A Long Way Back

The following story was written by Sarah Giles, who, as of January 2009, is a senior at Leesville Road High School in Raleigh, NC. I have coached Sarah in the hurdles since her sophomore year. In 2008, as a junior, Sarah, a former gymnast and tennis player, suffered major back and hip injuries that ruined her season and threatened her athletic career. Because I was not familiar with the depths of her struggle myself, I asked her to write about them. The following essay is her story.

A Long Way Back
by Sarah Giles

It all started with an “uh oh” one day in the fall of my junior year when I was running 200’s. After a few, I felt a familiar sharp pain in my lower back that had plagued me all sophomore year. “Oh no” I thought. “Not this again.” I ran through the pain for about a month and in the meantime my right hip started to hurt right on the bone in the front. Finally, I went to the doctor about my back. Thinking I had a stress fracture, he told me to get a bone scan after x-rays turned up nothing. So there I was on the first day of the indoor season lying inside of a giant machine getting a bone scan. I remember the nurse asking me when track season started. I looked up at the clock that read 2:45 and replied “Right now.”

I also remember thinking that it was good I was dealing with this setback during the indoor season and not during the outdoor season. Little did I know, I would be dealing with injuries until the end of outdoor.

The bone scan turned up nothing, and my doctor said that everything looked fine and I could continue running. This would have been good news if it were true. Obviously something was wrong, so I went to a chiropractor who told me that my SI joint was “locked up.” He also said my right hip was “in trouble,” but it seemed to be a bit better lately. So, I took off most of December and January, and after going back to the chiropractor about ten times, my back felt better. I was allowed to run again, and on my first day back, I ran some slow 200’s. My sprinting speed was almost non-existent, but I felt thrilled to be back on the track, until I felt an intense pain in my right hip. Just when I had thought I was healthy and could start my season, another setback stood in my way. When I told my school coach about my hip pain, all I got was an eye roll and an “oh lord.”

I went back to the chiropractor, who recommended a massage therapist. The massage therapist said my IT band was tight, along with about ten other muscles. This news was puzzling, because, being a former gymnast, I am very flexible. After every session with her, I would feel good for about a day, and then the pain would return. After about five sessions, it was clear that I was not improving. So, after limping around my leg of the 4×4 at the indoor state championship meet, I went back to the doctor to find out was wrong with my hip.

He told me my growth plate was still open, and I was having growing pains, but I could keep running. His exact words were “you can put up with as much pain as you want to.” So I kept running even though I could barely walk. Most people would know when to stop training, but as a former gymnast, I had been taught to ignore all signs of pain my body gave me.

I endured two weeks of physical therapy and still wasn’t getting any better, but my physical therapist told me I could still keep running. He didn’t really know what was wrong with me either, but he gave me stretches to do every three hours.

Wanting to know why I was so messed up, I began googling hip and back problems. I started stretching and rubbing out my muscles constantly, trying anything to get better. None of this helped at all. All I ever thought about was my hip hurting and I became hyper-aware of any new pain, worrying that something else would start bothering me. I got really down on myself and started thinking maybe I would never be able to hurdle again. My teammates and parents started suggesting that maybe I should just give up track for good. Sometimes I would go to practice and try to jog a few laps, but the pain was too much, and so I would just go to the locker room and cry.

I absolutely hated it when teammates would say that they wished they were hurt like me so they wouldn’t have to run. I would have given anything to be able to run, and here they were wishing they were in constant pain and could go to physical therapy instead of do a workout. I went to meets to support the team, but after a while I stopped going because I grew tired of people asking me if I would ever get better, and keeping score just reminded me of the fact that I wasn’t able to run. I remember at one meet, I saw a group of people looking at me and heard one of them say, “Doesn’t that girl run hurdles?” and another answer “She used to.” Things like that sent me into one of those moods where I wouldn’t talk and would just mope around the house for days.

What bugged me the most was the fact that no one knew why my body just went haywire all of a sudden. I couldn’t understand why I had been able to hurdle four days a week the previous summer, but now all of a sudden I couldn’t run. I began to wonder if all this pain was worth it, or would I be better off just not coming back to track. I decided I loved track too much to stop now. It took me a long time to realize that a positive attitude can actually help your body heal.

So then Coach McGill – my hurdles coach, who coaches at a different school but also coaches me in the summers – recommended a different massage therapist. Once again, I was told that many of my muscles were in trouble. I went to this new therapist for about three extremely painful sessions, but I was still not improving, so she sent me to a sports medicine doctor. So there I was on the first day of the outdoor season lying on an x-ray table, this time getting my hip x-rayed. The doctor told me I had apophysitis, an inflammation of the growth plate. Finally I had a diagnosis, the first real one anyone had given me. He told me to stop running completely and to ice six times a day, along with taking anti-inflammatories twice a day. I went to a new physical therapist for about eight more weeks. He told me not to stretch since I was already so flexible, and told me not to run for five weeks.

Sarah Giles and Coach McGill after a practice session in the summer of 2008.

Physical therapy was incredibly boring, since all I was allowed to do was the elliptical and lunges. If I was lucky, I would get to run five minutes on the treadmill. Finally, after five weeks, I was allowed to run again, about one week before the conference meet, at the end of April. I was skeptical that I was actually better, because I had heard those words before and they weren’t true. When I told my teammates I could run again, they just said, “You’re just going to get hurt again” and “What’s gonna go wrong this time?” Even our school trainer rolled her eyes at me and told me I was “broken” and called me “damaged goods.” The first day I started hurdling, my school coach just shook his head and said “Damn you, Sarah.” (He was mad I had only scored him 2.5 points the whole season, and every time we lost a meet, he let me know it was my fault.)

After a couple of weeks, my other hip started hurting. “Great,” I thought. “Here we go again.” People began telling me again that I should just give up on track, that my body couldn’t handle it. Luckily though, my other hip didn’t get any worse, and now it rarely ever hurts.

This summer, I hurdled about twice a week and held up surprisingly well, except for always being sore and experiencing some occasional hip pain. I remember my first day back on the track with Coach McGill, doing a hurdle workout. I couldn’t stop smiling, just remembering how much fun hurdling was. McGill was one of the few, if not the only person, who understood how hard it was to come back from those injuries and was glad I was back on the track. He was one of the main people that kept me going and wanting to return to track.

Surprisingly, my hurdling technique was much better than it had been last year. I ran 100m hurdles in one meet and did not have a very good race, hitting the fourth hurdle, but I really didn’t even care, I was just so grateful that I was able to do what I loved again.

I’ve always believed that everything happens for a reason, which helped me get through this whole ordeal. I believe that I had to endure all of these injuries so I could realize just how much I love track and remember to not take for granted the fact that I am able to run. Being out for all of the indoor and outdoor seasons also showed me who really cares about me and who only cares about me because I can score our team points. (At the end of the season banquet, I was introduced by my coach as “the girl who lost us the conference championship.”)

My hip still hurts a little occasionally, and the doctor says it probably will until my growth plate closes in my 20’s. I also still have some muscle knots in my back, but they don’t bother me much. I can’t run six days a week like I used to (I run about four now), but I’ve accepted the fact that I have to pace myself so that my body can have time to recover. I don’t know how my body will hold up this season, but I don’t worry about the what-ifs, I just appreciate every day I run without pain. I’m currently training for 55m hurdles for the indoor season, and I can’t wait to race again and show people that I’m back.

I’m thankful that these injuries happened, because I’m a stronger person as a result of them and now I cherish every moment I’m out on the track. I pass by my physical therapist’s office every time on the way to practice and it reminds me of all the struggles I’ve been through and to be grateful that I’m going to the track and not the elliptical. Whenever I feel like I’m about to die in the middle of a workout, I think of a quote Coach McGill told me once: “Don’t complain that you have to (run), be thankful that you can.”

© 2009 www.hurdlesfirst.com

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