The Damage You’ve Done

Well, if you’re a regular here, you’ll be pleased to hear that it’s largely been the case that “no news is good news”. Well, up to a point. I’ve not really had much to report, so I’ve not blogged.

With hindsight, I can say that I am really glad I took 2017 as a “non-competitive year” on the track. It hasn’t only allowed achieved the target of allowing me to focus very diligently on getting my injured shoulder properly fixed. I’ve spotted two other good gains:

While not racing or preparing to race, or recovering from racing, a number of other niggling injuries have also had proper time to heal. Well, ok, I did gain a new achilles tendon problem this year by going for it a bit too hard to soon on my return to adding running regularly at Parkrun to my training. That seems to have settled down quickly, thank goodness. More persistent has been the elbow problem I seem to have picked up doing the remedial work on my shoulder. I’ll return to this in a moment.

Not racing, preparing to race, or recovering from racing has also put me in a position I don’t recall ever having been in before during the summer months. I’ve been able to crank my summer’s training up to its highest level for several years, and sustain this for several months. Normally summer would be made up of building for races, tapering before the important races (yes, even Masters sprinters like me do tapering!) and recovering from recent races. Racing is hard, and it doesn’t get easier as I get older. What’s more, the effect is quite cumulative. In a normal summer, I race often, and spend a lot of time and energy trying to walk the narrow line between racing often enough and racing too often.

I think there is an extent to which my added training efforts this summer have been a (barely) subliminal substitute for not racing. I’ve regarded some of the hardest work I’ve done on the Wattbike, for example, as an occasional surrogate for racing. Trying to advance my maximum peak wattage output has often felt just the same as chasing “season’s bests” on the track.

The elbow problem has been a bit of a bugger, I’m afraid. It began as a very precisely focussed area of pain, completely consistent with all the symptoms of tennis elbow. Like many repetitive strain injuries, it hasn’t responded to acupuncture, deep massage, or even to an elbow strap. It’s moved on to become a more general soreness in a larger part of the elbow and forearm.

I added an “up to a point” caveat to my first paragraph. Sure, I’ve become probably as fit this summer as I’ve been for a long while. I’ve been really looking forward to starting winter training, and preparing to begin competing again in 2018. I took a small holiday to the French Alps in early September. For reasons I don’t need to go into here, we’ve not had a proper “big” family holiday this year, so the opportunity to escape with just me, on my motorbike, and visit a part of the Alps I don’t know very well was welcome.

The journey out there was fine. It’s 1,000km from home to where I was staying, and needed a couple of overnight stops. On the morning after my second stop, I was pushing clothes into a bag, ready to load stuff on to the motorbike, when the middle finger of my right hand went “pop” quite audibly. There was no pain, but when I looked at it, the top joint of the finger was hanging downwards. Although I could straighten it with the other hand, the joint was pretty much hyper-mobile and would not stay straight. I could not straighten it by moving the finger in the usual way. I thought I must have dislocated it in some way, but the absence of any pain or swelling caused doubt on that point.

I needed to move on to my destination, so I taped the joint straight and as rigid as I could make it, with surgical tape. It could get my bike glove on, although it was awkward to ride the bike with the finger like that. I managed a few hours of riding through a downpour of biblical proportions, before needing to stop for petrol. While it hurled it down with rain outside the petrol station’s warm and welcoming coffee machine area, I went online to see what I had possibly done to the finger, and what I could do about it.

Immediately, it became clear that I almost certainly had “mallet finger” – caused by a snapped distal tendon. That’s the one that runs over the front of the knuckle joint, and controls straightening of the finger. It would explain the “pop” and was apparently occasionally known to happen without causing pain or inflammation. Remedies? Get professional help as soon as possible. For the moment, the best I could do was to use two halves of a plastic sugar stirrer and a fresh application of surgical tape to splint the joint straight even more firmly, while I completed my journey. Improvisation, eh?

I reached Bourg Saint Maurice late in the day, and after settling into the apartment I’d rented, I looked up the local hospital. I was in luck. Bourg Saint Maurice has a hospital with international fame for its orthopaedic work with skiers from the numerous nearby winter ski resorts. I was there at Reception at 9.30 next morning.

I was the only person in the casualty waiting room. I was seen by a triage nurse within three or four minutes, and by a doctor fifteen minutes after that. She confirmed a probable diagnosis of mallet finger (same word in French) and arranged for x-rays. I had these after just half an hour more. Last time I’d been in casualty in a UK hospital, it had taken five hours to get this far! The x-rays showed no fractured bone, so the injury was definitely a tendon snap. I was fitted with a plastic splint to hold the top finger joint straight and motionless, and taped up. I was then given some stern warnings about not allowing the joint to flex – even a little bit – for the next 8-10 weeks! The complicated process of changing the tape and keeping the splint and finger clean was demonstrated to me, and I was sent on my way. Total, around two hours at the hospital. There was just one other person in the waiting room as I left.

I’d not mentioned to the doctor that I was out in France on a large motor bike. It really slipped my mind more than anything, but I was glad that the splinting left a pretty good range of movement in the middle joint of the finger, and that the splint fitted pretty well inside my bike glove. Riding was occasionally clumsy, but I managed.

I’ve certainly found, whenever I’ve hurt myself, or had to have something bandaged, plastered or splinted in the past, that our human bodies certainly have no “spare parts”. That’s to say, it is amazing how often you find you need to use the very piece of you that you’ve injured. I am very right-handed. Some years ago, I broke a finger badly in stupid fall in the mountains, and had to have it plastered up to the elbow (see photo!). So much of life was so very restricted until that plaster came off.

Well, splinted middle fingers are not a whole lot more accommodating. The first cup of tea I picked up with finger and thumb simply pivoted downwards, spilling its contents everywhere. One of numerous such incidents subsequently.

It poured with rain for a great deal of my trip away, leaving me just two days to go out into the mountains in the best of the bad weather. The good news is that I felt fit and strong on my walks. The 1,000km bike ride home was basically boring. The injured hand worked tolerably well, but a compensatory tighter grip on the handlebars by my left had quickly triggered a nagging and increasing pain in my poorly left elbow.

Now home, it seems that this injury, modest though it looks, is going to prevent me doing any work in the gym that requires gripping, pulling or pushing. I can’t risk bashing it again, and for extra safety when exercising, I need to temporarily tape three fingers together. A real bummer.

I’ve also discovered that the elbow and hand problems together are conspiring to prevent me working as a photographer. The left elbow hurts too much to support my usual camera. The plastic splint on the right hand makes using the camera shutter almost impossible. Happily, work is light, and some of it could be postponed for now. I can use a camera supported on a tripod, but I don’t do much work involving that. I’m just glad I’m not a professional piano player!

While I was writing this, I got the news that my favourite rock musician, Tom Petty, had died, aged just 66. My title is the title of one of his classics. Seemed appropriate. Rock on, Tom!

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