Pain Truth

By Jessie Donavan

At the end of 2013, I had raced nine Ironman triathlons and seven 70.3s in just two years. I had managed to win three, place on the podium three more times and finish 13th overall in my first Kona, Hawaii Ironman. After my last race in 2013 I was excited for more and I was dreaming up new challenges for myself.

I think I may have thrown out the idea to my coach of doing 10 Ironmans in 2014. OK, I’m sure I did. Then it all fell apart. Suddenly, I felt like I was just hanging on by my fingertips.

When you are an athlete and you have an injury you just want to hide it under the rug. It’s like a dirty little secret that you really don’t want to talk about, it feels like a sign of weakness when you just want to be strong.

For the past year I have been in pain—there, I said it.

I tried stretching, strengthening, physical therapy, massage, chiropractors, time off… but the pain in my hip and leg just wouldn’t go away. Sometimes the worst pain of all would be when I was just sitting trying to work at my “real” job as an analyst at the University of Vermont.

I couldn’t think straight and I would often feel like I just wanted to take my leg entirely off so I could get rid of the pain. What made this injury even more frustrating is that it didn’t have a name. There seemed to be no clear diagnosis beyond “nerve pain” which seemed like such a wuss diagnosis. I wished I just had a broken leg so I would know what I was dealing with instead of this mysterious pain that would move from one side of my hip to the other, down the outside of my leg and then the inside.

So, I did what any typical athlete will do, I did my best to ignore it and push through the pain. In TK month, I finished Mexico’s Ironman Cozumel in horrible pain, blacking out in the medical tent and waking up to an IV. After spending the rest of my vacation limping after my husband and three kids I made myself a promise: I would not race again until I got rid of the pain. And then I followed these six steps to recovery.

Step #1: I took 6 weeks off. For the first four weeks I didn’t even walk down the driveway. People asked me if that was hard: Not at all. One thing I learned about pain is it’s exhausting. My leg would often wake me up at night and I wasn’t sleeping well. I was stressed about how much it would hurt and, if it felt better, when it would start to hurt again. I had zero urge to do anything. I was on a mission to fix this thing and re-find the happy Jess who always wanted to go longer and harder.

Step #2: Consult doctors. After taking the time off, my hip still hurt, and I just knew it was telling me that something was wrong. I went to see a new doctor who ordered x-rays. Those came back and the conclusion was arthritis. Not just a tiny case of arthritis but real arthritis as in never run again. Hmmm…

I had a hard time digesting this one. I remember asking if it would be OK to get into ultra running because that was all on trails. Really? Hello Jess, when they say never run again that even includes 100 mile runs on trails.

So, I did what any normal triathlete does, woke up and went to masters swimming in the morning. When I got back I remember saying to my husband “I love swimming in the morning, I just love masters. Do you think it’s OK if I just swim because I love it even if I can never race again?” He gave me a smile and a hug and said “Jess, of course you can, why do you think everyone else is there?”

Step #3: Consult more doctors. The next diagnosis was a labral tear on top of the arthritis, I guess arthritis can lead to that. After this news I did what any normal triathlete would do, I read about Lea Davison’s comeback from hip surgery and dreamed of my comeback.

Step #4: Get a super high-powered die-injected MRA of my hip. This, of course, took a while to schedule so in the meantime I just kept building back up my bike volume and truly fell in love with the sport of swimming.

For the first time I was swimming with a group, pushing myself to new levels and loving my time in the water each day. I had moments when I asked myself “Why am I doing this? They told me I won’t ever race triathlons again….” But then I remembered I was just doing what makes me happy. I was still holding out hope that there were many more triathlons in my future, but in the mean time I was coming home from the pool each day with a smile on my face—not because that last swim was a means to an end but just because it felt good and it was fun.

Step #4: Get results from the super high-powered MRA. Well, it turned out that I had zero arthritis, no labral tear, and no hidden stress fractures in my hip. But they did find something. I had a benign ovarian cyst about the size of this little grapefruit—not what I expected. Thankfully it was a large, but simple, cyst and all fluid filled.

In Tk, Dr. Najarian, a surgeon at UVM and a Charlotte neighbor operated and drained it. Twelve hours later, the pain was gone and all the nerves the cyst had been bumping into seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. I was cautiously optimistic that was the end of this injury’s story.

Step #5 – Email coach and say “Now time to plan 10 Ironman triathlons in 10 weeks, this is going to be crazy fun!” Of course that’s not really my plan, there are not actually 10 weeks in a row of Ironmans I can get to. Whatever the plan is I’m going to make sure I continue to enjoy the journey.

Post-script: In June, Dr. Najarian who performed the surgery was struck and killed by an intoxicated motorist while cycling on Greenbush Road near his home in Charlotte. Jessie DonAvan and Vermont Sports dedicate this column to his memory.