By week 15 of training for the 2019 Bank of America Chicago Marathon, I had run hundreds of miles, reshaped my body, reinvigorated my mind and bettered my snacking and hydration habits. I had reintroduced myself to a sport with which I had once been in love. And then I broke my leg. Sort of.
I had never run a marathon before. I was a talented distance runner back when I ran on my high school’s cross-country team, but I hung up my running shoes shortly after starting college.
My training began merely as curiosity. What was it like to run a marathon? Could I do it?
As I considered these things, it became clear that I would sign up for the race. I’d prove to myself that I could run a marathon, plus raise money for Gilda’s Club Chicago by running as part of Team Gilda. I turned 40 this year, and I wanted to show myself that entering a new decade didn’t automatically make me old and weak. I didn’t feel old and weak, so yeah, I could do this.
And I almost did.
But apparently, I went at it too hard, too fast. And my femur — the human body’s largest bone — took the brunt of the impact through running those hundreds of miles over three months.
Three weeks prior to Race Day was the big 20-mile run. Marathoners say that this run determines how you’ll fare in the actual marathon. I finished the run — farther than I’d ever run in a single stretch — feeling a little less invigorated than I would have liked. My ligaments felt tight, my limbs heavy. After stretching, resting and rehydrating, I got up to ride my bike home, looking forward to an ice bath and nap.
But my right leg hurt. A different kind of hurt than I was used to after long runs. Throughout the rest of the weekend, my leg pain worsened, and I could barely apply any weight to my leg. Marathoners say rest is as important as the workout, so I rested.
By Wednesday with the pain raging, I sought out my physical therapist, Rachel Gage, DPT, at Athletico in Bucktown. Screening tests revealed nothing, as did the X-ray. But based on symptoms, we presumed a feared fate: a stress fracture.
With only two weeks before the marathon, I was panicking. Brad Pennington, a physician’s assistant at Northwestern Medicine, sent me for an MRI. And there it was, in my femur: a focal stress response — the precursor to a stress fracture.
I’d need six weeks of rest, without putting weight on my leg. If I was intent on doing it, Pennington said, I could run the marathon, but I’d likely end up with a full fracture.
Had the pain not been so excruciating, I might have taken that risk.
Instead, I hobbled around on a cane and fell into mourning. Not being able to complete the marathon felt like being dumped by a live-in girlfriend for whom you had just bought an engagement ring. I was heartbroken.
Race Day came and went. I did my best to avoid it. I checked in with my marathon friends the next day, proud of them but also acutely aware of my place in the process. With a fractured heart and leg, I turned my focus to healing.
My pain wasn’t telling me that I was wrong to run a marathon, it was telling me that I should have eased into it.
Through every heartbreak I’ve had, I’ve healed and come out smarter and stronger. If my femur is anything like my heart, I’ll come out from this fracture the same way.
Ten weeks of physical therapy. That’s what Pennington recommends. I need to rebuild — and build more — muscle. I need to further prepare my body for being a distance runner again. Being 40 doesn’t make me weak, but it does mean I don’t have the invulnerability I felt as a teenager. And as I near 41, I’ll keep that in mind as I prepare to take on another marathon.
I owe myself that finish line now more than ever before.