“What do you mean you’re not going to run?” asked Mark Reid, physiotherapist extraodinaire, charged with getting 17 participants through a quadrathlon in the mountains of Norway last month.
We were sitting in a traditional Norwegian Lavvu (much like a tipi), huddled around a smoking fire, warming up and fuelling up after a 30km cross-country ski race, day three of endurance racing over the snowy plateaus between Hemsedal and Geilo.
Day one was a 14km ski touring race, with a total ascent of around 1000m, day two a crushingly brutal fat biking stage, undulating all day long with peaks of 1340m over 35km. It had taken me 5.5 long hours of pushing the 15kg bike up mountains, falling off down them and labouring across sun-affected snow as spring temperatures kicked in.
After day three, the cross-country skiing, I was lying in sixth place overall, and winning the women’s division (there were seven female competitors) but had no intention of running. I was absolutely spent, my hip flexors screaming with pain and my quads so fatigued I struggled to pick up my feet even to walk.
Mark had been on hand to ease our quads, tape up backs, knees, shins, shoulders and just massage tired muscles, heroically patching up participants as we progressed through the race — his treatment table set in the snow or beside the fire in the lavvu (we camped each night). He was also psychological support, strong and sensible with his assessment of our niggles, with an expedition doctor coping with our angst out on course.
Mark had taped up my knee for both skiing sections. I ski about a dozen times a year with my work and I’d not been as fit as I wanted to going into the 2015/16 ski season, with a knee that had been “niggling”.
I was in Norway, taking part in this multi-day endurance event, for work. I’m a ski/adventure travel journalist and one of only a handful of writers stupid enough to consider taking on such a challenge at only a week’s notice — which I did when the travel editor of Tatler called to ask me to cover IGO’s inaugural challenge.
In March 2013, I snapped my ACL and tore my lateral collateral, damaging the knee capsule. The same knee I’d made a colossal hole in thanks to a road biking accident in summer 2010.
But following surgery with Jonathan Bell, and thanks to the support of wonderful physiotherapists, in the early stages of rehab near my parents’ home in Dorking, Surrey, then latterly James Vickers at Wimbledon Clinics, I regained full fitness.
James was particularly helpful in working with my trainer, Karen Davis, to strengthen my knee and leg, core and — probably as importantly —my mind. So much of returning from ACL reconstruction is psychological and Karen’s work (particularly with my hamstrings) gave me the confidence to ski aggressively once again, over any terrain, without a knee support to the point that I took part in a ski mountaineering race in Colorado in March 2015.
But I’d laid off the exercise late last summer and knew that I was below par when time I started skiing in December 2015. An assessment by James Vickers confirmed it, so I started working heavily on my quads and hamstrings, training hard for four or five days a week, mixing up strengthening work with high-intensity interval training, circuits, occasional runs and bike rides and a lot of dog walking.
As I’ve started to demand more of my body through work and play, I’ve learnt that the better my general fitness, the more resistant I am to injury and the more I can rely on my body to perform when faced with a couloir in Switzerland, thigh-deep powder in Wyoming — or a quadrathlon in Norway.
The fact that a physiotherapist (sourced by Wimbledon Clinics) would be on hand to help me through IGO Adventures’ N60 Challenge was a clincher.
I did, however, pack my Merrell Capra Leather boots — a walking/scrambling boot — rather than my running shoes, Hoka OneOnes, to which I am normally surgically attached. I’ve never run further than 10km and had no intention of finishing up a quadrathlon in Norway with a full-distance marathon over snowy and icy mountains.
“I can’t run a marathon on my knee,” I stuttered feebly in response to Mark’s query of my plan to hike the route.
“Why can’t you run? What’s wrong with your knee?” he replied with a smirk — it wasn’t really a question. “I’ll strap it up in the morning and you’ll be fine.”
We started at 6am, and for the first few kilometres, everything hurt. I hadn’t slept more than 30 minutes at a time for three nights, I was cold and despite Mark’s work on my hip flexors and thighs, my muscles were fatigued to the extreme.
But about half an hour in I decided I had three choices. I could give up, (not an option). I could walk it and take hours (not appealing), or I could get on with the task in hand — so I picked up the pace.
When I passed the finish line 4 hours and 49 minutes later, I ran straight into Mark’s arms for a massive hug.
“I couldn’t, wouldn’t have done this if it wasn’t for you,” I told him, grinning through my total and utter exhaustion — the sense of accomplishment after a marathon is extraordinary.
And I meant every word, my knee didn’t hurt at any point during the run and nor has it since.
After a glass of champagne and a shower, I phoned my trainer, Karen.
“I knew you could do it — you’re stronger than you think Abi,” she said, and she is right.
But I wouldn’t be strong without the team behind me that has helped me rehabilitate my knee to this point. In my mind, now, and thanks to them, I feel unstoppable.
AUTHOR: Abigail Butcher is a freelance journalist and editor with 18 years of national media experience, specialising in health and fitness, skiing, travel and lifestyle. Website: www.abibutcher.com Twitter: @abi_butcher Instagram: abijbutcher