Typically, by this time in the season, Sanya Richards-Ross would be looking to make a statement to the rest of the world as to the level of her fitness heading into the summer’s major championship.
Such was the case last year in New York, when she ran the fastest 200m time of her career, which certainly turned out to be a harbinger of the Olympic gold medal she would go on to win in London.
But this year is different.
Richards-Ross will make her season debut against a world-class field at the IAAF Diamond League adidas Grand Prix here on Saturday (25) having not yet run a single race in 2013 following a lengthy recovery period from off-season toe surgery. Although she feels well, Richards-Ross said she truthfully does not know what to expect.
“I think if I can run 50-point here then I am right on track to make the (US) team and hopefully win the World title,” Richards-Ross said at the first Diamond League press conference. “But I am not putting too much pressure on myself because I don’t really know how I am going to feel. Usually I have three or four races before I come to the New York meet so we’ll have to see how it goes.”
Rectifying long-term problem
For the last six years, Richards-Ross says she has been plagued by a persistent toe problem called hallux rigidus, which is degenerative arthritis and stiffness in the joint at the base of the big toe caused by bone spurs, or in Richards-Ross’ case a lack of proper spacing between the two bones in the toe. The issue required her to tape up her right big toe and to receive regular injections just to compete.
“What was happening was the two bones in my right big toe were closer than they are supposed to be and they would rub and it would be extremely painful when I would run on it,” said Richards-Ross. “What they do is go in and shave down the bone so there is more space. In September, I finally went ahead and did the surgery so I could hopefully be able to run pain free for the next couple of years.”
The recovery process typically involves two months of rehabilitation, but complications delayed Richards-Ross’ training for almost seven months and required her to undergo a second procedure in March, during which she received a cortisone shot and had excess scar tissue broken up.
“After I had the surgery, I should have rehabbed it for three or four weeks, but I was doing so much traveling post-Olympics that I was doing the rehab on and off,” she said. “I built up a little more scar tissue by not staying on it. It was a little bit of my fault. The other part of it was that the surgery is so traumatic. The doctors say that the recovery depends on the amount of blood flow so some people have a quicker recovery and some don’t.”
To maintain her fitness level during the off-season, coach Clyde Hart crafted a special workout regimen for Richards-Ross on the Alter-G, an anti-gravity treadmill used predominantly by distance runners to log miles at reduced body weight to limit impact on the body while rehabbing injuries.
“I was on there for one hour every day,” Richards-Ross said. “And the Alter-G is serious. I always thought, ‘Ehh, it’s just the Alter-G.’ But my coach found a way to kick my butt every single day. I would be doing intervals of three minutes at 14 miles-per-hour. It really did allow me to stay fit and to push it without putting too much pressure on my toe. Coach Hart and I were pleasantly surprised when I got back on the track three weeks ago how fit I was.”
While she felt fit, Richards-Ross did not feel like her normal self.
Work to do, but promising signs of progress
“Transitioning on to the track from the Alter-G trainer, with full gravity and all of that stuff, took an adjustment,” Richards-Ross said. “The first week was really tough, the second week got a whole lot better, and last week was fantastic. I am definitely behind. I am not where I would be had I been training normally.
“With coach Hart, we do a lot of our training in racing flats so I only put my spikes on for the first time yesterday. When I put my spikes on and did some sprinting, I felt good. I am hoping that with the competition and all of the adrenaline, I’ll forget about the toe and run a great race.”
Richards-Ross will need to run a great race to have a chance against the formidable field that she will face here. Her leading competitors include Diamond Race points leader and World champion Amantle Montsho of Botswana, 2008 Olympic gold medallist Christine Ohuruogu of Great Britain, 2007 World bronze medallist Novlene Williams-Mills of Jamaica, and Francena McCorory, Richards-Ross’ teammate on the gold-medal-winning 4x400m relays at the London Games and Daegu World Championships.
But Richards-Ross said she never contemplated running in a lower-key setting.
“I feel that in order for me to be ready for the World Championships, I need to get back on the horse and start running,” she said. “I don’t think there is any benefit to me running at a meet in Texas against competition that is going to run 53 or 54 seconds. I want to see where I am at, so I might as well race the best. Hopefully, they will pull me along to a great time. It’s right into the fire, the way I like it.”
Joe Battaglia for the IAAF