HITTING ROCK BOTTOM

Nolene Conrad Inspiration, Running

PART 1 (Because this has been a long haul and I have so much to share)

On top of the world one minute, rock bottom the next. How quickly things can change, in sport nothing is a given! My mentor always said to me , it’s easy getting to the top, the difficult thing is staying on top, because there is such a fine line as you push your own limits to gain your best performance. 2018 was the best year of my running career, I was making steady gains and achieved big personal bests. I was on track, right where I needed to be to achieve my dream of racing the marathon at the Olympic Games in 2020, everything was going so well until it all came crashing down. As much as sport can add Joy and fulfillment to one’s life, it can really be brutal when suffering from chronic injuries, it takes its toll mentally and physically. At it’s worst, this series of injuries left me feeling weak, alone and totally out of sync with my body.

Over the last 6 months I have known endless doses of Ibrufen, mounting medical bills and the agony of relapse. Out of an act of desperation, I tried everything I could to get back to running, the journey to recovery was a very expensive one. These are but some of the professionals I turned to for help: 4 doctors , 1x Orthopedic specialist, 1x Hip specialist, 3 physio’s , 2 chiropractors , 1x Biokenetisist, a therapist, Kinesiologist, 3 x MRI , 1 x Xray, 2 Cortisone injections, 2 PRP injections. Over R100 000 spent on trying to diagnosis and treat my injuries. The lesson I learnt here was that it’s important to work with a small team of dedicated professionals whom know your history and whom you trust. When injured you become very vulnerable and desperate, everyone wants to give you advise and they tell you to try this and see this person, yes they are only trying to help out but if you listen to everyone you will find yourself overwhelmed, deep in debt and miserable.

Running is valuable to me.

Just to give you some insight as to how valuable running is to me. Running has not only been transformational in my life, it has been a constant that I have relied on since the age of 16, for establishing and maintaining health, fitness and balance. I’d like to think of running as my superpower, kinda like the superhero superman, with his ability to fly, super speed, incredible strength. Clark Kent an ordinary man transforms into an extra ordinary human being, using his superpower only to fight crime. This analogy might seem a bit dramatic but makes perfect sense to me, being in my peak physical condition made me feel invincible.

Running helped me gain confidence, self esteem and become self reliant. Running brought me new friendships and priceless relationships with others through training and racing. It inspired me to experience amazing adventures and travel the world. Running is my therapy when I need to clear my head and an outlet for frustrations caused by daily life stressors. Getting up and training my body is what I do on a daily basis, it became routine, I was addicted to the endorphins experienced while running which gave me that feel good sensation.

I can relate to how superman felt when he lost his superpower due to Kryptonite. Being unable to run drove me crazy, I was losing my mind- my emotions were taking over – fear, anxiety, anger. To the point where I would get jealous of people running, sad when I scroll through my social media and see people enjoying their races and doing workouts and even watching running events was really hard. I am the type of person that does not like asking for help, not because I am too proud to ask for help but because of my background. I learnt to stand on my own since I was 16 years old and running helped me become self reliant. So reaching out for help was not easy, I however realised that I could not do it alone. I had to allow the people whom cared for me to help me and I had to put all my trust in God.

Over my 17 year career, I had to deal with many injuries, stress fractures in my lower limbs, calve strain, hip ligament detachment, lower back injuries -yes these were serious injuries with a recovery time of from 2 months to 6 months. What makes this setback worse than any of of my other injuries is that 1. it was a series of injuries, three to be specific, one occurring directly after the other, extending the layoff time. 2. Current injury is such a mystery- no one knows what the cause of my knee pain is. After MRI tests we are treating it as a clinical ITB injury, although it has not responded to any treatments. Not knowing how much time to take off and what was wrong drove me crazy.

a simple freak accident……….

It was 20th January 2019, the day I had to fly out to Osaka Japan. Its 6:30am , I lace up my running shoes and take off for my 10km morning run. I remember it clearly, it was a beautiful morning in Stellenbosch and I was in high spirits as I was super fit and looking forward to my marathon in Japan. I decided to take a different route on the way back home. As I approached the last corner about to finish my run, I stepped on a stone the size of a golf ball, resulting in my ankle twisting in both directions. I tried to continue running but I was limbing and then reduced my run to a walk home. When I arrived home I immediate applied ice to the twisted foot, to prevent any swelling. I tried not to panic, there was no time to see the physio as I had to get ready for my flight. I thought if I diligently apply ice over the next 48 hours, It will be ok. Little did I know this was going to turn into a my very own kryptonite.

So, I got ready and made my way to the airport. When I boarded my flight I immediately applied ice again and elevated my leg throughout the flight. Upon my arrival in Japan I ensured that I got treatment. They had organised a message therapist for the elite athletes and I saw her for 4 days up until my race to release the tightness on my peroneal muscle. On race day, she applied tape on my foot, which I thought was feeling better. During the race I was so focused, I was chasing a time and the adrenaline was rushing through my body, causing me to block out any pain I had experienced. I learnt to do this through mental training, prior to every marathon I would see a sports psychologist to help me mentally prepare. I really would recommend athletes to use mental training, just as you prepare your body for competition, you need to prepare your mind, and it makes a huge difference. In this particular race, quite remarkably I blocked out my foot pain , later my doctor told me that I had fractured my foot during the marathon – I thought that was quite superwoman-like , as it proved that the mental training worked. If I had to do it all over again I would have done the exact same thing, I prepared well for my race and wanted to give it my best.

The night after the marathon, I had throbbing pain in my foot, which resulted in me having trouble sleeping. I woke up the next morning and squinted as my foot hit the ground. Looking down I realised my foot was swollen, I tried to walk on it and every step I took was very painful. I then texted my friend Ellie , besides being a professional athlete she is also a physio based in Australia. She had a look at my foot and advised me to ice it and to get it checked out as soon as I get back home. That day I still went to the shops to buy gifts, thinking the movement will be good for my foot. On arrival back home, I saw the physio who treated it and we decided to rest the foot for 2 weeks, without having any tests done. We did not suspect a foot fracture because of my high tolerance to pain, at the time I was walking normally and did not suspect a fracture. After two weeks , I resumed my training and on the very first session had pain which built up as I tried to run through it (rule number 1 -never run through pain!). At the end of that session I could barely walk, I was in so much pain that I immediately went to see the physio whom took me to see the orthopaedic specialist. In the end, he diagnosed it as peroneal nerve damage, but turns out it was secondary to a avulsion foot fracture which they discovered on the foot X-ray.

This is where things became really hard, I had to wear a moon boot for 6 weeks and decided to have a PRP injection into my foot, for it to fast track the healing process. PRP short for Platelet Rich Plasma, involves them withdrawing your own blood, then spinning the blood to separate the plasma from the blood and then injecting that plasma into the injured area. I really hated the moon boot, in fact I would never wish it on my worst enemy. I was physically and mentally vulnerable, I probably told my story to people concerned more than a thousand times and I avoided going out to social events and public places because I was just tired of explaining and having people looking at me with pity. At times I even felt sorry for myself and would just hide out in my flat and ball my eyes out. The next day , the shine would shine again and I would carry on, back to my rehab routine. Since the day I found out about my injury I decided to put all my energy into my rehab. I knew that it would be beneficial for me to cross train while recovering from injury as i have had successful return from my previous injuries in this manner. My coach worked out a rehab program for me which was quite hectic I must say, he did not go easy on me.

A typical day looked like this:

07:00- 08:00 – gym session
08:10- 08:40 – Breakfast
08:45- 10:00 – Aqua jogging session
11:00- 16:00- Work at Endurocad
16:30- 17:30- Spinning Bike session

I had to do this program 5 times a week, Saturday I only had 1 bike session and Sunday was a rest day . In the pool, I did my running session as I would on my normal training program eg if I had to do 8x800m’s with 90sec rest on the track then I would just do it as 8x 2min 40 with 60 sec rest in the pool. Aqua jogging is not fun at all, but I found that splitting it up into sessions made it more bearable, rather than just running in the pool for an hour. This rehab program actually took up more time than my usual running routine, because unlike running where you just lace up your running shoes and run off, the rehab involves spending more time on the smaller things, which can be very time consuming.

Control the controllable

It was time to soldier on, no more hiding in fear. I wanted to move forward, this meant, instead of me thinking about all the things that could go wrong I would think positive, be brave and search for solutions. I might not be able to run , but there are so many other things I can do. This included variations of cross training like cycling, aqua jogging, core strength. The spinning bike was even worse, gosh I just dreaded being on a static bike, how boring!!! But that was what needed to be done, so I did it. Although whenever I got off that spinning bike I was dripping in sweat, it was a great way to get my frustrations out- I liked my new beast mode. I laughed when one of the guys in the gym commented and said “Jis jy trap die shit uit daai bike “ (sorry sounds better in Afrikaans). When motivated, I have the ability to really grind hard,  it can be bitter sweet and sometimes I go overboard. One needs to have balance! The strength training exercises was mainly basic body weight exercises focusing on strengthening my glutes, core, feet , hamstrings and quads.

Apart from the training side, I focused a lot of my time on mentoring and training the young women in the Endurocad program. Every week we would have two strength training sessions, i would accompany them to races and be assistant coach. Organise skills workshops to educate and empower them. This certainly kept me occupied and made me feel as though I had a greater purpose.

3 weeks of wearing this moon boot I was fed up, all I wanted to do was take the thing off. It was during this time when Endurocad hosted their first track league series at Coetzenburg. As the Athletes Manger at Endurocad, it was part of my job to attend and assist at the event. Event though I just wanted to avoid it because It was uncomfortable for me to detach myself from being an athlete and to watch everyone enjoy their running. I was happy to see them achieve but yet selfishly I felt very sad and even though many people who cared for me reached out, I didn’t really feel like talking about my feelings, it was too painful. There was just this void, like a hole that only running could fill, no matter how hard I tried to distract myself- nothing could fill this hole. Then I was joined in the pool by a training buddy Flora Duffy who was also battling with a foot injury. Flora was a big inspiration to me, especially during this time because of how she handled her long layoff. She is a multiple World Triathlon Champion and her foot injury has sidelined her for almost a year now, when I felt sorry for myself I said : “look at Flora, it must be so hard for her yet she is still pushing through”. We became aqua jogging partners, doing sessions together and motivating each other through it. It was fun and really made the time fly by.

After 6 weeks, I was allowed to take the moon boot off, what a relief to finally get rid of that awful thing! Before I could hit the road I had to do a few running sessions on the alter G anti gravity) machine to gradually build into running. My Bio assessed me over 5 sessions, we started on 60% body weight running for 20 minutes then built it up until I was able to run at 90% for 40 minutes. Running on the the Alter was great but I wanted to be outside, breathing in the fresh air, taking in the beautiful scenery and just free to explore. I knew that I was close to that goal of running outside again , so that motivated me through the AlterG sessions.

After 5 sessions, my bio was happy with my progress and I was allowed to return to running again. So excited to hit the road again , I lace up and in high spirits attempt a 30 min run. Oh man did it feel good to run again, I was in my superman suit but then my smile started to fade as I encountered pain in the side of my knee 15 minutes into my run, I kept running thinking this is just phantom pains. At the end of the run, I had an uncomfortable feeling in my knee, I rated it as a 3/10 pain (10 being unbearable pain), which is ok. Two days after, I set off for a another run only this time the pain started 5 minutes into my run, I continued running and 15minutes in I was limbing, the pain now unbearable. Post run my body language is dismal: sunken shoulders, teary eye. I looked beaten. Besides the emotional pain , I was also in physical pain. I could barely walk up and down the stairs without wincing. That night I sulked, I was in a dark place – i just thought to myself what did I do to deserve this, my heart was broken. I had hoped to still be able to race Two Oceans and defend my title, but this was slipping and I had to withdraw.

Stay tuned to find out what happened next…… In the meantime If you are struggling, I want you to consider the following:

1. Surround yourself with the right people and work with a team of people operate with respectable values and who care about you.
2. Slow down , be patient with yourself.
3. Be kind to yourself- don’t beat yourself up.
4. Maintain a long term perspective. Control the things you can, there is no use in worrying about the things you can’t
5. Acknowledge your feelings- It’s ok not to be ok sometimes.
6. Sometimes it feels like nothing good can come from an injury. There is always a purpose. Do good , use your story to inspire others.
7. Show up even when you don’t feel like it.