Runner spotlight: Ken Cox

Race Directors are a pretty lucky group. Sure there's a lot of behind the scenes blood, sweat and tears, but on race day we get to watch hundreds of people accomplish their trail running goals. There's truly nothing like it. In a series like 5 Peaks an amazing mix of runners join us on trails - from first time racers and first time trail runners, to seasoned trail veterans and ultra trail runners to trail running elite. They all come together in the same welcoming and supportive event. As Race Directors, we are privileged to hear first-hand the inspiring race day stories of people achieving a hard fought goal, leaving their comfort zone to try something new, cheering a child to the finish line of their first race, or overcoming incredible odds just to run. 

Ken's story is one that completely touched us, and as we read about his road to 5 Peaks we couldn't help but think, this is what trail running is all about. In one year Ken has quickly become amazing part of the 5 Peaks family - a talent runner yes, but also an incredibly positive force on the trails. He had a stellar season, qualifying for and running in the Canadian Mountain Running Championships and finishing the series as a 2015 Ontario series champion. That's all the more impressive when you hear his story, in his words. 

                  -Erin, Ontario Race director


Ken's story

My name is Ken Cox, I turned 60 last September and I live in the Caledon area.

10 years ago, a neighbor of mine introduced me to trail racing.  I immediately loved the experience and the incredible people that have the passion for trail racing.  They are so different than many road racers...there is a sense of community and strangers treat you like friends immediately!  When someone goes down others gather to help rather than run on!!   

Through the ten years I challenged myself with some goals and did well to achieve them including running an ultra marathon trail race in 2013 and finishing well, 6th in my age group.  That is where my story begins.   

Soon after completing the ultra in May of 2013, I began to experience pain in my rib area at the mid thorax level.  It was intermittent and my Doctor thought I was having a kidney stone issue and it would pass.  So, I ran another trail event (25k) in June and right after that the pain intensified to the point that I couldn't run without more pain.  My Doctors kept probing, scanning and testing over the next few months to try to find the source and cause of the intensifying pain.  Finally on October 2013 the pain got so bad that I could barely walk.  At the end of October, I had an MRI completed and within minutes after the MRI they admitted me to the hospital.  A group of Doctors were quite concerned about an infection on my spine that had impacted my disc at the T8 level. Tests uncovered it was a Staph A infection (not good!) and it had penetrated to the point of being next to my spinal column!   

Many questions arose as to how I ended up with this infection without a trauma injury.  Soon they had me on massive doses of antibiotics intravenously 24/7 for 8 weeks. I spent 8 days in the hospital as they checked how much damage the infection had done. Did it spread to other organs and had it impacted my nervous system?  They had a torso brace built for me so I could at least sit up and walk around home.

When the infection cleared enough I saw an Orthopedic Surgeon and it was then that we saw the extent of the damage - my disc was completely gone and the pain had been from the spine pinching on my nerve bundle at that spot.  The Surgeon along with the supporting Doctors were optimistic about my recovery due to my physical strength and health from the training and running over the years.   He noted that there was evidence that my spine had already begun to self-fuse to replace the missing disc.  He noted it would be 3 months of monitoring with regular visits to know how well the fusing would work or whether surgery might be needed.

As I mentioned the Doctors were optimistic due to my physical health, and in January 2014, my infectious disease specialist told me with big smiles that the 8 weeks of massive antibiotics treatment had worked and I had finished the treatment for the infection 3 months early!!  Then in February my Orthopedic Surgeon told me to start weaning myself off my brace as the fusion was moving along quickly and effectively.  I asked him about running again and he said let's wait for a few more months.

Then in July 2014, he told me I did not have to see him again, the fusion was a success!  He told me it would be a while before the fusion material hardened enough but, he thought I could run again and should listen carefully to my body.  He told me that I should never run the long distances again as a precaution.

So, by this time, I had started doing long walks to build up my strength again and in some way work on my cardio. I also worked with a strength coach and physiotherapist, helping me to build the supporting core for my spine and guiding me on specific non-pounding exercises.  I tried running short distances in August of 2014 but found that after a few runs the pain would return (mild discomfort) so I continued with my strength and cardio training without any pounding. I tried running once each month to test it and then near the end of December 2014 after a couple weeks of trying short distances, there was no more discomfort!  

I began to run once a week doing 1k intervals (that's as long as my cardio would allow without stopping to walk) on top of the other training until about February when I added a short run midweek.  I added a bit of distance to my intervals every couple of weeks and soon was running 5k again by mid-March without stopping.  My biggest challenge now was getting my cardio to improve so I could improve speed and endurance with a goal to get my one run each week up to between 8 and 10k.  By the end of March I did my first 10k run!  I had a lot of help from my friends through all this with visits to my home and with them offering to run the short distances with me when I started back.  They were incredible and again showed the spirit of the trail racing community!!

It was at this point that I decided to signed up for the Terra Cotta race. It had been my ultimate goal to recover from this set back and race once more but at shorter distances, respecting the advice of my surgeon.  I found that 5 Peaks offered that!!!

I went to the race in Terra Cotta with a couple running friends and the support and encouragement of the rest of my running friends I train with.  I had set the goal of running the Sport distance to finish and enjoy the experience once again. Let me say this, it exceeded my goals and expectations with a podium finish! I checked off that box - I made it back!

I know that the recovery has been good but, I also realize that, at my age, the recovery might not hold up that much longer.  So, I signed up for the Heart Lake event and plan to do the rest of the events this year.  My goal at Heart Lake was to run a better race than Terra Cotta where I went out too fast (felt like a rookie again) and run a more consistent race.   I had no idea it was a Regional Qualifier for the Canadian Mountain Running Championships and when I heard that at the pre-race talk, I thought, okay just run the race to accomplish improvement from Terra Cotta with no expectations on placing.   Even the fact that the course adjustment lengthened it to 8k put me at the limits of my training!  So, what a bonus yesterday to end up in 3rd in my age group!!!  

What I want to stress most is that with the incredible positive support of my wife, Carol, and then the additional support of my running friends along with a very strong and positive mental attitude, I accomplished something, I believe, that is beyond what I expected!  One of my friends said after yesterday's result, " You never gave up on running when it would have been the easiest thing to do."

I hope that this very condensed version of my 2 year experience comes across well.  There are so many inspiring stories that others have to offer, I thought this might be a small addition to the many others.

Erin, thanks to you and your colleagues at the 5 Peaks organization, I have been able to enjoy the trail running passion again with the entire community!!  It doesn't matter that I cannot do the long distances any more, it is all about the experience and the passion!


THANK YOU Ken - we are so touched by your story of recovery and thrilled that it has such a happy ending. It is a honour for 5 Peaks to have been a part of your return to the trails.