Thursday, August 28, 2008

Hamstrung (Big Time Self Indulgence Edition)

I know from hamstring injuries. Although my track career also saw its share of knee problems -- I stopped high jumping after my sophomore year because of my left knee -- my hamstrings were my bete noir. At the NESCAC track championships at Tufts my junior year, when I was seeded first in the triple jump, I tore my right hamstring during the long jump. Almost upon takeoff I simultaneously felt and heard a brutal popping sound, and that was it.

I spent the summer rehabbing, mostly in Michigan, where I spent an unlikely summer working as a bartender at a dude ranch. In July of that summer Michigan held a giant sports festival, the Great Lake State Games (for those of you from the east it was very much akin to the Bay State Games -- I competed in those twice -- or the Empire State Games). My goal was to be well enough to long jump in the track meet in East Lansing. I did so, placed second, and ther than having my car engine blow up on me, recovered pretty well.

Paranoid my senior year about that hamstring I was extra careful. My only real injury problem my senior year came with a minor but excruciating partial tear of my left patella tendon, which eventually sidelined me during one event at NESCACs outdoors, but otherwise I was able to work through. We returned to Tufts for the All New England Championships where we got to face off against the big boys in New England track and dield (and where we always did very well). I had qualified in the long jump as well as the triple, and on the Friday evening long jump finals I knew something was awry. I had a knot in the area where the hamstring and glute meets on my left leg. My steps were awry and my speed was off, and so I did not qualify for finals, which was a bummer, but the real prize for me was the triple jump. I was in good health, I felt good, and I believed that if I pulled it all together I would qualify for nationals. Qualify for nationals, have a good day, maybe a litle luck, and All American is not an impossibility.

It did not take long the next day for those plans to go to hell. During warmups I felt the tightness again, and should have gone to the trainer for a massage, but I was in the first flight and was among the early jumpers in the random draw. I took off down the runway, exploded a huge hop phase, and drove my left leg up for the crucial step phase. That's when I felt the familiar tug and heard the familiar sound, this time in my left leg. Somehow I finished off the jump, though pretty much by collapsing into the pit. In a way I wish I had not -- the jump was decent as it was, and would have been exceptional had I not torn the hamstring before finishing the final two phases of the jump. That was the one. Athletes at a peak of performance are the ones most vulnerable to tearing the hamstrings. I was so close.

And torn it was, pretty much a full rupture. My college track career ended with me face down on the infield at Tufts University for the second year in a row. It was, suffice it to say, devastating.

Gretchen Reynolds' piece Hamstrung Results from a recent issue of the New York Times' sports magazine Play thus spoke to me. I I excerpt the article in its entirety since I received it via their email newsletter and cannot seem to track down an independent link to it:

It’s been quite an Olympics for the hamstrings. They’ve determined the outcome of more events than Michael Phelps’s freakishly long arms. Sanya Richards blamed a “grabbing” hamstring for her loss in the 400 meters; sprinter Tyson Gay’s hamstring pull at the U.S. Olympic Trials reduced him to a non-factor in Beijing; and Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang’s heartbreaking exit from the Games, while directly caused by a sore Achilles tendon, “almost certainly was related” to a severe hamstring injury he suffered a few months back, says Dr. Bryan Heiderscheit, an assistant professor of physical therapy at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and an expert on hamstring injuries.

Injured hamstrings, Heiderscheit says, are especially common in sports that involve fast, hard spurts of running, such as the track and field sprints, but also football and soccer. “The million dollar question is why,” he says. Despite reams of research, there’s no answer.

What is known, though, is that a hamstring injury is self-perpetuating. An athlete who’s suffered one is at an enormously increased risk of another. Again, researchers don’t know why that is, although a new study by Heiderscheit and his colleagues is suggestive. In the work, 11 athletes hobbled by hamstrings underwent a M.R.I. examination. In all but two of them, the hamstrings showed “substantial changes in the tissue,” even a year and a half after the injury, Heiderscheit says. Some sections of tissue were enlarged and scarred; others atrophied. The whole was, in effect, remodeled. How that metamorphosis contributes to later injury and, more important, how to use the M.R.I. findings to avoid re-injury “will require a lot more study,” Heiderscheit says.

In the meantime, the hamstrings will have plenty more chances to affect the medal counts in Beijing. “I hope no one else goes down,” Heiderscheit says. “But I won’t be surprised if they do.”

That's not quite where my tale ends. I rehabbed again, though with nowhere near the same enthusiasm. I tried to compete a bit later that summer, with very mixed results, and I jumped the next year for the Greater Boston Track Club while I coached in Concord, Massachusetts, again with fairly mixed outcomes. I was never the same, but then again divorced from the context of track at Williams, it never would have felt the same anyhow.

Three years later I had my last bit of sporting glory, playing rugby for Rhodes University in South Africa. I had lost a lot of speed but could still get around well enough to start at wing. Every so often that haphazardly rehabiltated left hamstring would catch on me, but it was not until the last game of the season, a humiliating defeat to a club based at a police base (university boys in the Eastern Cape taking on Afrikaner policemen is a recipe for an asskicking, and we got flambeed). Towrd the end of the game I had the ball around midfield and felt the familiar sensation once again. this time the hamstring was as much scar tissue as muscle, and predictably I went down, though for reasons that still baffle me (we were shorthanded, I do know that) I stayed in the game and hobbled around utterly uselessly for the remainder of the game. I got caught at the bottom of a maul and some big bastard "mountain climbed" me, stomping directly on the hamstring.

For a month my leg was night-black from ass to calf, my last real sporting scar. Today I can run around, if I warm up right I'm still faster than most guys even though I was never really fast per se, but before long I'll feel a little hitch and will know that either my day or at least my ability to go all out are done.

I regret nothing, despite the creaky knees and worthless hamstrings and cranky back that sports left me with. I'll be one of those guys who gets his knee replaced at 50, both by 55, working on hip replacement before retirement. It was all worth it. I'd do it again in a heartbeat, working harder, smarter, better. But I'm always sympathetic to the guy with the hamstring injury. Their pain takes me back to moments of pain, but also to days of joy.

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