A Runner’s Foot Pain Speaks Truth
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The pain appeared out of nowhere on an August morning in 2015—a sharp tightness on the bottom of my foot.
The podiatrist called it plantar fasciitis.
“So, when do you think I will be able to run again?” I asked.
His response was cautiously vague. “Do whatever is tolerable for the pain.”
Underneath his actual words, was an unspoken addendum: “You’ll continue to wreck your foot with every strike.”
How would I cope without my morning runs? I am at my emotional and intellectual best after those runs. If I am not running, I get easily irritated. I snap at my kids. I brood. My family and my students (I’m a teacher) deserve me at my best. Right?
I kept running. My foot would bark at first, but would loosen up after a mile or so.
That November, I finished a 50K and I limped for a week afterward. The next week, I ran again. By now my body was pleading me to stop. Soon, I had no choice.
For the next nine months, I did not run. I got expensive custom orthotics. I got a cortisone shot. I went to a massage therapist. I went to a chiropractor. I went to a Pilates studio, where a woman ran Proprioceptive Deep Tendon Reflex Therapy. I swam. I cycled. I lifted weights … anything to keep myself emotionally stable. Nothing worked.
On top of my foot pain, my marriage was failing. I kept telling myself that things would get better; that, like a 50K, all marriages have highs and the lows. But these marriage lows were not shifting back into highs. I had to do something about it.
I told my wife I was going to start seeing a counselor.
For three months, silence prevailed between us. We did not argue. We just existed. We took care of our kids. We paid bills. She did her chores. I did mine. Yet there was no tenderness, no softness, no, “Let’s go do something together.”
We both knew it was over, but neither of us could muster the courage to say the word: divorce.
Until one fateful Sunday. We talked in the bedroom away from the kids. “I want a divorce,” I told her. She agreed.
Instantly, I felt a massive burden lifted from my shoulders. I actually slept that night.
No alarm woke me up. It was the usual 0-dark-30. I sat up in bed, and then stood, awaiting the heinous pain in my foot. It was gone.
I groped in the dark for my dresser, slid open the top drawer and grabbed a pair of running socks, shorts and a long-sleeve shirt.
Cosmo the dog looked at me strangely as I laced up my shoes.
“Wanna go running?” I asked. He exploded into a frenzy.
We ran four miles that morning, and I realized what “mind-body connection” truly means.
For over nine months, I had been carrying the pain of my failing marriage in the bottom of my foot. Practically overnight, it had disappeared.
As ridiculous as it sounds, my experience does have scientific backing.
Douglas Hoffman M.D., who practices nonoperative orthopedics/sports medicine in Duluth, Minnesota, refers to the term psychosomatic pain as “physiologic changes that occur in various tissues or organs in the body that are induced by emotions.”
For many people, Hoffman explains, dealing with physical pain is much easier than confronting underlying emotional issues. The brain creates pain as a distraction.
Scientists Peter L. Strick PhD, Chairman of Neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh, and Thomas Detre, Scientific Director of University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute, have another theory. They’ve established a neurological link between the cerebral cortex and one of the adrenal glands, and claim that in times of emotional stress, the brain over-activates the release of stress hormones, which can lead to chronic pain, among other symptoms.
Dr. Gloria Petruzzelli, a licensed Clinical Sports Psychologist who runs a private sports-psychology consulting practice in Sacramento, California, has seen negative thoughts manifest as pain in many athletes. “Emotional stress will sometimes correlate to a track runner’s recent injury,” she says. “Simply talking about what is on [the athlete’s] plate and teaching him to process his stress … it has a direct impact on mitigating the injury.”
It worked for me.
With the upcoming divorce, new challenges would present themselves. But I wasn’t running away from those challenges anymore. I was running toward it all, figuring it out, moving forward.
Thus begins a new journey for me, and my feet, healthy as ever, will get me there.
For more on how stress impacts running, check out this article by Trail Runner contributing editor David Roche.