A Long Arduous Journey Back To Running

 

Elise VonHousen will go for her first run this weekend. It's been a long time since the last one. She’s worked incredibly hard over the past few months to get to this point in time, where she’s ready to take these first steps.

Why is it such a big deal, and what led her to this point in time? Grab a cup'a joe (or whatever your preference is) and follow along. I hope what I share today inspires!

So, whenever I talk to someone who inquires about the coaching work I do in my company, Pursuit Athletic Performance, I inevitably catch myself saying, "Hey, what I do…. it isn't curing cancer, that’s for sure. But, at the same time, helping people overcome what are often long-term chronic injuries, to come back to being able to do the things they so love to do - that can be incredibly powerful and life changing.”

Such is one more incredible story of resilience and hard work that defines Elise VonHousen's journey back to running.

Where did our story together begin?

Elise emailed me in April of 2017. She’d gotten my contact information from a close friend of hers – a triathlete who herself had been saddled with years of chronic injuries, and who had successfully overcome them to return to training and racing.

Elise’s email to me started off like so many others I have received over the years, saying “I am probably going to tell you too much right now, but I know information is important.  At the same time, I don’t want to waste your time, so I apologize if I ramble on.”

 

Reaching out - looking for answers. Hoping. Praying.

She was reaching out hoping beyond hope, that I might be able to help. She didn’t want to waste my time though. Hope, in her mind, had all but faded into the past.

She continued: “…I started running back in middle school.  Back then I was a band geek with very little self-confidence.  I went running with my sister one day and realized running was something I could do other than school.  It turned out I was pretty good at it (at least at the local level).  On a personal level, running got me through a lot of tough times growing up.  It was the one thing that was mine and no one could take away from me.  Unfortunately, my body has never liked running quite as much as the rest of me.  Starting in my freshman year of high school I have had multiple stress fractures anywhere from my feet to my femur.  I have had bouts with plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendonitis.”

She went on to describe a life-long history of injury: “Stress fractures began my freshman year in high school and I have lost count of how many I have had.  Some were self-diagnosed as I had enough experience to know what was going on.  Most of them have been in my right side with a couple on the left.  I have cracked just about everything from my foot to my femur.  In high school I ran a state championship on a stress fracture and ended up pulling my calf muscle at the same time.”

On she went, fighting through the injuries and continuing to dream of training for the races she loved to do. Training and racing with her friends was a big part of the joy she felt and took from the training process.

 

Forging ahead - setting goals. And hoping. 

Fast forward to 2017. She had a dream of qualifying for the 70.3 world championships in Chattanooga. Two weeks out from a qualifying race, she said she was out on a run and “felt a pop and sharp pain in my right foot.  I tried to jog it off like a twisted ankle but it wasn’t working so I walked until I could find a ride back to my car.  I didn’t know what I had done but I knew it wasn’t good.  I was hoping it was more of a bruise or soft tissue and pretty much stayed off of it until race day.  By then I was walking almost normally and told myself I could gut it out and run well enough to qualify.  Had solid swim on a rough day and the best bike of my life only to have it all fall apart on the run.  My foot wouldn’t have anything to do with running 13.1 miles so it turned into a walk/jog/limp fest just to get to the finish line.  In hindsight, I never should have started.  But I’m stubborn and had to try.”

She went on to describe what followed: “The fun began, doctor’s visits, x-rays, MRI’s, etc to find out what I had actually done.  After way too long, I find out that it was a stress fracture in the navicular bone.  (something I had also done back in college).  So, in the boot I stayed until Thanksgiving.  The one amazing thing after all of this time off was I could get out of bed in the morning and walk normally and climb stairs like a normal person for the first time in years.”

She finished her email to me with these words: “When I saw the Dr. for my stress fracture I was told that I may never run again and that If I did, I should be happy to run slowly and for shorter distances as I would be lucky to do that.  I didn’t like that answer and I still don’t.  I have thought a lot about getting a second opinion, but haven’t known where to turn.”

What ensued was a series of conversations that resulted in Elise doing a Virtual Gait Analysis with me. That approach (vs. us meeting face to face) was necessary because she lived in the northeast and I live in Florida.

Like so many before Elise, I knew in my heart that having a realistic chance of returning back to the sport she loved would be difficult.

  • Was she coachable?
  • Was she willing to work with someone who would hold her accountable?
  • Would she be willing to do the sometimes-tedious work that was required to restore balance in her body?
  • Was she patient and persistent enough?
  • Was being able to run without injuring herself important enough to her, for her to follow my guidance, no matter how long it took?

These were the questions I asked myself – questions I always ask whenever someone reaches out in this situation.

In my email reply back to her, I said “You've had a long and VERY challenging road as it relates to your running and past injuries. I can very much relate to how much you enjoy it and feel it’s a part of who you are. It sucks when you can't do it, and the thought, as you said, of never being able to do it, is just unacceptable - not a pleasant thought at all!

Whatever the issues are which are leading you to re-injure yourself - until they're uncovered, addressed, and changed for the better, nothing else really matters. The root causes must be learned.  And then changed, if possible, for the better.  That's the only path that might work.

The best case scenario? We spend a day or two together to work on these issues. The next best scenario? You do our Virtual Gait Analysis and we start on that path together.

There's no magic fixes, no easy quick answers. There's a process of learning what needs to be addressed and then going about doing the work to address that, be it stability, flexibility, mobility, or strength (and most likely some combination of those).

Those are my thoughts. If you're willing to try, then the chance and choice is up to you."

 

Moving forward with the "VGA." 

Elise moved forward with the virtual analysis in June. And afterward, got started on the training I had prescribed for her in my analysis report.

While I was hopeful she was ready to embark on the path I felt she needed to, I was also realistic. I knew it was going to be very difficult for her.  Sometimes, soldiering through the host of things which need to be addressed, “solo,” without someone there to guide you and work alongside you who knows what they are doing and how to help, can be just too much to overcome.

Yes, she had the tools such as the plethora of instructional videos on our website, that she needed to begin to make some changes and get started. But like so many before her, I knew that the best chance for her to be successful would come when she was willing to go all in and work with me 1 on 1. In that scenario, we’d work together as a team. She’d have me to be accountable to - to send regular video to - for form assessment - to program her training daily. Me to guide her every step of the way.

Nevertheless, she embarked on the process and the training.

Months went by.

Every so often I’d think of her and wonder how she was doing. Every so often I’d email and check in on her. In my mind, I truly wondered whether she would ever successfully overcome the injuries and get back to doing what she loved. Maybe it was just too much to overcome. I’d seen so many others like her, some successful and others who just disappeared from my radar.

Could she do it? Was she willing to do what was required? Only time would tell.

Fast forward to October of 2017 – on her friend Kristin’s encouragement, Elise signed up for my “Get Strong – Move Right” online group coaching program. Honestly, I was super excited to hear from her again and was hopeful this might be the program that could finally kick-start her progress.

Now, I don’t think I ever told Elise this, but in my heart, while I was hopeful…I also had some doubts. Why?

I felt that while she’d certainly benefit from the group coaching, I knew that the focus of that group training wasn’t what she ultimately most needed to be successful.  In other words, many of the movement issues Elise faced were mobility / flexibility related, and the primary focus of that group coaching was (and is) stability and strength.  In some respects, they are the same thing – very much inter-related. Yet, for some people (and Elise is one), imbalances needed to be addressed head-on to really get to the heart of why these injuries kept coming back.

 

The "journey", like so many things, is a process. Growth and change are hard.  

At this point in Elise's story, I should mention…she is a very shy person. Smart, goal-oriented, talented also. But shy. And very proud. While the group training might not have ultimately been THE thing she most needed to be successful, I knew it was also a big step forward for her. It was another step forward in accountability. She worked hard. I applauded her efforts and knew all of the time and effort would help her improve. What I wasn’t so sure of, was just how much, and if it’d be the thing that might help her get to where she wanted to be.

After the group coaching program ended, I didn’t hear from Elise. Months again went by.

That is, until Monday, March 26th, when I received an email reply from Elise, to an email I had sent to my subscribed list – an email that was titled, “The Journey Is The Destination.” (If you’d like to read that email, you can do so by going HERE).

In her email reply to me, Elise said:

“It has been a wild and crazy year since Kristin put me in touch with you and none of it has been what I expected. Last year I did a gait analysis with you and despite all of my desires to run, I heeded your advice and did not run for the summer and focused on the functional exercises you gave me (along with some swimming and biking) with a goal of starting to run again in the fall.  My daughter ran her first season of middle school cross country last year and it was so much fun to go to meets and cheer her on at a sport that I love dearly.  Unfortunately, just running from point to point on the race courses hurt my foot and I was quickly reminded that despite all of the work I did over the summer and almost a full year of rest, something still wasn’t right and my return to running wasn’t going to go as I had planned.  After some inquiries I got in touch with a doctor at Brigham and Williams hospital in Boston and went to see him to try to figure things out.  I had a second MRI and a CAT scan and he was able to determine that the bone did fully heal from the stress fracture but it has some abnormalities which may be the source of my continuing pain.”

 

Two things are important to acknowledge at this point – two things that are critical for her (or anyone else in this same situation) potential for a successful return back to running:

1.       Elise did go through the program I had laid out for her after her analysis, and had also done the group coaching program – but in neither instance had she become fully accountable for HOW she was performing the movements that were prescribed. In other words, my experience has taught me that the “devil is in the details.” Without the feedback she needed, she was probably not doing the things she needed to do in the way that she needed to do them.

2.       She determined on her own when to try running again, based almost entirely on her emotions and desire TO run. Without having a specific set of objective guidelines or training (movement) objectives that would tell her (or anyone else) that she was truly READY to start a return back to running.

In my reply to her, I said simply:

“Thank you for taking the time to write. Why don’t we set up a time to talk for a few minutes. I would love nothing more than to help you return back to running in a way that you can manage and sustain for the rest of your life, but I will need your help to do it. It’s really up to you. I believe I have the tools and the expertise to guide you and give you the best chance for success.

Please know that it’s my passion to help, but I won’t continue to reach out to you and I certainly won’t pester you. Life is too busy, too hectic and there are many things pulling me in different directions. So consider this my one sincere and heart felt message expressing my desire to help and my hope for you, for the future. If you’d like to talk about it, let me know and we’ll set up a time to chat. Either way, all the best to you!!”

We set up a time to talk.

And we decided to work together and give it our collective best efforts to help get her back to the thing she loves – running!

Elise and I started working together 1 on 1 in late April – around the 20th.

Today it’s July 13th.  Almost 3 months.  Twelve long, hard, fun, arduous....weeks of daily communication, video uploads, workouts, emails, and on and on.

This Sunday she’ll do her first “return to running” session – a very modest combination of walking and running for a total of about 12 minutes.

To say it’s been an incredible journey over these past 3 months would be an understatement. Along the way, she’s learned not only to shoot video of herself performing the movements I’ve prescribed (not easy for her, trust me!)…she’s ALSO learned how to talk with me during the videos! (After I begged her to share with me what she was feeling and thinking as she did the movements). 😊

She’s worked so hard.

Along the way, she’s involved her kids in the process – her daughter who is also an athlete, has been doing many of the movements together with her.

She’s ready to get back to it and to get started on the path of reintroducing her body to the loads inherent in running. It’s been so much fun and so rewarding for me to guide her to this point.

No, she’s not done with the supplemental work she needs to do. She understands this. Finally, she gets it. She also knows there are absolutely no guarantees. We’ll see how things progress and we'll take it one day at a time.

It's funny in a way: Elise and I have never met in person. Personally, I can’t wait to meet her. I will tell you one thing -when we meet we’ll share a big hug and perhaps a little cry, too.

I love the work I do.

No, it’s not curing cancer.

But helping people to grow and learn and thrive and see the greatness and the potential that resides inside is incredibly rewarding. 😊

To your success!

~Coach Al

Email Address * First Name

Comments

  1. Hi Al,
    It’s been a long time. My story started a year ago in early May. Out for my Saturday morning run, got a sharp pain in my left ankle (you remember how much I collapsed on that left foot) well my fibula finely broke and the whole ankle collapsed After being put in the boot for several months waiting for the fibula
    to heal so they could fuse by ankle and probably never run again. In August, by chance I talked to a young orthopedic foot surgeon at told my he MIGHT be able to have me back running with a radical new surgery he has been using on younger athletes. I went for it and he completely rebuilt my fibula with 9mm of bone graft and a metal plate, put some screws and wires in my ankle. The surgery was in September.
    Had to be completely non-weight Bering on my lift foot for 9 weeks, 50% weight Bering for another two months, easy walking on both feet after that, started running in February very slowly and only a mile at first. Had moderate pain, but manageable. As of today I have run 2 5k’s 1 6.5 mi run, 5mi run, 4 sprint distance duathlons , 1 Olympic distance Triathlon and 2 sprint distance Triathlons, with 5 first, 3 second , 1 third and 1 7th place finish.
    Not bad for someone that was told they would never run again. My problem is I am having trouble getting my run pace under 10:30. My races have all been between 10:30 and 11:00 min pace. Any suggestions?
    Thanks Jim Donaldson
    419-340-6611

    • HI Jim, I can’t possibly comment on your overall training progression without knowing more about what you are doing or not doing. If you want to work more closely together so I can actually help, then I’d be willing to discuss it.

      I’m sorry I can’t be more help right now.

      All the best,
      Al

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