From the very beginning, the seeds of hope were sown that I would eventually be able to run again. I would have to re-start my life all over again and set myself small goals along the way, but always with the ultimate aim of being able to run.
Once I was able to walk with a prosthetic leg without the aid of crutches or a walking stick, about nine months post-amputation, I walked the Race for Life and was ready for the big challenge. But, where do I start and who can help me?
Clayton Smith, my prosthetist at the Disablement Services Centre in Plymouth had agreed to provide me with the prosthesis that I would need but I had to prove that I was going to use it first, as it was with NHS funding.
I began by searching the Internet for information. There was not a great deal of help there. I was expecting to find some sort of web site but to no avail. Luckily I did find another AK amputee who had learnt how to run. He advised me to start by jumping from my good leg onto the prosthetic foot to gain confidence in my prosthetic leg – this was with my day-to-day leg. I practised this every day. I then tried the hop/skip style of running, where you jump twice on the good foot and then land on the prosthetic foot and repeat. This got me moving a bit faster.
I then felt ready to try step over step running, so accompanied by my husband Tony, and a belt round my waist so he could hold me up whilst attempting it, we went to the local athletics track. It was hard work and the first few steps I made were very clumsy and awkward, much like a baby elephant. It was exhausting and I realised just how hard this was going to be.
I kept trying this for a few weeks, trying to get better. My dream of running seemed to be just that, a dream. Then, during a visit to the DSC one of the physios there gave me the details of a triathlon coach who had experience of coaching disabled athletes. I contacted him and although he had no experience of coaching amputees, he was willing to give it a go. So, in October 2007, I began my coaching sessions with Julian Wills.
I was very nervous to start with. He had to teach me how to run completely from scratch, as I could hardly put one foot in front of the other. He showed me how to change my foot-strike for a more economical running-style. He also taught me about equal stride-length, posture and correct arm technique. My own leg had to learn how to run alongside a mechanical leg which was quite alien to it, and a lot of the practise was to re-train my brain.
Although now, I could run it was still very tiring. I have been told that an AK amputee runner uses about 80% more energy, so it’s hardly surprising that I got tired and could not run very far.
In January 2008, the DSC made me a designated running leg.
It has a lightweight, ‘free knee’ unit, which was very different to the walking knee in that it does not lock. The other big difference was that the foot had been replaced by a carbon-fibre blade, which would help in energy return.
It looked very scary and I wondered how it was going to take my weight to stand on let alone run!
With any amputee the biggest stumbling block to walking or running well is confidence. Without complete trust in the prosthesis, you will never perform to your best ability.
I had to learn to trust the leg, even though it scared me. The following day, I went to the track with Julian and the new leg. The weather conditions could not have been worse – it was cold, windy and raining – hardly ideal weather for trying something so new! But within the hour I was running on it, very slowly and carefully but nevertheless, running. My biggest fear for a long time was falling over, but after a few times it does become less of a scare, especially when I don’t hurt myself – it’s the shock, which is worse.
Things were looking good, but then about a month later, when pushing myself too hard on the track, disaster struck. A sudden pain in the back of my stump caused me to stop immediately (that’s another thing that’s quite difficult to do) and I could run no more. I had to be helped off the track and could not even walk or put my other leg on – the pain was so intense. From then followed six weeks where I could not walk, I was back on crutches and could not work. I was devastated. Worst of all, nobody could really tell me what I had done. It was put down to nerve pain and I was on a lot of painkillers, at one stage, 17 a day. It turns out that it was probably a muscle tear. Eventually, after about six weeks I could wear my walking leg for a few hours a day pain-free until gradually I could wear it all day. But, I had lost a lot of muscle strength in my stump and that had to be built up again. I did more walking and before I attempted to run again I saw a physio at the hospital. She tested my muscle strength in the stump and I was pleased to hear that it was strong. She advised me to start back gradually. I did so, but it felt like learning all over again. I was very scared when I went back to the track in case I felt the pain again. I had lots of emotions as I tried to run again. Luckily, there was no pain, but I felt very clumsy and just concentrated on doing drills. I only spent a short time on my first time back and after a couple of weeks I was back with Julian coaching me again.
My next hurdle came when I decided it was time to leave the track and attempt what I had always wanted to do, go back to running on the roads.
In order to do this safely I had a sole of a running shoe glued to the blade to provide grip. But, this brought about a new problem. Because the leg was made slightly longer, by about 0.5cm, I got a shin splint injury in my left leg, so it was back to the DSC to have my running leg shortened by 0.5cm. It made all the difference, and when my shin splint healed, running was injury-free again.
Running on the pavements is a whole new ball game. The obstacles are many – cracks in the pavement, people, dogs, children, drains, sharp bends, kerbs and, especially if you live in Plymouth, hills!
I had to learn how to run up and down kerbs, but hills were my biggest fear. Uphill was hard work. As an AK amputee, I already use up to 100% more energy to run, but running up hills is like climbing a mountain. With practise, and the correct technique, it does become easier, but a bigger psychological fear was and still is, running downhill, or should I say, controlled falling downhill, and sometimes not so controlled. Julian showed me how to run down a hill, firstly getting confident in stopping. Once I could do this, I began trying to run down. It took lots of practise and it also involves a good deal of core stability and control. It looks like a long way to fall when you are at the top of a hill, but unless I conquer this fear then I will not be able to take part in running events in Plymouth.
I fell over a few times, usually at bus stops, much to the amazement of waiting passengers, but never hurt myself, thankfully.
In February 2009, I took part in my first run with able-bodied people. It was a fun run of 1.5 miles, which does not seem a lot, or it certainly didn’t when I had two legs but that was then and this is now, and it was a challenge for me. I trained hard and even though I had to stop a couple of times to catch my breath, I ran it in 22 minutes – probably double the time I would have been able to do it in normally. But, I got my first medal and was proud of my achievement.
I was then plagued by nerve pain again and running was two steps forward, one step back again. I brought it upon myself though, because I overdid things on the track with my coach on the day I tried out my re-fitted running leg socket. Nerves got upset and I had acupuncture, which helped, and I had to reduce my running. Plans to run the Race for Life on June 21st were looking decidedly shaky. I managed to complete the first half on crutches and run the rest on my running leg. That was better than nothing at all- besides I had to do it because my daughter was running it and could only take part if I was because she was under sixteen.
The course was very hilly as well – do the organisers ever consider disabled people? I have to wonder!
I am now over the nerve pain, building up my stamina and distance and feeling good that I can run!
Anyway, this is my story so far. Would love to hear from anyone else in my position for support or comparing experiences – as there is very little on the www.
In March 2011, on my birthday, I ran 4 miles for the first time. Unfortunately I also sustained an injury to my stump. After some weeks of rest and healing I began to run again – badly. Because of the fear of injury, and the desire to just run, I changed my technique unknowingly and I was eventually getting nowhere very slowly! This went on un-noticed by me for some time until Tony came out to watch me one day. I believed I was running but he was telling me different.
I thought that it was the setup of my leg at fault and had numerous tweaks and a new socket fitted. I even changed prosthetist. Carey was very interested to get involved with the running leg and she has been very helpful. At the end of the day though, it turned out it was me! Tony came out with me, took video to watch in slow motion and told me I had to stop running.
He made me start again. I basically had to follow my own instructions on this website! Tony came with me and put me through all the drills, he would not let me use my running leg until I had got my technique correct.
Tony has become my coach and regularly puts me through my drills while also pushing me with sprints to increase my stamina.
I am back on the road now and pushing myself to run for Sport Relief and then maybe the Race for life 5k.
I have to thank Tony, Hayley & Carey for getting me back to where I want to be.
Technique is everything when you are an amputee. Always keep up with drills!