Mind Over Matter: One Runner’s Struggle with Marathon-Induced Hypochondria

BY JENNIFER SAUER

Photo by Neil Chaput deSaintonge

Earlier this month I suffered from yet another round of marathon-induced hypochondria. It’s a condition I suspect afflicts many runners.

Like its name suggests, marathon-induced hypochondria rears its ugly head as a big race nears, right around the time taper begins. After months of injury-free training, a phantom pain appears. If you are lucky it passes in a day or two. This year, I was not so lucky. Three weeks before the Missoula Marathon, my hypochondria manifested itself in the form of shin pain.

I have never had shin pain before in my life. But a few days after my last long run, an unfamiliar ache showed up in my lower left leg. I ran through it the first day, but the next morning I was forced to turn a 13-mile tempo run into a three-mile hobble. I barely made it home.

The following days and weeks entailed hours spent on the phone with my personal physical therapist (aka Mom) in an attempt to diagnosis this mysterious new affliction. Turns out, I am terrible at describing pain over the phone. “It just hurts! But it’s not a sharp pain. I wouldn’t call it dull, either, though. You know, pain-pain.”

Desperate for definitive answers that no one in their right mind would give me, I turned to the most terrifying tool known to runners: the “Where Does it Hurt” app on the Runner’s World website. This is perhaps the worst place for someone with marathon-induced hypochondria to visit. Do not say I didn’t warnyou.

Over the course of a single day, I diagnosed myself with every single leg injury outlined by this interactive tool. First it was a stress fracture. Then I decided it was lateral compartment syndrome. An hour later I had tibialis posterior syndrome. By the end of the day, it was tendinitis. They say knowledge is power, but by the time I ripped myself from the Runner’s World website, I was living in a state of panic.

Unable to run, icing became my newest obsession. My freezer overflowed with ice cups. I wandered the office with a bag of frozen peas tied to my shin with a TheraBand. I awoke each morning with a melted ice pack between in the sheets.

Perhaps the most vexing part of marathon-induced hypochondria is that there is no reasoning with a runner who has it. After months of hard training, perhaps we should accept an occasional random pain or a day of unexplained exhaustion. Just don’t try suggesting this to me during a fit of marathon-induced hypochondria. Because I can’t hear you. All I can hear is the sound of my PR slipping through my fingers.

This particular round of hypochondria was especially difficult for me and those around me. I was on track for a personal best before the symptoms appeared. I had old friends coming to town for the race and we’d planned to run together. The stakes were high and this only made my condition worse.

Soon, my physical therapist was no longer taking my calls. Eyes glazed over when I launched into my daily injury update. Co-workers stopped asking about the frozen peas taking up valuable space in the work freezer. The week before the marathon, I accepted the fact that I was likely not going to run.

And then something wonderful happened. The very moment I succumbed to acceptance, the pain began to lift. Just slightly at first, but in the final days before the race, I was able to run again. Four days before the event, I decided that I could make it to the starting line after all. There was a chance I might not finish, but I felt good enough to start.

Photo by Neil Chaput deSaintonge

On race day my left shin felt as good as it had in weeks. As the miles ticked by the symptoms of marathon-induced hypochondria went into dormancy. By the time I crossed the finish line and secured a seven-minute PR, I was cured.

It’s been almost three weeks since the Missoula Marathon and my mysterious shin pain has disappeared. Shockingly, so has the marathon-induced hypochondria. I’m sure the latter will resurface again at race time next year. I learned a lot this time around, though. Next year, I am not going near the “Where Does it Hurt” app.

 

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Jennifer Sauer writes and runs from Missoula. When not racing for a PR, she enjoys running in costume and waving at race photographers.