Scottish stalwart Don Stevens has been through a physical ordeal that most of us can barely imagine. Yet, through it all he has stayed positive and he has remained a runner. And, as he tells us in his article below, he has uncovered a secret trick for improvement over 5k.

Question: How do you take 18 minutes off your 5k time?

Answer: Easy. Mangle your leg and then complete a long, long rehab programme.

In April 2016, I fell while tramping. When I stopped tumbling, I applied my medical skills. Looking at the angle of my lower leg relative to the rest of my leg, I diagnosed a compound fracture to the tibia and fibula. I had a 6cm by 5cm open wound with the snapped tibia sticking out. 

It was day two of a solo four-day tramp. I was rescued; that is a story in itself, which you can read about here – But in this article, I want to talk about a side benefit. I have made a huge improvement in my 5k time. 

When I was first discharged from hospital, the words of the orthopaedic surgeon were encouraging: “You will be walking in weeks and in three months you will be back running.” How wrong he was. Due to a series of ongoing infections, a total of seven operations, the orthopaedic surgeon not taking into account the shredded muscles, and the movement and relocation of the tibia’s anterior during one operation, it has been a long road to recovery. 

This photo is an x-ray of the leg when I first got to hospital.

And this one shows my leg three weeks after release from hospital: the first time they took bandages off. 

At one hospital appointment I was told, “You are being admitted to hospital today, and we are operating today”. I was given four possible outcomes. Outcomes two and three involved cutting muscle and a loss of function, and the fourth was amputation. I tried to forget about the worst scenario and focus on the best. When I came out of the general anaesthetic, I very pleased to see that the leg was still attached, and that option one – the movement of my tibialis anterior – had been successfully carried out.  

When I started physio, I could not stand independently. I could not raise my right heel off the ground while keeping my toes on the floor. But I was focused on my recovery and the physio said I was the most motivated client she was working with. If she asked me to do ten exercises every hour I did thirty or fifty. I was desperate to get the leg back working again.

After a few months I got rid of the crutches and the moonboot. The skin grafts were settling and I could finally walk unaided. As the strength in my leg and ankle grew, the physio taught me how to walk again. At first, walking a kilometre took me fifteen minutes. 

I remember my son saying to me one day, “Do you think you will run again?” The question was unexpected, but my immediate response was, “If I think I won’t run, then I won’t run.”

Part of the retraining of the leg involved me entering the Waterfront 5k. In that first race back, I alternately walked for two minutes and ran – or at least hobbled a little faster – for 30 seconds. I was pleased to complete the race in 42 minutes. Over the following weeks and months, I got down to 35 minutes, 32 minutes, 30 minutes. Once I was in the twenties the rate of improvement slowed, but my times steadily continued to come down. 

I remember being able to hop on my right foot for the first time. I had worked on this simple task with the physio for months. The first time I succeeded I probably only got 0.1mm off the floor, but it felt like a significant milestone.

There has been an ongoing slow but steady progression of improved times over 5k. In between there are daily exercises: heel-raises, walking the Birdwood steps multiple times most days, twice weekly and then weekly physio sessions, walking, and eventually running slowly from our Northland home. 

Recently I completed the Lower Hutt Park Run in 24.23. I was very pleased with the result and I feel like I am running again. This is great for the mind and soul. The physio says my right leg has 60% of the power of my left leg. I still have a couple of holes in the muscle in my leg, big enough to poke your finger into. I am unsteady if I stand on just my right leg and the ankle still has some weakness. But I also know that 23 minutes is achievable for the 5k. That is my next goal. 

Prior to the escapade I was a specialist back-of-the-pack runner. When I started the Waterfront 5k I was a well-behind-the-back-of-the-pack runner. As I have improved my times I can now see the back of pack again – what a great sight! 

Eighteen minutes is a substantial gain. How did I achieve this? I consider the key elements are thinking positively, focusing on the short term goal, regular exercise and training, a good physio, support from Scottish teammates, and most importantly staying focused. Also, getting a severely injured leg played a big role. Without the injury, I would have had nothing to improve from. 

It has been both a psychological and physical rehabilitation and I can’t wait for the 2019 harrier season.