Pivotal Passion

How a love of running helped Claire beat a broken back
(9 minute read)

When an accident left Claire with a broken back, she worried she might never run again. Now a marathoner and a qualified Running Coach, Claire explains how her passion was vital to her recovery.

So Claire, What’s Your Running Background?

I was always interested in running and when I was a kid I used to go down to an old disused railway lane and try to run, but I always either got shin splints or out of breath before I got any sort of distance. In those days there wasn’t the internet or access to coaching to find out how to run properly, so I was just going out in my rubbish trainers, going full pelt and thinking I would be able to do it forever! Looking back now it’s no surprise I couldn’t get more than about 200 metres back then!

So the interest was always there, and years later my grandad sadly passed away from cancer. He was always such a fit and healthy and strong individual, and I wanted to do something in his honour for Cancer Research. I signed up for the Reading Half Marathon in 2004, which was a big leap from not running to signing up for a half marathon!

I tried to research how to train on the internet, and I made a lot of mistakes on the way. I had a few injury problems on the way which put me behind on my training. I was determined to do it though, and I raised about £900. By the end of the Reading Half Marathon, I literally couldn’t walk! I remember the next day I tried to get out of bed and I just fell on the floor! I had just broken myself from training in completely the wrong way.

I was very much an ‘off and on’ runner from then onwards, never sure how to do it and how to maintain it, getting injured and having to take time off, or just being lazy and letting it slip. But I’d always wanted to do better than I was, at the time I just didn’t know how.

we run coach for horsham coach claire

I’d always wanted to be better than I was at running, but at the time I just didn’t know how.

Tell Us About Your Accident

I used to be into horse riding when I was younger, and I wanted to get back into it as I’m a big animal person. It was in the Winter so the evenings were getting a bit dark. We were just trotting around, and the horse got spooked by a tree moving in the wind, and decided it didn’t want anything on its back and spent what felt like forever bucking and shaking from side to side until it got me off its back. I can remember the floor coming towards me, it felt like slow motion, but I couldn’t get my arms out to break my fall. I ended up landing on my spine. I lay there for a bit, winded, and the teacher came over and checked me, got me up and actually put me back on the horse! I think she didn’t want me to be scared next time. I drove home but I was in a lot of pain, but because I was mobile I assumed it was just a really bad sprain.

The pain during the night was so bad that I ended up going to the minor injuries clinic. I had an x-ray and they told me it was just a sprain, so they sent me home with strong pain killers. Over time my back did feel like it was slowly getting better, but it was always painful. My accident was in December, but in May the following year I was still suffering with pain, and so I ended up having an MRI scan. The MRI showed that one of the vertebrae in my back had actually shattered, but it was missed on the x-ray because the line of the fracture can be very fine and difficult to spot on an x-ray. I should say I used to work in the NHS and I’m a massive fan of it! But because the fracture was missed initially, the vertebrae had collapsed on one side, so it’s now shaped a bit like a door wedge. The pain I was experiencing was actually the muscles around it, which were trying to protect my spine, and had been in constant spasm. In the end I was really fortunate, because we don’t think it affected any nerves, so it has healed ok, but I had to do a lot of physio to get the muscles to relax.

What Effect Did It Have On Your Running?

When I was discussing my injury with my GP (who is also a keen runner), the first thing I asked her was ‘Will I be able to run again?’ It’s hard to explain how concerned I was about it, even though I hadn’t at that point been the most consistent runner. The thought that running might be taken away from me made my heart sink. She told me “I don’t know. It might be difficult. Let’s see how we go.” I heard it as a no – I was sure she was just trying to be kind. The way she said it, and the fact that she seemed so concerned, made me really worried I might never run again.

The MRI showed that one of the vertebrae in my back had actually shattered. I was really worried I might never run again.”

Tell Us About The Recovery Process

My rehab involved lots of strong massage and lots of exercises. Lots of work on correcting my posture, arm exercises, rolling on a foam roller; anything that would improve the flexibility and range of motion in my upper body. At first I was doing them every hour; it became a bit of an obsession! At the core of it was my determination to run again – I wasn’t going to let my injury stop me running. If I hadn’t had that goal in mind, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been as religious with the rehab process!

How Did Your Relationship to Running Change?

It changed a lot. Other than my family and having enough money to live, running is probably the most important thing in my life now. It’s my way to de-stress. Before the accident, I liked running and I really liked it when I was running well, but I wasn’t consistent with it. I didn’t understand how to improve. When I tried to come back to running I was still doing it all wrong!

I finally managed to get back into running with my local club Horsham Joggers. I spoke to them and explained my history, and fortunately one of the runners that helped out at the club was a nurse – so she was always checking up on me! It was really hard; I’d put on quite a lot of weight as I’d basically been inactive for a long period of time, apart from my stretches and physio.

It was the combination of breaking my back, and splitting up with my long term partner (in the same month!) that made me so determined and take the step of going to the club for help; I needed running, and they helped me understand it better. Being surrounded by such great people, and people helping me understand how I could improve my running – it helped me realise that there’s more good things in life than bad. I would never have taken that first step if I hadn’t broken my back.

All the things that running has brought to me – that’s what made me want to get into coaching. I remember what it felt like to think “I can’t do this”, but you can, you’re just not quite getting there in the right way for you.

Running has gone from being something I really wanted to do, and almost a love-hate relationship, to it now being my absolute passion. I’m not the quickest runner in the world, it’s not about that for me, it’s just everything that running brings to me; I don’t know what I’d do without it!

It Sounds Like Running Gave Something To Aim For?

It definitely did. From the day of that conversation with my GP, getting back to running was all I wanted to do. Until that point I didn’t really have a goal to work towards.

“Having people helping me understand how I could improve my running – it helped me realise that there are more good things in life than bad.”

What Happened Next?

For me, distance has always been my focus. Every year as a child I watched the London Marathon, even before I could run. It always made me emotional – all the people, the crowds cheering them on. I’d always wanted to make London my first marathon. Sadly I’ve applied 9 times, and I’ve never gotten in!

One of my comeback races was the Down Tow Up Flow Half Marathon, and I raised money for a Lupus charity. It was really tough, I was still carrying some extra weight and it was my first half marathon since the one I did for my Grandad years and years before. As soon as I managed to do that, I decided I had to do a marathon. I decided that if I waited to get a place in London, I might be waiting forever, so I signed up for the Brighton Marathon and I did it for an animal sanctuary I volunteer at so I knew I’d have to keep my commitment. I dragged two of my closest friends (Sue and Lou) with me, and we all completed our first marathon together in Brighton. I have now completed 6 marathons, and who knows how many halves (I told you I’m obsessed!)

The Brighton Marathon Must Have Been Emotional?

I cried! I crossed the finish line and I was in tears. It was like the finale of a massively long journey, and not just from my back injury, but from my painful break up, and my childhood dream. There’s one stretch of Brighton that’s pretty awful, it’s two industrial estates – I think you come out of that stretch at about mile 21. I was determined to run the whole distance, but when I got to mile 21, I really wanted to walk. I came round the corner from that horrible stretch, and I heard someone yelling “Go on Claire, you can do it!”, I looked up and it was Fatboy Slim! (I had my name on my vest) It gave me that extra little bit of energy to carry on. When I crossed the finish line I just felt the happiest I’d felt in years. My friends understood what it meant to me and were there a the finish line with champagne too. It was really emotional for me – I’m welling up now talking about it!

It was the most memorable moment of my life, it’s the one that has given me the most self-belief – a very personal moment.

Tell Us About Your Journey Into Coaching?

All of these experiences led me to want to get into running coaching. I was helping guide a few friends to improve their running and writing training plans for them, and I managed to get a few friends who hadn’t been runners to get involved too. My Coach from the club (Fiona) was really generous with her time and helped to look over the plans I’d written to make sure they were sensible (it turns out they were!) Seeing what effect this had on my friends, and seeing them develop – I loved that more than anything. I wanted to do this for more people, and learn properly how to coach runners. I undertook the UK Athletics Leader in Running Fitness course, and I organised and led two fundraising “Learn to Run” courses at my workplace the money went to Chestnut Tree House Children’s Hospice. I loved the process of helping people learn how to run, and I really wanted to learn more. Even though I’m not the quickest runner myself, I was also really keen to learn more about the technical side of running too. So I went on to undertake the full Coach in Running Fitness course with UK Athletics, giving me the skills and knowledge to coach runners on a 1-2-1 basis.

I’ve always been pretty studious, but I’ve never been so obsessed with reading around a subject as I was when doing my coaching qualification! Actually I’m still pretty obsessed with the subject now – you can always learn more! There are just so many little things that you can do that make such a big difference. I absolutely adore it.

I’ve always been pretty studious, but I’ve never been so obsessed with reading around a subject as I was when doing my coaching qualification! There are just so many little things that you can do that make such a big difference. I absolutely adore it.

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