Zoe McParlin: Chronic Pain Didn’t Stop Her From Living Life to Its Fullest
The doctor said Zoe had only 3% chance of a normal life without pain. Now, Zoe has won several races pain-free.
Born and raised in Singapore, Zoe McParlin has always considered herself as a runner. Ever since she was a little kid, running was something she loved to do. For Zoe, running is not just a hobby; it’s a passion, a love, an addiction, a way to clear her head and forget about the stresses of the world.
When she was 18, something happened while she was running. She twisted her ankle and developed a rare neurological condition called CRPS. After being diagnosed, she couldn’t continue running. The road to recovery took her 3 years, but it was rewarding. Zoe is now fully recovered from CRPS and has won several races.
Due to her past, she decided to study to be an osteopath. Through the study, she learned more about her conditions, how to fix herself and others. Last year, she returned to Singapore after spending a few years in the UK. These days, Zoe is working as an Osteopath at City Osteopathy and Physiotherapy.
Since returning to Singapore, she has been running regularly with the Singapore Shufflers. She has won the Columbia Jungle Run 2017 and was a part of the winning women’s marathon relay team at the ASICS Relay 2017. In this interview, she shares about how CRPS affected her life, how she proved doctor’s prediction was wrong, and her proudest running achievements to date.
RS: What is an Osteopath?
Zoe: Osteopathy is a form of manual therapy that can provide pain relief for numerous muscle and joint conditions for both adults and children by treating the body as a whole. Our aim is to treat not only the symptomatic condition but also why you get the pain in the first place. Osteopathy is a regulated by the General Osteopathic Council (GOsC) in the UK and I have a Master’s Degree in the subject.
Osteopathic care uses a range of mainly of structural techniques including non-invasive manual therapies such as soft tissue, joint articulation, muscle energy techniques and high-velocity thrusts. There are other gentler cranial techniques as well. The wide variety of techniques ensures that treatment is tailored specifically to each individual.
Osteopathy treats a wide range of conditions with lower back, cervical, shoulder and knee pain being the most common areas. It is currently in the European Back Guidelines, Clinical Standards Advisory (UK), National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence Guidelines (UK). Moreover, it has the support of randomised controlled trials and other research.
RS: Tell us about CRPS. What caused it? Can you fully recover from it? Is it common?
Zoe: Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) is a chronic pain condition which can affect every aspect of the nervous system, from temperature control, motor and sense of touch. It can even affect the way the brain processes pain.
I simply twisted my ankle while running. Originally, it started out like Achilles tendonitis but it just didn’t get better. The pain seemed to evolve and it spread up to my knee. I started to get burning, electric shock shooting pain, pins and needles, numbness, excruciating pain, sensitivity to touch - the fan, water, bedsheets and trousers would all make the pain worse.
My ankle changed colour and also, it’s temperature is different to the other side. I was diagnosed with CRPS by a pain management specialist, but there was no specific test. I think you can fully recover from it. I am living proof that you can recover from it, but the condition is very varied. It is relatively rare - about 1 in 4,000 people a year develop it. As it’s difficult to be diagnosed, the number is realistically higher than what the studies suggest.
RS: After you recover, does CRPS decrease your running performance?
Zoe: Now I don’t think so. I certainly have a weaker left leg and favour my right more, but apart from that, it doesn’t really affect me anymore. It certainly stopped me from running for years.
RS: How did you feel when the doctor told you about the 3% chance of a normal life without pain? What went through your head and heart?
Zoe: I refused to believe that would be the case. I’ll be the first to admit I can be stubborn and headstrong but giving up wasn’t an option. I walked out of the appointment and told my mum I would have a normal life and run again, maybe never compete but just physically do it.
Of course, I was upset and devastated but I just thought it would ok be with 3% even if it takes the rest of my life, I’ll fight this and prove them wrong. I couldn’t believe that my life was over at 18 and that I couldn’t go to university, get a job, have a family, run or do any sports. I never thought I would be able to compete again, but my goal was just to run and have a normal life.
RS: Tell us about your road to recovery. How long did it take? What were the things you do to recover?
Zoe: My road to recovery was the biggest fight and hardest thing I have ever done, it took years. It was a very long slow process, lots of little baby steps that all added up eventually. I had 4 operations in the first 2 months, with 3 in the month once with a drip into my spine for 5 days.
It took 3 years to the point where it wasn’t affecting my daily life and they thought about decreasing all the painkillers I was on. It took maybe 4 years to get to the point where I could do some sort of exercise again. I was on a lot of medications throughout.
Luckily, I had access to osteopathy regularly which help loosen the muscles and get my ankle moving again. I started a course of graded motor imagery and used a mirror box therapy which I am now trained in. My leg and ankle forgot what it was like to do things so I had re-learn to walk and re-train what things feel like. It even took me longer to recognise the left ankle compared to the right one!!
RS: How long have you been running?
Zoe: I guess I started when I was maybe 8 when I did my first cross country at school. I really enjoyed it and I have run ever since. I took about 4 or 5 years out with the CRPS before I could try to run again. I literally had to start from scratch and learn to walk again, so, really, I have only been regularly running again for almost two and half years now.
RS: Since when did you start competing?
Zoe: I competed at school when I was a child, but I’ve only been doing races again for 1 and half years now.
RS: What are your favourite races?
Zoe: My favourite races would be fast and flat, and around 5km. Though I always have a soft spot for track events.
RS: What’s your proudest achievement in running, to date?
Zoe: I have two.
The first one happened 2 years and 5 months ago, which was the first 5km run after coming off all the medication I was on for CRPS. I still remember it to this day and could even tell you the route. I just went out on my own on a sunny day and ran. I never thought I’d be able to run 5km after CRPS so to do it without painkillers and not be in excruciating pain was amazing. That’s when I started to train again and started with the local running club.
The other was in July 2017. I ran a 5km race, I ran a personal best, cutting a minute off my previous time and several minutes from the year before. Earlier in January 2017, I had actually been in the hospital with multiple blood clots in both lungs and almost died. The fact that I was able to get back to running and get such a big PB, I still can’t believe to this day. I crossed the line in absolute shock, I thought my Garmin had to be wrong! It reaffirmed that anything is possible if you put your mind to it.
RS: What kind of run do you enjoy? Short distance, long distance, obstacle run, trail run or any other types of run that you enjoy?
Zoe: I prefer shorter events than longer ones at the moment. 5km is my preferred distance to race. Though I have to say I do really enjoy my long training runs just to get away from everything and clear my head. Obstacle runs are really fun to do.
RS: Do your family members run as well?
Zoe: My sister used to train and race with me when we were younger and she still runs casually now. My boyfriend is getting into running at the moment, so I often go with him for runs which I really love.
RS: How’s your training schedule like?
Zoe: I train with the Singapore Shufflers twice a week at the track; they are my main hard workouts. I’ll always do a long run and maybe one other tempo/fast run. The rest of my runs are recovery or easy runs. I try to do cross training, either cycling, swimming, yoga or go to the gym, at least once a week. I would love to do more sports, I’ll give anything a go.
RS: When did you move to Singapore? Are your family members here too?
Zoe: I was born in Singapore and lived here most of my life till I was 18, so Singapore is really my home. I moved back again from the UK to Singapore in September 2017 when I started my job at City Osteopathy and Physiotherapy. My dad still lives here in Singapore, but the rest of my family is in the UK.
RS: How do you feel about running in Singapore? Which one do you like more, running in Singapore or UK?
Zoe: I’m not sure which one I prefer, there are advantages and disadvantages to both. Both have some beautiful places to run. The main factor is the weather. It often feels easier and it’s more flexible to run in the UK due to the cooler temperature. I’m pickier about when run I run here as sometimes it’s just too hot. Though there were countless times when I wished I was running in Singapore when it was really cold, grey and dark in the UK, and all I wanted was a bit of sun to feel my fingers!!
RS: How did you find out about Singapore Shufflers? How does it feel to be running with the group?
Zoe: When I lived in Singapore before, I had some friends who are very good runners. So, when I found out I was moving back, I messaged them. They run with the Shufflers and told me to get in touch with them. It’s amazing, I really enjoy training with them, they are so supportive and friendly and they made me feel right at home. It’s great to run with others, they certainly help to push me and keep me going when I’m finding it tough.
RS: Congrats for winning Jungle Run and ASICS Relay! Have you always been this competitive?
Zoe: Thank you. I couldn’t have done the ASICS relay without my amazing team. They put me in an amazing position before I even started running, so I was very lucky. After the CRPS, I have really only started competing seriously again since July 2017.
RS: Do you have any new year’s resolution for this year?
Zoe: I tend not to set strict resolutions. To be happy, healthy and avoid being in the hospital this year are definitely the aim. If I had to pick something, I really like to get back into doing more weights and gym work on a regular basis and get more sleep!!
Zoe: Nothing specific, just to improve my personal bests, relax and enjoy being able to run. I’d like to run a half marathon, not necessarily as a race, but just do the distance. I would never have dreamed I could run that far after getting CRPS. And being unable to walk in the past, running a half marathon would mean a lot to me.
Zoe will be sharing more of her expertise and running experience with RunSociety readers in the upcoming weeks. She also writes a blog about running and injuries at City Osteo Runs.