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ill titleBack From The Brink

An injury threatens to put an end to my running.

ill_1It was number 1171 in my log book; an unremarkable training run of six and a half miles of canal towpath, with 4 bridge crossings thrown in to stretch the quadriceps. A warm, spring day, a modest pace, a brief mention of some knee pain in the first mile and a bit of soreness afterwards. What made this run so significant was that it was a hair's breadth away from being my last.

Just hours later, my training and racing plans had been thrown into disarray by a back injury. I was so lucky. As it happened, it cost me many months of running. It could have cost so much more.

For my sins, I am a supporter of Brighton and Hove Albion. Although fifty years have passed, I can still remember the first match my father took me too - a 2-2 draw between Brighton and Chelsea reserves. Abramovich had not even been born!
Now, the Seagulls were facing a crucial test. After the euphoria of two, successive championships, the final day of the season saw us facing relegation from Division 1. A simple equation - we had to win at Grimsby, and Stoke City had to lose at home to Crystal Palace. Having failed to get a ticket to see the match, I set off for my brother's house in Bristol to make the most of his satellite facilities. It wasn't to be. We could only draw, although Stoke beating Palace sealed our fate anyway.
A meal, some wine, a few further drinks of commiseration, interleaved with the music of our youth, and then it was bedtime. A small suitcase in one hand, a drink of water in the other, I climbed the stairs. Or rather, I didn't.

To this day, I don't know what happened. OK, I'd been drinking, but not enough to make a flight of stairs as tricky as a glacier. No trip, no stumble. A frame-by-frame sensation of a backward flip; a swift realisation that, with both hands occupied, I wasn't going to arrest it, and then, the inevitability of impact. I landed on my back, juddering headfirst and backwards down the final few flights, before my head striking a wall brought me to a standstill. I was winded, I was shocked but knew immediately the impact had been on my spine. I wiggled my fingers and toes. They wiggled. Phew!
Ten minutes later and I made it up the stairs at the second attempt, my brother adopting the sensible precaution of walking up behind me.

It was next morning that reality dawned. An early attempt to get to the bathroom was futile. Sitting up on the bed was just possible. Getting to my feet unaided was out of the question. Eventually, an ambulance was summoned but the news from the casualty officer was good. No damage to the spine, just torn muscles and ligaments. She even backed up my guarded defence that alcohol hadn't been a major contributory factor. If I'd have been truly inebriated, I'd have been loose and relaxed when I landed! I knew I should have had another drink.

ill_1In the days that followed, every shuffled footstep and movement was agony. As my brother helped me bathe, he remarked that he'd rather hoped it might be many more years before he'd have to do this.

It was a week before I was mobile enough to be driven home, but it was a visit to the GP that truly put me on to the road to recovery. No miracle medical intervention - just waving a red rag to a bull. Having repeatedly advised me in the past to curtail my 'risky' running sorties because of borderline blood pressure readings, he now proclaimed that 'at least this back injury will put paid to your marathons!"

What an incentive! Just a month earlier I had withdrawn from the London marathon following a chest infection. Under the rules, that guaranteed me a place the following year. I had eleven months to prove him wrong.

There were many milestones on that journey. My first, shuffling walk to the local shop and back. Normally five minutes max, this half hour epic ranked high in the satisfaction stakes. The physios manipulated, stretched and massaged. Back at work, I locked my office door every couple of hours to sit on cushions and work through an exercise programme. Little by little, a range of movement was coaxed back.

And then, after 4 hard months, the go-ahead was given. Jog for one minute, walk for one minute, no more than 10 minutes in total. It felt great, and not without it's amusing moments. "Why does that runner keep stopping to walk?" asked a young child as I circled the footpath skirting our local lake. "It's because he's old and not very good," replied his mother. Bless her!

Gradually, the total time and the proportion of running to walking were tweaked upwards. By November, I jogged every step of a local 5K in a time I'd have been ashamed of a year earlier. My eyes were moist as I crossed the line and it wasn't from back pain. I continued to squeeze more miles out, but it wasn't all plain sailing. Three times I set out on a local, hilly eight and a half miler, and three times I ground to a halt. The back was still a little sore, but there were gremlins to defeat in my head as well.

Races provided stepping-stones - a half marathon, a 15-miler. Times were sluggish but the stopwatch was irrelevant. Maybe the marathon arrived a month or two earlier than I'd have wished, and I'd pay for the lack of long runs, but as I lined up on Blackheath Common under battleship grey skies for my 27th marathon, there was apprehension and excitement that I hadn't felt since my first.

Less than five hours later, as I rounded the final bend into The Mall, and glimpsed the finish-line ahead, I offered up a mental toast to the GP who had put me on the road to recovery. Sometimes, it is only when something is nearly snatched away from you that you truly appreciate the joys it can bring.

And as for my blood pressure? That seems to have settled down nicely, thanks.