want to make sure my cycling muscle are strong before I lock my feet into the pedals. I want to give my body and mind a chance to heal and thrive without worrying about anything else just yet.
Of course, if I need to rest during the next 3 weeks, I will. This is not a goal I will pursue at all costs. Spinning is all I can do right now. I will protect it. But I am also going to move, sweat, and feel like an athlete every single day that I possibly can.
I am tired of run-walking without any gains.
I am tired of sneak attack achilles flare ups.
I am tired of feeling hopeful, then disappointed.
I am tired to asking Dave to race something awesome with me and then telling him months later that I can’t do it. “I cant do it” has never been part of my vocabulary when it comes to something I have my heart set on, but it somehow has snuck in when it comes to running!
So now I will spin.
Shannon McGinn, MS, MA, JD, EDS, CWHC.