‘I Rebuilt My Body In 2020 After Years Of Chronic, Mysterious Pain’
Twenty-nine minutes: That’s how long it took me to run a virtual Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving Day this year. Four years ago, when I was 28, extremely active, and pain-free, this wouldn’t have been a race time I’d have put on the internet and bragged about. But a lot has happened since my last 5K in July 2016.
In January 2018, as I was packing up some boxes at work (we were moving to a new office building), I felt a sharp, stabbing pain in my back, trailing down into my left glute. I’d had on and off back pain before, but this? This felt different. Instead of getting better as time went on, it got worse. Every time I’d take a longer stride as I walked, my glute would scream out in pain. It was like a knife was being lodged into my backside and twisted. It was excruciating, sure. But never knowing with each passing step if I’d be met with a shocking jolt of pain was terrible for my mental health as well. The anxiety was unbearable.
After living with the pain for a week or so, I realized the issue wasn’t going to resolve itself.
So, I saw a doctor who sent me for an MRI, and when my scans came back indicating no evident issue, I was prescribed physical therapy and rest. As someone who worked out five or six days a week, being told to “take it easy for a while” was maddening. I had no idea how to fill my free time after work if I wasn’t at the gym.
Even though it was challenging and, honestly, a bit depressing, I wanted to get better. So I rested and did exactly what my doctor told me to do. I completed the physical therapy, returned to my regularly scheduled workouts once I was cleared to do so, and I thought I’d put the nightmare behind me. But over the next year, the pain came back every few months. I repeated the same steps each time: doctor’s appointments, scans, and PT.
After a year of this, I wasn’t feeling any better and began feeling hopeless that my body would never heal.
It was like a knife was being lodged into my backside and twisted.
My doctor suggested I go to therapy, and I got the feeling that she thought the pain was in my head. I knew I wasn’t imagining it, but the sheer anxiety I would feel every time I needed to walk somewhere (which, as a Brooklyn resident, was all. the. time.) was unmanageable. So I started seeing a therapist. It felt amazing to get my feelings on the table: the hopelessness, my new-found body image issues (I wasn’t used to my new, softer physique), and the frustration of feeling misunderstood—that I was dealing something bigger than a muscle tweak.
In addition to taming some of my anxiety and learning to roll with the punches when it came to my fitness routine, working with a therapist also inspired me to take a more active role in understanding my pain and the underlying cause.
In the next year, I switched doctors—twice—started seeing an acupuncturist, and re-upped on physical therapy.
This time with someone new (Sarah) who listened to me, understood me, and went out of her way to find creative solutions to my pain, that still, no doctor could find a root cause for. Sarah’s approach to my care, and simply just believing that my pain was real (despite the fact that it would come and go at random) made living with my health issue much easier. She also started working with my personal trainer, Tony, so they could work in tandem to keep me active and pain-free.
While this tag-team approach allowed me to be more active than I’d been in years, I still wanted to nip the issue in the bud. It had been nearly two years of living with the pain in my glute at this point and I just wanted to put it in my past.
So in January 2020, as a last-ditch effort to quiet my pain, my doctor recommended I get a steroid injection. When the day of the procedure rolled around, I was excited but also teeth-chatteringly nervous. If this didn’t work, then what?! Where would that leave me?
While it did take some time for the injection to fully kick in and start easing my discomfort, I was able to start rebuilding my fitness and strength a few weeks later. I hadn’t run consistently in years, and I hadn’t been able to exercise my glute muscles in at least six months.
In many respects, it was like pressing a big re-start button and building my body back from scratch. I was excited to be putting in the work and was starting to feel more confident in my body’s abilities as the weeks pressed on. Then, the pandemic hit….
In addition to being terrified about the state of our country and my loved one’s health, I also wondered how I’d continue my progress once gyms shut down. At that point, I saw Tony once a week to train and Sarah once a week for transitional therapy, a “hardcore” form of PT for those who want to rebuild their fitness and avoid future injuries after a setback. I wanted to keep up with this schedule, so I started training virtually with each of them.
Between March and November, I had only small, manageable bouts of pain on occasion, which meant I was able to keep up with a consistent training schedule and finally reintroduce exercises that I’d been too afraid to do for fear of re-injury. Chief among them: running.
I’d never been a major distance runner but for at least a decade of my life, I’d run three or four miles a few times a week. There’s nothing quite like a runner’s high and I was eager to chase that feeling again. So I worked with my physical therapist on a return to a running program. I started out alternating running with walking for just a minute each for a total of 10 or 15 minutes. Slowly, I worked my way up to being able to run for a full half-hour straight, a milestone I only recently hit this past fall.
After telling Sarah about my run progress, she made an offhand comment that I should sign up for a virtual race.
I initially laughed at this suggestion but something about it stuck with me and I found myself looking up events later that week. I chose the one that had the most creative name and had the best race shirt and asked my sister and parents if they wanted to “join” too so we could create a team. They were in!
The night before the Stuffed Turkey 5K, I was totally in my head, nervous I’d get hurt running the race or wake up in pain, unable to compete. But once Thanksgiving rolled around, I knew I was ready. I ran the race on a treadmill in my condo’s gym, and my husband came down just when he knew I’d be nearing the “finish line.” He had a sign to cheer me on and even brought our pup, Ella, who jumped and barked with excitement as I clocked my final time: 29 minutes flat. This was the fastest I’d run a 5K in years. Even though this was a full three minutes slower than my PR, I’ve never been more proud.
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