Reid Coolsaet

Photo: Peter Stokes.

Reid Coolsaet is ready to leave 2017 in the past.

The two-time Olympian and second-fastest marathoner in Canadian history was forced to cut his yearly training regime to half of its regular volume, as he dealt with a peculiar ailment. A Hamilton resident and New Balance athlete, he had been chasing Jerome Drayton’s elusive Canadian marathon record of 2:10:09 for quite some time and, with a personal best of 2:10:28, a record-breaking attempt in 2017 was in no way far-fetched. But, not even the elite are impervious to injury.

It was the first day of 2017 when a lingering feeling of mild bruising on the top of his foot suddenly intensified to a sharp pain along his fourth metatarsal. “I had a 20K run on my schedule, and I only made it to 10k because the pain was so bad,” recalls Coolsaet. In the next few days, he was hobbling from one rehabilitation clinic to the next, unable to run.

The diagnosis: osteonecrosis on the neck of his fourth metatarsal. The timeframe: three to nine months, if lucky.

“Upon hearing that, I scoffed at the doctor,” he says. “A stress fracture doesn’t even take that long. There was no way I would be out for nine months.” But, fate had other plans. “I took four months off, and then I tried to build up again. Then, in May, I realized I still was not ready to go. It was only by September that I could slowly resume training,” remembers Coolsaet. “At times, I thought I was done (racing competitively). I caught myself questioning what it would take to rebuild the fitness I had before getting injured, and if it was worth the effort.”

Osteonecrosis (also called avascular necrosis or AN), which literally translates to “dead bone”, is the death of bone tissue due to the interruption of blood supply. Sometimes, when the condition is caused by an underlying mechanical issue – such as joint dislocation or a nearby fracture – surgery can accelerate the healing process. Coolsaet believes, however, that his problem simply stemmed from overuse. Surgery would not help him. All he could do was wait for his injury to heal and, more so, that it would heal at all. “Apparently, in some cases of osteonecrosis, blood flow does not come back to the affected bone tissue,” states Coolsaet.

Despite a troublesome diagnosis, the distance runner had a reason to keep believing in a return to form. A few weeks before his injury, in December 2016, he had crossed the finish line in seventh at the Fukuoka Marathon in 2:10:55, nearly 30 seconds faster than his previous course best at the Japanese race. “It was one of the best races of my life,” he says. “That race gave me a reason to stay positive during the time I was injured. The 2016 results were promising enough to motivate Coolsaet in overcoming his setback. “I got treatment from professionals – a lot of acupuncture. I cross-trained and I alternated between hot and cold stimulus on my foot.”

In September, his efforts came to fruition. Coolsaet was on the upswing. He tried to build up his mileage once more, only this time, his body was not holding him back. “I began feeling good,” he says. “Now, I can still feel some discomfort if I flex my toe manually, but I do not flex my toe that far when I run, so it isn’t bothering me.” Slowly, he began getting back into shape, with the goal of being competitive at the Canadian Cross-Country Championships in November. Despite missing out on many months of training, Coolsaet placed ninth. He knows, however, that he was undertrained. The five weeks post-nationals (from Nov. 25 onwards) have been “solid,” he says.

Coolsaet knows, however, that there is still a long way to go. “I am racing the Houston Half-Marathon on Jan. 14,” he says. “Though I am not expecting an amazing result just yet, it will be nice to mix it up with other fast Canadian athletes who are racing there as well.” Geoff Martinson, Blair Morgan, Evan Esselink and Thomas Toth will also be toeing the line. “I am not sure how the race will go. I am still chasing a good workout that will confirm to me that I am fit again,” he admits.

Though he is still feeling some effects of the setback, Coolsaet is happy to be back running. He readily shares with others what the process of overcoming an injury has taught him. “When you come back, be very slow and patient. My first run back was a 2K jog, and I took another day off afterwards. I see recreational runners come back much faster than I do, while I am looking to build up to 170K per week. As a point of reference, my mileage in my first week back from injury totalled 12K. Runners should not be scared to take days off or rescheduling hard workouts if the body is not ready. It can be frustrating at times, but patience works.”

Beyond Houston, Coolsaet hopes to reproduce the fitness that enabled him to turn heads at Fukuoka in 2016. “I just want to keep being able to run the mileage that will permit me to race competitively again.” Aside from staying healthy, his next goal is to run a fast spring marathon.

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