How Physical Therapy Saved My Marathon Run

Julianne Mele Marathon

By Julianne Mele

I never thought I would run a marathon. I also never understood why people participated in an event so strenuous, and I couldn’t quite grasp the enjoyment of running hours on end. I remember watching Olympians running the 26.2 miles on TV and asking myself, ‘What do they think about for so long? Don’t they get bored?’ These are the very questions I find myself answering now.

Around mid-August last year, I found myself clicking “register” for the New York City Marathon. My 92-year-old grandfather has placed a value on health and fitness his whole life, and he encouraged me to run the marathon one summer day after I finished an 8k race. At that point, the marathon was full, and one of the few ways to get an entry was to run for charity.

Immediately, I knew I wanted to run for a charity affiliated with brain cancer research, as my mom passed away in July 2012 from glioblastoma multiforme. Suddenly, the race took on a bigger meaning as I knew I would be raising money for a cause so close to me. My mom was on my mind a lot throughout my training and was a strong source of motivation.

I confirmed my registration with Voices Against Brain Cancer, the charity I chose to run with, and the very next day I was off on my first training run. I quickly learned that not all long-distance running is created equal. The toll running 15, 18, 20+ miles took on my body was obvious. I amped up my stretching regime and strength training, and completed circuit and spin classes to better equip my body for the increased mileage. I began running further and faster than ever before.

Despite the good care I had been taking of myself, I developed chronic knee pain during the last six weeks of training that seemed to keep getting worse. As a member of Professional Physical Therapy’s Business Relations Team, I understood how PT could help me prevent further injury so, although the pain wasn’t severe, I registered as a Direct Access patient. As any active person can understand, it can be debilitating to have an injury that forces you to temporarily or permanently stop doing what you love. Physical Therapist Jake Jansen thoroughly looked me over and said I had tendinitis in my knees as well as a lot of tightness throughout my body. Overall, I was in good condition thanks to rest during my taper, but Jake created a plan to get me running pain-free again.

Before I knew it, marathon day had arrived, and it was the coldest it had been all fall. I mummified myself in five layers and made the trek out to the Staten Island starting village, a scene of mass chaos with more than 50,000 runners rushing about like frenzied ants. The first half of the race flew by as I fed off the energetic atmosphere. Seeing the Manhattan skyline looming far off in the distance from the Verrazano Bridge was by far the most picturesque moment of the marathon, and Brooklyn crowds were so entertaining that I didn’t even need my music.

The real challenge began somewhere around mile 16 on the Queensboro Bridge. The notorious uphill stretch hit most runners like a brick wall; they were dropping off like flies. My strength training powered my legs. I persevered without slowing, but I began paying for it when I reached New York City’s First Avenue. The dreaded side cramp kicked in. I grimaced, jabbed my fingers in my stomach, and continued on. I didn’t hit the so-called wall at mile 20. I experienced a rather steady physical and moral decline that sank in deeper with every step. As I trudged uphill on Fifth Avenue, I just wanted the race to be over.

The experience of running a marathon cannot be measured by a single moment, or even the 3 hours, 45 minutes, and 56 seconds it took me to finish. For me, the marathon began back in August, and every draining workout completed, every whole-wheat noodle consumed, and every person who encouraged and helped me raise more than $6,000 for brain cancer research was an integral part of this experience.

Although the race was over, the worst of the pain was just about to set in. Lactic acid surged through my legs and, by the time I made it home, I was shaking from the cold and my entire body had stiffened up. I surrendered myself to lying motionless in bed with a bad cold. I didn’t have much of a choice since 26.2 miles pounding on asphalt had severely irritated my knees, and I could barely hobble around to use the bathroom.

I couldn’t wait to see Jake and have him help alleviate my pain. Over the next several weeks, we worked together to loosen me up and strengthen certain leg muscles that would help reduce my symptoms. Soon enough, I began itching to run again. I got the nod of approval, and I worked my way up to my first long run — around 12 miles — on Thanksgiving morning. I couldn’t have been happier to run through the trails in the woods, listen to my favorite electronic music, and feel my legs pump as the cold air went in and out of my lungs.

For me, running is my release, and I can’t imagine my life without it now. I may never be an Olympic marathoner, but I will no longer watch them race in bewilderment. There is something intoxicating about participating in an event that demands physical and mental excellence. Being proactive about my knee pain before and after the race has allowed me to continue the activity I love.

Despite everything that comes along with the grueling nature of the marathon, I can’t rule out the possibility that you might see me at the starting line again next year. And thanks to Professional, there’s nothing stopping me!