Running a Marathon After a Bilateral Knee Replacement

The crowd roared with enthusiasm. My friend and physical therapist danced behind me. She and I would run together in the race. I stood quietly, fear paralyzing me. The magnitude of the task I was about to do was mind boggling. The announcer gave last-minute instructions. Another friend squeezed my arm and whispered, “Be smart” before heading to her corral.

Be smart. I knew what Joann meant. Stop if there is pain. Know when to quit.

That day, standing at the start line of the Vermont City Marathon, marked the one-year anniversary since my first running steps after a bilateral total knee replacement. My first steps had been uncertain, stiff, painful. My legs had forgotten how to run.

It had not been an easy journey. The recovery had been more difficult than I had anticipated. My progress slower. There were many days when after attempting to run I had regretted the surgery.

Three years before the surgery I had finished the Philadelphia marathon in agonizing pain. My hip and back were on fire. Weeks of rest and stretching did not help. My failed attempts at running exacerbated the pain so, reluctantly, I visited an orthopedic doctor, a runner also, who after looking at the images of the MRI delivered the news:

“Your knees are shot. One more season is probably all you have.”

“And then what?” I said, running my hand nervously through my curly hair.

“Then you’ll suck it up, and when you can’t anymore you’ll get a knee replacement and you’ll run on it.”

“People don’t run on knee replacements,” I said, exasperated by his suggested options.

“Some do and you will.”

What if I couldn’t, I thought.

I had found running in the peak of my life. Young, gainfully employed, and with two beautiful little kids. But then, just as quickly my life was turned upside down as tragedy struck and I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. My plans and goals all came to a complete stop as planning for the future became an uncertainty. Amidst the devastation and shock of that moment, the words of the doctor stayed with me:  Don’t ever stop running and don’t ever stop having a glass of wine. This enemy must be fought with passion; without it, it’ll take over.

Running gave me that passion to fight.

During those harsh months after the NHL diagnosis I got out of the house every day for a slow run.

It was during those painful runs, with my head covered in a baseball hat and every joint of my body screaming, that I set a goal of running a marathon after the treatment was over, as a way to celebrate my existence and because, more than anything, I needed something to hold on to.

Sitting in the exam room of the orthopedic suite, memories flashed through my mind. What if he was wrong, what if I couldn’t run after the knee replacement? What then? Would the enemy take over?

Years after the NHL diagnosis and sixteen marathons later with two Boston Qualifiers, my running was coming to an end. Nevertheless, I managed three more marathons, including Boston, in that last season the doctor predicted, as the arthritis narrowed the gap between surgery and running. And then, when running became too difficult to enjoy, when getting out of a car was not easy and required serious maneuvering or assistance, and when I had to climb stairs using my arms to pull me up, I told the doctor I was ready.

Now here I was standing at the starting line of the Vermont City Marathon, with two thick scars running down my knees. I was about to run a marathon once again, my twentieth, with two thousand other runners. I was one of them again, except that I was probably the only one with a bilateral knee replacement.

It wasn’t easy, marathons seldom are. I was slower, and I knew I would be, but it was exciting to run a marathon after fearing I would never run again. The surgery had given me the gift of crossing another finish line. 

I don’t know that I’ll ever train for another marathon. I have slowed down considerably. I don’t blame the knee replacement for it. It’s more that my focus has shifted, and I don’t train the way I used to. My goals are different. Having come so close to not running, I am content with simply being able to run no matter the pace.

Running was never about pace. It was always about the passion that made me feel so alive. Nothing has changed. I just do it more slowly now. I can live with that.