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Confessions of an injured athlete

What I lost, what I hated, and how I healed

I have always divided the world into two types of people: athletes and non-athletes. I now know there are three: athletes, non-athletes, and injured athletes. The last category is by far the most neurotic. I would know. For the past year, I have been batting patella femoral syndrome in both knees.

First, some background: I run on McGill’s varsity cross-country and track and field teams. I live with other runners, and we chose our apartment because it is exactly 400 metres away from the outdoor track. Approximately one third of the clothes I own are made of spandex, and, come winter, I attach rubber picks to my shoes so I can continue running on the snow and ice.

I’m no stranger to injuries. I’ve had many, from a strained a calf muscle I got doing steeplechasing, blisters whose size would shock most medical professionals, bad ankle sprains, and even a few bruised ribs after tripping over a sidewalk crack (I’m also graceful). I won’t bore you with the details of my current injury, but let’s just say that it was stubborn and persistent. At this time last year, I was limping everywhere and going down stairs backwards so as to avoid bending my knee in a certain way. Needless to say, I couldn’t run.

After moving through the stages of denial, blame, and finally acceptance, I approached the rehabilitative process with a relentless drive that I wish could be channeled towards my GPA or summer job search. X-rays, bone scans, MRIs, sports doctors, and physiotherapists were just the beginning. I bought a road bike and spent hours riding it. Not knowing how to change the tube tires, I would walk like a duck in my plastic clip-in shoes all the way home if I got a flat mid-ride. I swallowed bottles of various anti-inflammatory pills, spread special gel on my knees, and shivered through ice baths. I even had a previous coach of mine videotape and analyze my gait to search for asymmetries.

The people at Moksha yoga have likely never seen such aggressive use of a membership card. “Weren’t you here this morning?” they would ask as I arrived for pilates in the afternoon. I swam laps, and learned to flip turn. In front of the TV, I did strengthening exercises with thera-bands, foam rollers, and other toys.

Then I added a weight-lifting regimen. By the summer, I was doing three forms of exercise a day (cardio, weights, and yoga), working at my job in between sessions, and going to bed at 10 every night. Every few weeks, I would try to run again, but the knee pain always returned. At the height of my lunacy, I wrote a letter to my left knee demanding that it heal itself.

It was while aqua-jogging in McGill’s Memorial Pool one day that I instantly understood why millions of people hate exercising. I hated it too! I hated pools. I hated being inside. I hated every activity because it wasn’t running. Aqua-jogging, or “pool running” as it’s informally called, is a particularly awful form of cross training. It’s also the most recommended, because it’s so low-impact. A pool runner straps a belt to his or her body and runs through the water at a pace that feels like slow-motion.

That day, I fought desperation in the deep end. I pumped my arms faster and faster. Was I crying or were my eyes just stinging from the chlorine? Then, I just stopped moving and unclipped my belt, which floated to the surface as I began to sink. My dignity had been reduced to this diaper, this strip of floatation foam that was – like me – fraying at the ends and stuck in the deep end. I’d had enough.

Walking home, I resented each casual jogger that passed by me. I couldn’t help but think, “Why hadn’t their knees given up on them? Why did I have to suffer and not them?” Once home, I went into my bedroom and shut the door. I then noticed there was something shiny on my bed.

It was a new journal with the first few pages already filled in. “Dear Madeleine,” the first entry began. “It’s me. Your left knee…”

I approached my injury with the conventional formula of rest, cross-training, and strengthening. But the missing ingredient to my rehab – to getting well and moving on – was something I had all along, but often failed to see: the people around me. The knee-letter and journal was a gift from the one roommate I have who is not on the track team. You don’t need to be an athlete to know how hard it is to be kept from doing something you love.

A few weekends later, I stood on the sidelines of a cross-country course in the pouring rain and cheered for my teammates. I saw the pain on their faces as their spikes sunk into the sodden golf course. Their faces were shiny with sweat and rain. Their jerseys were soaked and mud-covered, and they grimaced as they tried to work through the pain.

Being injured for a long period of time forced me to learn how to work through a similar pain. Much like runners do in a race, I began to push the self-pity aside in order to keep going. In the end, it was my friends who helped me do this best. They were the ones who laughed the hardest at my trials and tribulations, and who eventually convinced me to try running again this October.

On November 12, I ran at the national cross-country championship in a blizzard on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City. The race went well, and my season ended in relief and pride. I had my happy ending.

Now my roommates have injuries of their own, and I can see the frustration in their eyes. What I say to them, like they said to me, and what I would say to anyone battling a persistent injury is this: keep on trying. Others do understand. You will heal.