When I was 10, I was in a severe car accident that cut any hopes I had of playing competitive basketball... I ended up being lucky to survive with only a fractured shoulder, pretty severe lacerations to my head, arms, shoulders and much weaker overall. By the time I was 13, my back had seized up and I was unable to participate in many sports at all without discomfort.
Sadly, my family knew no better and so we just tried to manage the symptoms and never find a solution to my ongoing pain and discomfort - now I know I actually needed for me to be fit. So I put on too much weight, got bad habits and made a lot of bad choices food/activities wise, for way too long.
A lot of health issues resulted, although overall I was reasonably healthy considering how overweight I was. However, by the time I was in my late teens and early 20s, I was riding horses as much as I could, riding my bike a bit and generally trying to be a bit healthier. I took up Endurance horse riding - the best possible thing that could have happened to me at that point in my life. I was finishing up post-graduate studies at university, and had a lot of transitions to go through at the same time including caring for elderly family.
Suddenly I got fitter, stronger, found the person I should have been all those years gone by. This was 2002, and continuing into 2003.
By mid 2003, I started to compete... first 2 x 40 km rides, then I managed (somehow) to do two 80km rides too. The first one seemed so extremely hard... but looking back, it was purely pushing myself beyond my previous limits. I learnt how to deal with extreme tiredness, pain and muscle complete fatigue... and then I got fitter... and it became easier.
I did 11 x 80km or above rides in 2004 - I came second in the state for distance, and was top-10 in Australia on points I recall. During that time I managed to strengthen up my ankles, my legs and my body as a whole. For the first time in many years I minimised the ongoing back and neck pain I had learned to live with for a very long time... and I managed to do it without any major injury concerns too (tho pesky numb little toes + rolling ankles were never far behind me in the early days!).
In 2005 I trained even more and prepared for my first 160km endurance ride - the Queensland State Championships. While I didn't get right to the end, I was less than 10km from the end when my horse couldn't go any further. I coped physically with the ride extremely well... starting at midnight after only a few hours sleep, then riding (with breaks) until 10:30pm... so all up, I was on the go in some way or another for 11 hours or more with prep before the ride started and with packing up afterwards.
I did some more rides in 2005, but by early 2006 I was pregnant with what turned out to be twins. By about March 2006 I had given up riding and was working full time and running our business - more than enough to keep me reasonably fit and healthy.
Fast forward through premature twins born via cesarean and the recovery that entails in September 2006, to mid 2007. I was chomping at the bit (!) to get back into riding. So, what does any sleep deprived mother do? Yep, I went back to riding as soon as I could be sure hubby would be ok with feeding, and that I could survive for a 3-4 hour gap without needing to feed the kids. I felt soooo sluggish, and also was on a very bouncy horse... but I didn't really seem to get my fitness back like I figured I might. It was extra hard work.
It only lasted for a couple of months going once or maybe twice a week... then I had to have a break due to family reasons, not my lack of desire to try to beat the fitness barrier that seemed to be hitting me. Then unfortunately Equine Flu hit JUST as I was able to start riding again... but that forced a break on all of us. I started to go to the gym then, got my general fitness up again which was helpful.
July 2008 - Kalbar Endurance Ride
Problems with my legs became more obvious, but I continued to train 2-3 times per week, increasing distance... I was definitely getting fit - I wasn't puffed or tired doing rides - infact my first 80km ride back that year I did the entire thing and wondered why I ever used to get tired from the distance. I had a fantastic horse, fantastic company, and the normal fatigue that comes with 6 hours of riding a horse never really came. However, my legs were very sore in some specific muscle groups, and I had been plagued with pins and needles in my feet more than ever before... but I had a great ride!
Early August 2008 - Widgee Endurance Ride
I then rode the worlds most uncomfortable horse in an 80km ride... I should have been used to him, and I guess I was to a degree... but after a very hard ride (physically - ignoring the horse I was on)... I was in constant pain through the whole ride, I couldn't feel my feet for most of it, and trying to take around a bunch of international and/or inexperienced riders, while riding the worlds most uncomfortable horse... well... lets say I have no desire to go to that particular Endurance ride ever again.
29 August 2008: Brymaroo Endurance Ride:
A few weeks after that (all within less than 2 months since I did my first 80km ride back since 2005)... I did another 80km ride. This time on a new horse which I rode for the first time on the Thursday before the (Sunday) 80km competition. I knew she was a handful at rides... she was strong and had attitude... but I'd be right, right?
I took a Japanese rider around this ride too, actually with another rider or two initially, but they later vetted out or withdrew... and we had to do it in Novice time. That means 6 hours at least over the 80km (around 3 hours per leg). By the time I got 20km out, I knew I was in trouble. I couldn't feel my feet, I was now also in extreme pain, and I was struggling with a powerful b*tch of a horse who just wanted to race everybody...yet I had been told to keep her at the back of the group. She actually settled down in the first leg and ended up at the front of our group, and happy there. But I was far from happy at the end of the first leg.
I'll spare you that detail, but lets say after another 40km I was doubled over in pain. The Japanese rider couldn't speak English very well, but she asked her guide when we returned if it was my first ride back from having kids (she knew I had young kids)... well, no, actually, 3rd in 2 months AND I'm actually quite physically fit. My legs were just 'broken'. The last 10-20km were like torture of a new variety. I was sloppy riding, I feel very sorry for the horse which carried me so well really considering how I physically was coping.
I somehow managed to run my own horse out (I was still warm I guess!) but as soon as I stopped, my legs were locked. I couldn't bend my ankles, I couldn't do anything except a shuffle of an 80 year old. I always expect to be sore when riding a new horse in a competition like that, but this pain wasn't from the battle that she and I had on and off the whole way... this was something else far worse. I knew it wasn't good, but unfortunately by pushing through the pain barrier, I did myself damage. Serious damage... but I didn't realise until that night and the next day.
The pain I got was from swelling - when I would trot for hours on end, or even a few km as it ended up being... my calves would swell with blood, and the blood would get stuck there. That would put pressure on the nerves in my ankles, and would cause signals to not go through. That is why I got pins and needles, and then lost feeling in my feet - complete occlusion was happening.
For some reason, my cardiovascular system changed SO much from having the twins, that it couldn't now cope with an activity which I had done for many years.
I still cannot explain to you what that pain was like. For 3 days after the ride, I literally couldn't do anything except the shuffle I described above. I couldn't bend my ankle, I couldn't move my toes. The blood was stuck in my lower legs, and without extraordinary pain and discomfort, I couldn't do a thing to shift it. The pain I experienced with this was far worse than having or recovery from my cesarean - only one other thing has been worse than both of these experiences... but that was much more recently (April 2011).... this pain was immense, and debilitating as I physically had barriers against being able to improve it.
30th August 2008
I had an osteopath appointment the day after the ride - my back always adjusts better the day of/after exercise. It seems my back and neck muscles are too tired to fight then. I explained what was going on, and he confirmed my worst nightmare. Chronic compartment syndrome seemed likely. He made suggestions and said to see how I went. I remember getting to the afternoon and realising it wasn't improving, so made an urgent Dr's appointment. Pity the GP dismissed everything I said when I saw her - she said I couldn't possibly have compartment syndrome as its "a dangerous and acute problem". Yeah great love, so glad you aren't treating this as serious... I can barely walk you stupid woman, although to her credit, it was the Tuesday by this time I go the appointment and I was freer in movement than I had been. I don't think she believed me at all, and she clearly had missed the lesson at medical school which explained there is a CHRONIC compartment syndrome, as well as the acute one (which is normally related to injuries associated with car accidents and sudden things, not so much long-term injuries). She gave me an ultrasound order, but I couldn't get in until the Thursday, and then found out she had only ordered a check for DVT... so of course, the area they scanned was nothing to do with where the actual problem was.
You guessed it, no diagnosis. No help. Nothing was apparently wrong.
September-December 2008So then within a week of the ride, I got back on the horse from the last 80km ride, and started to train her regularly. I still had the pins and needles by the same point of our rides every time (~6km out from home). I got used to her, her attitude and behaviours, I even came to love that horse... but I never got rid of the leg problem. I did come to manage it - I started having massages every 7-14 days, and that did help to stop the swelling being such an ongoing problem... only thing is, it gets rather expensive to keep doing that!
Moving into 2009
I was lucky enough to be given the task of starting the riding career of a lovely stallion this year. Very different horse to the large, pushy mare I had ridden in the balance of 2008 and come to adore... he was quite small (yey!), very comfortable but young and needed education in gaits and general riding "skills" that all young Endurances horses have to go through. By the end of January I took him around a 40km loop with some new riders + other horses and I was in love... beautiful boy.
However, I remember being at my work after training horses in early 2009. I would get up at just after 4am, get out to riding by 5, do a ~20km loop, then be at work by around 8am. I would then spend the rest of the day with icepacks wrapped around my lower legs because of the swelling I'd caused doing the training. Great memories, right?
I managed to ride care of regular sports massages and a LOT of ice. My osteopath was great at trying to help me with exercises and stretches... which did help to a small degree, but nothing I really did treated it, it just kept it at bay from another big flare up.
By March 2009 I was back on the mare who I had played tug-of-war with the previous year... we even did pretty well in rides. I went back and did Brymaroo again and did the ride in just over 5 hours - my fastest ever endurance ride. It just took me ~7 years to get quicker than novice pace! :) My legs caused me pain in that ride too, but I had become a master at using other muscles or tactics to reduce the pain. I think I was probably strong enough in my upper legs to just not put so much pressure on my lower legs - plus I had friends helping me to ride "properly" at this point (using my body more effectively as a whole)... it had been pointed out to me at some stage in 2009 that I didn't ride "properly" if compartment syndrome was really what was causing my problem! HA! Thanks for that input... lets move on and fix it eh?
I managed to complete approximately 400km in only a few weeks - between rides in South-East Queensland, a flight to WA to do a 120km ride, then back to SE Qld a week later to do another 120km ride... I was proud of what I achieved, but I could feel that my legs were not coping without me having constant deep tissue massage.
Horses needed breaks, I needed a break...so I cut back my riding to a degree. I didn't compete from May 2009 onwards. I trained a fair bit, but no competition as it was physically too much to ask of my legs. I was getting to the point that after only 10-15km of training, I had numb feet, swelling pain and overall not happy with the pressure I could have been putting on the horses I was riding.
With numerous attempts at MRI's (including one where I rode at the right pace to cause as big of a flare-up as I could for 20km, then drove straight into town to get the MRI done - still in my riding gear and all)... it couldn't be confirmed that I definitely HAD compartment syndrome upon a few visits to an orthopaedic surgeon... but he agreed something was wrong and that surgery was worth a try.
...to be continued another day....