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From Hip Surgery to Appalachian Trail Hike in Less Than a Year

by UPMC Susquehanna

Craig Uhler of Williamsport isn’t one to sit still for very long. Last year, his job as a land surveyor had him on his feet and in the outdoors most of the time. His hobbies had him hiking and running almost every day. Craig has run a marathon, finished a triathlon, and completed dozens of long trail runs, but his goal was to hike the Appalachian Trail. 

To prepare for the long hike, he planned to run trail races throughout 2018 and use the winter to build muscle in the gym. His plans changed on October 7, 2018, when he was running the Green Monster 25K trail race in the Tioga State Forest near Wellsboro, PA. As Craig began the long race, he felt some muscle pain in his knee which started to slow him down. The pain was getting worse, but he kept going — until mile six, when everything changed.  

A Devastating Injury 

“I suddenly couldn’t put weight on my leg,” said Craig. “I knew I had over a mile until the next aid station, so I just kept trying to move ahead.” 

After waving off several people, he finally accepted help from two runners who realized he was in trouble. With a person on each shoulder, Craig was carried to the aid station at mile eight where he got a ride back to the starting line. From there, he went directly to the Emergency Room at UPMC Wellsboro

“I felt pain radiating from my knee, but the x-ray didn’t show any problems,” explains Craig. “The doctor thought I might have sprained my knee. I was given crutches, and I followed up with my family doctor a few days later.” 

Specialized Care for an Athlete 

With a 2,192-mile hike planned, Craig’s doctor wanted to make sure he saw the appropriate specialist so he referred him to Ronald Campbell, MD, a sports medicine specialist at UPMC Williamsport

After an examination and more x-rays, Craig was told he had a broken femur, right near the hip socket. The femur, also called the thighbone, spans the distance from your hip to your knee. It is the longest and strongest bone in your body, and because the femur is so strong, it usually takes a lot of force to break it. 

“When they told me the bone was broken, they couldn’t believe I had been driving and hobbling around for 10 days,” explained Craig. “Apparently, I have an extremely high pain threshold.” 

Dr. Campbell isn’t 100% sure how the break occurred, but can only assume Craig was training on a stress fracture that was undiagnosed. The fracture probably grew weaker with time and finally snapped during the race in Wellsboro. 

“Once I found out I broke my femur, my next question was — will I be able to start my hike in March?” remembers Craig. “I wanted to make sure that the surgery would make my hip indestructible.”  

Craig didn’t understand just how high his pain threshold was until the doctor told him he was going straight to the hospital to be admitted, and he would have surgery in the morning. During surgery, Dr. Campbell stabilized Craig’s femur and hip with a plate and several screws. 

“It all happened so quickly,” said Craig. “I am thankful that Dr. Campbell explained everything in detail and answered all of my questions. He came to talk to me the night before surgery, and then again right before surgery. I knew I was in good hands.” 

Recovery and Training 

The first six weeks, Craig had to rest — no driving, no working, and no training. Physical therapy would start after a full recovery from surgery, and Craig would begin to build strength to hike the Appalachian Trail.  

“Luckily for me, I had an amazing physical therapy team,” Craig said. “My physical therapist, Kristen Rehm from UPMC Williamsport, was a runner as well, and she understood how important my lifestyle was, so she created a treatment plan that fit me.” 

Craig went to physical therapy two days a week for seven weeks. Kristen assigned exercises for him to do at home, and as soon as his scar healed, she cleared him to begin a swimming program at the local YMCA. When he was 100% weight-bearing on his injured leg, he started working out at the gym. 

“Being able to work on my strength and fitness outside of the physical therapy office did a lot to boost my spirits and keep me focused,” said Craig. 

Physical therapy ended on January 25, 2019, and Craig planned to start his six-month long hike on March 20. He knew he still had a lot of training to do to make sure he was strong enough. 

“I swam, jogged, hiked, and lifted — anything to start building the muscles back up,” he said. “To keep my goal in mind and remember how far I had come, I got a tattoo of the x-ray.” 

Hiking the Appalachian Trail 

On March 20, Craig was ready to start his adventure. The first section of the trail at Amicalola Falls has 604 steps. When Craig started up those steps, he wasn’t so sure he was ready. 

“Looking back, it must have been first-day jitters,” he said. “I hooked up with two other hikers, and we hiked 12 miles together on my first day.” 

On August 27, Craig completed his journey. The monumental achievement after such a devastating injury reminded him that life is short. 

“It is important you go after what you want and live your best possible life,” said Craig.  

Redemption Race 

In order for Craig to feel closure about his injury, he wanted to complete the race where he broke his leg, the Green Monster 25K. That meant continuing training even though he had just walked from Georgia to Maine.  

“My follow-up appointment with Dr. Campbell showed no sign of any damage from all the walking there wasn’t even evidence of the original break aside from the titanium rods,” said Craig.  

Even with Dr. Campbell’s reassurance, there were still a lot of jitters on October 13th — race day.  

“Thankfully for me, I had my family and friends there to support me at the race,” said Craig. “When I passed the spot where just 12 months ago I had been broken, beat down, and completely exhausted, I took a second to take it all in and think about how far I had come.” 

In the end, Craig placed fifth out of 130 finishers in two hours and forty-three minutes.  

“It’s hard to believe all that I have come through and seen in the last year, but it only solidifies the fact that I am exactly where I am supposed to be,” said Craig.