Irish 3000 metre steeplechase athlete Kerry Flaherty was on track to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games when a crushing injury forced her to make one of the hardest decisions of her life. In this post, Kerry shares her journey towards recovery and why the lockdown has given her reasons to feel grateful.
In September 2019 I travelled to Andujar Spain, to run in a steeplechase event in pursuit of a qualifying time for the World Championships in Doha.
On the day of the race, it was very hot, in the mid-30’s, but as the evening approached and the sun went down, the conditions weren’t as stifling. As we lined up, I knew that some of the African athletes would start at a very fast pace at the front, so staying out of trouble (or so I thought) at the back and settling in for the first couple of laps would be the thing to do
I felt relaxed as we ran the first 200 metres and over the first barrier safely. The second barrier comes quickly enough on the bend around the 300 metre mark on the track, so I positioned myself and hurdled into the air to take the barrier. I was in full flight when I felt a shove in the back from another competitor on my left side and came down on the track with my full bodyweight on the outside of my right foot. I felt a sharp, extreme pain and let out a massive yell.
It happened so quickly, but I was able to stay upright and pushed onto the next barrier, thinking the pain would ease. The first water barrier was very uncomfortable but I kept thinking the “It’s just a sprain and I’ve spent a lot of time and money travelling to this top-class race so I must push on.”
Unfortunately, as I ran on it became more painful. I was limping and the field was slipping away. I ran on for three laps but then had to stop. As soon as I stopped, I couldn’t even walk. I saw my friend, English steeplechaser Aimee Pratt in the crowd and she came down to help me off the track. Her coach called the medics and I was off to hospital in an ambulance, not knowing where I was being taken, or how I would get back to the athlete hotel.
They attended to me very quickly in the Andujar hospital A&E and provided an excellent service. An X-ray confirmed I had broken my fifth metatarsal and I was put into a back slab cast since I was flying home the next day.
I was so grateful to see the competition director and Senior Spanish Athletics Federation official, José Luis de Carlos Macho arrive at the hospital in his car to pick me up and take me back to the hotel. It was so good of him and he even called the airline to arrange help at the airport for the following morning. While navigating the airport on crutches with a wheelie bag was a bit of a struggle, I was so glad to finally get home.
Once I was back in Northern Ireland, I arranged an appointment with foot and ankle specialist Alistair Wilson, who confirmed that I had a Jones’ fracture. I would undergo surgery to have a screw inserted for the bone to repair properly. One week after the break, I had the surgery privately to repair the bone so that I still had a chance of making Tokyo 2020
During recovery I was especially careful to make sure my diet was varied and well balanced and I supplemented with Revive Active’s Joint Complex because it supports cartilage, bones and connective tissue.
I spent a couple of weeks resting before I could try to start walking at home in trainers, and outside in a boot. My calf muscle had wasted in a matter of days following the fracture, so I knew I would have a lot of work to do. The surgeon saw me after two weeks and I got the go ahead to start some walking on the Alter-G treadmill and some spin bike sessions. I also began working with my physios Kerry Kirk, Dave Minion and Ronan McLoughlin with plenty of foot drills to strengthen all the muscles and tendons that had become weak.
Training during rehab included spin bike sessions, mountain biking in the forest, stepper bike long spins, the one-legged rowing machine (with the injured leg on a skateboard), gym work, Alter-G treadmill walking and walking outside on crutches. It was around eight weeks before I was able to try some running on the Alter-G treadmill. This was the longest time I had ever been away from running and it was very, very hard.
My first run outside was 12 weeks after surgery. My heart rate was sky high and my big toe was in pain after being immobilised in a boot. I spent December building up my runs and by January, I was able to start some tempo sessions and faster runs in Torrevieja, Spain at an Athletics NI training camp. Throughout this period my big toe remained stiff and sore.
Trying to bring in hurdling and some faster running proved to be my stumbling block. When I tried to sprint, my fifth metatarsal would become inflamed and sore. According to the scans the bone had healed very well, yet it seemed the screw might not be allowing the full motion I needed to hurdle and sprint. Now the screw had done its job to help the bone, I made the tough decision to have the screw removed. This meant more time off my feet, about ten days, and a careful return to running to protect the bone which would be hollow and fragile for around four to six weeks.
Ultimately, it looked as though I probably wouldn’t have time to prepare to race steeplechase this season, meaning the 2020 Olympics would be out for me. This was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make and being out after surgery for a second time hit me hard.
My second surgery was on February 10, so I was very lucky to be able to have the screw removed and start my rehab with my physio Dave Minion, using the Alter-G and getting some runs in at 50-70% body weight to set me up well for my return to running on land. Again making sure I ate a balanced and varied diet, I supplemented with Revive Active Joint Complex to support my bones, cartilage and connective tissue.
Six weeks on, the surgeon is delighted with how well the bone has healed and I am back doing some easy runs. I have now built up to six miles on land with zero pain in my fifth metatarsal and the big toe pain is easing too.
Restrictions in place due to the pandemic mean I’m not able to use the facilities at the Sports Institute nor am I able to attend physio or strength and conditioning sessions. Not having regular physio after surgery is tough but I can discuss my exercises online, and I work at home as best I can.
The announcement of the postponement of the Olympics was not a shock; most could see it coming. Many other sports competitions across the world had been cancelled and with facilities closed, it was going to be impossible for some people to qualify in their sports, and to train and prepare to compete at the Games.
I feel like I have been given a second chance to get back to full fitness and to steeple in 2021 in the hope of once again making it to the Olympic Games.
With Tokyo now being more than a year away, I can fully concentrate on getting the rehab right and not rushing. I don’t need to bring back the faster running yet and I can concentrate on building up the miles and running smoothly again.
Like anyone, I have days when I’m motivated and days when I’m not. This lockdown is like nothing we have ever experienced and it is hard not having a structure to work to, races to plan, friends and family to visit or work to go to (I’m a supply teacher).
As a runner I can put my running shoes on and go out the door to run. I feel for my swimmer friends who now don’t have access to pools, and others who have to isolate or lock down in cities that don’t have parks or areas to go for walks or runs.
I can do without a track for now. A lot of running is on roads but I do live in a beautiful part of the world and am grateful for the countryside and green areas I have around me. To change things up I’ve been going out on my bike and discovering the country roads around my house, while planning some long runs for when my foot gets stronger.
While in a cast and then a boot, I really missed running with my training group and club. As a result of social distancing I’m still missing that, but we do link up via social media apps to catch up for coffee chats or even circuit training sessions in our own homes. There are plenty of ways to stay healthy both physically and mentally while all this is going on.
At this moment in time nobody can determine when things will get back to normal. It could be six months, a year or even longer. We don’t know when the next competition will be, so for now going out and enjoying a run or walk is the best thing we can do to stay healthy, keep the legs ticking over, while taking each day as it comes and doing the little things that distract us.
Stay safe everyone.