Day #34: What is Your Achilles Heel?

I have another confession to make… I have suffered one major injury in my 30 years of running long distance: a partially torn achilles tendon – just at the insertion point of the tendon on the outside base of my left foot. How and when did this happen, you ask? And how did I stay injury free other than this near catastrophic tear? Let me fill you in…

It was just two years ago. I was 1100+ days into a running streak which had seen many great milestones including successful marathon and ultra-marathon races in the Swiss Alps on little more than the 5kaday regimen. For the last half year of the streak, though, I began to suffer from a tightness in my left achilles – which often left me limping unconsciously as I went about the non-running routine of my days. In retrospect, my wife said I really had a pronounced limp – and getting worse all the time. By the time that I realized that I was battling a potential injury, I still felt that I could do as I had always done – both on the cross-country and track teams in high school and college, and also on the soccer team at Colby College — just suck it up and work through it. My mantra was, the harder I worked, the better the result I could count on. As a result of this “uncommon” sense (as I have come to dub my thick-headedness), one cold morning as I climbed the hill about a half-mile into my daily course, I suddenly felt a tingling, popping sensation at the outside of my left ankle. My immediate thought was, “That might be the end of my streak.”

And it was. Only problem, I didn’t give up my streak that morning. Nor the morning after. Nope – it was 5 weeks later that I finally hopped on one foot into our house, face downcast and – before I could even get a word out about not being able to finish my run for the first time in nearly 3.5 years – my wife beat me to it: “You are finished! No more running!”

You see, on the morning of my injury, I stopped, turned back towards home… and then jogged on the injured ankle. I found that if I just locked my ankle at an obtuse angle, I could still run! In fact, I could even still run uphill… Ironically, this type of silliness had me really running straight downhill into a year long no-running ditch. I began to self-treat (sometimes with the encouragement of physician friends.) I put heel lifts in my left shoe at all times of day to take pressure off of my tendon. I treated the symptom. Little did I know – in my running streak-infatuated oblivion – that I was making the situation a whole lot worse. By limping and relying on heel lifts, I was in fact weakening and shortening the tendon. It was only a matter of time. Though I kept marking off calendar days and amassing a greater and greater running streak, the recovery time after the inevitable end was growing.

It all came to a head on the day before my 1150th consecutive run. I was at the local track in Oakwood, Ohio – a blissful community nestled on the city limits of the once “invention-capital-of-the-world,” Dayton, Ohio. There was a dusting of snow on the red tartan – and my track memories welled up for me – thoughts of years ago running an invitational on the University of Tennessee track, championship meets at Galludet University in Washington, DC. Ah the memories! And so it was inevitable that I woud check out my ability to run a solid 400 meters on the track — at just 90% effort. How fast could I go, how smoothly?

64 seconds. That was my answer. And I was happy with my answer — happy all the way until about a block from home. That’s when my ankle – like a car which just tasted its last drop of oil – seized up. I was finished.

But still I would not relent. I hobbled painfully past my wife and into bed that night — and I was determined to run again tomorrow. To keep the streak alive. There was still hope, I hoped:) I thought carefully, as I lay in bed, about what a good 5k course for tomorrow’s run would look like. Should it be pavement or grass, dirt road or asphalt? I wasn’t sure. I decided grass might be best, despite the give which would be a bit painful to my still-seizing ankle. The next day, I parked near a graveyard, didn’t bother with earbuds or any kind of pretense at listening to anything. I had one task to complete: 3.1 miles….

You see, I hadn’t come to this 1150th run by happenstance. This very endangered streak had witnessed near upsets in the past. For example, during one year of the streak, my wife was deployed to Afghanistan with the US Air Force. And we had a 4 and a 2 year old. To add to these difficulties, we lived in Germany – no family within 6,000 miles. As an “only” parent for most of that year, it wasn’t so simple at all to get my runs done. I ran our sweet Landice treadmill until it collapsed. Then, I ran up and down our street in Bruchmuhlbach, Germany – always in sight of our front door so that I could monitor my girls’ safety as I cruised out and back, out and back in the German streetlight. (I wonder what my German neighbors thought of this?!) And there was the one time — after having traveled to the US with my girls — when I decided to get two days’ runs done in one single run by starting 25 minutes before midnight and running to 25 minutes after midnight. To be fair, this was not so much a necessity as a challenge to myself. But the take-home here stands: this 1150th run had not come easily, and I wasn’t about to let go of it easily either.

Yet despite all of my investment, faith and resolve, I couldn’t run on the grass or the dirt or the pavement in that graveyard that day. I limped to the car and went home – still figuring how to get this run done and to keep the streak going. The answer came to me suddenly. I must go back to the track! Surely the tartan is designed to perfectly rebound and cushion the runner’s soles. And soul?

I arrived at the track that night at 40 minutes before midnight. I needed a good buffer for this effort. 40 minutes should do. It was a quiet, cold night. I was all alone — that was intentional. If you have ever seen Emil Zatopek’s pained – and genius – gait, he had nothing on me these days. My lurching limp made my “running” a twisted, ugly gruel, and I didn’t need any onlookers to contribute to the impending implosion. And so I began. The tartan was somewhat helpful, but after about 2 minutes and 200 meters, the grass – uneven though it was – felt better to my ankle, now locked along with my pained facial expression. I kind of completed that run – 12 laps plus the distance to and from the car. It was an agony.

Making things worse: about 2 laps in, I saw that I was not alone. An elderly lady had come out – to get some fresh air? At the local high school track? At midnight? Maybe she was an apparition – part of my mental game to push through the streak regardless of everyone who said it could not be done. More likely, though, fate had her out here on this night – unaware that she was meant to witness a dream unraveled.

But unraveled not alone!


(It was 13 months later before I dared to run again. I spent 6 months in a boot, 2 months in physical therapy and 2 rounds of very painful platelet therapy – more of that sometime else…)

So there you have it. I discovered several limits to myself in those long months. And only one of them was my Achilles tendon.

What are your Achilles heels?