The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine

Runner Paula Radcliffe Takes One Last Journey After Stress Fracture Surgery

Posted by on Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

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Running is the toughest sport for the feet, by far. Pounding the pavement can take an incredible toll when you’re logging thousands of miles. Paula Radcliffe has a storied career that would make anyone proud. She holds the current women’s world record for marathon running with a time of only 2: 15: 25. She won the Chicago Marathon in 2002 and the London Marathon in 2002, 2003, and 2005. She also won the NY Marathon in 2004, 2007, and 2008.

On August 22nd, 2012, Radcliffe underwent foot surgery for a stress fracture, and it was believed she’d never run a marathon again. Urged on by fans and supporters, she agreed to do one final race— the London Marathon. On April 26th, Radcliffe finished with a time of 2: 36: 55 seconds. “It was just amazing the whole way round,” the 41-year-old told the BBC. “I wore the sunglasses to keep a lid on my emotions and they definitely hid some tears along the way,” she added. Here at The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine, we love a good comeback story, but we praise Radcliffe for being able to make the tough decision for her future health and mobility.

paula radcliffe foot
Paula walks with her daughter at the NY Marathon in 2007, a year before an old stress fracture was finally diagnosed. Image Source: Wikimedia.org

The Journey of a Marathon Runner

Bone graft foot surgery to repair a stress fracture requires a long and difficult recovery period. In addition to the physical stress, the surgery and subsequent recovery can be mentally taxing as well. Our sports medicine doctors go to great lengths to work with competitive athletes through this tough transition— not just by providing a surgical boot and sending them on their merry way, but also by talking them through some of the emotional and psychological hurdles to come.

In Radcliffe’s case, her procedure required ten weeks of total immobilization followed by an eight month post-surgery recovery period during which she required the use of mobility scooters, surgical boots, and crutches. Radcliffe began “learning to run again” in April 2013. She told BBC Sport, “My first run back was literally a five-minute jog and it’s been a gradual process governed by how my foot was recovering.” She began working her way up to a one-hour walk. Once she achieved that goal, she’d jog for a couple of minutes. “It’s then I started to appreciate what a gift it is just to be able to run,” she said.

January of 2014 saw Radcliffe celebrating small achievements; her left foot was only as “flexible as a lamppost,” but she hit the road to try for a 10-minute jog. “I just know that my body can’t do the marathon training anymore,” she had said, adding that her foot preferred the feel of running on softer surfaces like grass. She expressed fears that she may have to get her foot fused, which would mean never running again. “I’ve had to be patient,” she admitted, adding that it was a challenge since it felt more natural to push herself. Her supportive husband massaged her arthritic foot for an hour each night, and she’d hear the foot “clunking and clicking,” but reported that the 10-minute jogs were evidence of improvement.

In September 2014, Radcliffe ran her first long-distance race since the Austria half marathon in April 2012: the Worcester City 10K. She finished the 10K in just 35 minutes and 49 seconds— just shy of the 34 minutes and 22 second score from 19-year-old first place runner Jenny Nesbitt. Even so, Radcliffe’s third place triumph stood as a testament to her perseverance and patience and also proved that, for some, running comes as naturally as breathing. “I didn’t think I’d be able to run in any sort of competitions,” she said. “The surgeons had told me they didn’t know what I’d be able to do. I’d love to run lots more races but I don’t want to wreck my foot. Being able to run with the kids and share that with them is too special to risk.”

In January 2015, Radcliffe was able to push herself just a little bit further by instituting a training program that consisted of walking her kids to school and jogging twice a day, three times a week. She conceded that she’d never run a personal best again, but celebrated her “personal bests post-foot.” This past February, she suffered a minor setback, blowing out her Achilles while running 21 miles along Kenya’s dirt tracks. A vast team of specialists including a radiologist from Britain, a doctor from Monaco, and an orthotics expert from Belgium assembled to aid her recovery. After six weeks of total rest, she was able to squeeze in a 45-minute run. From Easter weekend onward, she ran every day. Though she felt “unfit” for a marathon, her body seemed to remember what to do once she hit her familiar stride.

When Is Stress Fracture Foot Surgery Necessary?

Naturally, we don’t rush every patient who presents with a stress fracture into surgery. Most of our runners actually heal quite well with 6 to 14 weeks of rest from running. During this time, swimming, stationary biking or elliptical training may be acceptable forms of activity. Continuing to run on a stress fracture can cause a more substantial injury, so it’s important that you take it easy if you are diagnosed. Sometimes, when moderate damage is indicated in an MRI, four to six weeks in a cast is needed to keep weight off the injury.

Many patients come to us with stress fracture symptoms like:

  • A sudden pain in the foot with no obvious explanation
  • Tender spots on the bone that have a deep, nauseating ache when pressed
  • An inability to hop on an injured leg
  • Pain that increases as the run goes on

In Paula’s case, the stress fracture had gone undiagnosed since 1994 until the cartilage between the navicular and talus on the top of her foot tore apart, causing the bones in the foot to rub against each other. Over time, the cracked bones had fused together in such a way that a bone graft was needed to repair the original fracture, and surgeons had to create a micro-fracture to stimulate new cartilage repair.

About The Center For Podiatric Care & Sports Medicine

If you are worried about stress fractures or other long distance running injuries and live in the New York City / White Plains metros, come see us at The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine. We employ board-certified podiatric surgeons and sports medicine doctors with significant expertise in biomechanics and running. We’ve treated Olympic athletes and have worked the sidelines of the NY Marathon, Hamptons Marathon, and Westchester Toughman Tri. We’re consulting podiatrists for the NY Road Runners Club and the Central Park Track Club. Our center director, Dr. Josef J. Geldwert, is a seasoned marathon runner with over 40 years of podiatric experience. We can diagnose, treat, and rehabilitate any injury to the foot or ankle! Book your appointment today.

 

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If you have any foot problems or pain, contact The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports MedicineDr. Josef J. GeldwertDr. Katherine Lai, Dr. Ryan Minara and Dr. Mariola Rivera have helped thousands of people get back on their feet. Unfortunately, we cannot give diagnoses or treatment advice online. Please make an appointment to see us if you live in the NY metropolitan area or seek out a podiatrist in your area.