Break of a Lifetime: A FITNESS Editor's Story
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Break of a Lifetime: A FITNESS Editor's Story

Even FITNESS staffers make exercise mistakes. It took a broken hip for Alyssa Shaffer to realize she'd been pushing too hard.

Calcium, Pregnancy, and Running

I broke my hip at mile 20 of the New York City Marathon -- not with a fall, but a footstep. A photographer snapped me just when I realized that I couldn't run another inch. If you look closely, I swear you can see the bone splitting in two. Later my surgeon told me that the break was the type usually associated with a car accident.

It's ironic that as the fitness director of FITNESS magazine, I ignored the warning signs of an injury in the making. I'm no rookie runner, either, having finished nine marathons, with a personal best of 3 hours and 36 minutes. But this race was different. After taking a few years off to start a family, I simply wanted to cross the finish line and give my husband, Scott, and 14-month-old twins a big hug.

So what happened? Runners are notoriously hard of hearing when it comes to listening to their bodies. I first experienced some minor discomfort along the front of my thigh and in my hip a few months before the marathon, but shook it off as part of training. I'm also famously remiss about stretching, and I didn't have the patience or time to devote to yoga or other workouts to help limber up my too-taut muscles.

I also have to plead some negligence when it comes to nutrition. I'm a healthy eater, but the only calcium in my diet came from some cheese or a splash of milk in my coffee.

The real problem, though, was a hellish pregnancy that likely depleted calcium from my bones, making them more susceptible to injury. From my fourth month up to the day I delivered, I was cursed with severe nausea and vomiting. I was hospitalized several times and lost so much fat and muscle that I gained only 5 pounds carrying twins. Layla and Nolan, thank goodness, were born perfectly healthy. But in hindsight, it seems foolish that I didn't make a greater (okay, any) effort to get more calcium into my diet, especially while I was breastfeeding.

When I started running again, the twins were about 3 months old. In preparation for the marathon, I followed an abbreviated training plan, running 5 miles home from work a few times a week and 10 to 20 miles on Saturday mornings.

Unfortunately the dull pain in my hip worsened in the weeks leading up to the race, not just during my runs but also when I was walking around. I desperately crammed in stretching sessions and massages and popped anti-inflammatories like M&M's. But giving up wasn't an option: I'd spent too many hours training through gruelingly hot days and damp early mornings.

Snap Heard Round the City

During the race I ignored the whispering ache that began after the first few miles, and tried to drown it with positive affirmations as it became more persistent. But when the pain intensified until each step felt like sheer torture, I limped to the side of the Willis Avenue Bridge in the Bronx with just 6 miles remaining, sobbing as runners surged past me. A spectator lent me a cell phone to call Scott, who was waiting two miles away. He ran against the sea of marathoners and carried me off the crowded course and into a taxi several blocks away.

At the orthopedist the next day, I expected to be told I'd pulled a muscle or strained a tendon. In fact, I'd started the race with a stress fracture at the neck of my femur (the largest and strongest bone in the body, situated between the pelvis and knee). But it took about three hours of running to become a full-fledged break. The doctor said I wouldn't be able to walk without crutches or a cane for at least three months. I had visions of my apartment in shambles, my toddlers running amok, with me trapped on the couch, helplessly watching the chaos.

Further, surgery was required -- three large pins were placed in my hip to help the bone knit together. I spent a week in the hospital and was on crutches for the next few months. Unfortunately, though, the bone never healed, so about six months later I had a second surgery to change the angle of the fracture by removing a small, pie-shaped wedge from my femur. My surgeon is optimistic that this will do the trick and I'll be up and running -- literally -- again in the next few months.

Nowadays, I'm mindful of a strange twinge in my shoulder when I lift weights, and dutifully take my multivitamin and calcium pills with a big glass of fat-free milk. The next time, my body won't have to shout quite so loudly for me to pay attention.

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, September 2006.