The race to Ragnar: Ann’s journey to pain-free running
Ann Scanlon started running as a means to lose weight. After making it a part of her daily routine, running became one of her hobbies, along with watching New York Jets football and traveling.
She joined a running group for women in Ocala, Florida, to make friends and have an accountability partner while she trained for events, including half-marathons and marathons. In December 2021, Scanlon ran the St. Jude Memphis Half Marathon in Memphis, Tennessee, less than six months after recovering from a back injury.
“I was injured for three months before training started,” Scanlon said. “I went from not running at all to running eight or more miles at a time.”
Although she broke her personal record during this race, she started experiencing excruciating knee pain that impeded her ability to walk without a limp. She saw a local provider near Summerfield, Florida, where she received various therapies and procedures. When the pain persisted, the doctor’s next course of treatment was a double knee replacement. After that recommendation, Scanlon began looking for another doctor, hoping to get a second opinion.
“I’m a runner and I will always be a runner, so I needed to find someone who was going to keep me running,” Scanlon said.
Finding the right care team
Scanlon reached out to a former co-worker who recommended she make an appointment with Kevin Vincent, MD, PhD, department chair of the UF Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and director of the UF Health Running Medicine Clinic.
“Ann presented with patellofemoral pain,” Vincent said, “which is the most common reason why someone is referred to us.”
Patellofemoral syndrome, commonly known as runner’s knee, is a common cause of knee pain in athletes, specifically in sports that require lots of running or jumping, or both. Vincent developed a plan with his care team that solves complex sports injuries.
The treatment plan consisted of a comprehensive analysis of gait in the UF Health Sports Performance Center to identify biomechanical risks for injury, muscle imbalance testing and physical therapy to help get Scanlon back to running, around which she had built a healthier life.
“I got a sense of how I was running and what might be contributing to my propensity for knee injury,” Scanlon said. “It was really helpful to see myself in that space in the beginning of my treatment.”
In addition to her painful knees, Scanlon also had another obstacle to overcome during her treatment: her pacemaker, which was placed in 2015 because of sick sinus syndrome.
To make her treatment plan effective and safe, the providers at UF Health also worked with her cardiology team to create a comprehensive care plan tailored to her specific needs. This required Scanlon to have a lot of patience and required her team of providers to be encouraging and compassionate.
“It was a slow, methodical, incremental rebuilding,” Scanlon said. “Once I was able to increase my running load, I was able to have more intensive physical therapy for several months.”
A vital part of Scanlon’s care plan was physical therapy. Her physical therapist, Josh Barabas, PT, focuses on patients who are returning to running after an injury, as well as strength athletes. He played an integral role in planning Scanlon’s treatment while understanding her limitations.
“Each patient requires a unique strategy,” Barabas said. “It is vital to clearly understand what the patient’s journey has been to lead them to seek care. Each person has their own experiences and barriers to success that affect their ability to reach their goals. I strive to develop a specific, yet flexible plan to give them a high chance of success.”
Scanlon had a goal of her own. She wanted to participate in Ragnar Reach the Beach, a long-distance relay race in New Hampshire that stretches 200 miles over 36 hours.
Every week, Scanlon would leave her house in Summerfield at 6:30 a.m. to attend her physical therapy appointments in Gainesville. She said the workouts were tough, but she didn’t feel discouraged.
“Josh would provide tough love in the nicest way,” Scanlon said. “He didn’t let me get away with anything but always understood where I was at and where my limitations were.”
Time to start training
After three months of treatment, Scanlon was ready to start training for her relay race. She started slowly and noticed her anxiety was more of a limitation than her injury.
“My own anxiety was a self-limiting factor,” Scanlon said. “It took a couple of weeks because I was weak and slow since I had not run in a while. When I first started running, I noticed there was no pain. Every now and again, I would feel a tweak here or there and I was worried I would injure myself again.”
Vincent reassured her that the tweaks she was feeling were OK.
“If your pain level is a three or below (on a 10-point scale), you’re good to keep going,” Vincent said. “If it increases above a three, it is best to stop and reassess.”
With the help of her providers at UF Health, Scanlon enjoyed improvements in her mindset, strength and mechanics that allowed her to continue training and get back to her pre-injury pace.
Running the race
In September 2022, Scanlon set off with nine friends and two vans through the trails of New Hampshire to run the Ragnar Reach the Beach relay.
“I was worried because my first leg of the race was difficult,” Scanlon said. “My first two miles was like running on rocks up the side of a ski lift.”
Scanlon made it through her first leg by motivating herself and listening to her body. She told herself she was going to find a way to see this race through, even if she had to walk up the hill. After running uphill and downhill through sleep deprivation, Scanlon crossed the finish line and celebrated her accomplishment with her friends and fellow racers.
“It was the hardest thing I have ever done,” Scanlon said, “but I crossed the finish line and I am very proud of myself.”
After the race
Scanlon continues to run daily with her friends — pain-free.
“Running is my lifeblood,” Scanlon said. “It keeps me sane, and I have made some of the best memories from running.”
She has one message for runners: Honor your body.
“Don’t ignore the pain,” Scanlon said. “Address it and follow up with an appropriate medical professional with expertise in running medicine because it doesn’t mean it is the end of your running career.”
Vincent seconds that advice.
“Most runners are afraid we will tell them to stop running,” Vincent said. “When runners wait to come and see us, they usually end up injuring themselves more. That is when we will ask them to stop running. We want to work with runners and get them running again quickly, and it helps if they come to us before they injure themselves more.”
Scanlon thanked her care team for helping her get back to doing what she loves.
“They gave me a huge part of my life back,” Scanlon said. “I am able to run, hang out with my friends and go on trips. This part of my life is back in my hands, and I appreciate that more than I can ever express.”