FEATURED COMEBACK - SEPTEMBER 2019
Brenda Leigh makes a comeback to running the Boston Marathon after 4 ACL reconstructions
Athlete: Brenda Leigh
Over the past 19 years, elite runner Brenda Leigh has overcome numerous obstacles that have come her way. Despite the adversity, her passion for running has kept her going. For Brenda, quitting was not an option.
She first tore her ACL at a basketball camp for her all-star team at Valpo University in 2000, and had it repaired with a cadaver graft. After months of rehab, she learned that her body had rejected this "foreign object”, forcing her to redo the entire process and starting back at square one. She then had ACL reconstruction #2, which ended up tearing again and resulting in ACL reconstruction #3. One year later, she required a hardware exchange in her knee. While the rest of her classmates were enjoying their teenage years, she spent these years recovering from back-to-back knee surgeries during each year of high school. In 2009, 5 years later, she ended up tearing her ACL yet again…
"In 2009, I was at a hog roast and was kicking the soccer ball around with a friend of mine and took a misstep. I ended up feeling that familiar hard shift in my knee and felt a “pop”.
I knew right away that I had torn my ACL again...
My friend was a med student and I told him “Gib, I just tore my ACL”. He questioned me as to how I knew this and I told him that I had felt this shift and pop before and I just knew.
My prior doctor had moved his practice so I ended up having to start over with a new doctor. He removed my knee immobilizer and took one look at my swollen knee and said, “You’ve had ACL repair done before”. I replied, “Yes, 3 of them and 1 additional surgery”. He didn’t waste any time sending me to a University Hospital in Chicago to have my ACL repaired by the lead surgeon of the Chicago White Sox, Chicago Bulls, and DePaul Demons.
This surgery was unlike any of my other ACL surgeries. Because of the pre-existing damage done inside of my knee he had to take an alternate approach to repair my knee. I had already had my hamstring grafted from my left knee, and my IT band grafted from my right knee so he had to remove my medial patellar tendon from my right knee and drill into my femur to anchor it.
This was, by far, the most painful surgery I have had to date.
It took 6 months to fully recover from this surgery. I lost all of my muscle mass and dropped 40 pounds so it took everything I had to come back.
During my rehab, I saw a commercial for the Chicago Marathon and decided to make that my goal. I wanted to run the 2010 Chicago Marathon. It gave me incentive to really push myself (within reason) during my rehab in 2009. During the summer of 2010 I ran my first 5k.
It was definitely a love/hate relationship, but after I crossed that finish line and took 3rd in my age group I was hooked. Chicago 2010 was on my radar. It was heartbreaking to learn that I would have to have knee surgery number 6 in September 2010 to remove scar tissue that was causing a lot of pain. I was terrified of the pain and heartbroken knowing I would not be able to run the marathon in October.
After knee surgery number 6, rehab, and refocusing my brain; I knew that Chicago 2011 was a ‘’go’’. I ended up running it 2 weeks before my wedding. When I crossed that finish line I cried so hard. I had been through so much with my health and knowing that I could come back from everything hit me so hard. My whole family was there to greet me and I just melted in their arms.
I ended up running Chicago in 2013 and PR’d [beat my personal record] by an hour and a half. It was then that Boston showed up on my radar.
I missed qualifying by 15 minutes.
If I could miss it by only 15 minutes, I knew I could train hard enough to Boston Qualifiers. But then… 2013 brought another arthroscopy to clean out scar tissue that had been forming again. I was then referred to my current ortho doc. He discovered cysts in my knee that had been causing the problems.
I ran the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon 2014 without any issues.
In 2015 I started having a lot of pain down my shin. I figured it was shin splints, but I went to my doctor anyway just to get it checked out. An X-ray confirmed a large fracture down my shin. The cysts in my knee had grown to the point that they displaced the primary screw that was used to anchor my ACL graft at the bottom of my knee and caused the fracture in my leg.
I (stupidly) decided to go against medical advice and ran the 2015 Chicago marathon and the Runner’s World half a week later on this fractured leg. This led to a larger fracture that left me unable to walk on that leg. I was supposed to be running the Boston Marathon the following April so I agreed to surgery number 8.
He said the surgery went as well as expected. Two weeks later, my knee swelled up and my incision was red and bulging. My sutures ended up rupturing. I went back for a follow up and he quickly took me back into surgery for an incision and drainage of the infection. The infection was so bad that even after surgery that my sutures kept opening up and I had a gaping hole in my incision.
I was unable to function normally.
After another follow up visit, he said that he wanted to take me in for surgery number 10. I quickly disagreed and begged him not to do surgery. I was crying hysterically.
He understood my runner crazies and agreed to put off surgery. I did 6 weeks of complete bed rest. I went to his office 2 times per week for 4 weeks and once a week for 2 weeks.
At the end of February he finally cleared me to run. I had 8 weeks to rehab for Boston, and due to my extended time off work I had to work extra . I was working four 12 hour shifts per week and running two times per day. I would wake up for work, run, go to work, run, sleep and go back to work.
On my days off, I would go for double-digit runs, but could not manage more than 15 miles. I ended up running the Boston Marathon in 4:18. I don’t care about my time. All that matters to me is that I made it through the whole ordeal.
My doctor has never told me that I should quit running. He is fabulous and really understands my runner crazies and really works with me to keep me running as much as possible. Actually, none of my doctors have ever told me to quit running. I have been encouraged to take up swimming, but that just isn’t for me.
Over the last 19 years I have dealt with this, but plan to keep on running for as long as I can.
When I run, I get pain from time to time; the key part is that I am smart about my running. If my knee hurts too badly, I don’t run that day. It is all about being smart and listening to my body”
Thank you Brenda sharing your journey with athletes across the globe!