Working My Way Back: How I Ran My First 10k After I Tore My ACL

About a week ago, I rode to the athletics stadium in my city around 6 PM, when the sun had started to set and the weather was getting cooler every minute. I did my dynamic warm-ups, drank a few gulps of water and set off for my run, bottle in hand. And almost immediately, the pain in my right knee fired up.

Around the month of September last year, I was on my way back after a mundane 10k run, on a bus. I was with a couple of other runners (who were also my friends) from the club. We got to our stop and I followed my friends as they disembarked. I still have no recollection of exactly how I put my right foot down from the last step of the bus doorway on to the asphalt below, but what I do vividly remember is an intense stabbing and burning pain that followed. Imagining it to be just my knee acting up after a long run, I agreed when my friends decided to run back to the campus. But the pain didn’t go away. It progressively got worse as we ran the two hundred or so meters to the campus. I was limping within the first hundred meters, and had to ask the others to stop. I eventually reached my hostel room, had a shower, breakfast, and hit the sack (it was a Sunday, mercifully), by which time the pain had subsided. When I woke up, it was around lunch time, and I had to go down a flight of stairs to the ground floor and out to the mess. My right knee hurt and creaked all the way. I put it down to a sore IT band, something that I’d been struggling with previously. I took a few days off running and forgot about the incident. On my next run, the pain returned in almost full force. I couldn’t go more than two or three kilometers. I had to abandon the run mid-way. The same thing happened on the following Sunday. I took the entire next week off running, applying topical muscle relaxants and taking pain killers. On the next Sunday, the results weren’t any better. I simply couldn’t carry on after a certain point because the pain got too intense. I decided to get checked out by a medical professional. The first thing that the orthopedist remarked when he was examining me was how tight my leg muscles were.

It was true. By that point, I had been running for almost three years. I had no coach. I just ran because it was meditative for me, and it also made me feel good about myself. I never paid much attention to proper warm-ups and stretches after running. I had decent muscular density and tone in my legs because I used to do bodyweight workouts, and closer to the time of the incident, cross train by swimming and cycling. In fact, at that time, I had been training for what was supposed to be my first ever triathlon, and just about a month had passed after I had rode and made the climb of the western ghats, from Coimbatore to Ooty and back, on a bicycle with a couple of friends. But my muscles, though strong and healthy, weren’t flexible. I could barely bend a leg ninety degrees at the hip, with the other leg completely straight. My lower body muscles were taut and almost unyielding, like cables on a suspension bridge: loose enough to allow for small displacements, but not much more than that. The orthopedist told me to get an MRI scan done and to stay away from running until the results came out. The report, with the scan summary and salient points numbered up neatly, confirmed my worst fears – it wasn’t merely a strained muscle or two. I still remember I had to read the report twice to truly believe what I was reading. I had a complex tear in one of the menisci of the knee, and what was then reported as inflammation of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) turned out to be a partial tear. I was advised surgery, something I’d never undergone before in my life.

On getting second and third opinions from other doctors over the course of the next few months, we decided that surgery was, indeed, the best option for me. I had the support of friends, one of whom had undergone an ACL reconstruction surgery just six months prior to my injury, and my family. I knew nothing about the surgery and had the procedure explained to me after dinner one night by the same friend who’d torn his. My head started swimming and I felt nauseous when I realized the true implications of my injury. Although it’s a minimally invasive surgery, with high success rates, a person with a reconstructed ACL could never be a 100 percent of what he or she was before the injury. Add that to the fact that they are at least at 15% more risk of injuring themselves again while doing the same activity, compared to a person with similar levels of fitness who hasn’t torn their ACL. I was shook, but I was determined to get back to running as soon as possible after the surgery. I threw myself into pre-hab, and post the surgery in December, into physiotherapy and re-hab. The first few weeks were hellish, not because of the pain – there wasn’t much of it. It was because I had been confined to my house with a huge, ungainly and uncomfortable brace. Within the first three weeks, I could only walk about a kilometer, in the evenings, accompanied by my mother – awkwardly puttering around with a straight leg in the brace. But because I was regular with my physio and because I had good musculature previously, a month after the surgery I was told to join a gym and work gradually on strengthening my legs further. I concentrated on regaining the musculature that atrophied and wasted away – primarily my quads and calves – and build up my hamstrings which I had neglected to do in the past. A month after that, my surgeon was confident enough in my growth to prescribe getting back on the saddle of a bicycle, and not merely the stationary ones kept in the gym. I was only too eager to do so. Four months post-surgery, I was told I could start jogging again, slowly and very cautiously. Still, I took another month off, of my own accord, to allow the healing process to go further (it takes a grafted ligament at least 9 months to heal and integrate completely within the knee, and to assume the role previously held by the ACL). One day in the first week of May, during which time I was back in college to deliver my final semester end-term presentation, I ran my first few steps on the indoor running track. My confidence grew exponentially from the time I took the first step. I was knackered within twenty minutes, and the knee hurt, but it wasn’t the kind of pain you have when you have something broken inside you. It was the pain that occurs when you work some muscles that haven’t been worked in a long while. It felt like operating old machinery, with gears clanking, pistons squeaking and things falling into their old, dusty ruts. It felt good. Within the month and a half after that day, I steadily kept increasing the distances of my runs. And this time, I made sure I warmed up and did my cool down stretches properly. The difference is significant. I am definitely more flexible now than I was ever before. And I haven’t been experiencing soreness in the IT band like I used to. Also, I’m more confident now in my lower body’s abilities to deal with shocks and minor scrapes, and not snapping like an over-stressed cable when that happens. The knee still hurts when I run, and it’s probably something I’ll have to deal with for a considerable amount of time in the future, if not the rest of my life. But I’m just grateful to have had a speedy and healthy recovery, and for being able to be running again.

Anyway, back to my run a week ago. I started off a bit faster than I usually do, but I reminded myself to take it slow. After a couple hundred meters, I placed the bottle I had in my hand on a concrete bench by the side of the road, and started on the 5km loop which I planned on running twice that day. Up till that date, I the most I had run was around 8 kilometers. I knew I couldn’t do this run without proper hydration, so I had placed two one-liter bottles halfway across the loop, each being almost diametrically opposite on the route. I trundled on slowly, and the sun gradually set. By the time I had completed the first go-around on the loop, I couldn’t even feel the pain in my knee. That’s the great thing about endorphins: you push past a certain point during any physical activity you’re doing, and they’ll start flooding your brain and your body, taking the pain away, leaving you to concentrate on the task at hand. I didn’t run the route continuously. I took thirty-second breaks at each hydration point, before starting again. It’s important to listen to your body, especially after an injury, and also to let it acclimatize to whatever you’re doing. Once it’s done that, you can take it anywhere you want to. I finished my run in one hour and twenty minutes, completing my first ever 10k after the surgery. The feeling of achievement and the euphoria were tremendous.

I may not be the runner I used to be, but I’m going to make sure I don’t make the same mistakes or take the same risks as my earlier self did. I’m going to treat my body with respect, because it’s capable of doing great things and taking me places I never thought I could go. Also, I’m not going to abuse it in any manner and make sure it carries me into old age with all systems fully functional and working at maximum possible capacity. This shell I live in is much more than just flesh and bone – it’s a winged chariot which can touch the stars, and I’ll try my best to never forget that.

Sandeep N

1 Comment

  1. Great write-up Sandeep!
    I can identify with the big about treating my body with respect and taking care of it so that in old age I am better off!

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