Fordyce’s Comrades focus: Do what I say, not what I do

"Never fight an injury. The injury always wins, and little niggles can become serious fractures."

The niggle in my lower left leg began to irritate me two or three days before the Two Oceans half marathon that I was hoping to run on Easter Saturday. At first, I chose to ignore it, but the pain persisted and when I attempted a gentle three kilometre jog the day before the race the pain became sharper and more intense.

At that point my sensible, wise running angel sat on my shoulder and counselled me: “This is a bit more serious than you’re admitting to yourself. Wouldn’t it be foolhardy to try to run 21 hilly kilometres with this dodgy leg?”

But then my reckless gung-ho angel sat on my other shoulder and whispered seductively: “It’s just a niggle. It will probably fade away during the race and besides, this isn’t the 56km Two Oceans ultra, this is just a little half marathon. You will sail through it. Get some physio and swallow an anti-inflammatory pill. You will be fine.”

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So, I listened to the angel I really wanted to listen to, sought out the kind attention of Robert Gibson, a neuromuscular sports therapist, had my leg firmly strapped, and decided to run.

I had forgotten how crooked and angled the camber on the Two Oceans course can be. It tortured me for the last few kilometres as my injury grew more and more painful. I hobbled awkwardly into UCT (thank you to my running partners Mbali and Lori for waiting for me and for dragging me to the finish line).  

“Are you busy at this time of the year?” I asked the physiotherapist and radiologist who I visited a couple of days after the race.

“Very busy,” they replied, licking their lips. “You have to understand that with the Comrades Marathon just over three months away and the marathon season in full swing things are hectic here.

“I understood that at this time of the year there’s a virus more contagious than omicron called ‘desperatelykeentitis’.

“This virus is spreading rapidly through the running community, and it is wreaking havoc as one injured runner after another makes his or her way to our rooms.”

I knew what they were referring to as I too was a victim of this virus. Not that I’m planning on running Comrades this year but I had exciting plans for other races and for faster parkrun times.

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Too many of us fall victim to the virus the causes of which are all the “toos”; too much, too soon, too fast. We are given early warning signs that we are harbouring something nasty. These signs include tiredness and heavy legs when running, and general irritability. These are the flashing warning lights which my friend Graeme Lindenberg, himself a physiotherapist, dubbed, “the plods”.

When these warning signs are ignored they can lead to the “superplods,” which if ignored again, can result in disasters like my Two Oceans nightmare.

“I have bad news for you Bruce,” the radiologist muttered gloomily. “You have a nasty stress fracture of the lower fibula.”

And she pointed to the X-ray of my fibula with an obvious crack  zig-zagging its jagged way across the bone.

“I’m astonished that you ran the last few kilometres of the Two Oceans with this fracture, but I’m even more amazed that with all your years of experience you ignored all the warning signs,” she said.

“This is a rookie error on a massive scale,” I lectured myself. It seemed that I had forgotten everything I had learnt over the years.

Injuries are self-inflicted

Unless we step into an open manhole cover running or get bitten by a ferocious dog whose gate has been left open, running injuries are not an act of God. They are self-inflicted.

Stupidity and stubbornness are two of the nouns that spring to mind. We need to learn to listen to our bodies. Never fight an injury. The injury always wins, and little niggles can become serious fractures. Rest and seeking professional help are the answers. Understand too that we are not alone. All of us have our own struggles to overcome. Not even the top contenders in this year’s race will have perfect training build-ups. They, too, will experience setbacks

At times the silver lining to the dark injury cloud is that we are prevented from pushing ourselves too hard. For me there are two examples that spring immediately to mind.

The first is personal. In 1983 a torn hamstring hindered me throughout my training build-up for the Comrades. I dismissed my chances of performing well. Yet on race day I ran very strongly and had possibly my best race ever.

Also, despite breaking a toe while training for the 2016 Comrades and losing many days of running, Charne Bosman won that year’s race.  For both Charne and me the silver lining to an otherwise bleak training cloud was that we were forced to rest and be sensible.

I forgot that lesson at this year’s Two Oceans. Please learn from my experience and remember to do what I say here and not what I did a few weeks ago.