Considering that I raced 33 IRONMAN races in the 10-year span from 1997 to 2007, I had very few injuries that kept me from racing. My feet and heels were always an issue, but with modifications and therapy, I was always able to do the sport I loved so much. When I stepped away from professional sport in 2009, I never thought I would be flying to Sweden in 2015 for surgery on my Achilles.
I had managed a few fun marathons in 2013 and 2014 and managed my Achilles issues by running 3 days a week and never running further than 2.5 hours in preparation. But by summer’s end in 2014, I found myself more sore and searching for ways to relieve the pain. In 2015, I only raced shorter events but even those were usually followed by many days off from running. Finally, after the Nike Women’s 15k, I decided that I would stop running and give my heel the full opportunity to heal. Lots of therapy options were pursued. I have the best docs and therapists around – Galea, Scap and Steve Hill. But, in spite of no running all summer, the pain got worse. The pressure of a sock hurt. I was sent for an MRI and recommended major Achilles surgery.
But on the same day as that conclusion, I read a post from American professional runner Lauren Fleshman. She had had Achilles surgery in Sweden by the world’s leading Achilles surgeon. Then the research began. I contacted 2 other elite runners Sandi Nypaver and Renee Metivier Baillie who had similar stories as my own and had also seen the same surgeon, Dr. Alfredson. Both of them had raving reviews of their experiences and their comebacks. Renee had returned to running and raced a 2:27 marathon just 1-year post-surgery. Sandi was back at 10 miles just 5 months after her May surgery. We did more research. I remembered that IRONMAN Champ Cat Morrison had had achilles surgery but what I didn’t know was that Dr. Alfredson did hers also. She returned 7 months later and won IRONMAN 70.3 St. Croix. Professional soccer player Robbie Keane returned to play after his surgery with Alfredson despite 2 previous unsuccessful surgeries with another surgeon. In my eyes, this surgeon was a miracle worker and finding him was a miracle in itself.
Things happen for a reason and there was a reason that news of Lauren’s surgery came across my Twitter feed. Not only had we found a surgeon with a tremendously successful track record, but also further research showed that he used minimally invasive techniques and does not detach the Achilles tendon. Moreover, he only uses local anesthetic, which eases recovery and eliminates the complications associated with the breathing tube that would be inserted under general. I booked the consult, ultrasound, and surgery in Sweden for October 27th. Dave booked the flights and the hotels and handled all of the logistics. We would make it an adventure but truthfully we were both scared. I was prepared for the worst – a major Achilles surgery. But I was also so grateful to be able to travel to Sweden and have a world-renowned Achilles surgeon handle my case. My dad had had so many surgeries and so many illnesses in his lifetime and I wish that he had had such opportunities. There would be no feeling sorry for myself. This was a gift and I was truly the luckiest person with a grumbly heel in the world. In the meantime, I enjoyed every bike ride, swim, water run and Fenway walk. I planned lots of potential “sitting” activities. I had always planned to write a book. This might be that time.
And off we went to Umea, Sweden – 600 km north of Stockholm arriving Monday night at 10 pm. On Tuesday morning, I did my final elliptical workout in the gym (that was a surprise really that I embraced), ate a wonderful breakfast and then we walked the 3 km to Dr. Alfredson’s office for the 9:30 am consult. Within 200 m of our hotel, I stopped to take off my sock. My heel was so sore. Yes, surgery was the right decision. I had to convince myself every day of this. I love my life and I can accept life’s hurdles but it was time to fix this and get back to living…
Dr. Alfredson was amazing – so kind, so humble and so compassionate. He took my history and then he did a Doppler ultrasound of my heel to see the hot spots indicating pain. He was happy that I had walked there and was in pain since then the “pain” would show up on the ultrasound.
He saw all of the boney fragments in my Achilles and he saw the extra bone growth on my heelbone but these areas were not coming up as “hot” on the ultrasound. On the other hand, the bursa was very big and thick and very “hot”. The bursa is full of nerves and that could be why the simple touch of a sock on my heel caused me tremendous pain. To be sure of his findings, he sent me out for a little 5-minute run. This was so painful. He did the ultrasound again and there were still no hot spots on the tendon but the bursa was worse.
His conclusion was that he would remove the bursa only!! This was a very different assessment than I had had previously. I was prepared to have the bone cut away, the Achilles scraped and detached. No surgery is easy but relative to my expectation, this was a gift.
Dr. Alfredson froze my foot and heel and away I went into the operating room. The needles to freeze my heel were extremely painful which was another indication that the bursa was the source of the pain. While being awake during the surgery would make recovery much easier and meant no breathing tube, it was a bit unsettling knowing what was going on and fearing that the next cut might hurt. He found that the bursa had glued itself to the Achilles so he had to scrape it off the Achilles. He checked my whole Achilles but he did not see any reason to cut away any bone. The surgery took about 1 hour.
I left on crutches with painkillers and anti-inflammatories and kept my foot up the rest of the day. Thank God Dave was with me to take care of me and fetch me food and keep me company. He truly is the definition of a husband – for better or worse. He has cheered for me at the top of his lungs during IRONMAN races; he has scooped me up from finish lines as a winner and as a non-winner; and now, in Sweden, he sat with me and laughed with me post surgery as we joked that the pillows on the bed were thinner than my bursa.
I returned for my follow up the next day and he had me walk in his office putting pressure on my foot without crutches. I was very scared. He laid out the recovery plan. He wants me walking without crutches in 7 days. The stitches come out in 3 weeks so until then, I am to wear a compression sock every day all day and walk in back-less shoes like Crocs or Birkenstocks. I am on antibiotics for 3 weeks for infection prevention. At 3 weeks, I can ride a stationary bike 3 times a week for 15 minutes. At 4 to 5 weeks, I can swim and water run. At 6 weeks, I can start with a very small walk/run and can ride my own bike. There are no real shortcuts. The surgery has to be respected. The tissue has to heal and scar tissue has to form at the heel to replace the bursa. There is no fast way to healing and I don’t want any complications that delay healing. Right now, my biggest workout is getting that darn compression sock up and over my stitches without touching the bandage and hurting me and showering balancing on one foot while a plastic bag keeps my stitches dry.
We are now at day 5 and I have enjoyed some very short Fenway walks. I am walking around the house without crutches. My neighbor and professional triathlete Alicia Kaye have loaned me her Vasa Ergometer so that I can simulate swimming and move my upper body. I am doing some core work (with Fenway supervising) each day. This is a far cry from usual routine but it is good for me to explore other avenues of fulfillment. It will be difficult for me to not exercise in the manner that I have for the past 30 years but there is no choice. I want full recovery – not fast – just proper and within the guidelines laid out for me. I won’t compromise that but I will find every possible way to keep moving the best that I can within the parameters that were given to me. I never expected to be walking the first 6 weeks so getting to walk with Dave and Fenway is its own victory. Hopefully, this is the first of many victories.