It’s now 6 weeks since things started to go very wrong during my challenge, and this time has been a challenge all of its own!
I returned home, in tears, on Friday 9th September, just 5 days into my run from Land’s End to John O’Groats and world record attempt. I was so disappointed that not only had my body yet again let me down, but also that by not being able to continue, I’d let others down too.
No one likes to discuss brain tumours, and undertaking this was my way of trying to create a platform that otherwise didn’t exist, in order raise some awareness of the disease that for some reason no one likes to talk about. I also hoped to raise significant funds for 2 charities that had helped me and that would help others in the future through much-needed research. Distraught doesn’t quite begin to cover how I felt.
I was in contact with Amanda, my physio, that weekend and she booked me in to see her first thing on Monday morning. It was such a miserable time hobbling around on crutches in a boot, but what was worse, was going from running everyday to doing absolutely nothing. There were moments when I really did worry about my sanity.
I didn’t realise just how ‘dependent’ I’d become on endorphins, those feel good hormones, and what an impact not having them would have on my mental health and general wellbeing. It’s been learning curve for sure.
I turned up for my physio appointment, and was immediately told off for having left my crutches in the car! Looking back on this, all of this equipment was a huge, unwanted reminder of where I’d been in the past. Before I left hospital after my brain surgery, I was told I should use a walking frame. I refused and I wobbled out of hospital 6 days post op. This time though, I wasn’t capable of going anywhere without crutches and the ridiculous boot on my leg.
I think it’s fair to say Amanda was slightly shocked at the state of my leg. By now, swelling had increased quite considerably. I was most definitely in the ‘acute’ phase of injury. My coach, Jon, was also in this appointment on loudspeaker. He voiced his concerns that we needed me to be back up and moving asap – he wasn’t wrong there, because there was absolutely no way I was going to sit around for weeks on end just waiting for it to get better. I just couldn’t.
Training gives my life structure. It also helps with my mental health and wellbeing as well as my physical health; it is running as well as strength and conditioning that made the biggest improvements to my compromised balance. I was terrified the progress I had worked so hard to make would be lost.
When this structure was taken away I felt totally lost. In a weird way, I also felt isolated. I think this might have been because I suddenly found myself disconnected from people that I’d been connected with through running and endurance events. No one knew quite what to say either. It was either “commiserations” or “well done on running the distance you did in 4 days”. I knew it wouldn’t be forever, but when you find yourself in that kind of situation, it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel – because we didn’t know how long that tunnel would be.
Amanda did her thing and taped me up to help improve lymphatic drainage and hopefully reduce some of the swelling and inflammation. Both Jon and Amanda were in agreement that I should now treat my rehab as my training. Easier said that done, I can assure you.
The lack of endorphins in my system made me a not particularly pleasant person to be around, and there was only so much Netflix I could tolerate. I considered going back on anti-depressants, but whilst I recognise they are very helpful to some people, that’s a route I really don’t want to go back down.
I tried to look for positives. I couldn’t run, but as long as I wasn’t putting weight through my leg, I could still move about. So I did. I decided to see how fast I could hobble around the housing estate where I live. It was only a couple of miles. The first time, I went with Neil and our dog Hugo… and Hugo always slows us down, stopping to sniff and pee everywhere! On the following days, I went alone, taking around 20 mins off the original time by the end of the week. I went so fast, I was struggling to move my crutches quick enough to take the next step!
I really put that boot through its paces, and wondered if it was possible to totally destroy the rubber ends on the crutches. I tried desperately to do this so I would have an excuse to throw them away!
Sprint hobbles were a great way to burn off my frustrations, as I was totally focussed on staying balanced, moving quickly and the pain in my hands from where they rubbed.
I did what I shouldn’t have done and got back on my bike. Cycling with a boot wasn’t easy, but I managed an easy spin with no issues. But it just wasn’t doing it for me. I needed to be working hard, and this wasn’t. I increased the resistance on the turbo trainer, being mindful that I didn’t push through my bad leg. I told Jon what I was doing and he warned me that I’d be then be creating a muscle imbalance. I just felt like I was hitting obstacle after obstacle. So I ditched the boot, opting for a compression sleeve instead and pedalled fast enough to sweat a little and get my heart working hard! I felt so good afterwards.
I bought myself a diving belt and weights and headed off to the local pool, as Amanda suggested I try water walking as a form of cardio exercise. I was dreading this experience, because of the noise. Swimming also makes me a little nauseous these days. I popped a dizzy pill and put my big girl pants on (well, swimsuit!) and headed down to the pool. It took me ages to get poolside on crutches without slipping, then get the belt on and get in.
I was then told I couldn’t use a weighted belt by one of the lifeguards. Honestly, I wanted to cry. I removed the belt and continued walking up and down the pool wondering what was the point. I then got chatting to another lady who had turned up for a swim fit session. I explained the belt situation. She spoke to the instructor, who invited me to her class as I would then be allowed to wear the belt (go figure) and said that if I wanted to ‘take a wander up and down the pool’ during her session, that would be fine. So, at the point where I was about to totally lose the plot, I ended up having a great time at what turned out to be a class run specifically for people with brain injuries. Why had I not heard about this before?
I received another telling off at my next physio appointment, when I confessed my cycling sins! However, since I had been on the bike, the swelling had started to reduce quite considerably along with the pain I’d been experiencing. I believe that the cycling had improved circulation to my injury without putting it under load. I think Amanda’s words were, “You’re the luckiest person to have ever ignored my advice.”
I had also been really focussed on my diet. I had been eating high protein foods cutting out anything known to be inflammatory, supplementing with protein shakes, turmeric, glucosamine and L-Glutamine, known for its ability to speed tissue recovery. It is routinely used where people have suffered with extensive burns as well as for other conditions. I have no doubt this has helped considerably.
Amanda suggested we request more x-rays to confirm what we were dealing with and I’m so glad we did. This ruled out any signs of a stress fracture and pointed instead to bone oedema as well as the tendon issue. Having this information meant we could change the way we managed rehab. We also discussed a timescale for continuing with LEJOG. April 2023 seemed to give a realistic time for recovery from the injury, as well as adequate training time to build up endurance once again.
Jon incorporated structured bike sessions into my training, as well as strength and conditioning and the usual stretches. I didn’t like it, but it was a start and having something to focus on felt good. I was also happy knowing that I was maintaining the fitness I had worked so hard to achieve by doing this.
I also had specific physio exercises to focus on the areas of weakness that we feel contributed to the injury and I was given a run rehab plan that I could start when there was no pain.
A couple of weeks later, we went away for a few days in the motorhome Neil had hired in order to support me during the last few days of my run, as I headed to John O’Groats. I was reluctant to go anywhere, as it was a reminder of what I should have achieved by this point, but hadn’t.
I insisted on taking my mountain bike and turbo trainer along with dumbbells! I did a couple of noisy turbo sessions on the campsite (no doubt to the annoyance of our camping neighbours) and also managed to go for a couple of rides. The first one went well. It was a mix of lanes, trail and fire track. I did the walk of shame up a couple of inclines, so I didn’t put too much force through my bad tendon, and we had a great time stopping off for coffee at the mid point before heading back. I felt more confident on 2 wheels than I had for quite some time. Perhaps this was a benefit of having run along the A30!
The next ride out was a bit disastrous. I’d felt particularly fatigued that day, and probably shouldn’t have gone. We headed through woodland and as I rode over a small stone bridge, I lost my balance, falling over the stone wall and into the shallow, muddy water below.
I banged my head. My bike landed on top of me, one pedal rammed into the back of my bad leg, the other badly bruising the shin on my good leg. The bars hit my left arm hard. It began to swell almost immediately.
Neil had ridden ahead, not realising what had happened. I was stuck, wedged between mud and rocks, and my bike that seemed to be wrapped around any body parts I tried to move in order to free myself. Fortunately, I was helped back onto the bridge by a couple who were passing by.
I was angry, upset and frustrated. Neil suggested we head back to the campsite, but we had planned a ride and I was going to finish it. We continued on a little further. My arm was killing me, I had a headache and my good eye wouldn’t quit crying. We turned back. Twice in less than a month my brain had screwed up my plans.
I have begun to recognise how, when I am faced with situations like this, I have this overwhelming urge to be reckless. Whether it’s having one too many glasses of wine, binging on junk food, picking a fight for no reason or wanting to do something ridiculous just for an adrenaline hit (like another skydive or a highly secretive RIB rides through the straits of Gibraltar under cover of darkness). I really don’t know why I can be like this.
Finally, things started to come together. I began my walk/run rehab at the start of October, around 3 and a half weeks after being injured. These were 30 minute sessions consisting of a 4 and half minute walk, 30 second run repeated 6 times. Each week, the walk time would reduce by 30 seconds, and the run time would increase by 30 seconds. It has been so nice to get back outside in nature under my own steam and throughout those short runs, I have been able to focus on my form, something that often gets forgotten when you’re concentrating on heart rate and pace!
As I write this, I am about to start 2 minute 30 seconds of walking followed by the same running. It’s been slow going, but I’m getting there. It has been a reminder yet again of what I have had to overcome and how the issues I thought I’d dealt with in terms of my balance issues and fatigue are still causing me problems over 4 years on from surgery. It has also been a reminder of just how misunderstood these things are, because they can’t be seen.
It has also taught me about how resilient I have become as a result of this 4 year journey. My old normal would have sat around feeling sorry herself. This time I have tried to focus on all the things I could still do and control.
I had always planned to write another book, its focus being on how we build resilience and find inner strength to overcome pain and the obstacles life has a habit of throwing our way. Weirdly, this bump in the road has been a good thing, as it’s given me more examples of how we can overcome and a lot more to write about.
Throughout this time, the support I have received from others in the running community and brain tumour patients has been amazing.
After what has been a challenging couple of months, I can now start to look forward and make plans to continue my challenge. I have also dreamt up another mad idea that I’ll be using as a training opportunity.
None of this would have been possible without those people who have motivated and inspired me to keep moving forward, especially Amanda and Jon, who know only too well the mindset of someone going through the injury process.
Rehab is not just relative to physical injury, but life in general. We should always look at our weaknesses and not ignore them, consider how we can improve them, put the work in and use our newly found strength keep moving forward.