On an unseasonably warm Saturday in November, Diana Ladio set out on her daily run. A resident of Michigan, Ladio was in Kansas City for two gigs with Kansas City’s best-known Celtic-rock band, the Elders: at the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony the previous night and a full gig that Saturday night at Kanza Hall.
Ladio is also in the Moxie Strings, a trio she co-founded more than seven years ago. She became The Elders’ fiddler in October 2015, replacing Colin Farrell. She will be in Kansas City on Saturday, for The Elders’ annual Hoolie at Knuckleheads.
Both bands tour heavily, and Ladio, a veteran of five marathons, relies on running to bring structure to her itinerant lifestyle.
“I run every day,” she said. “It’s part of what makes me feel like myself. It also gives me a nice amount of structure and consistency in a touring lifestyle.”
When she set out on her run that Saturday afternoon from a friend’s house in Fairway, she’d been experiencing some knee pain, but she ran through it. Then something went wrong.
“I felt something give way,” she said. “So I hobbled back to the house and knew that something was really wrong. I saw a doctor right away. Without doing an MRI, it was assumed it was meniscus related.”
Ladio put off treatment of her knee because she already had another surgery scheduled about 10 days later: on her right elbow — her bow elbow.
“I’d been having different nerve issues in different places in that arm for many years,” she said. “...I was losing muscle and function, and there was lots of numbness and tingling, so we knew it needed to be fixed, and we knew we could achieve at least 50 percent pain relief by relieving this one issue.”
She performed with The Elders that night at Kanza Hall, but it would be her last show for months. Her elbow surgery was the beginning of a cold-turkey withdrawal from the things she loves most: running, playing her fiddle and touring. The experience changed her perspective on her lifestyle.
“I probably took things to an extreme,” Ladio said. “I was probably running too much to be also jumping around on stage and traveling as much as I was, and my body made sure I knew that eventually. So it’s about finding a balance. I like to take things to extremes. That had to change.”
The elbow surgery was Dec. 9, a time of the year when both her bands’ touring schedules are light.
She came out of surgery in best-case condition. Before going in, the worst-case scenario was she’d have minimal movement in her hand for four weeks.
“I was able to move my hands the day of surgery,” she said. “So I knew the recovery pace would be better than expected. But it was scary going in.”
But there was bad news on the horizon. Two weeks after her elbow surgery, Ladio went in for an MRI on her knee.
“It turns out it was far more than a meniscus,” she said. “I’d chipped a piece of cartilage from the underside of my femur. That required basically emergency surgery because every time I took a step, it was making things worse.”
The cartilage could not be repaired — “it had blown into a million pieces” — so she had it replaced with artificial cartilage.
While already in a cast up beyond her right elbow, she also would be in a straight-leg cast for six weeks.
Ladio, a 2010 graduate of the University of Michigan, has been playing the fiddle for more than 20 years and hadn’t gone more than four days without performing or practicing. Four weeks was almost too much to bear.
“My tour schedule is so busy and it’s usually so go-go-go, I became accustomed to that pace,” she said. “I feel incredibly built for that lifestyle, where home isn’t necessarily grounding, you just find that wherever you are. It’s a skill, and it’s fun once you’ve achieved it because you can be out as long as you need to and feel totally stable and grounded.
“It’s kind of ironic that it took me being home for five or six weeks without traveling to feel more unsettled than I have for many years.”
She returned to the stage with The Moxie Strings on Jan. 21.
“It was rough,” she recalled. “Really tiring.”
About 80 percent of stamina has returned, she said, and everything else is on the mend. She wears a brace on the knee that is still healing but has improved significantly.
“The pain is much better, and I have more movement,” she said. “I can’t sit comfortably for long periods of time, and I can’t do as much jumping as I used to, but for the most part I can fully participate.”
The elbow, too, is improved.
“I’m feeling some pain, but it’s more post-surgery pain than the nerve-related pain,” she said. “It’s more fatigue-related. I have more dexterity in that bow arm. I’m starting to regain function in my fingers.”
Ladio recently returned to the stage with The Elders, another world she’d been missing hard. The band played the North Texas Irish Festival the first weekend in March.
“Up until this weekend, I hadn’t seen The Elders since that weekend of the knee injury,” she said. “That was another big hole in my life. These guys are truly my family, and Kansas City has become a second home I usually have the pleasure of experiencing at least once a month.”
“Diana has a heart like a lioness,” said Ian Byrne, The Elders’ lead singer. “These injuries have definitely had an impact on her both physically and emotionally. That being said, she will get through this and keep smiling and playing like the rock star she is. Plus she has all her big brothers looking after her.”
“Diana soldiered through all this,” said Brent Hoad, who plays keyboards, fiddle and guitar. “Can you imagine not being able to do your two life-affirming talents? Violin and running? What a good egg.”
The Hoolie show is just one of dozens of shows on itineraries for both of Ladio’s bands.
“I have no weekends off until November,” she said. “And I’m really excited about that. This is what I want to be doing.”
Ladio is ready to resume the lifestyle she fell in love with, one of constant movement and planning and scheduling and traveling and performing. But she will proceed with a deeper appreciation for that lifestyle, and with a different perspective on how to pursue it. She isn’t running again yet, but when she does, she’ll take it slower.
“Being an athlete and priding myself in my strength and durability, it was a setback,” she said. “It was very humbling to admit I had limitations. I wasn’t invincible. Fitness is a big part of my life, but I realized there can be too much of that, too. Everything in moderation. That’s such a cliché, but it applies to fitness, too, at least for me.
“It’s important, especially in our line of work, to be incredibly self-aware, physically and mentally, and to be able to take an accurate read on how you’re feeling, whether it’s your happiness, your anxiety levels or your physical state. So I have to be a little more acutely aware of what my body is telling me.”
The Elders’ 15th annual Hoolie is Saturday night in the Garage at Knuckleheads, 2715 Rochester. 8:30 p.m. Advance tickets are $25. VIP and reserved-seat packages are available for $40 and $60. KnuckleheadsKC.com