Saturday 19 April 2014

How I Battled Injury to Achieve Marathon Dream

Julianne Clarke reveals how her goal of crossing the finish line in Dublin spurred her to overcome a debilitating condition she received following a car crash

Julianne Clarke (left) taking part in the Connemara Half-Marathon

It is a sunny Saturday in July 2006. I am in the local sports shop looking for runners suitable for marathon training. The sales assistant comes up to me and says: "Those are marathon runners you're looking at – we have shoes suited to walkers over here." I told her: "I am training for a marathon" and she looked at me like I had two heads and smiled sympathetically.

Two months previously, I was in a car crash, and the initial diagnosis was severe soft tissue damage to my back and neck with a two-year to five-year recovery.

When I walked into that sports shop, I had pain etched deep into my face – my head was slightly tilted to the right and my left shoulder was raised up. These, I would learn later, were the symptoms of cervical dystonia. I walked like somebody who was saddle sore after a long bike ride.

However, a few weeks prior to the accident, I ran the Connemara Half-Marathon and I was starting to think about my training plan for the Dublin Marathon. I had the marathon bug. I was in love with long-distance running.

While the doctors told me to forget about running as I was looking at a long road to recovery, I was determined to keep my goal of running the Dublin Marathon close to my heart. This is why I was in the sports shop on that summer's day. My runners would inspire me to achieve my Dublin Marathon goal.

Almost 18 months on – despite intense physio sessions and a home exercise programme – I was not making the progress somebody with soft-tissue injury should be making. I knew there was something wrong.

I worked for myself on a freelance basis in training and education. While I returned to work, I was finding it very difficult as I was in so much pain.

I sought medical advice, and in September 2007, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic cervical dystonia. Its symptoms are muscle spasm due to faulty signals coming from the brain and abnormal body posture. In my case, the abnormal body posture associated with dystonia was mild, but the pain was severe.

The dystonia – which is not curable and the only treatment is Botox injections every eight to 10 weeks for life to manage the pain – was preventing the soft tissue from healing.

In January 2008, I had surgery followed by a pain-management programme in the national neurological hospital in London. It was a relief to finally have a diagnosis and be on a proper pain-management plan.

The Botox injections reduced my pain and helped me to be more focused – I now had energy to research alternative treatment options. A turning point on my journey to recover was when I decided to start appreciating all the good things in my life each day, no matter how small, and take my focus off being unwell.

I wrote in my diary that "it is very easy to get so wrapped up in my injuries that I see nothing else and therefore I will not attract anything else into my life".

I prepared a new vision board with photos of me running marathons. I put up a screensaver of me running on my computer. I wore my marathon runners as often as I could – this made me feel like a runner. Basically, I surrounded myself with my vision of recovery.

It began to dawn on me that bringing this vision alive was going to take discipline – to live and breathe this vision until it became reality. I wrote in my diary "it's like training to get fit – needs to be constant and I need to establish a pattern".

I had my ups and downs but, when I was on a down day, I just noted in my training diary that "tomorrow will be another day".

There were lots of twists and turns along the way but I kept my focus on crossing the finish line and getting that medal.

My research into alternative treatment options paid off – I discovered a neurologist in Russia, Dr Alexander Revenko, who along with other scientists developed a therapy called SCENAR, which stands for "self-controlled energo-neuro-adaptive regulator". It uses biofeedback: "By stimulating the nervous system, it is able to teach the body to heal itself."

I was under the care of Dr Revenko for the best part of a year and the dystonia symptoms eventually disappeared. I had turned a huge corner.

Through a meet-and-train group in Carron, Co Clare, I met a great bunch of women and we trained for the Connemara Half-Marathon in April last year. My plan was now in place to do the Dublin Marathon in the next 18 months – I had a lot of work to do to build up core muscle strength but I loved every minute of it. In October, my Dublin Marathon dream came true seven years after the accident.

The bonus was the company of a wonderful gang of runners from south Galway to train with and run with on the day.

The runners I bought on that sunny day in July 2006 were now too worn to run the marathon in, but they did their job – they got me to the start line.

My training journey is over but I have learnt a lot along the way – the importance of having a vision, believing in yourself and your dreams regardless of what others say to you.

Irish Independent

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