AHHH!!! How am I in this position again? Seriously, just how? It is the question that I have been asking myself over and over again for the past ten days. As much as I would like the Commonwealth Games 2018 to be a distant memory, sadly that is not the case. The disappointment is still raw in my mind. The ‘what might have been’ lies unanswered, made harder by watching the marathon race unfold as it did. In my mind, these Commonwealth Games were my chance. The best opportunity for a major championships medal that I have ever had. Given the strength and depth of the field, they would likely be the best chance for a number of years ahead too. However, once more, it was not meant to be.
The World half marathon championships were in Valencia, at the end of March. Crossing the line in 77th, the 14th position I achieved at the previous outing of the championships seemed like a distant memory. Yet still, I was the first Irish finisher and it was my fastest half marathon time in this training block. Everything was looking positive for the Commonwealth Games marathon four weeks later. I flew out the following day. Thankfully, the jetlag from flying halfway around the world settled quickly. The holding camp hotel in the Gold Coast was one of the nicest places I have ever stayed in pre-competition. Nothing was too much hassle for the staff and having breakfast outside in the sunshine with parrots and various birds flying above our heads, was a unique and memorable experience.
Training was progressing nicely and every box was being ticked. Marching in to the stadium with the Northern Irish team at the opening ceremony, I was proud, very proud. But more than that, I was excited. I was in decent shape and with the forecast for marathon day having it down as being a scorcher, I knew that I was in with a very real chance of producing something special. I fell asleep that night, ready both mentally and physically for the race that lay ahead.
Two days later, and I was well into the taper phase. All the heavy sessions had been completed, it was easy running the whole way in to race day. A steady ten in the morning and five that evening, a standard day of training. There were no aches or pains. No limping, no questioning if something was wrong, nothing. It was at dinner that evening that I first noticed something unusual. My foot did not feel quite right. There was no specific tenderness but it just was not moving as it normally would. I thought nothing more of it that evening as I got ready for bed, thinking that the overnight rest would help. I woke up the next morning, and as I put my foot down from the bed, I knew something was up. As I hobbled to the bathroom, the pain grew. That is how my Commonwealth dream ended.
Or perhaps not quite. For, with a week until marathon day, I still had a choice to make. Fortunately, the Northern Irish medical staff saw me that afternoon. By the evening time, I had had an ultrasound scan, MRI and CT scan plus reports. I had a stress fracture in my talus bone, one of the bones that makes up the ankle joint. I have been informed that it is an extremely rare injury. The expert advice was that while the risk of a full fracture occurring if I continued to run was minimal, it was still present. A full fracture would likely mean no more running, metalwork put in place and a fair chance of lifelong arthritic pains. If the pain continued to settle over the next week to a degree where I could push through, then I had the option of running.
Can you imagine the frustration? I was in the Commonwealth village, surrounded by competing athletes. The dining hall was filled with athletes ready to perform, to have their chance at a medal. I was in a boot and crutches for the first 3 days. The 400m distance from my bedroom to the dining hall was a struggle. My days were spent hobbling back and forth to the physio tent. At times it felt like I had more physio than the rest of the athletics team combined. It was perhaps, one of the toughest weeks of my life. Knowing that you are in shape, that you have done all the training, and yet, at the very end of it all, you do not get to perform.
The day before the marathon, I met the medical team. I had completed a five mile run the previous day as a ‘tester’ to see if racing might still be a possibility. With three of the miles down at five minute pace and no obvious after effects I still had hope. However, I was unable to hop on my right foot. I could just about manage going up onto my tiptoes without sharp pain kicking in. I had a decision to make. I still do not know if it was the right decision. I do not think I will ever know. I like to tell myself that it was but to be honest, I am already asking myself ‘What if I had?’.
Flying home with the team the following day, I felt like a fraud. I felt like I did not deserve to be there. I know I did, you do not get picked for the Commonwealth Games without deserving it, but that is how I felt. All I could think about was how different that week would have been, and the subsequent weeks, if I had only woken up that Saturday morning without pain. With no readily identifiable cause or reason behind picking up the injury, I am no wiser as to how it came about. After my last injury, I sat down with all my data from 2011. I did the same again this time. Every run logged and saved in the past seven years. I looked at every variable I could think of to try and spot a pattern, but none arose. The shoes, the surface, the training itself in terms of intensity, frequency, duration, distance. The list goes on. I have been injured before but this time, it was particularly tough to take. With a four to six week crosstraining block ahead of me, I have plenty of time on a gymbike to reassess and ask myself, how did it all go so wrong? Answers on a postcard please, because I do not have any left.