Thursday, 29 March 2012

Into Oblivion and Back Again!

EVERY runner lives in fear of the day a man in a white coat studies your x-rays, scratches his head and tells you to quit. Now. Not next year or in two years, but right now.

It’s not happened to me yet, although I was told six years ago I should stick to grass and soft surfaces, and seriously consider cycling or swimming as alternative pursuits. The fellow who delivered that advice was, I verified via Google, a world authority on knees, so presumably knew what he was talking about.

Since then I’ve reduced my mileage, stayed off-road whenever possible, and rarely run more than 10 miles in one session. But the cycling, swimming, yoga, pilates and all the rest are still sitting patiently on the subs’ bench.

No, I haven’t exactly ignored medical advice, but merely added it into the mix to come up with my own formula in order to keep running.

Having said that, it’s strangely uplifting to hear about two of my running buddies who blatantly ignored the medics and have gone on to make unexpected comebacks since the beginning of 2012.

Both of them had major surgery to replace joints worn down by running and had to face up to a new life without running. Both had been bashing out the miles for decades, so this was a big ask. Both were told emphatically they must not submit their reconditioned bionic bodies to running again.

But, once a runner always a runner (as the old cliché goes), and both patients would eventually start slipping out quietly to try and put a few more miles on the clock, no doubt feeling much the better for it (psychologically at least). To their credit, neither have rushed things, proving  their decision to defy the doc was not done without careful consideration and forethought.

The two heroes of which I speak live on opposite sides of the globe. Both, rather heart-warmingly, sported big cheesy grins when they told me of their running renaissances, performed against the odds.

One is my Tiptree Road Runners clubmate Baz, who had hip replacement surgery, but has recently made a welcome reappearance at Tuesday night trainings sessions and even managed to complete the ‘Cub run’ at the annual Grizzly event in Devon earlier this month.  The other 'returnee' is a writer friend, Roger Robinson, who carries with him a brand new knee on his globe-trotting travels between homes in New Zealand and the USA.

I hope their hospital consultants aren’t reading this blog, although in Roger’s case his ‘secret’ is already out, via the pages of Running Times magazine. Anyway, such was his delight at being able to run again, Roger has granted me permission to tell his tale here on the ‘Clapped-Out Runner’ blogsite. Mr Robinson is not quite clapped-out, then. Not literally, anyway.

Roger has a long and celebrated history as an international runner, smashing a number of records in over-40 age groups. In 2006, the same year I was operated on and told to stick to grass, he had to face a much worse situation: the realisation that his worn knee cartilage had become so serious he would never run another step.

This is how he recalls that awful time: “I thought it was for ever. For 10 years I'd hobbled in more and more pain, tilting grotesquely along like Richard the Third on a bad day, not daring to see my shadow in the sun. Mostly I ran only up hills, where the impact was less, walking grumpily back down.” 

Eventually in January 2011, Roger had partial (unicompartmental) knee replacement surgery which he wrote about in his entertaining RT column (  His surgeon, although a strong advocate for exercise, ordered him not to run on the new knee - ever again.  Roger reluctantly accepted the verdict and settled for a life of occasional biking and walking. He is married to well-known marathoner Kathrine Switzer, so watching her leave the house for training must have been a tad dispiriting, to say the least.

Runners won't need telling how much you miss the sport when deprived of it. Says Roger: “No book or novel has ever adequately described that intense frustration and resentment, the sheer sense of lack. You feel your body has betrayed you. You long for that simple rhythmic movement. When I biked past favourite sports fields or trails from running days, it was like visiting a friend's grave. I pined for the textures of the earth beneath my feet. At big races that I was covering as a journalist, I felt like the old war horse who hears the bugle and whinnies to go for one last arthritic gallop.”

 Roger appreciated what a brilliant job his surgeon did with the new knee and obediently did what he was told regarding rehabilitation, etc.  But then, as the weeks of 2011 slowly passed, the instruction never to run again “was kind of forgotten.”

“As the wound healed, I carefully walked, with a cane at first, building up from laps of the deck at home to an hour on trails and open hill country,” he says. “Equally carefully I resumed biking. By the end of March 2011 I was up to full steam on the bike. In April, I was walking an hour or so in Mohonk Preserve near our Hudson Valley home. One day, on impulse, I tried jogging for 10 paces. Nothing broke. Nothing hurt.”

In Boston to watch the historic annual marathon, Roger quietly tried a mini-session of 5 x 50 paces, only to be caught in the act by the great Bill Rodgers, a famous marathon running friend who happened to be passing. The pair laughed as Roger insisted ‘Boston Billy’ must not tell anyone what he’d seen – especially wife Kathrine!  But their conspiratorial smiles disappeared when Bill passed on the grim news that marathon legend Grete Waitz had just died.

Who knows, perhaps this sad news became a factor in his thinking, for after that day in Boston Roger slowly built up his running, not recklessly, but with the zeal of a man determined to put more mileage on the clock before he reaches his own finish line.

Visiting Berlin to see that city’s marathon six months ago, he ran 30 continuous minutes for the first time since surgery.  Running every fourth day, he began to add one minute to each run. By the end of 2011 he’d passed the 50-minute barrier. At one point a hamstring began playing up, something that annoyed him greatly as it felt unfair to pick up an injury while running so slowly.

Meanwhile, his mental fitness was boosted when a sports medicine expert from Canada reassured him that any advice not to run on a knee implant was really based on caution rather than known fact. Run carefully on soft surfaces and avoid downhills, said the specialist, who, significantly, was a runner himself.

It was welcome advice, but perhaps the best soundbite of all came from Roger’s son, who told him: “Lifestyle is all that matters, dad. Do what you love.”  Meanwhile, wife Kathrine had been worried at her husband’s possible recklessness, but was won over when noticing the cute little smile adorning his face when returning from his little runs.

Roger’s programme of one jog every four days, adding a minute to the total each time, meant he was due to run the complete hour in January 2012. It came exactly a year after his surgery and represented a very big day. It was to take place quietly near his home in the New Zealand city of Wellington. It would be slow, nobody would pay much attention, but it would be his longest and most significant run in at least 10 years.  I can report that, complete with false knee and genuine smile, the man did it.

He told me afterwards: “I suspect I should now cut my runs down a bit from the hour, as there is some soreness. But it was a great target, to do that on the anniversary of the surgery. But now I'm in Wellington again, I'm terrified the surgeon will see me out running! I haven't felt like this since playing hookey from school in Wimbledon, when I would sneak out to watch the tennis!” 

FURTHER READING: Check out Rob Hadgraft's books, at


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