Elise Nelson: Defying the Injury Odds in San Francisco

Elise Nelson blogs about her journey towards earning her PhD, and the challenges and successes she experiences while balancing a healthy lifestyle with the rigorous schedule of a graduate student. She recently achieved one huge success, the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Fransisco, despite the odds given by her physical therapist . Read about how she overcame ACL surgery to go the distance and visit her blog PhD Strides to read her entire race experience.

(P.S. An extra bonus? I got to meet her at the race!!).

You are quite an athlete. Tell us about some of the activities in which you have participated over the years.

I started waterskiing & downhill skiing as soon as I could walk, and not too long after I was enrolled in ballet.  Later on in life, as a fourth grader, I added basketball to the mix.  I was a horrible basketball player, and three years later, I switched to soccer in 7th grade.  Then, in high school I added cross country ski racing to the mix (so as a freshman I was doing ballet, water skiing, downhill skiing, cross country skiing and playing soccer).  But through this all, I DESPISED running.  It was boring, and draining.  I did it for training, but did not enjoy it. My participation in sports (and other activities) in high school gave me the ability to be diligent in my training and work hard towards goals you set – and that anything is possible.  I mean, doing 5-6 sports at the same time is draining, but it is possible.  The cross country skiing and soccer were the best ‘preparers’ for endurance sports, because they are endurance sports, and for training we would run 3-5 miles, and for x-c skiing during the season you would ski sometime 10-12 miles in a day.

At what point did you experience injury?

In the spring soccer league between my sophomore and junior year, my knee collapsed under me while playing sweep (defense) in my summer soccer league.  While kicking with my ‘weak’ leg (my left), my right knee collapsed in on me – and in an instant of “pop-pop-pop-pop-pop” heard from the sideline, my acl, mcl and cartilage were torn in my right knee.  Since then, I’ve had countless amounts of physical therapy, an ACL repair surgery in 2002 where they used part of my patella tendon to repair the ACL (which has since stretched out), and and orthoscopic surgery in 2005 where they cleaned out additional cartilage which was floating around causing lots of swelling.

Why/when did you start to run?

It was when I lost the ability to compete in my sports in 2002, all of them for a year or two, but I got back into skiing (all three kinds), that I began to look for something else.  It wasn’t until I had let myself go up on the scale over 30 pounds in four years that I actually acted on it.  I ran to just run for the first time in 2006, and I felt like a brick was lifted off my chest.  It was at that moment, that I fell in love.  Since then, I ran in the Nike 10K Buenos Aires (in 2007, my first race!), a half marathon in 2008, and a series of 10ks and 8ks in Chicago – and now my first Marathon the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco!!!  And on top of it, I’ve dropped and kept off those 30 pounds!

What did all the physical therapists tell you about the possibility of running a marathon?

My physical therapists told me that running would give me arthritis by the time I was 25 (which I will be August 2011), and that I would never be able to run a marathon (and shouldn’t either).  Of course, to me, this was a challenge.  I did, however, wait until I knew my body would be able to handle it – which I think a lot of people with my kind of mindset might not be able to do.  When I finished my half marathon with little-to-no knee pain, I knew that a full marathon was possible. I will admit, I will NOT be calling up my physical therapist up after the marathon to tell him what I did, but just finishing was proof to myself that if you put your mind to it and train properly, no matter what the circumstances, one can overcome anything and achieve greatness.  And just FYI, I’m pretty sure arthritis isn’t anywhere in the near future.  At least not in my knee!

So why/when did you decide to run one anyway?

Last spring when the NWM registration/draw pool was coming up, my really good friend, Julia DeVos, mentioned that she was thinking about running it – I said I had been thinking about running a marathon recently as well.  When we both realized I was actually moving to California in August, we both thought long and hard about a marathon in October (I am in my first year of a PhD program and spent a lot of the summer packing up to move from Chicago to California, and she is a 2nd year law student who got married over the summer).  We decided to enter the pool, and if we got selected (we did it together in a group), then we would run it – our first marathon – together for her 24th birthday.

How did you handle the training? How much running did you do?

The training for me involved lots of cross training and creativity, because I knew from the get-go I couldn’t run as much as the average person training for a marathon due to my knee.  I limited myself to 2-3 days of running a week.  Usually with a shorter run at the beginning of the week, a medium one later in the week and a long run on Sat/Sun.  And sometimes I switched it up a bit and did a medium-long two day run set and sometimes a long-short two-day run set to run a further distance in a 24 hour period.  On most other days of the week I biked (inside & out), walked (a lot in Europe), used the cross trainer/elliptical and did weight training as well.  On average, I probably actually ran about 25-30 miles a week.

How did you select the Nike Women’s Marathon?

One of the big draws for the NWM was the location, the second was the day (my friends’ birthday & not too far into my first quarter as an PhD student), and the third (perhaps most important) was the Tiffany’s necklace.  I mean honestly, who wouldn’t run for a free Tiffany’s necklace?! (Not to mention the men in tuxes who hand them to you!).

What was the race experience like?

-The race experience was awesome – at least for the first half.  There was lots of entertainment, Cheer Stations with familiar faces in the crowd (Julia’s husband and a cohort from my PhD program cheered us on), and we were definitely still within our ‘we know we can run this far’ range. The second half the race was frustrating – when we met back up with the half marathoners for about a ½ mile or so while we were running to mile 16 & they were running to mile 13.  It was crowded, half marathoners were picking up their pace because they were almost done, and it was daunting to know we still had 10+ more miles left to go… The second half the marathon was also hard and lonely.  Since there were no Cheer Stations in the second half, almost no spectators were seen for from mile 16 through mile 25.  It was lonely, and it allowed you to realize how much pain and stress your body was being put through.  It was also during this time that we took our only walk – to the aid station for Tylenol-– as I listened to my body say “ow, please stop for a minute.”  And this was also where we had our slowest miles.  I wish I had known that it was more of a ‘half marathon’ race, but alas.  It was worth it – as was the Tiffany’s crossing the finish line.  And then men in tuxes – wow.  They were like straight off the Firemen’s calendar.  No joke.

Would you do it again?

Yes!  I knew even before I crossed the finish line (somewhere around mile 24 where I realized I actually was doing this and was going to finish) that I wanted to run another one.  I had caught the marathoner’s high.  I’m already planning to find another one for the next year, just hopefully on slightly flatter ground!

What advice would you give to other first time marathoners?

Know the course you’re going to run – the amount of hills, and train for ‘more’ than expected.  We weren’t expecting the about 11 miles of uphill (whether steep or just a slight incline), and it definitely took a toll on our bodies. I think for a first marathon, the goal should be to finish: you can worry about a PR next time because just finishing a marathon is a feat in & of itself. Make sure you properly fuel before and during the race.  To me, this meant, taking water or Gatorade, something both, at every single aid station until the last two, which we passed up knowing we were going to RUN to the finish, and had enough Gatorade in our belts to keep us properly hydrated.  This also meant wearing a fuel belt & carrying my own Clif shots & 2 bottles of Gatorade.  This way I was able to fuel how I needed to, with substances I was used to.  And, I had Gatorade ‘just in case’ I needed some between aid stations.  And, if you run out of liquid – the aid stations will fill you back up!!! Listen to your body.  If it is telling you to walk, walk for a minute.  Just set a goal of when you will start running again, and it might not actually slow you down! Run your first with a friend who is at about the same running level as you, if you can.  Running my first with one of my best friends was such a huge help and push for me.  If I had been running alone, I’m pretty sure there would’ve been a lot of walking breaks, slower pace, and less of a push to the finish line (I got going pretty fast at the end).  It was incredible to have someone encouraging me along the way, when I needed it most. Be prepared for anything, and make the best of it.  Although it was fairly pleasant weather for the first 12 miles, it started really raining around mile 12, and continued to for the remainder of the race.  This made for a rather chilly last 14 miles, running a fair amount of it along the ocean.  While it was not necessarily the easiest running conditions, we looked at the bright side: it was better than running in 90 degree weather with humidity!

Melinda Hinson