Philadelphia Marathon: Carolyn's Story

A gleeful Gray waves as she secures her best run time to date in her first injury-free marathon. Photo Credit: Levi Rupp

One of the great things about an event like the GORE-TEX Philadelphia Marathon is that every runner has a unique background story, but feels united to other runners by a common goal. Pre-race, we met people who’ve overcome illness, personal tragedy and loss of loved ones to reach the finish line at the Parkway.

But sometimes the stories are a little simpler—overcoming a challenge, an injury, to get back to doing what you love—in this case, running.

Meet Carolyn Gray, a 27-year-old Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. With a background in sprinting, Carolyn decided a couple years ago to take up marathon running. On Sunday, she completed her second Philadelphia Marathon—the culmination of a year-long battle against injury.

Carolyn finished the 2011 Philadelphia Marathon. She planned to make it the first of many—but while training last year, she collapsed during a run.

“The pain was so acute, I thought I’d torn something,” she recalls. “I went into the doctor immediately.”

Carolyn was suffering from illotibial band syndrome (ITBS), a common knee injury that affects runners, cyclists and hikers. The band is crucial to stabilizing the knee during exercise, so this was a serious injury that would require serious rehabilitation. For someone just starting to become a distance runner, it could’ve been a devastating setback.

Luckily, Carolyn had the chance to work with Jeffrey O’Neill, PT, DPT, OCS, GoodShepherd Penn Partners Orthopedic Residency Coordinator. “I realized this injury requires a very active recovery,” Carolyn says. “It’s difficult—and it can be painful—to stretch that area, but it’s critical to do so.”

O’Neill led Carolyn through a specific rehabilitation program for her goals. “Some people walk in with the goal of just getting out of bed in the morning—my goal was to run a marathon,” she explains. “Jeff never even blinked an eye. We did the evaluation, set realistic goals and worked toward getting back to running.”

Carolyn credits O’Neill for her rapid return to running. “I never felt like I had to hide any extra workouts I was doing—sometimes, people will discourage you from pushing too hard. But he’s used to working with athletes, which made me feel really comfortable.”

Most importantly, it worked—only four months after her initial injury, Carolyn was at the starting line for the 2013 Boston Marathon. She had a difficult run on a notoriously challenging course, but she made it through—a sure sign she was on her way back. “I was only 12 weeks into training,” she recalls. “It was a big goal of mine just to finish.”

After taking a month or so off, she set her sights on Philly. More comfortable with the mileage aspect of marathons, Carolyn returned to her running roots—focusing on speed in her training leading up to the big race.

The approach paid off. Carolyn finished Sunday’s race in three hours, 30 minutes—fast enough to qualify to run Boston yet again in 2015. Having overcome the injury hurdle, Carolyn looks forward to resuming her pursuit of regular distance running.

“I’m a sprinter by nature, but I love the process of training for a marathon,” she says. “It really helps you to get involved in the community—in fact, joining the Fairmount Running Club was what inspired me in the first place. I volunteered at the 2010 race before running in 2011. Everyone’s so positive and optimistic—they really helped me to embrace and attack the training schedule.”

For the future, Carolyn hopes to travel to other cities and run their marathons. “There’s a huge advantage to running your hometown marathon, seeing friends all along the course,” she admits. “And that’s why Philly will always be my favorite marathon. But I’d like to try New York City, maybe even a marathon in Europe. I want to keep challenging myself.”

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