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July 3, 2014

Back from injury

VCM 2014

In September 2012 I completed my first half marathon, the Bupa Great North Run in Newcastle, UK. It was my first ever event, so when things went well and I clocked a time of just over 2 hours, I was both delighted and yet left feeling a little frustrated. It was a faster time than I’d expected, by a full ten minutes, but I knew that if I’d started further up the field, rather than from the very back, I could have broken the 2hr barrier.

Buoyed by my performance and the experience, and determined to do better next time, I immediately signed up for the Vienna half marathon, an event which is closer to home and which takes place in April. But having trained so intensively over the summer, I allowed myself some time off. For two months straight, I didn’t so much as hit the gym. Perhaps this was my first mistake.

It was November by the time I put my running shoes on again, and already getting cold. To begin with, I took it easy, just activating the muscles again and not pushing too hard after such a long break. But by December the temperatures were already below zero and for me, that’s too cold. I am always overly cautious when it comes to cold air and the lungs, ever since I had pneumonia as a kid. Added to the chilly temperatures, it can get treacherously slippery after a freeze and there’s no point risking a sprained ankle or worse, which can easily set your training programme back by weeks or even months. And yet April was drawing ever closer.

Then came the big blow, just before Christmas 2012. I woke up one morning with an excruciating pain in my lower back. Now I’ve had back pain before, but after a couple of days’ rest it’s always cleared up by itself. I suspect the problem goes back to the time I spent a month in France as a student, helping to renovate a chateau in the Loire valley with a bunch of other students, and I really screwed up my back while lifting an old radiator. Although it’s been a recurring problem ever since, it’s never laid me up before.

We have a wood burning stove at home, and I spend the winter months constantly hefting logs, bringing the wood inside from where it’s stacked round the back of the house. I can only think that a wrong move somewhere was enough to put something out, and this time the problem persisted. The pain was so bad before Christmas that I could barely stand up and just sitting down in front of the TV was painful. I gave it a couple of weeks, but came to realise that this was one time I wasn’t going to be able to sit it out. I needed a doctor.

For the first time in at least ten years I swallowed my pride and visited my GP. He took a quick look, prescribed me some muscle relaxants and painkillers and told me to take it easy for a week. I followed his advice, and things improved only minimally. Meanwhile, my training had taken a big hit. It was now February, only two months to go until race day.

I began to train again, but very slowly and with some trepidation. By now I was considering pulling out of the race altogether, but with my wife’s cousin coming over to run alongside me, I decided to keep training. Gone was the enthusiasm, with all hope of beating my Newcastle time now gone. At this point, merely finishing would be an achievement. By the time April came around, I had managed only a handful of training runs, combined with a few sessions at the gym.

Needless to say, race day was awful. I was in pain the whole way with my back and hip and had never felt so dispirited. I made a surprisingly strong start, but by the 7km mark I had already used up what energy I had and I inevitably hit the wall, and never recovered. This time, instead of me overtaking everyone else, everyone else was cruising past me! Despite all that, though, I still managed to finish only a minute slower than my Newcastle time the previous September! Small consolation, but this only made me even more determined to get my pain under control, train even harder and enter another race. And I had to get that 2hr-monkey off my back!

As a freelancer, I can work pretty much from anywhere there is an internet connection. What followed was a month spent in Italy, where I was able to take walks, start running again slowly and swim in the sea every day. It did me the world of good. But on the very day I was to make the drive back home, my back problem started up again. And how.

Back home, my neighbour recommended another GP; I decided he couldn’t be any worse than my own doc. This one spent a little more time examining me, and as well as prescribing more muscle relaxants, painkillers and, this time, injections, the nurse gave me immediate treatment where I had electrodes stuck to my back with electricity running through them with the aim of loosening up the muscles. I returned almost every day for ten days for more electric shock treatment and injections, and afterwards I did begin to feel better and could walk much more freely.

We have two dogs now, but at the time it was just Sienna, our Goldie-mix. Before it gets hot, we always take our dogs to the salon for a trim. While there, I apologised to the dog trimmer that I wasn’t able to lift Sienna onto the table, which led to a conversation about back problems. The dog trimmer told me she’d had something similar and recommended a masseuse and practitioner of Bowen therapy. At this point, I was willing to try anything; it was now six months since I’d been in pain, something that plays on your mind every second of every day. Even the smallest of tasks, like putting on socks, requires developing a new strategy!

I made an appointment. The lady I went to see asked me to make a couple of movements, saw that I could barely bend forwards. She was confident she could help me, though. She got me up onto the table and got to work, massaging and kneading. Afterwards, she told me it would get worse for a couple of days before getting better. And indeed, it did. For the next couple of days I was in as much pain as I had ever been. But after three days, I could feel myself starting to loosen up. Just a few days after the treatment, I was able to walk almost pain-free, and took an exploratory stroll around the Wienerwaldsee close to where we live, my favourite route for a run.

A week later, I had another session. Afterwards, I felt great, relatively speaking. For the first time in months, I could move almost without pain. My treatment was a combination of massage and Bowen treatment, which involves some very gentle moves, the purpose of which is to use the body’s own natural ability to heal itself.

I’ve been going back for treatment regularly ever since, and now swear by Bowen therapy. Apparently it also helps with breathing, strength and recovery, and I’m sure the sessions I had before my third half marathon in Vienna in April this year helped me to knock a full six minutes off my time.

Let’s see how this year progresses as I gear up for my fourth half marathon, my second attempt at the Bupa Great North Run!

This September I’ll be running for the Soi Dog Foundation, which was established in 2003 to address the tragic plight of the neglected and homeless animals in Phuket and other provinces throughout Thailand.

You can help Soi Dog UK continue to make a difference by sponsoring me at

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