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Mental withdrawal can be as hard to accept as physical sports injury

Ben Schmitt
| Monday, Aug. 22, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

The in-box invitations to register for Pittsburgh's Great Race keep reminding me I won't be gliding down Forbes Avenue this fall.

Sadly, my left knee can't make the trip.

Since my cross country days at Peabody High School, running helped keep the pounds off and brought me sanity. A 4-mile jog after work served as the perfect mind-clearing elixir.

Training for several half-marathons and one marathon in 2007 gave me frequent short-term goals and a sense of accomplishment.

Whether I ran solo or with others, running brought a healthy escape, a way to move and get out of my own way, pure mental freedom.

That is, until March 2015.

About an hour after an 8-mile training run, I noticed swelling and fairly significant pain in my left knee. I chalked it up to a tough outing and broke out the ice pack.

A week later, figuring I was healed, I set out again for a long run. Three blocks later, I stopped.

The pain returned and my knee felt wobbly — something was off.

I hobbled home and made a doctor's appointment. A subsequent MRI revealed a torn meniscus.

“Coming to terms with it is a process, and sometimes it doesn't come quickly,” the University of Pittsburgh's Tony Salesi said as I shared my travails.

Salesi is Pitt's executive associate athletic director for coaches and performance.

He stated the obvious: There's a huge difference between college and recreational athletes. In college, competitive sports can be compared to a job.

Nonetheless, the psychological impact of an injury can be similar.

“That's the tough part, the significant lifestyle change,” Salesi said. “Injured athletes going through the transition may need formal counseling.”

In my case, the surgeon advised against surgery, and I tried two months of physical therapy along with several knee injections.

The recommendation worked, and I recovered significantly. I even tried running short distances, but the knee always puffed back up afterward.

I gave it up completely after running the 5K portion of the Great Race last fall.

The pounding and subtle twisting just became too much.

The mental withdrawal was brutal. I felt anger, even jealousy when driving down Fifth Avenue next to a group of runners.

When a colleague hit the North Shore river trails after work, I longed to join him in stride.

I needed a new exercise outlet.

I stepped up the low-impact cardio at the gym: elliptical machine, stationary bike and the like. I rejoined an ice hockey beer league. Skating didn't hurt as much, but the quick turns and stops sometimes jarred me.

Seventeen months after the injury, I'm thankful to walk without pain. I still miss the endorphin release that accompanies a few miles on the road or trail.

Salesi suggested I revisit surgery and schedule another consultation if the desire to try running again is overwhelming. Or I could work on acceptance.

Salesi, for example, suffered several meniscus tears in his younger days, and a posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) tear in his right knee.

Surgery was a necessity.

“When it's waking you in the middle of the night because you can't straighten it, you have to do something,” he told me. “I had good outcomes after surgery. Excellent would be resuming all athletic activities, but I'm comfortable with where I am at.”

Can I get there?

When I first sat down to write this column, I chuckled as this email hit my in-box:

“The Run Around the Square is less than two weeks away! Don't miss your opportunity to participate in one of Pittsburgh's premier local races through Regent Square and Frick Park.”

Sigh.

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or bschmitt@tribweb.com.

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