Hitting the runner’s wall

A rare bone condition gives Alex Wilkie 30 per cent chance of returning to competitive running

Less than a year after winning the OUA Cross-Country Championship (pictured above), Alex Wilkie was given a 30 per cent chance of returning to competitive running.
Less than a year after winning the OUA Cross-Country Championship (pictured above), Alex Wilkie was given a 30 per cent chance of returning to competitive running.
Credit: 
Supplied by OUA

“Dad, it's over.”

Inside St. Michael’s Hospital in downtown Toronto, Queen’s cross-country runner Alex Wilkie had nothing more to say as he stared down at his CAT scans and a collection of paperwork for the upcoming months of physiotherapy.

Due to a rare genetic bone impingement  caused by abnormal contact between two bones in his left hip  and the hardening of his labrum — the soft tissue that protects joints from grinding against each other — doctors gave Wilkie a 30 per cent chance of returning to competitive running.

An OUA champion and CIS bronze medalist in his first three years at Queen’s, it felt like it was all coming to an end for Wilkie in that moment at the hospital.

As his son sat in the waiting room crying, Chuck Wilkie remained optimistic. He reminded Alex of the challenges he’d seen his favourite professional athletes overcome.

Though there might not be a direct comparison between star athletes and a cross-country runner from Almonte, Ontario, something his father told him that day inspired Wilkie not to give up.

“You don’t know how it’s going to work until you try,” Alex recalls his father telling him. “You don’t want to wake up when you are 40 or 50 and say how you could have had this surgery and continued on to do the thing you loved.”

Not willing to call it quits just yet, Wilkie will have to undergo surgery on his hip and likely face three to four months of rehabilitation without running.

Even with the daunting future that awaits him, Wilkie says he will attempt a comeback.

Early success — October 31, 2015 Waterloo

Recognized by most of his coaches as a short distance runner, not a lot was expected of Wilkie, ArtSci ’17, coming into Queen’s. Under head coach Steve Boyd’s heavy mileage running program, the team’s  plan was for him to become accustomed to longer distances during his first season, building towards “something special” in third or fourth year.

What neither athlete nor coach knew was that the success would come early.

In his second season with the Gaels, Wilkie finished his 2014-15 indoor track campaign in style, placing 3rd in the 1500-metre race at the CIS National Championships in Windsor.  His success continued to build into his third season, with strong outings in the 2015-16 season — including a course record at the Western Invitational. He made something clear to his competitors: 2015 was going to be the year of Alex Wilkie.

At the 2015-16 OUA Championships in Waterloo, the twist and turns of the trail caused the runners to take a slower pace —  playing to Wilkie’s strength of late race sprinting.

In the first two kilometres, a familiar pack of strong runners — including Wilkie — got out to a sizeable lead. With the pace increasing every passing kilometre, a few runners would fall out of the pack and out of contention. It wasn’t until the final 700-metres that there were only two left — Wilkie and Windsor’s Paul Janikowski.

The final obstacle was a short hill that leads to an open grassy field. Seeing Boyd in the distance telling him this was the moment to go for gold, Wilkie gave his coach a simple nod and passed Janikowski on the rising hill as he sprinted to a provincial championship.

“Once Alex gets his step, you can’t get it back on him,” Boyd said.

While they took a moment to celebrate the achievement, the Queen’s team was already looking ahead to the national championships just two weeks later in Guelph, where Wilkie would be a favourite going in.

“At that point we didn’t know how significant it was going to be. Because looking back now, it might be the last win he ever gets,” Boyd said.

Discomfort — November 14 2015 Guelph

Just ten minutes into the 2015-16 CIS National Championships, Wilkie felt something wrong as he struggled to keep up with his competitors. 

After being pegged for gold, Wilkie finished a disappointing 31st overall. 

But the discomfort he felt wasn’t a one-race abnormality. For the past two years, whenever Wilkie picked up his pace, he’d lose coordination in his left leg. Described as a biomechanical anomaly, Wilkie’s condition limited him in the final sprint.

While he thought it was just fatigue, Wilkie knew that professional help would give him answers.

During initial visits with doctors, Wilkie was told he had a partial labral tear. Over time, the rubbery tissue between the two bones in his hip joint began to rip. Rest was the prescribed treatment.

It was only after seeking a second opinion from a former university-runner-turned-doctor, in Toronto that Wilkie found out, in addition to a partial tear, the labrum in his left leg ossified , turning this muscle into bony tissue. 

Next steps — 2016-17 Kingston

Currently, Wilkie is awaiting surgery, but he continues to train periodically so that he can maintain his level of stamina.

During surgery, doctors will replace Wilkie’s labrum with a portion of his hamstring. Once surgery is complete, he will spend the first month and a half on crutches, using his whole fourth year for physiotherapy. During this time, he says it’ll be important for him to continue to be a part of the team.

“To sulk in my room or whatever because I’m not racing, that’s not a leader type thing to do,” Wilkie said. “I will be out there just as I ever was.”

Like other athletes, Wilkie has dreamt of representing Canada. Known as a passionate runner, he would picture making the perfect move in a race, pushing the world’s best athletes to earn a once in a lifetime moment — the Olympic games.

Even though he still hasn’t wrapped his head around the rehab and is unsure whether he’ll ever run again competitively, Wilkie knows that he’ll continue to do what makes him successful — putting one foot in front of the other.

Wilkie set a course record at the 2015 Western Invitational with a time of 24:35. Supplied by Maxine Gravina

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