This year has been very strange. I can think of no other year quite so odd. It started with so much promise. I’d planned walking trips and entered running events. All was going so well. Then COVID-19 arrived with a vengeance, followed by Lockdown One and those lovely long peaceful walks and runs of March, April and May.
In June I walked thirty or so miles to meet a friend for a socially distanced picnic, admittedly carrying more than those early walks where a bumbag had sufficed. But a week later I could feel a tightness in my right hip that intensified to pain. That pain has stayed with me, off and on, throughout the summer. At times the discomfort has been so great that I’ve not wanted to walk: pain can destroy the pleasure of even the shortest and easiest of walks. I had been plotting another long backpacking trip and a trip to the Alps but these were on hold because of COVID-19. The concern about the virus helped with dialling back the running and walking to stay as pain free as possible, although never fully escaping the discomfort in my hip.
This situation is not unusual. A minor scoliosis of my spine causes my pelvis to hitch up at one side unless I work tirelessly to lengthen and strengthen the supporting muscles. As a Pilates teacher I can usually manage this but as the summer passed it became increasingly clear that my usual exercise regime was not having the desired effect. It was as if my body was a stranger, although one I had met before and moved on from. It always amazes me how long I can avoid facing up to the reality of needing outside help. Because the severe pain was intermittent and my exercise regime helping up to a point, I would head out for another run or walk feeling fine and then suffer later. Finally, determined to prove that I was ‘just imagining it’, I set out to run the ten miles round the perimeter of Thirlmere.
The circuit of Thirlmere is the perfect low level route for a wet and windy Lakeland day. October is a superb month for colour and the wind had not yet taken all the leaves from the trees so the trail glowed yellow and orange in the changing light. High winds had been forecast for the fells but the lakeside was much calmer and there was even sunshine for a short while. Very few people were about but plenty of water rushed and gushed in broad rapids and waterfalls down from Armboth Fell and High Tove. Halfway along the wooded western side of the lake a red squirrel darted across my path to scurry up an oak tree where it sat chattering a warning with a twitching fluffed up tail and tufted russet ears. When it disappeared into the canopy I ran on, splashing through the peat black puddles left by recent rain and slithering on wet roots that webbed the narrow path, with the choppy silver waters of the lake to my right. By the time I reached the dam across the northern end I was congratulating myself on managing to hold the pain at bay, and marvelling at the skill and ingenuity of the Victorian engineers. The commemorative plaque gives the names of all the dignitaries, the Aldermen and Councillors of Manchester Corporation Waterworks, but only the chief engineer is mentioned, and the other workers who put their vision into action are conspicuous only by their absence.
On the east side of the dam a small trod winds its way up round the base of Great How. I had planned to climb to the top for the views down the lake but the skies were darkening to the south and I was suddenly aware of the ache in my hip making its presence felt. In the time it took to eat a muesli bar the first squall of rain hit me full in the face and it was time to head back. The eastern path wove below the main road to begin with, then an underpass led to ascending forest tracks high above the road. The majority of the ascent is on this side, and the majority of the wild weather hit me here. In spite of the increasing pain and rain I could still run strongly and it was fun battling the ascent and the elements on easy tracks. The route through these woods below Helvellyn Screes reveals tantalising glimpses of the water below, and veils of mist and rain opened and closed to reveal and conceal the fells above Dunmail Raise. Sometimes I think wet weather is more fun than the perfect sunny day, although had the day been fine and the pain less I would have dropped down from the path to explore the tiny Wythburn Church, and discover what the intriguingly named Straining Well was. I was certainly feeling the strain by the final descent to the waterfalls below Willie Wife Moor (the names here are wonderful) where the permissive path turns back on itself to come down to the main road. The final obstacle was a tall locked forest gate, probably bolted during the first Lockdown and not yet reopened. There had been no advance warning of this, and there was no way I was running back round the lake, so I climbed over, struggling to lift my right leg over the top. By now the whole of my right hip and around the top of my right leg was seizing up so the final kilometre was very slow. Two painful walks over Loughrigg in the days that followed convinced me that either I would never be able to walk or run again, or I needed to seek help.
Fortunately this second Lockdown allows osteopaths to continue working and a fellow Pilates teacher recommended a local practitioner. She is now working to put my bones back into better alignment. Over the years I’ve had so many injuries, always the same pattern: left ankle, right hip, left shoulder. All these can be traced back to the slight twist and tilt in my spine. It may take a village to raise a child but it seems to take a team to maintain an adult. I recently read Running the Red Line by Julie Carter (https://www.mindfell.co.uk/books/running-the-red-line) and was struck by how she managed to keep running competitively despite far more severe spinal issues than mine. Her insights into the need to allow the body and mind to recover, and the need to let go and accept help are inspiring.
After the first session with the osteopath I feel as if I’ve been put back into my body. It’s not perfect yet but I’m back in touch with how it can move. It transpired that I had taught Pilates to her when covering a class so the work she is doing with me is very much a collaboration. Her release of ‘stuck’ muscles and realignment of my pelvis means I can actually do my stretching and strengthening exercises fully, not just because the bones are in a better place but because my mind is. I’ve also realised what precipitated the problem. That long walk back in June necessitated a small rucksack for a picnic and plenty of water. The pack is not one I use often or particularly like as it pulls on my shoulders and the hip belt is not in a good position. When I used it again recently those failings worsened the hip pain. I don’t think it’s time yet to hang up my boots and trainers, but it’s definitely time the pack was retired.
Really enjoyed reading this Lizzi; your writing is excellent! I hadn’t realised how much you’d been suffering, but I’m glad you’re now on a good path back to running and walking. I think all of us still able to run into and through our 60s are frankly doing something amazing; I always think after I’ve done a run that I can’t really be that old!
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Thanks Chris. It’s been an intermittent issue since June but every time I try to push either speed or distance it becomes a problem – but I will sort it out. I’ve had the underlying issuefor many many years so I’m used to it, but it’s still frustrating. I forget how long a process it is every time.
An excellent read Lizzie at such an appropriate time for me. I was diagnosed with a slight curvature of the spine a year ago, having suffered with lower back pain for 30+ years for which I do exercises every morning. I have pain in exactly the same places as you, right hip, knee, foot and left shoulder/neck. Have had plantar fasciitis for most of this year which is now resolved with orthotics. 2 weeks ago i started with what I think was sciatica packing up from a camping trip. It was a very painful journey home on the train and like you I started to think that perhaps my fellwalking and backpacking days were over. I googled for some exercises and 2 weeks later I am almost back to normal. I’ve never had the confidence to go see an osteopath as I’ve heard such horror stories but may now do so.
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Thanks Margaret. It’s infuriating having something that you can’t cure, only manage. But I’m firmly of the opinion that if you’ve managed it once you can do it again. It just takes time and effort. This is the first time I’ve seen an osteopath but she came highly recommended and was obviously very knowledgeable. I shall be working with her for a few sessions and she’s been added to my ‘team’. I now have orthotics – got those earlier in the year. I’ve been working with a physio who assesses running gait and have exercises from him. Plantar fasciitis is most unpleasant, as is sciatica, but definitely don’t hang up the backpack yet 👍
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