A Comeback In Ironman Switzerland

Over the years, I have had a few goals regarding Ironman. The first goal was to actually finish an Ironman. I did that in 2002 in Florida. The next goal was to do two so I could say it was not a fluke that I did one. I achieved that goal in 2003 in Coeur d’Alene. The next goal was to rid myself of a demon that had plagued me for a lifetime. That demon was not trying hard and being sort of a slacker. I achieved that goal in the training and the Brazil Ironman in 2005. I have had a goal of doing 10 Ironman races with my 10th one when I turned 70 years old. Over time, that goal has faded away. Ironman training is too demanding and I have other things I want to accomplish in my life.

However for now, Ironman is still on my agenda and a new goal had been thrust upon me. Two weeks before the Brazil Ironman, I ruptured my L5/S1 disc while running down a hill on my last long training run. I had some pretty severe pain on and off for the next couple of weeks but did not really understand that I had ruptured the disc. For some reason, on the day of the race, I was symptom free and was able to complete the race in my fastest time. Over the next few months, my symptoms returned and in November of 2005 I was incapacitated with pain. I visited a neurologist (Dr. Charles Jablecki) and a surgeon and we all agreed that back surgery was the appropriate course of action. I received an oral dose of steroids which provided some relief and scheduled the surgery. Luckily, over the next few weeks, my symptoms improved dramatically and on the advice of friends and doctors, I canceled the surgery just days before I was to go under the knife.

So now I had this new goal. I was going to recover from a ruptured disc without surgery and complete another Ironman. There was not specific date for the next Ironman in mind, just a long term goal. In January 2006, after being a slug for six plus months and gaining 20 pounds, I started my rehabilitation. My first day back, I swam in the nearby La Jolla High School pool (Coggan Family Aquatic Center) in the morning Masters program for 15 minutes. It felt good to be back into a conditioning regime. Very slowly and methodically, I increased the duration and exertion of the swims. I even vowed to learn how to do a flip turn which took about a year of practice. In late 2006, I entered Gatorman, a 3 mile swim in La Jolla Cove. I barely made the 1 hour 45 minute cut off, but I got my t-shirt. We sure do a lot of strange things for a t-shirt.

In mid 2006, I started taking private Pilates lessons. There is a Pilates studio walking distance from my house called Marla Bingham Studio. I spoke with Marla and explained my condition and my goal. She introduced me to Noune Diarbekirian, one of her instructors. I was less than remedial when I started. I had no core strength. I had OK leg power. I had OK arm power, but I had no core strength. I could not understand and was a bit embarrassed by my weakness. Noune assured me that if I would continue on a regular basis, I would get stronger and be able to protect my ruptured L5/S1 disc from further injury. So I did. I started going 5 and sometimes 6 days a week. After a year, I settled into a Monday, Wednesday, Friday routine. I placed a great deal of faith in Noune. In the beginning, only that faith kept me going. Eventually, I began to understand what core strength meant and how I could use it in all my physical activities including just simply sitting properly in chair. I have become a huge Pilates advocate.

Nonue was just one member of my “team” to help me overcome my injury. I actually worked with a number of experts to help me along. Nonue referred me to Beata Booth who is an acupuncturist. I had always been curious about acupuncture and herbal medicine, both of which Beata practiced. In the beginning I was a twice a week patient and settled into a once a week patient. Another friend of mine referred me to Dr. Chris Elleraas (www.carmelvalleychiropractic.com) who is a chiropractor. I started off as a twice a week patient, back off to once a week, then twice a month and eventually once a month.

After 18 months of swimming, 12 months of Pilates and working with my “team”, I went back to Dr. Jablecki and asked him about doing another Ironman. My symptoms at this point in time I described as somewhat volatile. Depending on the day, my foot might get more or less numb and more or less painful. The weakness in my calf had pretty much disappeared. The pain in my butt was gone most of the time. I think more than anything, my symptoms were more a reflection of how much improper sitting in a chair I was doing. If I slouched a lot, my symptoms would get worse. If I sat up straight and used my core to hold my mid section tight, I improved. Dr. Jablecki told me that I could try for an Ironman again. He suggested I add biking into my workout and see if my symptoms change. He also said that I could probably start running in September of 2007. This would be 27 months from the last time I ran in Brazil.

Shortly after my appointment with Jablecki, I talked with my long time friends and training partners, Steph and Jon Robins, about entering a new Ironman. We discussed various Ironman venues and settled on Ironman Switzerland in July of 2008. July is a good time of year to finish up Ironman training in San Diego. The really tough 12 weeks of Ironman training happen from April to June and these are generally good weather months in San Diego. We also figured that it would be a good excuse to experience a new part of the world. Let’s be honest here, Zurich Switzerland in the summer of 2008 is a wonderful opportunity.

Again as with swimming and Pilates, I started very carefully on the bike in June 2007. Nice and easy, nice and slow and tight core was my motto. I also thought I would take this opportunity to improve my biking technique. I had never been very good with the so called “circles” in pedaling. I had always been more of a pusher. I have this cool device called a CompuTrainer. You put your back wheel into this device, put an “rpm” attachment on your pedals and hook the whole thing up to a computer. The CompuTrainer gives you real time feedback on the power of your pedal stroke. It is a wonderful tool to improve your biking skills. I did CompuTrainer bike rides one or two times a week. I worked hard at trying to go from pushing my pedals to a smoother circle of power. The core training in Pilates was important for the bike riding also. I felt I could hold my form longer with the core strength. This was especially important for hill climbing.

Next on my recovery list was to begin running again. I have a wonderful friend named Ozzie Gontang. Ozzie and I are fellow Vistage Chairs. Ozzie is a San Diego legend in long distance running. He has been coaching running for over twenty years and teaches a gentler form of running. You might call it Chi Running or the Pose Method of Running. I call it the Ozzie Way. So in September 2007, I scheduled a one hour session with Ozzie to teach me how to run again. He had me watch videos on Chi and Pose running. He also had me buy an electronic metronome to clip on my hat when I ran. This would keep my cadence constant. My steps per minute ranged from 160 to 220 and I settled into a 180. After the first coaching session, Ozzie suggested that I run for thirty minutes at a 12:30 per mile pace for the first few weeks. Like the beginning few sessions of Pilates, this was excruciating boring and embarrassing. However, I was determined not to hurt myself and not to aggravate my ruptured disc. I was also determined to go from a cloddy runner to a graceful runner. I am convinced that my disc ruptured due to the pounding my back endured from being a cloddy runner. I had a few more sessions with Ozzie and he gave me many tips. His coaching coupled with the core strength from Pilates allowed me to move from cloddy towards graceful.

Now that I had a regimen of swimming, biking, running and Pilates, all that was left is following a typical grueling Ironman training program. The final nine months of training went as well as can be expected. I had good days and bad days. I twisted an ankle. I got cramps in my calf. My symptoms from the ruptured disc would get better and then get worse. One constant throughout the training was a very supportive group of friends helping me heal and helping me rebuild. I put my faith in my team. I did what they told me. Come race day, I finished the race. There was no celebration. There was no “ah-ha” moment. I did not blaze a new trail. I just had faith, was very patient and methodical and achieved my goal.

My timetable for non-surgical recovery from a ruptured L5/S1 disc:

May 2005 – Ruptured disc, Brazil Ironman
Nov 2005 – Unbearable pain, dose of oral steroids, surgery scheduled
Dec 2005 – Canceled surgery
Jan 2006 – Started swimming
June 2006 – Started Pilates
June 2007 – Started biking
Sept 2007 – Started running
July 2008 – Switzerland Ironman


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