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Why Do Runners Make the Best and Worst Patients?

Runners are crazy because running is an addiction.

When I was 23, I ran a marathon in Vermont. Just 3 weeks before the event my training was almost wrapping up when I began experiencing pain on the top of my foot. I saw a podiatrist at the school I was attending who confirmed that it was a mild tendonitis and that it would get better with rest. Being me, I decided that I would modify this recommendation to include just a couple of painful miles every day. By the time the race day approached, this pain had miraculously almost gone away, but my routine had suffered and I couldn’t follow my nearly religious pre marathon week preparation.

Despite this, I still wanted to run under three hours. At that time I hadn’t ever run that fast, but I was confident in the training that I had mostly put in. Unfortunately the weather had other plans. As any racer who has experienced it knows, the weather is a huge factor in achieving a personal record, and it can be pretty depressing to spend 100 plus dollars on a race and countless hours only to have it ruined by freak weather. In my case, the race started out raining, soaking my clothes and shoes, and ended with 87 degree heat. I was too invested to hold back and stay safe, and so adrenaline carried me to a half marathon time of 1:25. I knew it was too fast, but I sustained the pace for 4 more miles until I died. By the time I hobbled across the finish line in a daze, the clock read 2:59.56. It was still a great time, but the second half being 10 minutes slower was not the way I wanted to do it, and what followed was perhaps the worst four day of my life.

Long story short, I developed severe stomach cramps and eventually convinced my mother that I was sick enough to need to go to the hospital. There, I was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis as a probable result of dehydration, and sentenced to a 4 day hospital stay without food or water intake by mouth. I also got placed on the best IV pain medications known to man and was firmly made to rest. No one actually told me to rest but it was implied that due to pain and a connection to an IV bag that I would have no other choice. Or so they thought.

I had had a dose of strong opioids at 9PM on the day after the marathon, so I felt pretty darn good, and I started to think about my 9 year running streak that was about to end. It hurt to think about, but I convinced myself that it was an acceptable way to end my streak. For about a second. Then I said, “nah,” and got up in my room. I walked over to the door with my IV pole and shut it so that the nurses wouldn’t bother me for a few minutes and started running in place with my IV pole. I only made it 5 minutes before my stomach and legs felt like broken glass, but I had done it, and in my book it counted. The next day I did 10 minutes and some push ups in the bathroom against the counter. When I was finally released I had lost 10 pounds, but not my streak.

The point here is that runner’s are some of the craziest people in the world, and at times they will do anything to keep running or exercising, even against medical advice. Streak runner’s are the hardest to deal with, as they will likely refuse to listen to any advice that includes the phrase “stop running.” Sometimes that really is the only choice, but I find it best to deal with most runners by being as clear about guidelines as possible. Runner’s need to be told what their running limitations are, but it’s far more important to tell them what they can do, instead of what they can’t. “Can’t” is an easy way to get tuned out. Can they walk, bike, swim, or lift weights? This is incredibly important, because exercise junkies always want some form of exercise that they can do and that they will cling to in the absence or near absence of running. Without these clear instructions, you end up with patients doing burpees in a cast or one legged parkour after surgery (both real!).

This leads me to my recommendations for the frustrated runner. When going to a doctor for advice, always remember to ask what you can and cannot do and how you will be tapered back to running. Don’t just accept that you can never run again without multiple opinions from physicians that are used to treating your specific injury. Case in point, my father has now run over 100 marathons after being told he would never run again from two broken knee caps. I tend to also prefer that my physicians be athletes, but I’m biased without a doubt. I feel that it allows for a certain level of empathy from the physician, as all athletes have been injured at some point and can relate to that feeling of helplessness you get when you can’t run. That’s important, because it allows for a relationship and trust, so that when the doctor says that a patient can or cannot do a certain activity, the patient is more likely to listen. Never be afraid to get a second opinion if you aren’t in tune with your doctor. It’s in everyone’s best interest.

At the end of the day, knowing what athletes and runners go through makes them some of the most rewarding people to treat, despite how much they may refuse to listen sometimes. I know there’s nothing better than returning to pain free running, so being able to see someone else experience that is a true joy. If you have any other personal stories of overcoming being told no or want to comment about anything else relating to this post, please do so below.