Olympic Runner Breaks Leg, Finishes Race, and the Rest of the World Feels Inadequate

How did Manteo Mitchell run despite agonizing pain? A lot of adrenaline probably helped.

Manteo Mitchell, left, runs alongside Gustavo Cuesta of the Dominican Republic in the 4 x 400 meter relay. (Photo: Feng Li/Getty Images)

Aug 10, 2012
Jeannine Stein, a California native, wrote about health for the Los Angeles Times. In her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle she has taken countless fitness classes, hiked in Nepal and got in a boxing ring.

It was the crack that wasn’t heard ‘round the world: Unbeknownst to spectators, U.S. Olympic runner Manteo Mitchell broke his leg yesterday while running in the semifinals of the 4 x 400-meter relay. Yet he managed to finish, sending the team to the finals.

Apparently Mitchell was the only one aware of the injury, although he said he said he yelled when it happened. “I got out pretty slow, but I picked it up and when I got to the 100-meter mark it felt weird,” the athlete said in a USA Track and Field news release. “I was thinking I just didn’t feel right. As soon as I took the first step past the 200-meter mark, I felt it break. I heard it. I even put out a little war cry, but the crowd was so loud you couldn’t hear it.”

In a move that defies comprehension, Mitchell managed to finish his leg of the race, although he said he “wanted to just lie down. It felt like somebody literally just snapped my leg in half.”

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His determination, he added, was fueled by seeing teammate Josh Mance motion to him to hand off the baton, which “lifted me,” he said. “I didn’t want to let those three guys down, or the team down, so I just ran on it. It hurt so bad. I’m pretty amazed that I still split 45 seconds on a broken leg.”

The world is amazed too.

The break, Mitchell said, may have been facilitated a few days before while he was walking up some stairs and missed a step, landing awkwardly. Mitchell said he went for treatment and felt fine during pre-race workouts.

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So how does someone run a race, albeit a short one, with a broken leg?

The fibula is the smaller of the two calf bones—the larger is the tibia. As such, “The tibia takes most of the stress and pounding,” says Dr. Sharon Hame, a clinical professor of orthopedic surgery at UCLA and one of the school’s team physicians.

Combine that fact with a boatload of adrenaline, and that explains how an Olympic athlete finishes a sprint, despite feeling pain that Hame says might have been a nine on a 10-point scale.

Athletes are no strangers to stress fractures, tiny cracks in the bone that can develop from overuse. Left untreated those cracks can develop into full-fledged fractures. While Mitchell’s injury may have stemmed from his misstep, there could have been an underlying stress fracture as well—but we don’t know for sure. Symptoms of stress fractures include tenderness at the bone, swelling and pain.

Hame says Mitchell’s injury will probably take six to eight weeks to heal. Although he won’t be in the relay finals, exercise doesn’t have to completely stop. Training that doesn’t involve putting pressure on the bone, such as water workouts, may be OK.

The lesson in all this? Never ignore signs of pain or injury. And don't try to be a hero. Leave that to the professionals.

Have you continued to exercise despite pain? What was the outcome? Let us know in the comments.

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