Back on his feet

Once given a 30 per cent chance at running competitively ever again, Alex Wilkie has a second chance

David Wilkie won the OUA cross country championships in 2015.
David Wilkie won the OUA cross country championships in 2015.
Credit: 
Health in Focus
Wilkie gives a thumbs up after his labrum surgery.
Wilkie gives a thumbs up after his labrum surgery.
Credit: 
Alex Wilkie

Sitting in Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital, Alex Wilkie waited impatiently as his doctor re-evaluated his hip. Wilkie knew how diligent he’d been in the six- month recovery process, which spanned across the first six months of 2017. 

Throughout his time away from running, he remembered everything the doctors told him. “No weight on your bad leg. Keep the brace on when you're cooking. Never get off the crutches.”

After a bit of a discussion, Wilkie was told he completed his assessment. When he was at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto just under a year ago, Wilkie was given a 30 per cent chance of running competitively again. 

Now, he was told he could begin running again in six weeks. 

The moment he got home, Wilkie circled June 5 on his calendar. 42 days later he laced up his running shoes and took his first strides towards becoming the runner he once was.

“His innate talent is like nothing I’ve ever seen”

Although Wilkie might pride himself now on his work ethic, it wasn’t always something he took pride in.

“He used to have a Twitter hashtag called ‘all talent, no work,’ which was completely opposite of the kind of culture that we’ve tried to establish within the team but that was just kind of his style,” Queen’s Cross Country head coach Steve Boyd said.

Quickly after his first couple months of training under Boyd’s high-mileage program, Wilkie improved at a pace that Boyd admitted was something he’d rarely seen before.

“[In his] first exposure to any kind of systematic training, he just took off,” Boyd said.

Only halfway through his third year at Queen’s, Wilkie had already taken the running community in Canada by storm. He was CIS national bronze medalist in the 1500m and began the 2015-16 cross country season by setting the course record at the Western Invitational. Just a few weeks later in Waterloo, Wilkie won the OUA provincial championship. 

Then, it all came crashing down.

“This isn’t right”

While Wilkie was pegged as the pre-race favourite at the National Championship, he came across the finish line in 31st. Looking back on the run, he knew something was off. 

Typically in the practices following a race, Wilkie lost coordination in his left leg whenever he tried to speed up. This was the first time it happened on race day.

“After that, I was like 'okay, let’s get to the bottom of this and try to figure it out',” Wilkie said. 

Over a year later on December 19, 2016, Wilkie had surgery to repair a torn labrum and ossifying muscle tissue that was turning into bone. Wilkie’s chances of ever running competitively again seemed to be in the rear-view mirror.

“I said to [my doctor], ‘I have dreams of making national teams and stuff … but if I could even just get back to being able to go out for a jog, enjoy the surroundings and be with friends going for long runs and stuff, 

I’ll take care of the rest,’” Wilkie said.

“I had a pretty quiet Christmas”

Post-surgery was a unique experience for Wilkie, who’s spent his entire life playing sports.

Prescribed a pair of crutches and a low dosage of exercise he could do from his bed, Wilkie moved in with Boyd for the 2017 winter term to make transportation around campus easier. Remarkably, this period of time was largely seamless for Wilkie, who spent his time playing Xbox, reading and resting.

“The month was a super straight month. I actually thought it was going to be really depressing and stuff…I enjoyed it,” Wilkie said. 

The generous company of his coach also helped, as the two developed a strong friendship through sports, politics and craft beer.

“Steve and I, because we’ve travelled to the States and stuff, we’re really into craft beer so we had some really nice beers,” Wilkie said.

“We drank some beers for sure … moderately, but like every day,” Boyd admitted.

Evidently, over the course of the winter, their athlete-coach relationship turned into a friendship, something Boyd sees as an important aspect of being an effective coach.

“It’s a close relationship and it’ll continue after he’s done … [with my athletes] my goal was always, if they get married, I want to be at their wedding. I see that with Alex for sure,” Boyd said.

“Wow, I’m out of shape”

When June rolled around, Wilkie could barely sit still. While he would’ve preferred to run out the door, guns blazing, he was calculated in his approach. On his first runs, Wilkie took it slow, running for five minutes and then taking a minute to walk. Once he got more comfortable, he’d bump up his running time by a minute or two. 

On the third week, Wilkie went on his first 20-minute jog. It gave him a feeling he hadn’t felt for more than half a year.

“It was really cool. I felt amazing. I thought I was going to be rigid. Running, man…I don’t know,” Wilkie said speechlessly.

In addition to taking it slow at the start, Wilkie made sure not to set any expectations.

“I made a point of not using my GPS all summer. I knew I was going to be out of shape and I didn’t want to get in that every four to five minutes of ‘holy s—, I’m jogging out here,’” Wilkie said.

Since beginning regular training with the cross country team this fall, Wilkie has started to progress at a strong pace. Despite this, there are still numerous speed bumps and unknowns left for him to find out.

Gaining back coordination in his left hip has been a struggle at times. As time moves on, Wilkie hopes he can build back the pathways between his brain and hip, but isn’t getting ahead of himself.

“If the first few weeks of training are any indication, [his first race] could go either way. We know what the risk is,” Boyd said.

The silver lining, however, is that this is Alex Wilkie. Through the gold medals, the surgery and every little difficult moment in between, his grit, positivity and undying belief in himself has defined him in the greatest and worst moments of his career. It’s the Wilkie that his family, friends and coach know all too well.

“Would I be surprised if we got the full Wilkie? Not 100 percent,” Boyd said.

Neither would Wilkie.

“If everything goes well…anything’s really possible,” he said.

 

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