nine months from severely broken arm and painful rehab to successful NYC half marathon run

Big Summer Plans: 2017

About two hours post-break, the on-call orthopedic surgeon is about to reduce my fracture!

Two hours post-break, still in running clothes, the on-call orthopedic surgeon about to reduce my fracture

The summer of 2017 was full: family time (a trip to Pennsylvania to take care of our grandson for a few days while his mother was in China/ Vietnam and his father in Armenia/ Georgia; 10 days in Boulder/Aspen with our son, Alex (to train for an August trail run in Aspen, work on his Monstrous Me book, and prepare to launch his Kickstarter campaign) ; a four-day visit with my sister, Janet, her son, and grandson at our house; and an end-of-summer two-day visit with my youngest sibling, Robert); a two-week trip exploring Kenya (including a half marathon trail race in the Massai region of the Rift Valley to benefit secondary education for Kenyan girls); hiking several Colorado 14ers; and immersing myself in my new role as President of the Board of Voices for Children CASA, Boulder County. Intentions quickly became regrets when I broke my arm, badly, in early July in Pennsylvania. Summer plans quickly morphed into surgery, a heavy blue cast on my right arm, cancelled trips, and becoming (temporarily) left-handed. The journey continues.

The Fall

We arrived in State College on Saturday evening, July 1. My daughter-in-law was to fly to Chicago to meet her tour group (she was academic guide for a group of high school history teachers traveling to China and Vietnam) the next morning. We woke early on Sunday so she could have a few hours with her two-year-old son before being gone for three weeks. I walked Laska, their dog, in the nearby fields where he chased a squirrel, smelled lots of grass and bushes, and got in his morning exercise before hanging out in the cool basement for the rest of the day. I trotted a bit with him, not realizing I wouldn’t be running for quite some time after that morning.

After the dog and I returned, my husband, Doug, and I decided to go for a short run before driving Kate to the airport. I walked down the steep stairs to the basement to get my running watch and in less than a blink of my eyes, I was on the slippery concrete floor landing. No warning, no sensation of falling, no feeling of impact. But instantly I knew something was terribly wrong. I glanced at my right arm, which caught the brunt of my fall. It was bent and twisted in an unnatural shape, ugly, unreal (later the doctor told me the radius broke and pushed through toward the top of my hand). I don’t remember any pain, only crying out “Oh, no! Oh, no!” Thoughts of needing to get to the hospital, Kate’s intended departure in less than an hour, and our departure for Kenya scheduled for the next week, screamed through my mind. Kate yelled to Doug while she held her son so he couldn’t see his Gaga PB in pain. We covered my right arm and hand in a big towel, more to hide the weird shape than to shield me from pain.

We quickly drove to the hospital, only a mile away. The triage nurse asked whether my arm was deformed (an indicator of a bad break). I could barely mouth the words, “Yes,” the remembrance of that brief look at my arm enough to make me sick to my stomach.  After triage, x-rays (the first of many), and a call to the on-call orthopedic surgeon, we waited. Finally, after what seems like too many hours, the doctor arrived, looked at the x-rays and confirmed our suspicions: a bad break that needed to be “reduced.” He put my fingers in tight holders (think “Chinese fingers” from games as a child) and hung a weight to help straighten my arm, administered nerve block from elbow to fingers, and reduced the fracture, i.e., he re-aligned the bone—in other words, he twisted it back into some semblance of straight! My stomach cringed at the loud cracking sound.

The doctor advised that I’d probably need surgery and a metal plate with screws to stabilize everything in place while healing occurred. He offered to perform it in State College but said there wasn’t a rush. We decided to wait until returning home to Boulder, given the required follow-up treatment. We also reasoned that with all the elite, professional and recreational runners, bikers, hikers, triathletes, etc., orthopedic surgeons in our home town would have seen most every kind of sports injury. Unfortunately, the hand surgeon to whom I was referred wasn’t available until a week and a half post-break, so time spent in the first above-elbow cast didn’t count toward estimated recovery time of six weeks hard cast, then soft cast or removable brace, and physical therapy. My heart sunk: a lost summer.

Doug made arrangements for us to return home mid-week, four days sooner than we’d planned; Kate was able to delay her flight to China for a day; and Christopher returned a day early on the Fourth of July from the Middle East. That left us with only one day, instead of three, as the grandparents solely in charge of our two-year-old grandson. I was SO disappointed: I wasn’t able to lift him, change his diapers, help with meals, hug him, or chase after him on his Strider. We did color (well, I turned the pages of his coloring book while agreeing on which crayons he should use) on the summer porch, while he brought out most all of his trucks and cars to share with me. Doug had lots of practice being the grandfather, handling bath time, reading at bed time, and changing messy diapers!

Back home and Initial orthopedist visit

We saw the hand specialist orthopedic surgeon on July 6, five-days post-break. After additional x-rays, he confirmed a right arm radius fracture with bone fragments and possible protrusion of bone. Treatment would be open reduction surgery and insertion of a stainless-steel plate along the radius, likely with general anesthesia, scheduled for July 12, the day we were to leave for Kenya. We can do that itinerary or some variation of it another time, but unpacking before we even left was so sad and disappointing.

Doug had finished his last job (based in Arizona), so was home full-time to help me with simple things like filling out forms, doing the laundry, buttoning blouses, unscrewing bottle lids, opening packages, parking the car in tight spaces, even hooking my bra! For someone who is very independent and active, I am sure there will be lessons to learn during the next few months.

One-week post-surgery

A fairly large metal plate with seven screws is becoming part of my right arm. The break shattered arm bone near the wrist but fortunately the wrist joint wasn’t damaged; the doctor anticipates good mobility post-recovery. I have another week before stitches are removed at which time I hope we learn about recovery time and rehab (PLEASE, when can I start running and swimming?). I wasn’t able to tolerate the heavy-duty pain medications post-surgery (seriously how could one get addicted to stuff that makes you so nauseous and dehydrated with constant vomiting?), so relied on Tylenol and willpower (along with ice and an elevated arm), and some tears to get through this first week. I turned the first of many corners about day seven post-surgery; the swelling and bruising are lessening and throbbing is dissipating.

The beginning of Alex's almost three-week visit: wearing shoes he painted and while smiling, sad that I can't yet play the piano, do much hiking, or any cooking for our guests.The beginning of Alex’s almost three-week visit: wearing shoes he painted and while smiling, sad that I can’t yet play the piano, do much hiking, or any cooking for our guests.

I do not like being inactive. I do not like being dependent. A physician acquaintance told me that “recovery is a respectful endeavor.” I am trying to embrace this concept. Hard to do!

Being One-Handed: Things I cannot do with only one hand (and the non-dominant one at that): open jars or bottles or anything in sealed bags; wrap my cast in plastic bag before shower (although I can shower and wash my hair, but drying my back is awkward); cut/chop vegetables (actually any food); button or zip clothes (thank goodness for running shirts and shorts); tie/untie shoelaces (Doug tied one pair, for my still too-short walks, loosely so basically slip-ons); cut fingernails; plug-in electronic device chargers; fold clothes or blankets or towels; ride my indoor bike (cannot get on by myself and cast gets too hot); hold book open (new Kindle reader mysteriously showed up two days ago, that can be held in, and “pages” swiped by, one hand); take notes while talking on the phone; sign credit card receipts and checks (my signature during the best of times is almost illegible, but left-handed, even worse); cook; sleep comfortably (this is a function of cast more than one working and one non-working arm); you get the picture!

Two weeks’ post-surgery: Seeing my right forearm for the first time in three and a half weeks was slightly stomach churning. The arm is skinny, already losing muscle, but still swollen without definition. Stitches removed, x-rays taken, and a new blue cast was plastered onto my body (although it’s no longer plaster but some type of high-tech tape). The doctor was pleased with progress and says I can hike (although likely not steep trails) but no running or swimming or biking. I’m to wear this cast for three weeks and then return for another set of x-rays to determine how healing is progressing.

I am trying to be patient, to ask for help, and to allow my body heal at its natural pace. Still, some days I am teary for no particular reason. Recovery is indeed a respectful endeavor, challenging me daily. I am becoming so appreciative  of those who manage this process well.Boulder to Aspen: Alex and Doug ran a grueling trail half marathon. I walked with them to the start at a park in Aspen and met them at the finish line. 

August 3, 2017

I can now tie my own shoes and wriggle my fingers, although piano lessons are on hold (my teacher, Rose Lachman, assures me that she could work with me on some left-handed pieces—maybe when this cast is off). Alex is here, fondly calling these almost two weeks “Camp Boulder.” His goals are three-fold: to train here for the Aspen Backcountry trail half marathon in Aspen on August 12 (he lives in Los Angeles so has been running at sea level. Although our elevation is still some 2,500’ below Aspen he should still get some good workouts). He’s also working on Monstrous Me, an illustrated book about the monsters within us. He and his illustrator are collaborating well on the monsters, he’s had several rounds of edits, and now he’s working on final touches. He is also preparing to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for printing the first 250 copies (so far, he’s funded the art work himself).

August 25, 2017

This week featured three “As” as part of my return-to-running with arm still in a brace program: acupuncture, aqua jogging, and Anti-Gravity (Alt-G) treadmill. I need to limit the jarring while the arm heals, rebuild muscle in the right arm, and re-ignite my legs (which haven’t been running for almost seven weeks). A slow process but each of the “As” had its place: the acupuncturist helped reduce swelling in my arm and gave me supplements to encourage bone healing; being in the swimming pool to aqua jog allowed me to both get some supported arm movement while also helping reduce swelling with the cool water, and running on the Alt-G gave me the opportunity to put a little speed on my legs while keeping some of the weight off of them. Lots more to do but glad I found these tools.

September 2, 2017

Walks and runs (I hesitate to call my shuffling running) are shorter these days than I’d like but the scenery does not disappoint (I probably see more going slower anyway). End of summer thistles, the always awe-inspiring Flatirons and still warm temperatures remind me of how vital nature is to my soul. Next week the doctor will take another x-ray to see how the arm bone is healing. I’m anxious to start rehabilitation as arm is so stiff, bruised and swollen. I do at least recognize it as part of my body, which is an improvement from a few weeks ago, but it is still pretty useless.

September 4, 2017

Today I was fearless: I ran the Fort Collins, Colorado “Fortitude 10k” in the early morning smoky air with bright orange ball of sun to the east. My right arm is still in removable brace (9 weeks now being in a cast, 7 1/2 weeks post-surgery where stainless steel metal brace was inserted along my inner right radius). I only started running again two weeks ago (a few Alt-G treadmill sessions, aqua jogging, and some VERY SLOW and SHORT trail runs). I truly anticipated walking most of the course, enjoying the neighborhoods, and seeing the new CSU football stadium. I told my husband I really had no idea of how long it would take me…I carried a phone for the first time during a run so we could find each other. I started slowly, still so concerned about my arm and worried that my legs, that haven’t run even five miles consecutively in over two months, would do all sorts of funny things. Well, I did run slowly but the whole way except for one stop to catch a deep breath (Fort Collins is about 5,000′) and two water stops (the smoky air). I surprisingly finished 2/32 in my age year (they award 15 places deep by individual year ,not five-year segments, which is fun)! My overall time was the slowest 10k I’ve ever run, my pace was slower than recent half marathons, but mentally this run was such a winner for me, to realize that I might get back to running “for real,” once rehabilitation on my arm helps with mobility, strength, and flexibility, my legs get more mileage under them, and I’m able to resume core/strength exercises! The race photos, though, show too clearly how my triceps and biceps in right arm have atrophied, the skin seems to be flying loose, no anchor to arm or bone. Ugh!

September 7, 2018: Back to Scene of the Accident

It seems appropriate that this update report is posted from Pennsylvania, nine and a half weeks after I broke my arm here while visiting my son and his family. On Tuesday I had my sixth set of x-rays (12 altogether!). The doctor seemed pleased with healing progress and said I only need to use the brace where I might be jostled (or might be more likely to fall, which I interpreted as returning to running and more vigorous hiking), and to start “aggressive” physical therapy. The lower arm and wrist are very stiff, especially any rotational (supination and pronation) movement and wrist flexibility. It’s unlikely I’ll return to 100% normalcy (e.g., maybe no push-ups, which I’ve never been able to do even with functioning wrists), but with working diligently with a hand physical therapy specialist, I hope to get most of my arm function back.

Today I was able to color with my grandson, play with trucks, read and cuddle, join in his original songs, and walk with him to school. We’re planning some hikes this weekend, maybe ice cream at the Penn State dairy after school, and the myriad things that not quite 2 1/2 year old energetic boys do. Gaga PB isn’t as good as new yet, but my heart is full of joy as I resume our July time together that was cut short by my accident and recovery.

Thanksgiving Broomfield 10k Turkey Day Run

More people run on Thanksgiving Day in the US than any other day during the year. Our family has a long, although somewhat spotted tradition, of running together to raise awareness and food for those in need. Yesterday we ran the Broomfield (CO) Turkey Day 10k: Christopher pushed our grandson in the jogging stroller, and came in 14th! They had such a good time weaving in and out of the runners and walkers with fantastic views on two loops of the Colorado Front Range and Rockies (the “white mountains behind the green mountains” as our grandson calls them).Although billed as a fun run, with upset stomach the night before and only three hours sleep, and accidentally leaving my running watch at home, I decided NOT to race (my other experiences here with pushing the pace clearly showed the impact of altitude on breathing and leg power, even though many say 5400′ doesn’t really affect us). I started mid-pack, pushing and tripping over five-abreast walkers and dog leashes, opening up a little, breathing decently, wondering what my time would be (remember, trying to run by feel) as there were no time markers and only one mile marker on the two-loop course. I felt decent despite my handicaps until the last 1 1/2 mile and then, unusual for me, I stopped and walked three times (but only a 100′ feet or so each time, trying to push the mental game), until the last 3/4 mile when two other women and I helped each other, sort of leap frogging one another, and then seeing the finish line in the near distance where I found some reservoir strength to surge (but no Shalane “F**K yes”) and surprise, beat my other Colorado 10k times and, while still slower than sea level 10k’s, I felt good.

Boulder Creek Trail in late fall/early winter. A familiar running trail once I started my slow recovery.

Boulder Creek Trail in late fall/early winter. A familiar running trail.

January 2018: Prognosis

In September, I started physical therapy twice/week. At that point, I could not bend my wrist at all, my fingers were very swollen, and the upper right arm looked half the diameter of my left arm. The good news: my left hand and arm had to become more mobile and usable! My piano teacher was excited (I mean, if I had to break an arm, better the dominant right hand as we could work on left-hand only music). In December my physical therapist, while pleased with rotation of wrist and flexion (bending wrist down toward floor), said extension ability (bending wrist up toward sky) was only about 70% normal. Any further progress would be slow so we completed the sessions and I’ve continued exercises on my own. Fortunately my Gyrotonic BODHI instructors (thank you so much Lindsay Thompson and Paula Elaine Kirkland) have continued massaging my wrist/arm to help loosen it while focusing on arm strength/flexibility as well as expanding chest and shoulder muscles to help with shoulder rotation.Gyrotonics sessions were/are a life saver, helping loosen shoulder, flex arm, any type of movement!Gyrotonics sessions were/are a life saver, helping loosen shoulder, flex arm, any type of movement!

I visited my orthopedic surgeon yesterday to see where things stand as I’ve been frustrated with progress. New x-rays confirm bone healing is good and metal plate/screws look solid. He didn’t think removing plate would speed progress or outcome (yikes, thank goodness). As for prognosis, I MIGHT get to 80% normal for wrist extension (meaning things like push-ups where one’s hands are flat on ground and arms straight are not likely to happen–I couldn’t do them before arm break anyway!) by twelve months’ post-surgery. My shoulder rotation should slowly improve with on-going exercises (perhaps I’ll be able to bend elbow and place hand behind my back or put on shirt without squiggling and turning in awkward fashion).

It’s amazing how something as minor as a broken bone can change our daily lives. I am fortunate that this is not a long-term chronic condition (although perhaps long-term inability to do some heavy lifting or more fluid movements), but oh, I kick myself for not being a little more careful on those stairs that I’d climbed so many times without incident. My take-away: keep moving, always, as much as you can, until you can’t. My father’s words echo in my mind, from summers playing tennis during my college years: “Move, move, stay light on your feet!” We are creatures for whom physical activity is vital to our health and without it we atrophy in so many ways (end of preaching). Stay safe!

March 18, 2018: NYC Half Marathon

On Sunday I ran the United NYC Half Marathon, my first 13.1 miler since I broke my arm last summer. The course is new, starting at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, crossing the East River on the Manhattan Bridge, looping around lower Manhattan (Canal to Houston to FDR drive), then west on 42nd Street to Times Square, north on Seventh Avenue to Central Park, up the Park’s east side with its rolling hills (yes!), then across the park at 102nd Street, and south to the finish at 75th and Central Park West. The “old” course circled the park before heading south through Times Square and along the Westside Highway—runners raved about the fast downhill to the bottom of the island. I wanted that course!

The new course gave us the opportunity to run in two boroughs, BUT for me, it was more difficult than I’d anticipated, having hills over the bridge, on FDR ramp, up Seventh Avenue and through the park. You may say, but you must run hills all the time in Colorado. I do, but somehow, during races they are not as much fun.

The weather was sunny and clear, with bright morning light reflecting off the East River, the play of shadows from the skyscrapers, the brilliant clarity in the park, all perfect. But the temperatures and wind were almost unbearable. My iPhone weather app said it “feels like 19 degrees”, we encountered at least 10 mph headwinds most of the way with gusts up to 15-20 mph at times (and in the canyons of the city, it was cold). My feet didn’t unthaw until about mile five, my toes barely feeling the road for a good distance. I rarely buy race logo gear but needed a windbreaker, hence the yellow jacket you see in the picture. I was so anxious about the weather, even thinking hand and feet warmers would be a good idea (maybe a little uncomfortable for running). I’d vowed to race no matter what, since last year we did bail due to ice/snow, low temperatures and high wind. It was now or never.

Because this was my first significant race in over a year–having missed the Kenya half marathon because of the broken arm, I ran conservatively. I didn’t race and decided from the start that my goal time wasn’t going to be in the cards. I wasn’t certain my training would fully support an all-out effort and I wanted to finish even if that meant a slower time (my PR) than last year’s Phoenix Pride Half Marathon in late March 2017. Although truth-be-told, I am so competitive with myself I really wanted to run as well as last year, but that wasn’t to be.

Early Sunday morning, we left our hotel at 5:15 a.m. near the Museum of Natural History and took the A and Q trains to Prospect Park in Brooklyn. I was easily reminded of commuting to work on the subways during the late 1980s from our Upper East Side high rise apartment to Wall Street where every inch of our bodies was squeezed against other travelers. Yesterday morning, though, we were warm and most everyone was going to the run so there was built in camaraderie.

The crowd gathering at the lower end of Prospect Park (ultimately more than 22,000 runners) was positive and friendly as we waited while early morning dark turned to dawn. The singing of “America the Beautiful” and the national anthem tugged my heart. Then the wheelchair racers, the elite women, and Corral A (the elite men and other very fast runners) of Wave 1 were off. My corral started about 12 minutes after the official beginning of the race. I felt comfortable at my chosen (sort of) pace. I didn’t focus on scenery until we started the climb over the East River when I remembered to check the river view; I then turned my eyes to the West, to the seaport and the financial district where I had worked during the early years of our marriage. Soon we runners were in Manhattan, the steady beat of thousands of feet on pavement, being careful not to trip in potholes when the rising sun glared too brightly in our eyes, almost blinding us. Again another first for foot traffic, being able to run on FDR drive as it curves slightly east from its northern path, cars on the south bound lines wheezing by in the early morning.One World Trade Center: iconic NYC site.

One World Trade Center: iconic NYC site.

I was very focused, feeling good but never quite warming up, until we entered Central Park. Sometimes during longer runs my mind wanders and I struggle with continuing, convincing myself that there are only three miles left, then two, then hey, it’s all downhill to the finish (which it wasn’t). I didn’t have that urge on Sunday but somehow lost track of the last four miles, thinking I was closer to the finish than I was. My hamstrings started biting and the wind picked up, especially near the backside of the Metropolitan Museum as we climbed the hill near the Reservoir.

I’d dreamed of doing a final “kick” the last mile or two, thinking if I was off-pace I’d be able to make up for it. Magical thinking! I remained steady, up and down the hills (although the photos show me struggling during the last several hills), but clearly had no big push in me to make up for lost time. By then, the 800 meter and then 400-meter signs to the finish came into view. I was relieved and excited! I’d done it. In hindsight, I think about how I might have planned differently, trained harder, focused more on nutrition, but in the end, I’d finished with almost a smile on my face!

The statistics are interesting: my time was seven minutes off last year’s half marathon time (maybe the course, maybe the weather, maybe my training, but I noted that the elites’ times were slower than the old course by about five minutes, so I’m giving myself the benefit of the doubt); I placed 4th out of 56 women in my age group (my unspoken goal of placing in top five met, although I really had hoped for top three!), and in the top 20% of all women in the event. NYRR includes more statistics, including an “age-graded” calculation, i.e., based on your results, what you would have run in your “prime” (in my case, 1:20, so maybe I’d had a shot at being a decent runner if I hadn’t been an attorney, and I might have realized I was athletic and not just one of the nerdy kids when I was young). It’s only a number but it gives me food for thought as I recover and think about what I might be able to do in the future.The finish line for NYC Half Marathon, March 18, 2018.The finish line for NYC Half Marathon, March 18, 2018. Yes, that’s football player Tiki Barber to my right!

The lessons learned: I probably needed more speed work and longer practice runs before race day. Pick a race where the weather might be a bit warmer. Most of all, enjoy the event, meet new people, and be challenged in mind and body. Doug said he was proud of me, for all my self-doubt and anxiety, so I’ll take that as a complement! Some good rest and recovery, time next week with our grandson, and then maybe spring!

April 19, 2018: Running AgainSpring: A time to renew, appreciate what I can do, still strive for those elusive goals.Spring: A time to renew, appreciate what I can do, still strive for those elusive goals.

As I watch an incredible elite field of women run this year’s Boston Marathon amidst heavy rain and 25+ miles per hour winds, having planned to be a spectator (my husband was to run Boston Marathon followed by Big Sur Marathon two weeks later but an injury and broken toe has put him on the sidelines for now), hoping to meet some Facebook/Salty Running friends before the start, I think once again about this sport of running and why it is still so important to me.

I’ve been running on and off for over forty years, sometimes seriously, other times to connect with friends, still many times to give to myself, alone, fighting to recover from serious hamstring and related injuries. I probably do not ever run without some aches or pains, whether residual or current. Running in Boulder has been more difficult, the altitude certainly takes its toll on breathing and faster pacing (trying not to think about my faster times only two years ago in California probably isn’t useful), the ice and cold in winter affect my desire and ability to run outside (yes, I have a trusty treadmill, which is fine for shorter runs, especially speed work or Fartleks, but it mostly feels like work), and fitting running in with other obligations. My night-times are not as restful in Boulder with low oxygenation saturation that likely affects my athletic performance during the day. But excuses aside, to be able to run on the trails and paths and to catch glimpses or full-on views of the Flatirons in their sun-lit glory, with patches of snow, or partly covered with low clouds, cannot be replicated anywhere else I’ve run. So I run, still, to soak up nature, to keep moving, to remember my family and friends, to revel in the priceless beauty of this place we currently call home. I hope I never to have to stop.

Leave a Comment