2020. A year to remember, but one most of us would also like to forget.
A treasured employee lost his father in January 2020, and I attended the funeral. It was in a Presbyterian church in Van Buren. The old pews and the songs made me want to get back to worshiping regularly at a church. Since opening my store and working every weekend, I’d moved my long training runs to Sundays and eventually stopped attending church. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for or what I needed, but I felt a change of some kind was in order. After messaging a friend about Covenant Presbyterian Church in Fort Smith, I thought, “After my race in March, I’ll go check it out.”
My last race was the Atlanta Half Marathon on March 1, 2020, after watching and cheering at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials. My right knee had been bothering me for a while, and it did not have the same range of motion as my left, but I didn’t know why. After this race, I knew something was seriously wrong with my knee. It was quite painful immediately following the race, and it never recovered. I could go for a couple of miles, then the pain would set in.
Running is quite literally my job. I’ve completed about 30 half marathons, 1 full marathon, 2 10-milers, an unknown number of 10Ks, and countless 5Ks. I’m not a professional runner by any stretch, but I own a running store. Running is an expectation that comes with it. My world revolves around the sport. Running changed everything in my life. Although I was never the fastest or the strongest, it gave me a confidence in myself that I never knew I could have. I saw myself in a different light. What I didn’t have in speed, I had in determination. I may not pass you, but I will undoubtedly outlast you.
But what happens when a running store owner can no longer run?
March 2020 brought a lot of other things with it — COVID, lockdowns, business and supply chain problems, etc. Like all other events, races shut down. There was nothing to train for, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t just run for the joy of running. But I physically COULDN’T. I couldn’t get outside and go on that stress-relieving run, to untangle the thoughts about what to do if my business had to close, and what impact the worldwide lockdowns would eventually have on my business. My running became a source of stress for me as well. Why couldn’t I just run?
And Covenant Presbyterian Church I was supposed to check out? They had moved to online services until everyone had a better idea of what we were dealing with and found the best way to handle it. So, I joined the online services. Some of the hymns I knew, others I didn’t. And there was this one song they had every Sunday. The “Gloria Patri.” I was not familiar with this song, and I wondered why it was done every single Sunday. And there was the Apostles’ Creed and sometimes the Nicene Creed. I had heard of them, but they were never a part of my worship growing up. And the Lord’s Prayer was also recited every Sunday. I knew it, of course, but was never part of a tradition that recited it every Sunday. The sermons were from the Book of Matthew, which the preacher seemed to be covering verse by verse. And the sermons were good. Really good. Intelligent and thoughtful, the sermons didn’t shy away from challenging verses. He was preaching to a camera, but I was on the other side of that camera.
To be prepared for whatever was headed our way during this global pandemic, my store adjusted its hours of operation. We went from 10:00 am-7:00 pm to 10:00 am-5:00 pm and closed on Sundays. I suddenly had more time on my hands than I’d had in a few years. More time to worry. More time to clean the house. More time to study and learn about the things the preacher, Dr. John Clayton, was talking about to that camera.
In May of 2020, I made an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon to see what was wrong with my knee. People in the office referred to me as “that True Grit runner lady” or some combination thereof when they spoke to each other. Diagnosis: severe osteoarthritis. And my right knee was already bone-on-bone, with a ton of bone spurs, leaking bone marrow, meniscus tears, and a loose body that was either bone or a piece of meniscus. Or, as the doctor said, “Your knee is toast.” The option was to get shots for a while, take meloxicam to help with inflammation, and try to function as best as possible before eventually needing a replacement. For those wondering, no, running did not cause osteoarthritis. It is genetic, and it would be there whether I was a runner or not.
As luck would have it, an Orangetheory Fitness opened 2 doors down from my store in June 2020. Working out at Orangetheory Fitness helped my stress a lot, as their treadmills can reduce impact on your joints by up to 40%! With the coaches leading the workouts, it was one less thing I had to think about. I also learned how to use a water rower and it quickly became one of my favorite pieces of equipment. Orangetheory Fitness helped me get stronger and take on new physical challenges. It became my new outlet since my outdoor running had become too unpredictable. There, I could modify when and where I needed to, and still get a great workout. Occasionally, my knee would not cooperate, and I would bail from the treadmill to the strider during class. Little did I know that the strider and I would be partners for a long time going forward.
In June or July 2020, I was finally able to visit Covenant Presbyterian Church. It was even better in person. By this time, I knew the “Gloria Patri” and sang along. Every other pew was roped off, some people had masks, and I think there might have been two separate services at this time, to try to keep folks socially distanced. I got to meet Dr. John Clayton that morning, and I informed him that I had been watching online. Covenant Presbyterian Church had a plethora of sermon and Sunday School videos I had time to dig deep into, and I took notes. Lots and lots of notes. This was different than anything I had ever heard, and I went to a Christian college. A few months went by, and I got to know a few more people there. By October of 2020, I knew I wanted to be a part of this church, and I officially became a member.
In December of 2020, I managed to end up in the Emergency Room, needing emergency surgery on my back at L5-S1. The disc had sequestered and was causing issues with spinal nerve roots, and cauda equina syndrome. Normally, this kind of injury happens due to car accidents, falls, or impact from sports. None of those had happened to me. There was nothing I could point to and say, “This is what caused this.” Before the surgery, I asked the neurosurgeon, “Let’s assume my knee is perfect and needs nothing. If we do this surgery, could I run again?” He answered, “If your knee was perfect, in 3 months, you’d be able to do whatever you wanted.” And with that, they wheeled me through the doors.
What originally sent me to the emergency room was an inability to urinate, due to the nerves being impacted by the sequestered disc. I had a discectomy and a bilateral laminectomy. I spent 4 full days in the hospital — during which the nurses tested whether my legs would work at the start of every shift change. That will change your perspective quickly. In less than a year, I went from running half marathons to having physical therapists excited that I could walk 300 feet down a hallway with a walker. Believe me when I tell you that every single step I take is a gift from the Lord.
Because my 4-day hospital stay was during COVID, I could only have one visitor a day, and only for 2 hours. The small TV in my room didn’t work, which was completely fine. It was a very lonely time, but I had my phone. I called, I messaged, and even placed shoe orders with my phone. My surgery was on a Saturday night, and on the following Sunday morning, I joined in the online service for Covenant Presbyterian Church. It was a sermon on love from John 13:34-35. It wasn’t the same as being there, but it was better than nothing.
I was sent home from the hospital with a walker and an in-dwelling catheter the following Wednesday night. I could no longer completely empty my bladder. And I had numbness in my saddle area, across my right buttock, and down the back of my right leg. My neurosurgeon said that the numbness might go away after 6-12 months, but if feeling had not returned by 12 months, the damage was permanent. The nerves had been damaged, and my bladder had to be re-trained. I managed to eliminate the need for the catheter after 2 weeks, but still had to use incontinence pads in case I couldn’t make it to the restroom in time. Sometimes, my bladder wouldn’t send the signal until it was too late. There I was, 45 years old, relearning to potty-train myself. I eventually graduated from the walker to a cane, and then unassisted. Feeling never returned to my numb areas, and they are still numb in October 2023. The numbness isn’t bothersome, as it doesn’t prevent me from doing anything — but it is an odd reminder of what happened.
Lifting, bending, and twisting were all out of the question for several weeks post-surgery, so of course running and jumping were completely out for at least a few months. I eventually was able to return to Orangetheory Fitness. But over time, my right knee became permanently bent and I could no longer straighten my leg. I walked with a constant limp, and running became dangerous as I no longer had the proper range of motion, not to mention how changing my gait would eventually impact my hips and back. After what I had just been through, I wasn’t interested in going through back surgery again. The strider and I became pals, and we worked our way through the workouts.
In early 2021, I decided I wanted to help in the media booth at Covenant Presbyterian Church. After all, I had been incredibly blessed by the livestream, and thought it was a great place to serve. I had worked in the media booth at my church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and at another church in Greenwood, Arkansas, so I was somewhat familiar with what was needed. After a few training sessions, I had it down and was helping livestream the worship service.
Over 2021, some races returned, but many simply just went away. A lot of the area non-profits that once held 5Ks as fundraisers had turned to other options for funds, and there were not as many races to choose from. It was just as well… I couldn’t run them anyway, and the River Valley was a little “5K heavy” and could use some culling. I continued to do challenges at Orangetheory Fitness, sponsor races, and work them when I could. I did hold a training clinic and taught others how to run/walk — even while I couldn’t. For races, I worked traffic control and water stops, and cheered on my friends — I could do that, and it kept me connected to my running friends and community. But sometimes, I’d still have to be able to sit down because my knee wouldn’t cooperate.
Also in 2021, I became obsessed with my 2000m row time at Orangetheory Fitness. I may not be able to set a new PR in a run, but the 2000m row is the single most hated benchmark at Orangetheory Fitness. And I absolutely love it. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I first did the 2000m row in 2020 and my time was 10:00.09. Not too good. Once I learned more about how to row and improved my form, I managed to take my time down to 8:09.60. Then 8:00.00. Then 7:55.90. I hit my PR of 7:50.87 on March 8, 2022.
I started studying knee replacement surgery. There are a lot of support groups on Facebook, but a lot of them seemed full of older people who just wanted to complain. I finally asked in a group, “Is there anyone here like me?” Someone responded with, “You should join a group called TKR Runners.” TKR is short for Total Knee Replacement. It’s an incredible group! I found people out there running with knee replacements! And some were running long distances. Some were even going fast! And if they weren’t running, they were hiking or cross-country skiing, or doing other incredible activities. Running itself isn’t always in the cards for those with knee replacements, there are a lot of factors that go into it, and some of it isn’t always under the patient’s control. And I highly advise discussing possible activities with your surgeon prior to undergoing the surgery. The folks in TKR Runners had the “athlete mindset.” Their attitude and recovery seemed to be better than in the more general support groups I found. While the general support groups were helpful and provided insight, the TKR Runner folks gave me hope and inspired me.
I read articles, watched videos, read about what can go wrong, what recovery is like, what people can do afterwards. Lots of research. I asked a lot of questions of my orthopedic, who carefully explained everything to me every time I asked.
At Covenant Presbyterian Church, I had also joined the choir because I thought it would be a great way to learn some of these hymns that I wasn’t familiar with. At the time, the choir would sing from the loft. Since the church is in an old building, the stairs to the loft are narrow and steep. Meanwhile, I felt comfortable enough with the cameras and livestream that occasionally I would record weddings or funerals. And the step into and out of the media booth is a big one. There is an elevator that can take you from the ground floor up to the sanctuary, and it is cool. But it can’t take you into and out of the loft or into and out of the media booth. I would have to take all of this into consideration when I would schedule my knee replacement surgery.
In December 2021, I participated in the Fort Smith Little Theatre off-season production, “The Holiday Channel Christmas Movie Wonderthon.” When I saw pictures from rehearsals and the production, I could see how pronounced my knee bend was. Wow. I was taken aback seeing it like that. I couldn’t straighten my leg and it was painfully obvious.
My knee replacement research continued into 2022, and I finally got fed up with the pain one day in late spring 2022. I got tired of limping, I got tired of explaining myself, and I just got tired. I was still very active, but I wasn’t able to do all I wanted. I thought about all the people in TKR Runners who were out participating in races and going on training runs. Some of them were able to run as early as 6-months post-op. They were not setting personal records, but they were running. Or at least getting back into the swing of things. I did the math, looked at a calendar, and messaged my orthopedic surgeon. “I’m ready for my right total knee replacement, and it needs to be after October 1, 2022.”
The surgery was scheduled for October 17, 2022, and all the pre-op appointments had to be completed. Pre-habilitation started. I asked my surgeon for all the details. What type of knee are you giving me and why? Will I retain my ligaments? Will it be cemented? He drew it out for me and explained everything, and he knew I had done my research. And he knew I would try running on it.
Total knee replacement surgery was tougher on me than the back surgery. Both were tough, no doubt about it. The back surgery was just such a surprise, and I didn’t get to prepare for it. The knee, however, was elective — and I went forward with it with high hopes, but eyes wide open to what could happen.
The bruising, the swelling, the fear of falling, the fatigue, the pain, the inability to sleep, the physical therapy sessions…all of it was tough. I used a walker for about 2 weeks and then used a cane until I felt stable. Because it was my right knee, I couldn’t drive for 6 weeks. Sometimes I think that was the hardest part. The bruising was awful, and it looked like my surgeon had taken a baseball bat to my leg. God bless my husband for toting me around to all my things and all my places during those 6 weeks. But truthfully, the hardest part was the fatigue. I would try to sit at my desk at home to do work, and I could only last for about 30 minutes before I had to rest. Like any athlete, I started adding a few minutes to my 30 each time, until I could sit at my desk for an hour before needing to get up. It was good to get up every hour and walk around the house and do some of my therapy exercises. Getting ready for the day would wear me out. During all this, my husband (who loves to cook) would cook our meals and he made sure I had lots of protein to help rebuild the muscles. Several ladies from church wanted to help with meals, but I think David wanted to do this for me. And I will be forever in his debt.
I was back at work at about the 3-4 weeks post-op time frame. I wasn’t climbing the stockroom ladder or “slinging shoes,” as we say. Mostly just sitting at my desk but helping my team with any questions. And lots of customers knew I was getting the surgery, so many of them would stop in to check on me, and that was very nice. Investing in a gaming chair was one of the best decisions! It leans back, has a massaging pillow, and even has a footrest! And it was totally worth it.
In my physical therapy sessions, I told them that I needed to learn stairs quickly for church. I had no stairs at home, but church was important. Teach me the stairs. The choir no longer sang from the loft, but from the front of the sanctuary. There were two stairs I needed to conquer. Three, if you count the single big one to access the media booth. We practiced stairs. I was able to take the stairs at church after a couple of weeks and was back singing with the choir. After a little more time, I conquered the big stair into the media booth and was able to livestream the services once again. I also requested that we practice kneeling. We do not regularly kneel at church, but at Orangetheory Fitness, we kneel on occasion. You don’t have to if you can’t, but I didn’t want to limit myself if possible. Some people with TKR cannot kneel on their new hardware. It is not comfortable, but I can do it with a small pad or rolled-up towel underneath. The trick is to start kneeling on your couch cushions or your bed. Then gradually decrease the cushion over time.
After graduating from physical therapy in mid-January 2023, I was cleared to start walking on the treadmill. It was scary. It felt funny at first, but I had to get up there and do it if I ever wanted to run again. My surgeon asked me at a follow-up in February 2023 if I was running yet. I was surprised he asked because I didn’t think I was quite ready to try. I told him no, but I was looking to April 17, which would be the 6-month mark. He said that was a smart strategy and said, “Go forth, and be tough on it. I know you will be.”
In March 2023, I made my first post-knee replacement attempt at the 2000m row at Orangetheory Fitness. I came in at 8:03.39, and I was so proud! Not far from my PR! I first tried running on my knee also in March, slightly ahead of my original schedule. I started to feel stronger and more confident on the moving belt, and felt it was OK to try. It was indeed scary. But I could do it a little. And my knee didn’t swell up like a balloon! But my sacroiliac joints, my hips, and my back…they all hurt. To the extent that I could no longer bend over in the mornings. I could barely walk sometimes. And if I sat too long in a low seat, or slept on my back too long, I might be stuck there for a time. And if I moved a certain way, I could feel the nerves firing across my lower back freezing me in place until the sensation went away, terrifying me into thinking I might have to do the back surgery thing all over again.
From there I went on a full-blown all-out downward spiral. It was just the final straw. My body parts were rebelling. Why was this happening? I stopped working out, terrified that I would do further damage. Angry and hurt, my mind flipped between working to try to solve the problem to just flat out giving up altogether, and it would flip every 10 minutes.
April 17, the 6-month mark came and went, and I did a workout at Orangetheory Fitness. But on the very next day, at around 11:15am, a car crashed through my storefront. No one was hurt, thank God, but there was a huge mess and a lot of damaged displays. When I first saw it, I didn’t think my store would ever recover. After the fiasco that was the 2020 lockdowns, my surprise back surgery, the supply chain nonsense of 2021-2022, and a total knee replacement…I started to think naming my store True Grit Running Company was evidently challenging someone to a test. “True Grit, eh? Well, we’ll see about that.” We cleaned up everything and had fun with a sale a couple of days later. We called it a “Doorbuster Sale,” because why not? It was exactly what happened. Once things calmed down after the big sale and we got things put back where they belonged, I was once again able to focus on trying to run again.
My best guess was that a weak core, weak hips, and weak hamstrings were to blame for all my sacroiliac joint, hip, and back pains. As I started running again, I needed those muscles to support me, and they couldn’t do the job. The best way to describe the pain is that it feels like my hips cannot hold up my upper body. People would ask me how my knee was, and I’d have to respond, “My knee is just fine. It’s everything else!” I began to do exercises at home to help relieve some of the pain. Simple bending and stretching, leg swings, balance exercises, sprinter sit-ups, torso rotations, wall sits, hip bridges, clamshells, leg lifts, deadlifts, then adding in resistance bands. And I performed them angrily. I was mad at life, mad at the world, mad at people in TKR Runners who seemed to have no problems, mad at myself, and mad at my body. But I kept trying because of my stubbornness and my inability to give up.
It was at this time that I discovered the complete verse of Job 13:15. “Though he slay me, I will hope in him; yet I will argue my ways to his face.” I’m not a theologian and I’m not sure this is theologically accurate or appropriate… but this thought got me through. “God, I know you are sovereign over all things, and you can take me out right now and be justified in doing so. I am nothing and you owe me nothing. You are my rock and my shield, my very great protector, and I will put my complete hope and trust in you… but know that if it is your will that I never run again, I will argue my case to your face.” He would not relent if never running again is what brings me closer to him. But the Apostle Paul didn’t stop just because he was shipwrecked multiple times. The Apostle Peter didn’t stop just because he was imprisoned. Running is different than advancing the Gospel, but I can’t assume that any hardship was God telling me no.
Over the course of the past few months, the pain has diminished. It hasn’t completely gone away, but I can tell what I’ve done has made a difference. My hips and back still need a lot of support and coaxing in the mornings, but I’m no longer relying on a cocktail of ibuprofen and acetaminophen just before bed. I’m continuing with these exercises while I am training to run again.
I’m officially registered for my first 5K in over 3 years. Technically, it is my first RACE in over 3 years. THREE LONG, ARDUOUS, PAINFUL, AND PRAYER-FILLED YEARS. If the Lord wills it, I am running the Survivor’s Challenge 5K on October 21, 2023. It was the closest one to the 1-year mark with my new knee, and it’s for a great cause. And I’ve only completed the 10K for the Survivor’s Challenge race, so this will be a brand new experience! Most of my training has been on a treadmill, but I have been able to tackle a few outdoor runs when it fits into my schedule. Most of my runs used to be at 5:00 am in the dark, but I have a new-found fear of falling with my new knee, so no more runs in the dark for now. Autumn is officially upon us, so daylight is slowly diminishing with each passing day. And with the schedule of a small business owner, finding time to run outside in the daylight is difficult.
The night before the race, I will once again perform the ritual of taking a “flat me” picture. On the morning of October 21, I will have the rituals of lacing up my shoes, attaching my bib to my shirt, taking one last look in the mirror, and adjusting my visor before heading out the door. When I line up with the other 5K participants, I will be as excited and as nervous as I have ever been for a race. I have no expectations of winning anything — if I cross that finish line, that is enough for me. The first few steps of a run are always a bit wonky, and I feel clunky at first. It is much slower than it used to be, but I’m running. And that is everything.
My husband will be there, cheering for me. And ladies, if you’re looking for a man, find you one who is steadfast in all that he does. Find you one that will clean your catheter, wash your hair while managing to keep your back or knee dry, and answer your every beck and call when you can’t move, and all without complaining. David continues to look after me day after day, ensuring that I can do all the things I want to do.
The Lord has blessed me exponentially, and it has nothing to do with my name or anything I have done. For reasons known only to the Almighty, he has chosen to bless me through these past 3 years — even though at times I felt cursed — I can see his hand working for my ultimate good. What has happened to me is so small compared to some, and my circumstances could have been a lot worse. I’m so grateful they were not. He has brought me to a church that has challenged me, changed me, helped me, edified me, and more importantly — helped me face each individual day by keeping an eternal perspective.
On October 21, I will be following doctor’s orders when I “go forth, and be tough on it.”