Monday, December 15, 2008

The Day of Reckoning

I entered taper for the California International Marathon rife with questions and doubts. I had been so consumed with the idea of running a time in the 2:30's (2:39:59, specifically) that I hadn't really spent a lot of time thinking about whether or not this was a realistic goal.

I had done the lion's share of the workouts on my training schedule, but many of them were MUCH tougher than I anticipated. 3 years ago, these same workouts were a bit easier. As I dialed back my mileage in preparation for race day, I began to confront the reality that a 2:39:59 might not be in the cards.

This is not to say that I'm not 'capable' of running this kind of time, but maybe I was asking too much, too soon. As I began to think more and more of aiming for a time that was a bit slower (read-realistic), my anxiety about the race began to decrease.

I was confident I was in the kind of shape to run a 2:45 (I had done this 3 years ago) and if the stars aligned, I could steal a few minutes perhaps and get yet another PR. At the end of the day, this whole exercise was about finding out if I could still do what I did three years ago. I wanted to feel strong and positive on race day. If I tried to go out with 2:39:59 in mind, I had a gut feeling that I would find myself in a world of hurt by about mile 20.

So, my race strategy evolved. I would go out conservatively and try to maintain about 2:45 pace for the first 10-13 miles. If I felt GREAT, I would try to pick up the pace for the second half of the race. This seemed like a strategy I could execute without too much trouble.

In typical fashion, I arrived a couple days before the race. Even though Folsom is only a couple hours from San Francisco, I like having 48 hours to get oriented, relax, and focus on the race. As I've mentioned to those who know me, I'm not the most social animal in the days leading up to a big race. I like to be alone for the most part.

On Saturday I did the obligatory expo routine to get my bib, but I exited as quickly as possible. Am I the only one who can't stand going to expos the day before a big race? Maybe it's the enormous amount of collective nervous energy present at these events that turns me off so much. I took in early dinner with my folks and headed back to my hotel to attempt to get a few hours of sleep before getting up around 4:30AM.

Surprisingly, I fell asleep without much incident around 10PM, but woke up early...around 2:30AM. This was more sleep than I typically get the night before a marathon. I tried to steal a few more minutes, but the wheels were already turning. Finally, I got up around 4 and started getting ready.

The last time I ran a marathon, GI distress derailed me around mile 21. Granted, I still ran a great time, but I was really hoping to avoid this. I had a pretty light breakfast with a cup of coffee. I brought some Pepto Bismol tablets with me to the race in case the stomach started to complain.

I got on the bus to head towards the start and the clown sitting next to me starts chatting up a storm. This is something that drives me nuts. I can only assume it comes from excess nervous energy, but I am NOT a talker on race day. Fortunately, I had my Ipod and quickly his inane questions were drowned out by Rob Zombie's 'More Human Than Human'.

An eternity passed between our arrival at the start and the actual start of the race. This was the smallest marathon I'd ever participated in, but there were still about 7,000 people lining up. The weather was in the low forties around the time the gun went off which was a great thing because it made going out fast nearly impossible.

The first mile was right about where I wanted it to be....hovering around 2:45 pace. Once I rolled through the first 5 miles or so, the cold weather became barely noticeable as everything started to loosen up. I arrived at mile 10 and felt solid. Not fantastic, but comfortable and confident that the pace I was running was manageable for the rest of the race. But, I knew that if I picked up the pace much more for the second half of the race, my goose would likely be cooked.

I pretty much had my pace locked in and was feeling the 'runner's high' as I rolled through the halfway point at 1:21:33. This was more than a minute slower than what I ran in 2005 for my 2:45 effort which was right about where I wanted to be. I was fairly confident I could maintain my current pace. I had managed to go out conservatively. All I needed to do was maintain and I was well positioned to post another PR.

I had introduced a slightly different approach to my nutrition. I knocked back twice as many gels as I had in previous marathons....4 versus 2. Like clockwork I consumed a gel every 30 minutes whether there was water available or not. The stomach didn't complain once and my energy level remained pretty consistent throughout the race.

The next few miles went by in a blur. My pacing stayed right around where it needed to be in order for me to get my PR. I hit mile 20 and found myself feeling strong/confident. The race was on and rather than fading, I found myself getting pumped. Conveniently, some onlookers jacked up the volume on their speakers as 'Eye of The Tiger' played. I was ready to wrap this up.

The next couple miles reflected my positive mindset as I knocked out a 6:08, 6:05, and a 6:13. I had three miles left and while I was still feeling very positive, my body was starting to betray me. The slow burn of lactic acid became an erupting volcano from which I could find no escape. The good news is that I had expected this...I had anticipated this...I had PLANNED for this.

Having run a few marathons before, the pain and discomfort in the latter stages is a given. It's not a question of 'if', it's just a question of 'when'. If you do the training, your race strategy is sound, and you stick to your race strategy, you can 'minimize' this 'window of pain'.

My positive attitude was not waning as I knew I could endure the pain for another 3 miles. The key was staying focused and just keeping my legs moving. The temptation to walk dangerously crept in as those around me began to fade and I started to encounter more and more people walking. I kept reminding myself of everything I'd been through just to get here. I reminded myself how close I was to a personal record. I could taste it and I wanted it BAD. I kept moving forward.

As was the case with my previous marathons, I found my vision narrowing. I don't remember much of anything those last few miles. I vaguely recall some shapes on the side of the road that were likely runners and/or spectators, but there are no details I can recall. I was marshaling everything I had for the sole purpose of keeping my legs moving at their current rate.

I hit mile 26 and heard my father's voice as he cheered me on. I wanted to look over in the direction of his voice, but this would have required too much energy. I wanted to wave in his direction, but that would have been asking too much.

I rounded the corner and after nearly four months of training, preparing, and visualizing this moment, the finish line was in front of me. I somehow found a way to pick up the pace one last time and surged towards the finish. My finish time was 2:43:40...this was a 2+ minute PR which may not sound like much, but for anyone who's done a marathon, any kind of PR is a big deal.

As I was driving home later that day, I found myself getting a bit choked up as I reflected on EVERYTHING I had gone through since the 2:45 marathon I ran in 2005. I remember feeling great at the end of this marathon thinking I had just started to reach my potential as a marathoner only to have my body betray me a few months later. 2006 would prove to be a veritable house of horrors for me as I experienced my body's gradual breakdown and shutdown. By year's end, I couldn't log a single mile.

I started 2007 with confidence/optimism, but my body still wasn't allowing me to do what I used to do and my business required the brunt of my attentions/energies. 2008 rolled around and while I was confident things were aligning for my business, my body was still a big question mark. I tried introducing a few new wrinkles and my body responded. But, given what I had been through in 2006 and much of 2007, a marathon was not something I was contemplating with any seriousness.

But, I helped a handful of runners conquer a marathon in July and was inspired. I was inspired by seeing them achieve something I used to do. I was also inspired by my body's reaction to many of the long runs I did with them. I could still handle 20 miles. I could still run the way I used to. I owe all of these marathoners a debt of gratitude b/c without them I don't know if I would have attempted training for a marathon in 2008. It reawakened my passion for the marathon.

While I've done a reasonable amount of running and racing and had some amazing experiences, this was in many respects the race of my life. This is not just because it was the fastest time I've run for 26.2 miles. It was everything that led up to the actual race itself that made this one so special. It was the suffering I endured. It was the pain I ran through. It was the questions and doubts I confronted that made this race so special. Even if a PR didn't materialize, if I could run a strong race and put forth an effort even close to what I did 3 years ago, I would have been happy.

I don't think I've ever been so keenly attuned to my body as I was during this training cycle and during the race itself. I squeezed everything I possibly could out of my body in this one given the shape I was in. This was evidenced by the fact that I could barely walk as soon as I finished the race and a few seconds prior I was running sub 6:00 pace. This is something that I attribute to age and experience. 3 years ago, I don't think I could have done this.

If I never run another marathon, I would be happy to finish my marathon 'career' this way. But, as is always the case with running, there are inevitably new goals to be set. When I started training, I put a piece of paper with 2:39:59 and the date 12/7/08 above my computer at my desk so I could see it every day. I recently changed the date on this piece of paper to 12/6/09....the date for the California International Marathon NEXT year. Hope springs eternal. Just keep moving forward :)

The Best Laid Plans.. REALLY...I had EVERY intention of doing regular postings during the course of my training cycle for the California International Marathon, but life always seems to get in the way. Clients, training programs, maintaining some vague semblance of a social life, and the distressing, but overwhelming urge to sleep on occasion prevented me from being diligent about regularly posting. So, I will try to synopsize how training unfolded from mid-September until race day.

Given the kind of schedule I have, I found myself logging most of my runs in the middle of the day for the majority of my training. This wouldn't necessarily be a problem, but it was unseasonably warm in San Francisco for pretty much all of September, October, and part of November. Global warming, anyone? It's kind of hard to 'celebrate' the great weather when you haven't seen weather like this in San Francisco like....ever. Also, the heat/humidity ABSOLUTELY made running a beast every single time I stepped outside.

Setting aside the challenges associated with the heat and humidity, I began to find myself virtually always running on fumes after about 6 weeks of consistent training. I knew I wasn't getting enough sleep during the week as this training cycle fell right in the middle of the busiest time of year for me in terms of personal clients. This meant getting up at 6AM most days to work with clients and meeting with clients again in the evening after 6PM or so. It's virtually impossible for me to go to bed any earlier than 10PM, but that's really what I needed to do. Unfortunately, it almost never happened. This meant my recovery was frequently compromised and I didn't feel terribly sharp for most of my key workout. Nevertheless, I soldiered on. I had already booked the hotel and paid for race registration.

In mid-October, I went on my first vacation in over four years. The two weeks prior to my vacation was nothing short of RIDONKULOUS! (Forgive me...I just discovered this word and I can't fully explain why this word works for me.) To summarize, I was burning the candle at both ends and in the middle. I felt like crap as soon as I got on the plane. I tried deluding myself for awhile that all I needed was a couple days of rest and I'd be feeling sharp again.

Within 24 hours of arriving in Kauai, my immune system completely collapsed. Did I mention this was my first vacation in four years? Did I mention I was also training for a marathon? I had no choice but to laugh lest I drown in my own tears. Despite my compromised immune system, I was still determined to get most of my training in.

What unfolded was the most UNPLEASANT stretch of running I've had in years. I've had more than my fair share of runs that didn't go so well, but this was RIDONKULOUS (Ok...this is REALLY the last time I'm using this word for this posting...maybe.). Literally, every single run felt crappy from the get go. Granted, there was SIGNIFICANT heat and humidity to contend with in addition to my compromised immune system, but after about 4-5 days of this, I really thought maybe it was time to hang up the running shoes and try ultimate fighting...or professional wrestling.

By the time my vacation wrapped and I was en route back to San Francisco, my confidence was shaken about tackling California International. But, I held to the hope that better weather and an improved immune system would help me get back on track. The weather was still warm when I returned to SF in late October, but cool in comparison to what I endured in Kauai. By the way, if you're going to be sick as a dog, Kauai's not a bad place to convalesce. I should also mention that I had already been sick once before during this training cycle....and I pretty much never get sick. Overtraining, anyone?

I earnestly continued with the training despite everything recognizing that I really only had about another 4 weeks of quality training left and just about every run counted at this point. The fatigue that haunted my training from the beginning never really dissipated, but it had been 3+ years since I had attempted anything like this, so in some respects it was no real surprise.

My confidence was already dipping a bit and a 2:39:59 was beginning to seem like a pipedream. About a week before my biggest long run of the season, I blew out my right ankle in the middle of a pace run. This setback initially seemed devastating. But, after wincing in pain with each step I realized the ankle wasn't broken. I managed to painfully jog all the way back home and attacked the ankle with ice, compression, elevation, etc.

Given where I was in my training, it really wasn't an option to take time off...unless the ankle was actually broken which wasn't the case. I bought a bulky ankle brace that provided the support and comfort of an iron boot. It wasn't fun to run in the brace, but it provided what I needed for the next couple weeks.

Finally, my biggest long run of the cycle arrived. 22 miles with 12 miles near my target pace. I took the day off before this run to allow myself some extra rest/recovery and slept well the evening before. I woke up feeling fairly confident I could pull this one off despite yet another day of unseasonable heat/humidity.

I consciously held back A LOT the first 8 miles to marshall my resources for the 12 miles at target pace. Things went well and the 12 miles at target pace were a tad slower than my target pace, but given the heat/humidity it was right at the level of effort I would need to run a 2:39:59 on race day. The last two miles of the run were hell on earth, but fortunately I just needed to get these miles in, pace was virtually irrelevant.

I had survived everything...a 3 year layoff from marathon training, two nasty colds, a blown out ankle a week before my biggest long run, but was I really ready for this?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Through The Wall...

Hard to believe, but I have nearly 4 weeks of training under my belt. Time flies when you're logging miles. Today was a big day. 18 miles lined up on the schedule with 4 of those miles at my target marathon pace (6:07/mile). I was feeling ragged from the moment I got up this morning. I had a later evening than originally anticipated and was up at 5:30AM....not exactly the recipe for a stellar long run.

At any rate, I managed to grab a quick powernap before hitting the road at 12PM. I was planning on logging most of my mileage in Golden Gate Park and along the Great Highway, but my Garmin has been crapping out as of late and I needed a course where I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt what the distance was. So, I went to my home away from home....the Marina.

I did one of my favorite loops...'the bridge route'. At least, it's my favorite when I'm not encountering howling headwinds heading towards the bridge. The wind wasn't exactly howling, but it was noticeable and there were more than a few quality gusts to keep things interesting. As usual, there were an abundance of tourists doddering around completely oblivious to anyone else around them. I'm not saying ALL tourists who wander across the Golden Gate Bridge are oblivious, just 95% of them.

After reaching the visitor center on the opposite side of the bridge, I turned around and headed back. My pacing was solidly where I wanted it, but I can't say I was really feeling 'fresh' which was disconcerting as I was only about 5 miles into the run. But, I did a pretty challenging track workout on Monday ('6' 800's @ 2:36) and logged about 7 miles the evening before, so there's no question I was not 100%. I got back the Warming Hut and began to notice the heat a bit more. The fog and wind disappeared.

After knocking out 10 miles, I took a brief pit stop for a gel, some water, and stretching. The toughest part of this run was right in front of me. 4 miles @ 6:07. I really wasn't looking forward to this. The legs were not feeling sharp. My right quad was definitely fatigued and the rest of my body was heading in a similar direction. The only saving grace was a bit of a tailwind that would aid me, but I was not looking forward to running into a headwind on the way back.

Fortunately, Fisherman's Wharf was not packed to the gills with tourists as I segued into target pace. My focus was primarily on maintaining good form and quick turnover. I really struggled with my pacing for at least the first couple miles...I was all over the place...5:26, 5:37, 5:50, 6:26...I just really had a hard time locking in the pace, but overall I was pretty much where I needed to be. 2 miles into this stretch, I started to feel the hurt. It wasn't overwhelming, but it was no walk in the park, either. I was working.

I didn't necessarily do myself any favors by not bringing fluids and/or stopping for them more frequently. In many respects, this is a conscious decision on my part. While I tell all of my runners to drink every 15-20 min. (roughly), I hate stopping when I run....for anything. Complicating matters further is that I hate carrying anything with me. There's also a part of me that genuinely thinks my body will adapt to running in a more depleted state and making these runs even more challenging than they are will ultimately help my cause on race day when I WILL have fluids every couple miles and I WILL have gels every 45 min. or so.

I fought hard to maintain pace for the full four miles and once again found myself wondering how the hell I'm going to get into the kind of shape to maintain this same pace for 26.2 miles. I had to take a break when I finished the 4 miles at target pace. My fingers were starting to tingle...which has happened to me before when I'm really pushing. Breathing was labored as well. I still had 4 miles in front of me against a now strong headwind on legs that were definitely shot.

I managed to get the wheels turning a bit and while it was slow going, I made it to the Ferry Building for some water and a brief respite. I still had 3 miles left. It's always funny how your perspective shifts at moments like this. 3 miles is nothing on an ordinary day. On a day like today, it stretched on for eternity.

I got back on the road and really didn't give a shit what my pacing was, I just needed to knock the last few miles out. As I typically do when I'm really wiped, I started dredging up memories of some of the toughest runs I'd ever done and the pain I pushed through to complete them. This kept me distracted and provided some solace that this was no different.

Sans ipod, I found myself recalling some of the more aggressive music I listen to in order to get myself in the right headspace for a tough run. Rob Zombie's 'More Human Than Human' crept in and suddenly I was only 2 miles from wrapping this one up. The difference between 2 miles and 3 miles isn't much, but mentally it was just huge today.

Somehow despite feeling like I was on the verge of crashing and burning, my turnover started to quicken and I found myself rallying one more time. My pace increased from around 7:00 to about 6:25. I was feeling it. The fatigue/discomfort was still ever present, but the 2 miles that left seemed more like two laps. I'd hesitate to say it was the runner's high as I've never experienced it in these kinds of conditions, but it was close.

The last 200 meters was nirvana. I managed to fight through the urge to pack it in and while the wall was omnipresent..I pushed through it.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

An Inauspicious Start..

After signing up for the California International Marathon and booking my hotel for the weekend of Dec.6, I was fully committed (so to speak) to running my first marathon in over three years. All that remained was the actual training. No problem ;)

I have logged countless miles, I've got USATF/RRCA coaching certification, I've designed training programs for countless people from all walks of life. Designing a training program for myself should be a walk in the park. Who knows me better than me? Truthfully, it was with no shortage of trepidation that I started to piece together the first few weeks of my training.

I had run 20+ miles during the course of my training program for the San Francisco Marathon, but most of these miles were not at 'my pace'. Nevertheless, these miles certainly count for something. But, I didn't really feel like I had a clear handle on exactly where my running fitness truly was.

I decided to implement a slightly different approach than what I had done in the past for my marathons. In the past, I had always done one big long run, a track workout, and about an hour long run with 20 minutes of tempo. This worked, but given how long it's been since I trained for a marathon and some of the issues I've encountered, I started thinking maybe another quasi-long run in the middle of the week would be worth trying to REALLY build my endurance base.

I'd forgo the tempo/track stuff for at least the first few weeks and see how this different approach worked. Due to the challenging schedule I have, my best days for longer runs are Wednesdays/Fridays in the middle of the day. Of course, my very first legitimate 'long run' (15 miles) fell on one of the hottest Wednesdays San Francisco has seen in quite some time.

Nevertheless, I was undaunted. Growing up in Kansas I endured countless hot, humid, oppressive summers. Surely I could endure a little heat. Things started smoothly enough. My focus was mainly on just getting the miles in and there was little focus on pacing. I kept it pretty slow due to the heat and my own uncertainty about what kind of pace I could reasonably maintain for this distance.

I was doing a pretty simple out/back course using my Garmin Forerunner and as I approached 7.5 miles I became aware of some discomfort in my heels. It had been a LONG time since I had any running related blisters, but things were not looking good. The shoes I was wearing had only been used for a handful of shorter runs. I had never logged in excess of 7 miles on them. By the time I stopped at the halfway point of my run, my heels were throbbing insistently and the pain was marked.

I tried to cinch up the laces in hopes that tightening them might reduce the slippage/irritation on my heels. Alas, my feeble attempts were all for naught. The pain intensified, but a combination of adrenaline and natural pain killers seemed to be doing a marginally effective job at keeping me on my feet.

The toughest part of my long run was ahead of me as I had scheduled 3 miles at my 'target marathon pace'. Determining what this pace should be was not easy. I could do it based on a recent race performance or what I 'ideally' wanted to run. Ultimately, I opted for the latter which came to roughly 6:07/mile. The heat, humidity, and blisters were not helping my cause. I struggled through the 3 miles and barely managed to hit target pace.

This was a bit of a shock to the system. It didn't seem that long ago that 6:07 pace was manageable (if not easy). Suddenly, this pace seemed challenging for 3 miles....let alone 26.2. I cut myself some slack as I wrapped up the 3 miles at target marathon pace as the blisters and heat were non-trivial.

By the time I finished my 3 miles at target pace, I was still a solid 2.5 miles from home and I was already running on empty. Entering Golden Gate Park, I was doing little more than slogging as I tried to wrap things up. I'm not one for walking during a run under any circumstances, but by the time I was about a mile from home, I started to feel light headed and dizzy. For the first time in I don't know how long, I stopped during one of my runs to walk. It was a humbling experience, but I knew I had come close to my limits (for the time being).

The last mile or so was a painful combination of slow running/walking, but I managed to finish. I took solace in completing the run and recognized that this was about as bad of a long run as I have had in years. It's unlikely I'd experience too many long runs quite so unpleasant. Little did I know I'd experience something equally as unpleasant scarcely a week later.

The following week I succumbed to a pretty heinous rhinovirus. My voice came to resemble an amalgamation of Peter Brady during puberty and Kathleen Turner (back when she was sultry). Congested, exhausted, and coughing I contemplated bagging out on most of my runs. But, whenever I'm sick, running is pretty much the only time I feel vaguely human.

I postponed my 'Wednesday' long run to Friday in the hopes that my immune system would rebound in a couple days. By Friday, it was sweltering outside, I sounded (and felt) like shit, and I could barely rally myself from my bed let alone find my way through 16 miles.

The only viable option (in my mind) was to attempt this on a treadmill. I'm notorious for doing long runs on treadmills. Those who know me think I'm insane for doing this (and I'm not claiming they're wrong), but it's a controlled setting and if things just weren't clicking, I could always pull the plug, call it a day, and crawl back into bed.

I brought my ipod and plenty of fluids. The first 25% of the run went surprisingly well and I almost forgot I felt like total shit. I made it through 8 miles without passing out or coughing up a lung. Although, I'm pretty confident I frightened a handful of folks running at the adjacent treadmills with my periodic hacking.

Miles 8 to 12 were hellacious as I again attempted to knock out 3 miles at my target marathon pace. I pulled it off, but again found myself feeling light headed and dizzy. It wasn't exactly cool in the gym given the minimal air circulation. I probably would have bailed entirely on miles 12-16 had the treadmill not actually forced me to run the last four miles.

I staggered home from this unpleasant 16 miler feeling more than a bit punch drunk. I was destroyed. But, again I gave myself credit for finishing this ridiculously unpleasant long run...despite everything.

There was a part of me that found these first two terrible long runs darkly comical. Here I was almost three years removed from my last marathon embarking on a new training cycle and I have my ass handed to me in a big way the first couple weeks. Was this a sign that I was foolish for attempting this again? Was I just getting over the hump (in so many words)?

Last week was the third long run of my training cycle and while it was still hot/humid, my health had improved and I was wearing shoes that I was comfortable would not give me a blister larger than a speedbump. Remarkably enough, things actually felt marginally better. I completed the run with little incident.

One of the illusions that many new runners have is that ALL of their runs are supposed to feel great. Having a crappy run almost inevitably spells doom to the uninitiated. It's easy in many respects to ascribe too much significance to 'one' run. But, regardless of what distance you're training for, a single run likely won't make a huge difference one way or the other.

One of the best lessons I learned from the best coach I worked with was to just simply 'finish'. No matter how crappy you feel, no matter how slow you're running, just finish the run. I didn't enjoy my crappy consecutive long runs, but even when I was feeling awful (most of both runs), I knew there was at the very least a psychological benefit to completing a run this challenging in less than optimal conditions. It has already given me the confidence that I can perform at a much higher level with more 'optimal' conditions. This inauspicious start was likely a blessing.

Monday, September 08, 2008

A Quest Renewed...

In my previous posting ('Injuries as Opportunities'), I mentioned the last marathon I ran in 2005. What I didn't discuss in great detail was what transpired between October of 2005 and now that prevented me from tackling another marathon.

One of the the things I often tell my runners is that even if you're training year round, your season needs 'peaks' and 'valleys'. You train hard for 'x' number of weeks in the hopes of having a great performance on race day and then you dial things back for a few weeks and give your body a break before resuming the next training cycle. At the end of 2005 after running the fastest marathon of my life, I let my enthusiasm get the better of me and just kept running hard. There was never a 'valley' in my training.

In November/December of 2005, I got into a space where I was averaging about 10 miles a day and the pace I was running was close to 6:00/mile the entire way....and this felt EASY. Needless to say, I felt like I was in pretty great shape. Little did I know how close I was to having the wheels come off entirely.

I continued to train even harder in the beginning of 2006 targeting the Kaiser Permanente Half Marathon as my first PR of the year. I was doing some of the most intense tempo and track workouts of my life, but my body wasn't very happy. A few days before the half marathon, I had planned on running two miles at my target pace (5:45) on the track. I couldn't hold back once I got going and ended up running a 10:22. It 'seemed' like I was ready.

Race day arrived and almost from the outset, I could tell things were awry. I managed my target pace for about 5-6 miles, but felt flat/fatigued. Nothing was clicking and there was no second wind to be had. I resigned myself to treating this as a glorified training run. Fortunately, I finished, but it was with no shortage of disappointment and a time well short of a PR.

DESPITE the clear flatness/fatigue and myriad other signs from my body that things were not ok...I kept training. I had signed up for the Country Music Maraton in Nashville and my lackluster performance at Kaiser was acting as a catalyst. A couple months after Kaiser I was logging one of my last long runs in preparation for Nashville and my IT band started to complain in a way it never had before. I could barely finish the run. I would ultimately scratch Nashville from my schedule. But, I never stopped training.

As I entered May of 2006, my body constantly ached and complained. I was in great shape logging tons of miles, speedwork, and tempo, but almost halfway through the year and I had no quality race performances to show for it. The Chicago Marathon loomed on the horizon in October and once more I was using my earlier problems/challenges as motivation for training. Little did I know this was the beginning of the end of any serious running for two years.

The end began in a subtle almost unnoticeable fashion. An insidious ache appeared in my heel. It was something I would feel vaguely at the beginning of a run and at the end of a run. I didn't think much of it and continued to run (sound familiar?). The ache became a bit more intense and every morning I got out of bed, the heel would complain as though a sharp dagger had been roughly inserted. This sharp pain would dissipate somewhat after walking around for a few minutes, but would reappear if I walked (or ran) for any significant period.

Thus began a nearly six month ordeal. One day blended into another as my life became an exercise in pain management. I tried icing. I tried taping my foot. I tried massage. I tried self-massage. I tried the Strausberg sock. I tried heel inserts. I tried orthotics. Plantar fasciitis was something I had never experienced before and it appeared there was nothing I could do to get rid of it.

After agonizing for several weeks, I made the decision to have surgery. The procedure was not terribly well known (radio frequency debridement/ablation), but had a high degree of success (according to what I read), insurance covered it, and the procedure would leave the fascia relatively intact (unlike a plantar fasciotomy).

I had the surgery performed on my birthday in 2006. What better gift to give myself than healthy, pain-free running I figured. It was a brief, outpatient procedure. However, I was on crutches for roughly a week. I progressed to wearing a special cushioned shoe that would minimize impact. This lasted for roughly a week. I was back to at least 'wearing' running shoes in late November, but I was far from being able to run. In the interim, I spent countless hours on a stationary bike catching up on my reading. It was the only thing I could do to maintain my running fitness.

Enter physical therapy. I practically took up residence at Presidio Sports & Medicine as they tried to get me back up and running. Ultrasound, icing, stretching, strengthening, special shoes, custom orthotics, and a gait analysis were all part of the deal. Things 'appeared' to be moving in the right direction, but my heel still bothered me. It was a 'different' level of discomfort/pain which was somewhat encouraging, actually. I could tell it wasn't plantar fasciitis. It was something else. I could run, but I wasn't the same.

This vague heel pain continued into March (and through multiple training programs I managed). Frustrated, I set up an appointment with the doctor who performed the radio frequency debridement and talked at great length about what was going on. He took an x-ray and posed an odd question from the other room, 'Are you having any pain in your shoulders or any other joints?' I'm not a physician, but I knew he was seeing something that just wasn't good.

The doctor suspected a stress fracture in my heel. He saw a shadow which you apparently see when a fracture is heeling. He wanted me to get a MRI to confirm. In short order, his suspicions were confirmed. He gave me a portable ultrasound unit and advised me to use it every day for 4-6 weeks. I diligently used the unit and eventually the pain/discomfort disappeared once and for all.

In June of 2007, I was finally on the road to recovery...or so I thought. I spent about four weeks resuming the kind of training I had been doing previously. I was starting to get my legs back. Several years ago, I had injured my left achilles and ever since then it tends to complain when I run too many hills. An ill fated hill workout left my achilles screaming out in pain. I had barely been running a month and I was already having problems again.

The balance of 2007 was a battle. I could do some running, but the achilles almost always complained. There was virtually zero speedwork and the less miles, the better typically. I found myself in a spot that was all too familiar-icing, ultrasound, massage, self-massage, etc. I explored active release therapy and had some positive results. But, once again I found myself battling something that was seemingly chronic. I took a month off from running and still things weren't feeling the way I wanted them to. This was November of 2007.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I started running in Nike Frees in a desperate bid to see if strengthening my feet/lower legs my help address some of the issues I had faced over the years. Fortunately, I did start to see some improvement at the end of 2007 and continued sticking with what was working into 2008.

Given everything I had dealt with (nearly two years of aggravations/injuries), doing any kind of serious race was not even on my horizon for 2008. I really just wanted to get back into a space where I could run most days (at any pace) and not have my body complain about something. I just focused on strengthening my feet/lower legs, foam rolling every day, and listening to my body. Remarkably, I found myself running more than I had since 2005. My body wasn't complaining and by June of this year, I started to contemplate possibly attempting another marathon.

I hemmed and hawed about this possibility into July until I raced a 5K and posted a time that projected roughly to a marathon slightly faster than what I ran in 2005. I still wasn't sure if I was willing to log the miles and roll the dice again. If I wanted to attempt a marathon in 2008 and run a respectable time, there was only one real option. The California International Marathon on Dec.7.

While I had been running consistently for virtually all of 2008 without incident, I hadn't been doing a lot of running for myself. I hadn't done a lot of running at the pace I needed to in order to run a decent time at CIM. The speedwork would need to be ramped up. The mileage would need to be ramped up. Hence, the RISK of injury needed to be ramped up.

My whole life has effectively been about rolling the dice these past few years. Finally, I came home late one night in August (not too long after helping a handful of my runners conquer their first marathon) and pulled the trigger. I was registered. I booked my hotel. It was official. I was back.

The emotions I've been feeling since I registered have encompassed just about everything. Fear, anxiety, elation, and hope are but a few of them. I don't really know what to expect. I know I still have the heart and the ability to run at a high level. But, is it realistic to go after a PR at CIM? Is it premature? Should I just do it for fun? Should I try to qualify for Boston? Should I try to simply run a few seconds faster than I did in 2005?

The reality is I won't have any clear sense of what I'm capable of until late October or early November. The competitive side of me is hoping that I will be in a position to not just challenge my PR (2:45), but crack the 2:30s. I'd be ecstatic with a 2:39:59. But, on some level I recognize this just may not be feasible right now. While the training cycle I've mapped out for myself is quite challenging, I think my body can handle it. Whether or not it will result in the fastest marathon I've ever run is another question. I know that I won't have any problems pulling the plug on my training if my body starts complaining about things. I've been through too much just to get back to running happy and healthy again to compromise it all for one race.

I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't scared. I'm terrified. But, the past few years have been all about confronting fears and 'finding a way'. This is no different.

A few years ago during one of Andre Agassi's last tournaments he was interviewed after a particularly challenging match that he managed to win despite being in a losing position for most of the match. The thrust of the reporter's question was 'How did you pull this one off?'

Agassi's response was nothing revelatory, but it was something that spoke to me:

'I don't have the answers, I don't pretend that I do. Just keep fighting and maybe something good happens.'

Sometimes all we can do is just keep fighting. I'm fairly confident something good will happen.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Injuries...a 'developmental opportunity'

In the latter part of 2005 I ran the fastest marathon of my life. Despite the marked fatigue I felt at the end of this race, I knew I could run faster. I thought this race would be like all the others, a catalyst for me to train harder, run faster, and post yet another personal best in the not too distant future. Little did I know nearly three years would pass before I would even contemplate tackling another marathon.

2006 was marred by plantar fasciitis that ultimately required surgery in the latter part of the year. In typical fashion, I remained positive/optimistic about recovery despite the fact that I could tell my body just wasn't happy.

I spent countless hours on a stationary bike in 2007 trying to maintain my running fitness. Periodically, I'd get out and run a few miles, but in the summer of 2007 I had a nasty Achilles tendonitis flare up. Any hope of running a marathon in 2007 (or any race for that matter), was put on hold.

At the end of 2007, I took a month off from running to focus on treating my Achilles tendonitis. Icing, stretching, active release therapy, and massage were all part of my assault on this insidious ailment. After a month, things still weren't working the way I had hoped.

I started thinking a lot about the kinds of physical challenges I've had in the past and examining the reasons why I was having these challenges. Most aggravations/injuries occur due to biomechanical inefficiencies and/or overtraining. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that overtraining led to my plantar fasciitis in 2006. Reflecting on the myriad other nicks I had endured over the years, overtraining was often the smoking gun.

BUT, I had significantly dialed back my running in 2007 and I was still not feeling close to 100%. I had done a good job of addressing the training part of the aggravation/injury equation, but really hadn't looked closely at the other part of the equation, biomechanics.

Around the time I was pondering all of this I read an article about how many elite level Kenyan runners train. Many of them grew up school, to work, etc. At a very early age, many Kenyans log sometimes 10+ miles/day. More interesting to me was the fact that very few of them wore shoes. They usually couldn't afford them. Despite this seeming disadvantage, a disproportionate number of elite level runners come from this region. Many elite level Kenyan runners are some of the most biomechanically efficient and injury-proof runners around.

At the time I was wearing shoes designed to control the motion of my foot coupled with custom orthotics that were presumably designed to address my biomechanical inefficiencies and reduce the chances of injury/aggravation. But despite all of this, things just weren't clicking. In some respects, I felt like the shoes and custom orthotics weren't really addressing the 'root cause'....which was likely some kind of weakness in my feet/lower legs.

So much of my life these past few years has been about rolling the dice and I decided to roll them one more time. I purchased a pair of Nike Frees which effectively provide no support, guidance, or motion control (effectively the polar opposite of what I was doing). The whole premise behind the shoe is to emulate barefoot running (similar to what many Kenyans do). Many of my running related aggravations/injuries have involved issues below the knee. The Nike Frees specifically ask more of your feet and lower legs. Clearly, this was an area of my body that needed help anyway. What was the worst that could happen? I get injured. I was already painfully familiar with that.

Admittedly, running in a shoe that lacks all the things that conventional running shoes provide was a bit of a shock to the system. I could 'feel' the ground in a way I never had before. I felt like I was in control in a way I never had been before. I also felt like my body was moving in a more biomechanically efficient manner.

I started out logging just a few miles in my Frees, but I came to enjoy the experience so much that I started running in them more regularly. To my delight, my body complained very little. I experienced garden variety fatigue/soreness, but no plantar fasciitis, no Achilles tendonitis, or any other significant issues. This is what running should feel like.

The other variable I introduced was regular usage of a foam roller. I started using it daily in November of 2007 after every run. I've now become a huge advocate of the foam roller encouraging all my runners to purchase one and use it religiously. In lieu of a sportsmassage, it's without a doubt the next best thing.

Runners (myself included) can be extraordinarily stubborn and set in their ways. This is a wonderful quality on race day when fatigue and discomfort sets in, but this quality can also be a real albatross when it comes to aggravations/injuries. You can't 'fight' through an aggravation/injury the way you can the latter miles of a half marathon or marathon. Getting over an aggravation/injury can be frustrating, enigmatic, and tedious.

But, there's little question in my mind that virtually all aggravations/injuries present an opportunity for us to learn more about our body and our limitations. Hopefully, we recognize these opportunities and capitalize on them. In the wake of the worst injury of my running career, I recognized an opportunity and find myself running at the highest level I have in three years.