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Dr Elton's Marathon-Running Patient Just Keeps Going

(We received this fun, inspiring patient story from Frank Sprow, a patient of Dr. Elton's. Frank has run over 200 Marathons and continues to participate in them after undergoing surgery with Dr. Elton.)

Words and pictures by Frank Sprow!

Becoming a Pacer

As my marathon career comes to an end, I decided it would be a good challenge to try to become a pacer. You need to have run at least five NYC marathons (7 here) with good times, have either been a NYC pacer before or have recommendations from previous or current pacers and run a >=15K registered race within three months of the marathon in a solid time (Erie CO half marathon in August - time 1:46).

You must be from the New York City area and a NYRR (running club) member. Their records, somewhat incomplete, suggest I was the oldest pacer ever. A dubious distinction. 

Still Running After Two Surgeries

"Vail-Summit Orthopedics in Vail did the work and Dr. Elton and his team are terrific." -Frank Sprow

This followed a very tough period, since in June 2018 I developed a really painful foot while in Colorado. An MRI and tests at Vail showed it to be a staph infected metatarsal joint - unknown cause - and significant resulting bone loss.

Two surgeries were required, a six week continuous IV PICC line drip of strong antibiotic with weekly blood tests - before an operation to fuse the joint and a long recovery; in a splint, crutches, walker, tall boot, and carbon fiber stiff innersole shoe.  

X-Ray Shared Courtesy of Frank Sprow

Starting with walking 1/4 mile in January after a surgeon checkup, I built up to my normal five days of running 6 - 8 miles each, then a rest day, then 10 -12 miles - or every third week 20 - 22 miles  -  in June, by that time at altitude.

Note: if you can run 20 miles and feel generally alive, you can do 26.2 (adrenalin takes you in). If not, keep putting miles in your legs.  Building muscle mass and mental toughness/pain management (it slips too - the body says, isn’t that far enough today, buddy?) took effort.

I also had to make slight changes in stride and orthotic to account for there being hardware - titanium plate, 5 screws and a bone implant taken from my ankle - to fuse my foot joint, making my foot a bit wider and stiffer.

I am using the new Hoka Carbon X shoes which are amazing. Also, both knees (previously messed up) and legs (ditto) complained after enjoying months of lounging on the sofa.

Vail-Summit Orthopedics in Vail did the work and Dr. Elton and his team are terrific. 

Pacing in NYC

Rather than competing for an age group win, my job was to get my team to the finish line in Central Park in the specified elapsed time and help them achieve their goals. NYC pacers run the entire distance. In many other marathons they run short segments to pace an elite runner.

Most marathons do not use pacers at all. Following a pacer is optional and the great majority run on their own. You do get to ride a special bus to the start in Staten Island rather than, as usual, waiting in the line that stretches all the way around Bryant Park and the library.

Was I nervous leading a group of people depending on me, with my foot?  


How NYC Marathon Race Day Works

"I've done this so many times I know every turn and elevation change through the five boroughs." -Frank Sprow

The way it works race day is: you stand in your assigned location (Wave 4, Corral E here) on the Verrazzano Bridge before the start (53,000 entrants) holding your sign which indicates the pace time you have been assigned.

Your time is set about 15% slower than your recent marathon performance. Mine was set at 4:40 (10.7 minutes per mile).

Most pacers (me too) elect not to wear an RFID tag which would generate an official time slower than they wish recorded. People come up and ask how you intend to run the race and you give them some specifics.

For example, we’re going to start over the bridge slower than our pace and then we’ll speed up but, constant effort, not pace, is my standard.

Some things to remember:

  • Be careful on the bridge, some folks who think they are fast will push on you or bump you to get by.

  • I’ll be holding my sign and by keeping an eye on it you can tell; if I am moving it up and down, a hydration point is coming up in a few minutes or, if I‘m moving it side to side, a potty station is ahead and if you need to go, in order to stay with our team you’ll need to run ahead now so as to not lose touch.

  • I will not be stopping or walking at any time.

  • If you feel sick or are hurt, sit on the curb and a ham radio operator wearing an orange hat will help. Or tell a police officer.

  • If you’ve not completed the whole race, do not cross the finish line or you will be disqualified forever.

Frank Has Run Over 204 Marathons

"I’m old but have run 204 marathons and never dropped out." -Frank Sprow

I’m old but have run 204 marathons and never dropped out. I told some I ran 2018 Boston 38 minutes faster than our pace time, in freezing rain, which seemed highly convincing. I left out mention of my foot! About 19 people chose me, perhaps the only option available!

I write time/place markers on a piece of tape on my arm but I've done this so many times I know every turn and elevation change through the five boroughs and have estimated an elapsed time to be there. 

After crossing the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge some might think - "I’m in Manhattan, it’s almost over; I see hundreds of screaming people as we come off the bridge".

Wrong! Ten more very tough miles. I let each of my team know we’re slowing down a bit, they should stay hydrated and drink lots of electrolytes (Gatorade).

  • If you need to pee - just let it go, don't stop - you'll cramp up.

  • I find the toughest stretch of the race is going up First Avenue in Manhattan, 50+ blocks.  

  • Then one has the Bronx to deal with including the Willis Avenue Bridge, which I have a personal phobia about.

  • Then we go south on Fifth Avenue, cross into the park and pass behind the Metropolitan Museum onto East Drive, run across Central Park South and up back into the park.

Finishing Up "The Most Satisfying:" Marathon

"My foot didn't hurt any more than the rest of my body...Seeing how happy our team was made this the most satisfying sports competition I've ever done." -Frank Sprow

Our group finished together near Tavern on the Green, many holding hands, about 80 seconds ahead of our given pace - after running over four hours!

My foot didn't hurt any more than the rest of my body! Even though this was a relatively slow time, I found that frequently dropping back and communicating with my team members while running took a toll. 

Seeing how happy our team was made this the most satisfying sports competition I've ever done, which include:

  • swimming (backstroke)

  • motorcycle drag racing (Indian Chief and Bultaco Metralla)

  • hydroplane boat racing (A,B,C outboard and 266 inboard)

  • Indy midget open-wheel racing (Kurtis/Offenhauser)

  • sports car (Alfa Romeo, Conrero tuned) and Formula 2 (Cooper/Coventry Climax) racing

  • bicycle road and match sprint track racing (Ciocc, Merlin and Zinn)

  • marathons

  • ultramarathon

  • triathlons

  • various shotgun sports (skeet, trap, sporting clays)

And yes, I did work for a living, too (or so my employer believed!)

Friends Were At The Finish

The Pacers received a really nice Tiffany crystal paperweight.  I love to run long distances (high pain threshold, unconstrained by common sense) and this being my last NYC Marathon, friends were at the finish. 


Foot, Ankle, and Orthopaedic Trauma

Dr. John Paul Elton believes that listening to his patients is the most important diagnostic tool at his disposal. The Harvard-trained foot and ankle specialist knows from experience that "where it hurts" is not always the actual cause of the complaint. Dr. Elton's fellowship training has given him the expertise to handle the full spectrum of foot and ankle disorders: from sports injuries and fractures to nerve and tendon disorders, deformities, and chronic pain.


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