Justin Martin: Grit, Determination and a New Hip

I have coached a number of athletes in my career and each athlete has a story. The story of an athletic career varies, but a common thread that runs through the triathlete’s story is one of grit and determination. While all of the athletes that I have coached have, by nature had these characteristics, a select few have them in a way that has left me in awe.

One such athlete is Justin Martin. I have had the pleasure of coaching Justin since back in 2005. Justin was one of the original members of Human Powered Racing when it began in 2006 and he has been a part of the team ever since.

This past year Justin’s story added a new chapter when he went in for hip replacement surgery with Dr. James Stone. Having watched Justin train and race for over a decade, I saw a steady decline in his mobility and “comfort” running (and simply walking for that matter) in the couple of years leading up to his surgery. In fact one of the most impressive things I have ever witnessed as a coach or athlete was seeing Justin racing the Challenge Penticton/ Canadian Long Course Championship in 2016.

I could see going in how much pain Justin was dealing with. I like to differentiate between pain and discomfort. Discomfort is what we willingly put ourselves into when we train and race. You can control discomfort simply by slowing down or easing up.

Pain is something different. Pain is a very unwanted passenger on any trip. Pain is something that will stop most people. Pain doesn’t go away. While I know he would disagree,  I believe the pain that Justin overcame on that day in mid 30 degree temperatures is something few people could.

At Human Powered Racing we have an award that has been given out every year since 2006. The Spirit Award is given to the athlete that exemplifies what it means to be a great team mate, a spirited competitor and an athlete that personifies Grit and Determination.

In 2016 Justin Martin became the first two time winner of this award.

I had a chance to ask Justin some questions about his path to triathlon, his dealing with discomfort and his plans for his new hip.

What is your athletic background? How many triathlons have you completed?

For most of my adult life I did minimal exercise; water polo at school and university. In Calgary I played recreational 3rd team rugby with Calgary Irish. That involved some casual training and light hearted games followed by beer. But from 1987 till 1994 I did little or nothing. When we moved to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia you really had to look hard to find your own recreation. Friends I made at work in the hospital were runners. Every week they would go out to that part of Riyadh where the embassies were located and run. The significance of that is that anyone running, either male or female, on the streets of Riyadh was a complete aberration. Cars would honk or slow down and drivers would yell and treat you like an alien. And of course women could never, ever run in public as it would be too offensive for the locals to observe. But in the Embassy area, because of the large population of non-Saudis, running was tolerated. So not only could men run in shorts but women (but usually only the wives of the running men) could also run if they were clothed modestly. And the Diplomatic Quarter had a good running trail of about 13 km around the periphery so that’s where Helen and I started to run…I mean walk. We had never run before and so started walking with intermittent running….and then ran a bit, walked a bit, ran a bit more…and after a couple of months managed to run the entire loop. One of the really enjoyable things about these runs was that after the run, somebody would host breakfast. (in summer we would start our run at 6 am) ..fresh croissants and pastries from the French bakery are just reward for the effort!

Once we got into this peer group of runners it was only a short time before we heard about the Riyadh Triathlete Group. They organized multisport events every 2 weeks from May to October. All sorts of distances and all combinations of disciplines…swim/ bike one week, bike/run the next week, swim/run, run/bike. All culminating in an Olympic distance tri to finish the season. No organised training; just turn up and do it.

In 2002 we returned to Victoria and I heard about Commonwealth Tri club…and then Human Powered Racing.

If I started triathlon in 1996…say 20 years…say two or three a year…at least 50 but mostly standard and sprints. Endurance triathlons… ten or so.

How long had you been suffering with hip pain?

Pain wasn’t the predominant feature at the start; I mostly had stiffness and reduced mobility. Any pain I had, I put down to low back pain but now I know that that is not an uncommon site for pain in OA hip. It’s all so gradual, it’s hard to put a specific duration but my best estimate as an answer is around 10-15 years.

What was the final straw that made you decide to get hip replacement?

It was cumulative. No final straw. You know the story about the frog in boiling water; the discomfort and reduced mobility are very gradual so you just put up with it. It becomes part of you. But then there is a gradual realization that you can’t tie your shoelace, that you have to go through a specific series of movements to get into and out of your car without causing major aggravation. Then it got to the stage that just sitting and standing were actions that you had to grit your teeth before doing them. Walking was more of a problem than biking or even running.

How did you deal with the pain in the final couple of years of racing (long course no less). Did you know how bad it was?

Most of the pain I felt over the last couple of years was probably and predominantly due to a combination of soft tissue and boney damage. As a pathologist, I have seen hundreds of osteoarthritic femoral heads (that part of the femur the surgeon removes and replaces) so I had a good idea of what mine looked like. Up until a few weeks before my operation, biking was not a problem at the time of biking. It was only in the recovery phase after a bike ride that my hip would be really stiff and sore. As to running, I could run reasonably pain free at the start but would have to stop to stretch. In particular, during Challenge Penticton in 2016 I had to stop frequently and stretch my hamstrings. The relief I got from that convinces me that a lot if not most of the pain from OA hip comes from scarring in the surrounding soft tissue.

As to drugs; Tylenol 3, Celebrex and Advil (but not together!) intermittently. And not in large quantities.

What steps did you take in the lead up to the surgery to ensure a swift comeback?

Absolutely nothing. The only special step was decade plus membership in Human Powered Racing!

What is the prognosis of the new hip?

Ceramic hip has no expiry date.

How has you rehabilitation been going?

The actual hip rehab is going extremely well. Will Sutherland at PISE has set me up with a great rehabilitation/ strength program. I am now completely pain free and can do things (especially rotation) that I hadn’t been able to do for many years. However, general fitness has declined due to inactivity from a few weeks before the operation (early May) up to late September. I was really surprised that my fitness level had declined so much purely on the basis of not being able to exercise. When you can’t reach levels of performance once attained, all sorts of anxieties start playing on your mind…not least of which is general decline due to the passage of time (aka getting older!)

What are you goals and expectations now that you have had the hip replaced?

Although there are no firm rules, Dr James Stone (of whom I have nothing but the highest praise) has advised me that the optimal choice for the thinking person would be not to run significant distances again. I will abide by that opinion. I will continue to swim and bike and confine myself to Aquabike competitions. Having said that, during my long walks on a Sunday I do sometimes have to restrain myself from breaking into a short trot!