Not all training runs go to plan. This is something I’ve learned and accepted over the last 17 years of running. Some days everything clicks. Running feels natural, my legs feel light and springy as they glide over trails and rocks, or they rhythmically pound the roads. My breathing is calm and my mind is focused yet drifting beautifully to places on my ‘dream run destination’ hit list or conjuring up those finish lines. I’m not the only one who day dreams these things whilst running, am I?
I was having one of those runs on 29th May of this year. Everything, including the UK weather, was playing ball. So what went wrong? I was involved in a nasty collision with a motorbike mid long run and ended up in ICU with multiple major trauma injuries: a skull fracture which damaged my auditory nerve (this has left a degree of deafness in my right ear), 12 ribs fractured in multiple places, a punctured lung/haemopneumothorax, a fractured clavicle, a laceration to my liver, and several hip and pelvis fractures. So yes, this particular run was a disaster!
It was a Friday morning at the very end of May. I got the crazies sorted (I’m a mum to three beautiful little ladies; a sassy 8-year-old and twin 5-year olds): bikinis on, sun cream spritzed, an ice lolly in their hands and the paddling pool filled. I am lucky to live within the same farm grounds as my parents (an absolute blessing during lockdown) so I asked my mum to watch them outside in the garden whilst I ran. With all things COVID in recent months, I had spent lockdown cramming in treadmill runs before and after the home-schooling carnage each day, but I thought: it is my birthday-eve, it is half term, get out there and make the absolute most of the gorgeous, sunny weather: 24 °C in Durham. Wow! So I decided to enjoy the weather and do my birthday long run a day in advance: 36 years old on 30th May = 36 km to run!
As I trotted along the disused railway lines, I stopped at 12 km to admire the view and reapply my Squirrel’s Nut Butter (literally always, always carry it in my pack to stop any chafe!) and of course, to snap a photo: stunning blue skies, beautifully warm sun and the greenest, freshest looking fields! Heaven! At 17.2 km I reached a road crossing on a hill, one I’ve crossed many times before. I stopped to decide whether to cross and continue running on the path to make it 18 km/exactly half way or whether to just go to the shop, grab a coke and some sweets, head home and make up the distance by running up and down outside my house.
Unfortunately, that day I made the wrong decision and decided to continue. I looked left up the hill and then right, saw it was clear and started to run across the road. I’d taken 2-3 steps and literally just before reaching the middle of the road, a motorbike appeared from what seemed like no where. It was too late. I was hit.
Even now, 2 months on, I remember the events that unfolded with stark clarity. I have vivid memories of the actual collision. To me, time went into slow-mo mode and it was as if I watched the incident unfold in front of me from an outsider’s perspective. The sound of the motorcycle, my thoughts just prior to being hit: ‘It’s going to hit me. This is going to hurt. I’m never going to run again’ and the impact of the motorcycle on my right side. I remember watching my legs swoosh out from under me to the left, while feeling my upper body bend to the right. Then the feeling of being airborne and weightless before the thud of landing on the other side of the road, my head ending up pointing down the hill and my feet up it, towards the blazing sun. I have always loved the sun. And in the briefest of moments, lying there, I did not feel anything except the sun on my body and the heat of the tarmac under me warming my skin. I could have been on a deserted island, basking in the sun. But then suddenly I became aware of a man crouching next to me with his head near mine. He clasped my right hand which was awkwardly wedged under my body as I had landed entirely on my right side. The man was asking me questions. What was my name? Could I hear him? Where did it hurt? It was those questions that brought me back to reality. I left that deserted beach and was brought well and truly into the present. And then came the colossal wave of excruciating agony. That man, who I now see as my guardian angel, took some grief from me in the next 10-20 minutes before the ambulance crew took over. I remember telling him that I knew his game. I knew he was trying to keep me conscious and lucid. But all I wanted to do was sleep, to shut my eyes and block out the searing pain. But he was insistent on keeping me alert, despite my protests to let me have a snooze. He also ignored my pleas to be moved off my right side onto my back. It felt like my skull was literally stuck into the tarmac and the pain radiating down my right side from the top of my head to the tips of my toes seemed unbearable. I later learned he is a trained first aider. So thankfully he knew not to move me, as I had actually displaced a couple of the vertebrae in my neck and movement could well have caused horrific and lasting damage. I feel truly blessed and forever grateful to him and the other people who helped at the scene. Like I said, my guardian angels.
The ambulance arrived on the scene and after what felt like a lifetime, I was taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Newcastle, sirens blaring. From there on in, I was in the exceptionally capable hands of the medical staff at the hospital and a painful blur of scans and tests followed in the A & E department. I spent 3 days in the ICU, underwent an 7 hour operation in which some pretty epic metal work was placed in my hip, pelvis and clavicle and was then moved to the major trauma ward for the rest of my stay, where I had fairly intensive rehab to get me back walking and functioning. Obviously, COVID times meant absolutely no visitors were allowed and I can say that FaceTime and WhatsApp were saviours!!!!!
I was discharged just before the 2 week mark, and the rate of recovery has been phenomenal. Yes, it has been painful, excruciatingly so at times, and it has been challenging not only physically, but mentally. To go from peak fitness (regular 80-90 miles/week running plus s&c gym sessions) to feeling physically broken and incapable is always tough on the mind, especially when being fit and active is what makes you tick and keeps you sane. However, it has been truly humbling and given me a renewed appreciation of life. A cliché, maybe, but so very true.
Also, I am in complete awe of two things: Firstly, the ability of the human body to repair and rebuild and secondly, I have been repeatedly overwhelmed by the love, kindness, support and care that family, friends, medical staff, the IG community and strangers have shown me. It has been truly incredible and has been a driving force behind my commitment and motivation to keep up with rehab and positive thinking! I could not be any more grateful to everyone who has taken the time to help, wish me well and show me support.
I’m 10.5 weeks into recovery now. In one moment, it feels like time has passed in a flash, yet in another it feels like it has been a long, tough slog. My passion is running long and has been for some years now, so my overall goal is to get back to running ultras. Is that possible? In my mind, anything is possible! And so, I am giving it my all in physio and rehab, working on strengthening my hip and shoulder in the gym, and being as active as possible to encourage my ribs and lung to heal. Hours of physio and rehab, lots of walking - progressing from bed bound to walking with a frame, then onto crutches over the first 7 weeks and then slowly, slowly ditching the crutches. I am now able to walk normally unaided and more or less pain free, and over the last week I have been introduced to the freaking fantastic world of the turbo trainer and Zwift!!! Absolutely love it!! Getting sweaty, feeling like I’m pushing my body again and seeing improvements in how the injuries respond to the physical stimuli have all provided continued motivation!
I have been given the green light to attempt a slow, steady run at the end of this week. Structurally, my hip will be fine I am assured, but as for comfort, that remains to be seen and the surgeons cannot predict how I will find it. I am super excited and seriously nervous in equal measures!! I have no idea how my hip will feel, or my ribs but I am absolutely game to give it my best go!!! And of course, I will be lathering on my Squirrel’s Nut Butter in all the usual places, plus now over my new scars - it has been amazing at preventing chafing over them! And one bonus of always carrying my chafe stick in my pack was that I had it with me already in the hospital - I used it loads on my lips and around my mouth and nose because the nasal cannula delivering the oxygen started to cause serious dryness and irritation. It definitely came to the rescue!
I gave a long-term goal to the trauma rehab team in the very early days: Complete a self-supported, multi-day desert ultra. And I am absolutely committed to this. I am more than prepared to put in the work and the goal excites me, insanely so!! Bring it on!