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.