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Conflict between despair and denial ever-present when Olympic dreams are dashed mid-stride

Every runner, chasing an Olympic dream or otherwise, is unsure of when to push through or to pull back when a running-related injury strikes

It starts with a whisper, not a shout. A quiet word of despair followed by another of denial then a gentle profanity as if to confirm it.

It happens to me on the second day of the most promising month of the year, at the worst time, at the worst place. The pain is somewhere just above my left Achilles’ heel, as if teasing its own exact point of mythical vulnerability and ultimate downfall.

It is of course the running-related injury. Nothing tests the delicate durability of the human body more than placing one foot in front of the other in quick succession, and for elite athletes at no time does this present greater fear than in an Olympic year.

Only 202 days to go! Impossible as it is to avoid these countdowns and reminders, there is no denying the magnifying sense that Paris next July now beckons. Which is why any running-related injury also feels particularly magnified, especially as new year ambitions are about to take hold.


In my case that ambition was only being to get back running enough to keep pace with the Olympics. That temporarily stalled on Tuesday morning.

Imagine then the entirely more fearful prospect for anyone thinking of Paris as the pinnacle of their running career, if not their lives. Trace the long trail of Olympic pursuit and it is littered with tales of runners struck down, mid stride as it were, by a pull or a tear, by fracture or rupture.

In some ways every running-related injury is also its own time bomb, constantly ticking at its own alternating pace. Only in an Olympic year, when greater external and internal pressures combine, is it more likely to go off.

In a recent conversation with Ciara Mageean, she spoke about having unfinished business with the Olympics, and if we recall the Tokyo Games we see exactly what she meant. On paper, Mageean had a relatively straightforward draw for her heats of the 1,500 metres. With six to progress, plus six more fastest losers, something had to go seriously wrong for her not to make the semi-finals.

It did, and Mageean ended up 10th. In the mixed zone afterwards, one of the first things she said was she didn’t want to make any excuses, although there was a reason. She had sustained a tear in her calf muscle, eight days earlier, during one of her final track sessions.

Olympic years sometimes work out like that, despite every best effort, and of all the guarantees which come in advance of Paris is that both before and afterwards there will be a similar tale to tell by somebody, somewhere.

In some Olympic years, not every injury is running-related. There is the enduring tale of Abebe Bikila, who exactly 40 days before the Tokyo Olympics of 1964, felt a stabbing pain in his stomach while running in the mountains just outside Addis Ababa. Taken to hospital, it was confirmed he had ruptured his appendix, and required immediate surgery.

This was 15 days before the Ethiopian team travelled to Tokyo, and Bikila didn’t run again until his arrival in Japan. Nonetheless, confident all his running up to that point would see him through, he hit the front of the marathon shortly before halfway and never looked back, winning by over four minutes in a then world record of 2:12:11. The first African gold medal winner from 1960 became the first man to defend an Olympic marathon title.

In Paris, 60 years later, Eliud Kipchoge will look to become the first man to win three Olympic marathon titles, and the biggest challenge for the now 39-year-old Kenyan might well be staying free from any running-related injury. Assuming that he even gets there.

Because in an Olympic year, the decision of when to push through a running-related injury and when to pull back is also magnified. Given what’s at stake there is invariably going to be only one winner, particularly given most running injuries are non-impact related, unlike the cracked ribs or concussion of the playing field.

It might be different if we could wear our Achilles’ heel on our sleeve, the same as our hearts. Or if we could see the tightness along our iliotibial band, the same as the tiredness under our eyes. Instead, runners must often rely on instinct and experience. Part of the problem here is that every runner, Olympic level or otherwise, has their own definition of the different levels of running-related injuries.

There is, however, some aptly-timed research here in the 10,000-word article entitled The Running Injury Continuum: A qualitative examination of recreational runners’ description and management of injury.

A joint project between the Insight SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics and the Dublin City University School of Health and Human Performance, it got 31 recreational runners to describe their process of injury development on a nine-level continuum, the intention being it might assist with that indecision in between when to push through or pull back.

The nine levels are certainly identifiable in some way. From “running smooth” (no injury), to “discomfort” to “niggle” and to “twinge”, things then get a little more troublesome with the “persisting niggle” and then the “non-responding niggle”, before the naturally more serious “short-term injury”, “long-term injury”, and “career-ending injury”.

The 31 runners also described each level on the running injury continuum in terms of how it affected their running, their daily activity, and their psychological wellbeing. It’s also bidirectional, runners either increasing or decreasing in injury severity depending on their management of each level.

Ultimately it found that while most runners may think that lower-level injuries can be ignored, they should in fact be identified as “injuries”, and therefore likely to contribute to more significant running time loss.

Easier said than done, for the Olympic runner or otherwise, for as long as there is that quiet sense of conflict between despair and denial.