My last post was called “Happy Endings”. Today, as I continue the story of my preparation for the 1984 Olympic Marathon Trials (started in a previous post in my “Runners’ obsessions” series), maybe I should warn you that this story has a very sad ending.
After Anne Marie Malone and I raced in the US Women’s 10K Championships in Albany, New York on April 8, 1984, we had only five weeks left until the Canadian Olympic Trial Marathon. We knew Silvia Ruegger was in great shape and had heard rumours about her astoundingly heavy training under coach Hugh Cameron. We also knew Jacqueline Gareau had been preselected for a spot on the marathon team. But though we were aware that we would likely be battling it out against each other in Ottawa, we trained together more than ever in the final weeks of our marathon preparation.
Since racing the 10K on a Sunday meant we had missed our weekly long run, we ran for two and a half hours on April 10, followed by a two-hour run on April 14. My training log notes that I had completed 90 miles of running that week. My training log for the previous two weeks of training included several comments about knee pain.
On April 22, George drove Anne Marie and I to Ottawa, where we ran for two and a half hours, covering perhaps 23 miles of the marathon course. The weather was good, and my training log says, “Very relaxed pace, pushed last 3 miles, still felt good.” I had tested my new custom-made Nike racing flats, and felt no pain in my toes!
But an hour or two later my knee started to feel very strange. It was stiff and swollen; a doctor diagnosed it two days later as synovitis, a kind of inflammation, and advised me that it wasn’t serious.
It probably wouldn’t have been serious if I had only rested. With three weeks to go before the Trials, I needn’t have run another step. I was fitter than I had ever been in my life. But now, my running addiction took over: patience and confidence in my fitness were nowhere to be found. After missing only two days of running, I continued running every day, finishing the week with 12½ miles on the Sunday after the destructive Ottawa run.
The next week I ran even harder workouts, until a 90-minute hilly run on May 3rd finished my knee off completely. How could I have been so stupid?
I’m afraid this happens to most serious runners. Short of locking someone in a cage, there is little a coach or friend can do to stop this self-destructive behaviour until an athlete learns for himself or herself the full weight of the price that must be paid.
In my case, it meant that I couldn’t run at all after May 3rd. I was a spectator at the Olympic Marathon Trials, my Olympic dream obliterated.
I say I was a spectator, and I remember staying at my aunt and uncle’s house in Ottawa (where I was a frequent guest due to all the track meets that took place at Mooney’s Bay), yet I don’t remember watching the marathon that had been the focus of my training for so many months. Probably it was too painful for me to watch. As I recollect, I listened to the race on the radio, and heard the announcement about Silvia Ruegger’s astonishing debut marathon—she won decisively with a time of 2:30:37. Anne Marie was a smooth second in 2:33:00 (also her first marathon), and Lizanne Bussières took third in 2:35:53.
Silvia, Anne Marie, and Jacqueline Gareau would compete in the historic first women’s Olympic marathon, which took place in Los Angeles in August, 1984.
Would I have been able to beat Anne Marie that day in Ottawa? No one will ever know. Anne Marie had beaten me by minutes in the Round the Bay 30K at the end of March, but I went into that race exhausted and wouldn’t have made the same mistake again. I had more speed than Anne Marie, but her endurance, tenacity, and calm patience were ideal traits for a marathoner.
My huge regret was not that I didn’t make that Olympic team—it was that I never got to prove how fast I could run a marathon. I had trained harder than I’d ever trained before (or ever would again), but I’ll never know what my marathon potential could have been.
In spite of my disappointment, I was happy that my training partner and friend would be an Olympian. George and I travelled to Los Angeles to watch the marathons and a few track events at the Olympics. Anne Marie ran a gutsy race under terribly hot conditions, finishing 17th in a time of 2:36:33.
Silvia Ruegger placed 8th, in what was arguably her greatest race ever. Though her time of 2:29:09 was a little slower than the Canadian record of 2:28:36 she set in Houston in January 1985 (which stood until October 2013 when Lanni Marchant ran 2:28:00 in the Toronto Waterfront Marathon!), it was probably an even better performance considering the heat.
Jacqueline didn’t finish the Olympic marathon. I don’t remember what problem or injury it was that forced her to stop.
As for me, I couldn’t run much for almost two years because of my knee inflammation, which stubbornly refused to heal. The first few months of being injured were the hardest. For a while the only exercise I could do was swimming and gym workouts that didn’t include any leg exercises. Even cycling was out until my knee recovered to a certain point.
The “detraining” effect was drastic since I had to go very suddenly from doing all-out workouts and training to exhaustion almost every day right down to easy workouts in the pool and weight room. These workouts were almost totally unsatisfying; I wasn’t a good enough swimmer to work very hard, and swimming bored me; in addition, both swimming and gym workouts took place indoors, and one of the things I loved most about running was being outside in parks and trails.
Understandably, I became very depressed. At this point, I was very thankful I had a job at York University, where I worked as a biology lab technician. Not only did my work keep me busy, but it meant I was around people who weren’t always talking about running.
Ironically, I had to quit my job at York while my knee was still injured, because I developed an intestinal illness that left me with constant vertigo and nausea. After many tests, I was diagnosed with the poorly-understood IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), since apparently nothing else was wrong with me. I’ve always believed that this awful condition (which lasted a year) was caused mainly by my mental state and the abrupt cessation of the hard training that my body was accustomed to.
I’m writing about this low time in my life mainly to reassure other injured runners that we all go through bad times. By 1986 I was training hard again and beginning the best two years of my running career (much of which I’ve documented in my Olympic Training Log posts).
But my story also contains two basic lessons:
1) Stop training when you’re injured—don’t let a minor injury become a major one! Have the patience to rest for a few days rather than risk missing months or years of running.
2) It’s risky to be a full-time runner and not have other major activities in your life, whether they be school, work, or a consuming hobby. Our bodies can let us down at any time; it’s not good to be dependent on running for all of one’s sense of purpose and identity.