Monday, March 30, 2009

Race Report: Mudders and Grunters, March 29, 2009

March 29, 2009: Mudders and Grunters 5 mile trail race

Following some late-week rain, there was the promise of mud (glorious, stinky, swamp mud!) on race day for this year’s Mudders and Grunters race in Westchester County. The organizing Taconic Road Runners Club does a great job maximizing the use of the relatively small footprint of Franklin Roosevelt State Park, snaking runners through fire roads, single-track, swampy back lots, and even a couple sections of bush-whacking. The popularity of this race seems to grow every year, and runners come from farther and farther away to be a part of the fun.
I decided to run the race this year as ‘part one’ of an epic day of trail running, which would include an additional 17 miles of tough trails in Bear Mountain/Harriman State Park post-race … but that story is for another blog entry (coming soon).

Because Mudders and Grunters gives out not just the usual overall and age-group awards, but also recognizes top teams, most-muddy, bloodiest, etc. the race gets it share of nutty costumes and fringe lunatics. I love it. While warming up, I saw three women in bunny costumes replete with puffy tails and floppy ears, as well as a young couple dressed as French maids (yes, one woman and one man). There was a smattering of chattering high schoolers, nervous but keen on grabbing attention, along with the more-typical: the gazelles, the grizzly vets, the happy mid-packers, the hungover … you get the picture. And there was a large contingent of my friends running from the Reservoir Dogs, another NYC-based running team with a great subset of enthusiastic and adventurous trail runners. From my team, the New York Harriers, only myself and the ageless Bobby Hutton showed up. Too bad, the rest of you just don’t know what fun you are missing. According to the race results, there were over 400 finishers this year, which must be a record.

At the starting line, I bumped into old friends and rivals, including George “Cannonball” Buchanan (one of the toughest guys to race because he never holds back), Steve “Stats” Marsalese (who knows my running history, well everyone’s running history, better than we do), and Kevin Shelton-Smith (who is capable of flying across the Atlantic, missing the start of an ultra by 4 hours due to airport delays, and still placing in the race). Because this race is so short, I knew I’d have to run hard and fast to finish ahead of any of these familiar faces (some of whom I’ve been racing for over 20 years), much less to keep up with the dozen or so very-fit young guys limbering up nearby.

The start seemed to come suddenly, and we were off. The young lions loped to the front, the rest of us battled for early position in anticipation of the single-track and mud to come. I felt a slight twinge in my right hamstring from the beginning, not a good sign for an old fogey like me and something I’ll have to keep an eye on over the next few days. Back to the race: The first section of wading through deep, odiferous muck begins less than a mile in, and starts with a sharp left turn downhill after crossing a park road. I could see arms flailing in front of me, a sure sign of poor footing. I made it through the turn unscathed, but immediately ran into (literally) some young dude in front of me who was clearly in over his head. He actually apologized to me (well, we apologized to each other simultaneously, funny). Slurping through the slimy shin-deep black bog, I could see Cannonball already at least 30 seconds up on me. This is the way we race each other time and again: he gets out fast; I try to reel him in.

Over hill and dale we rambled, criss-crossing the park in search of mud wallows and thorns. With each technical section, I’d pull some time back, but with each fire road those ahead would pull away again … we were yo-yoing around the course. We came to another nasty swampy section, and I heard someone splashing through behind me, a quick glance confirmed that it was Stats and he was gaining on me. Luckily for me, there was a large tree that had fallen right in front of us. Me being the sneaky rabbit, I ducked under it and continued my assault. Behind me, I heard Stats groan a large "OOF!" at the tree (later I learned that he tried to go over it, but had thumped his belly on the trunk; and in fact the same technique had resulted in a moment of feeling stuck for Cannonball).

With half a mile to go, there is a stream crossing that never looks so bad … until you jump in and it’s twice as deep as you expected, muddy, weedy, and cold. I managed to struggle out of the water as quickly as I could, still chasing Cannonball who was now within range. But he still has such quick feet for a recently-turned-50 year old, and he just kept dancing along there in front of me, tantalizingly close. I gave it all I had, but just could not catch him. I would wager that he ran the first half of the race about 45 seconds faster than I did, and then I ran the second half of the race about 35 seconds faster than he did … so do the math (more-or-less) and he got me by 7 seconds at the uphill finish, with Stats just behind me by 8 seconds. We’d finished in 13th-14th-15th places overall, not bad for a threesome of old dudes. Oh, and Kevin was right there too, finishing in 17th. Of course, some barely 40 year old speedster from the Albany area had traveled down to the race and smacked us all convincingly by finishing over 2 minutes faster. Ah, well, that’s running: the strongest runner wins, period. I love that. No whining, no bad calls by the ref, no coach playing favorites. Just you and the course.

My prize for finishing second in my age group was one of the coveted, pink-frosted piggy cookies, which I consumed gleefully on my way back to the car before heading off on my second trail adventure of the day.

I’ve run this race a number of times, once even finishing 2nd overall. I often find myself a bit ambivalent in telling others about it. On the one hand, it is so much fun and challenging and hilarious, I feel like every runner should get a chance to experience it. On the other hand, part of what makes these cold, wet, sloppy trail races so much fun is that they are the polar opposite of mainstream: with small fields, crazy characters, joking race directors, familiar faces, and the camaraderie that comes from sharing something relatively obscure and zany and hard. I don’t want races like this to get too popular or crowded, but I clearly understand why more and more runners seek them out. May we always find the happy medium!

Great job, Taconic Road Runners Club, keep up the good work. And congrats to all of my fellow competitors, you earned it on that course. By "it", of course, I mean a long hot shower. With lots of soap. Please.

Friday, March 27, 2009

USATF President Doug Logan has ideas, but …

An article in the Jan-Feb issue of Running Times magazine outlined some of the ideas that new USA Track and Field President Doug Logan has been touting to revamp and revitalize distance running in America. I think he has a steep learning curve in front of him, but perhaps his experience and enthusiasm will help him reach a point where he understands the challenges and can put in place initiatives that are effective. I don’t know who his most-trusted advisors might be, and of course I’m not one of them, but that’s not going to stop me from looking at some of his ideas (as described in the article) and responding to them from my own, long-time runner’s perspective.

From my interpretation of the article, it seems that Logan has three main goals:
1. Recruit ‘weekend warriors’ to become members of USATF
2. Attract more fans and sponsors
3. Unify the leadership of distance running in America

On the surface, these aren’t bad goals. Any organization is at least somewhat dependent on its members, its ability to sustain interest and financial support, and its ability to provide leadership. Let’s take a closer look at these goals and play around with some ideas of my own.

1. Recruiting weekend warriors by showing them meaningful benefits

I’m not going to belabor this point, but I feel it must be made: “weekend warriors” is a condescending term for the tens of thousands of runners who train hard and make sacrifices day-in and day-out in the pursuit of being the best they can be. Sure, there are weekend warriors out there, but the runners I know aren’t in that group. We might be termed “sub-elites” or “age-group competitors”, but what we do is far more than stumble out of bed on the weekends and jog around the block. Logan should take great care in recognizing this, or he will alienate a huge portion of his potential constituency.

Now, just what are those benefits that he is referencing? Unfortunately, the article never lists even one. Luckily for you, dear reader, I ’ve got a list of suggestions:
  • Take a look at what VeloNews has done for competitive cycling coverage in this country, and emulate that model for competitive running. Consider partnering with mainstream running media (Runners World, Running Times, etc.) to get the word out.
  • Provide regional coaching clinics for member clubs; this could be done in conjunction with RRCA, who already offer a terrific coach training program at their annual conference.
  • Provide meaningful discounts, both for general retailers and for specific events (e.g., race entry fees, track meets). Be aggressive here, people are hurting for money and they need to see value in sending USATF a check.
  • Provide better online resources. You will really make a splash if you provide two things to your members: (1) an online running log that is easy to use and comprehensive, and (2) a combined event calendar and registration system that does not charge the same kind of silly “processing fees” that and its many competitors do (as my friend and fellow blogger Steve Wolfe has pointed out, how on earth could there be a higher cost for online registration than for mail-in, hand-written forms?? After all, self-service with automated tools should make the process easier for race directors). If the USATF provided the one reliable place to go to find a race and sign up for it without large added fees, membership would grow exponentially.
  • Feature your members on the website, one new person every single day, with photos and biographies. You could make it a random selection, or make it by nomination, but recognition will go a long way.
  • Publish online a periodic digest of the latest in human performance research. We runners don’t have time to read all of the professional journals, and even if we did most of us wouldn’t know what to make of them. Form a panel of students, supervised by experts, whose job it is to read and interpret the meaning and importance of the latest research and put synopses online.

2. Attract more fans and sponsors

The article describes Logan’s goal to “… attract more fans and sponsorships -- perhaps through the creation of a series of running events that leads to a major championship. That would be a model similar to what football, baseball, basketball, hockey and even NASCAR follow, but very different than the current USATF system of having various championship events scattered throughout the calendar.” The author then quotes Logan as saying, “Do we really have a sport? … Running is a bunch of disparate activities ... The reason sports get media exposure is because they have periodic competitions leading up to a championship event."

Now hold on just a minute there Mr. Logan. Okay, so you want to make sure we have a “sport”, I understand that point. But I think that you may have really jumped to a conclusion here about why sports attract fans and get media exposure. Let’s think this through a little bit …
Periodic competitions leading up to a championship event isn’t the only factor that makes mainstream sports so popular. You have to take several other things into account: history, local and regional loyalties, the spectator-friendly nature of certain sports, and the ability of people to identify themselves with certain teams or individuals.

If you want to make running into a sport (and I assume your primary focus is on track meets here, but I think you should keep as wide a perspective as possible), then you have got to find a way to embrace all of these factors. How? Well, you are going to need a league of some sort, with teams that represent specific cities, states, or regions … build that loyalty. Teams need some kind of continuity, in coaches and athletes, so that fans can develop favorites and rivals. That league needs to have a defined season, so that champions can eventually be crowned at the end, and so that the losers can come back and get them next year. Your league must emphasize the long history of running in this country, its origins, its future stars. Most of all, you need the potential fans to feel like they are part of the event.

Track meets, in particular, have a format that does not appeal to everyday spectators. There are unexplained, long lulls in the action, occasionally interrupted by some flurry of activity. There are rarely any teams involved, it’s always every man for himself, even in international competitions. The events are all mixed up in the public’s eye, so there is no sense of continuity. There are no teams, no won-loss records, no standings, no playoffs … how can fans get excited without those ingredients?

Let’s talk about television coverage for a moment. You’ve got to admit, it’s awful. The incessant focus only on individual champions is terribly off-putting. The athletes typically come across as annoying, ego-maniacal posers. TV coverage focuses far too much on world record-setting performances, which means that anything less than a new record comes off as a disappointing performance. Think of it this way: the equivalent would be if each and every play in an NFL football game was deemed a disappointment by the announcers because a touchdown wasn’t scored. You know what? Fans understand that you can’t always be perfect, you have to find a way for the press to go with that, and for the focus to be on the competition, not the world records. Other problems with TV coverage: there is far too much human interest filler, and not enough racing. Let’s go back to the that comparison with coverage of an NFL football game: You wouldn’t cut away right in the middle of a long punt return in order to show a short piece on how the punter loves his three dogs, and then cut back just in time to see the returner cross the goal line. Fans would be outraged, they would have missed the entire play, wouldn’t know how he scored, how he avoided the tackling, etc. Yet this is what television does during race coverage, it interrupts the race to blather on about the people … invariably, the viewer misses the crucial move, or blindly goes along thinking that the only interesting part of any race is the final 0.5 seconds and then it’s all just a waste of time if a record wasn’t broken. Not good. You’ve got to show the race and you’ve got to get announcers who can recognize what’s going on and add a dash of excitement to explaining it. Also, if a break for an ad does occur just when a marathoner makes his move, for goodness sake go to a replay to show it!

You have this enormous throng of your so-called weekend warriors , who should be the number one fan base for all things running, but they are not … why? We don’t help them identify with the team, town, sport, athlete, etc. We need to find a way to connect professional league competitions to established local races. Bring the pros to the people. In fact, make the pros NEED the people. Make participation count: host city must have 200 runners finish a local 10k in under an hour, or their team is penalized a few points. Get the kids involved too, have them run a short event and count their participation as a way to earn the points back if they are lost. I see no end to creative ways that this could be pulled together.

3. Unify the leadership of distance running in America

In the article, the author noted Logan's “ … concern that the long-distance running community is too splintered …” referring to organizations such as the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA), Running USA (RUSA) and Professional Road Running Organization (PRRO), among others, but was emphatic when he said the distance running community needs to have a cohesive voice. "… What do they all do?" he says, adding that it seems as if people want to form new organizations and groups rather than uniting under "one or two banners. It's symptomatic of [what has been] an overall lack of leadership."

Well, you left out a number of other important groups of varying size and purview, like the NYRR, CARA, HARRA, and even ATRA (plus any number of other indecipherable acronyms). Lack of leadership? Yeah, maybe at a higher level, but each organization typically has its own set of capable leaders. Is it really necessary to eliminate other groups in order to succeed? Or would it be better to provide services that are so good that the other groups come to you for assistance? Seems rather simple to me, frankly. Invest now, reap later. The path to success is not to try to eliminate your competition through criticism, it is instead to do better than your competition and then let the rest take care of itself. If you provide a clear direction, sense of purpose, transparency, willingness to adapt, and capacity to be helpful, you will attract the members, sponsors, and media coverage that you seek. To borrow a well-worn movie line: If you build it, they will come.

Good luck, Mr. Logan. I hope you can succeed where your predecessors haven’t. If you're ever in NYC and want to do some brainstorming, I'm your man!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Why join a running team?

I was out for a long run with my teammates a few weeks ago. It was a nice, sunny Sunday morning, and we were loping along in a group of about a dozen, chattering away as runners often do during long runs … you know, friendly banter, bragging, and teasing. We passed a middle-aged couple who were running more slowly than us, and as we went by I heard the woman say to the man, “You see, that’s why I could never join a running team, they are all so fast and serious about it.” My first instinct was to turn around and disagree vehemently … but then I would have been left behind by everyone, and probably would have only intimidated the couple. Sigh.

It did get me to thinking, though, about how misguided and uninformed (ignorant?) such points of view really are. Now I know what you will say, that woman was actually expressing her envy in that moment, and actually feeling inadequate. I get it. On the other hand, it’s often helpful for all of us to have at hand an organized set of thoughts for when someone who is uninformed makes a similar statement, or simply asks, “Why would you want to be on a running team?”

I think the answer boils down to four positive factors: we run on teams because (1) we feel more connected to a community, (2) we learn, (3) we improve as runners, and (4) we share mutual support with our teammates.

Running together with teammates is fun, and often leads to all kinds of socializing even when you aren’t running. Your teammates are people with whom you share an experience (often a peak experience), regardless of your differences in age, gender, attitude, income, background. Not many aspects of life provide you that kind of common bond. On running teams, romances blossom, couples form and often get married, new career paths are found or suggested, and deep friendships are formed. You will share laughs, trade barbs, and feel attached to those around you. You will be a part of something bigger than yourself, because the team benefits from you just as you benefit from the team, regardless of your foot speed.

As part of a running team, you will be given the opportunity to learn, from other runners, more about running and all that it involves. You might have access to expert coaching, or the advice and mentoring might be less formal. Regardless, you will find out all you need to know about your training plans, running form, injuries, diet, gear, etc. You will also experience the “osmosis effect”: by simply being around experienced runners, you will inevitably pick up their good habits, pace, form, breathing, stretching, pre-race routines, gear choices, and more. Teams provide organized plans, for training and for racing. And all of what I just described actually leaves out everything else you might learn through your conversations and friendships with your teammates.

Our sport is pretty simple. It’s based on three principles: frequency, duration, and intensity. You can’t improve if you don’t have all three. Frequency: by being a part of a team, you commit yourself to getting out there for scheduled workouts. Duration: Want to run longer? Good. Know the best way to do that? Just get together with teammates and stretch out your long run together. Works every time. Intensity: If you want to maximize your potential as a runner, you are going to have to push against your limits from time-to-time. I don’t care how intense you are, that process simply cannot be done effectively on your own. You can’t get fast without running fast, and you can’t run as fast on your own as you can with others. Only one member of each running team can be that team’s fastest runner, the rest of us are improving every time we chase that guy or gal as hard as we can.

We are all human, and at various times we can all benefit from getting or giving a helpful pat on the back, or an invitation, or a compliment, or a chance to release a pent-up emotion, or help dealing with a crisis or loss. Looking for support? You’ll find it with those same runners with whom you have already shared so much. As a part of a team, you will get recognition for your own accomplishments (and who doesn’t want that?). Even if your team is made up of a bunch of sarcastic wise-guys, you still know that when they are teasing you they are actually congratulating and complimenting you. Finally, there is safety in numbers, and a set of teammates will provide you with that, which is particularly important if you are a woman.

So, join a team
We run with a team because the team is important to us, and because we are important to the team. If you live in an area with even a little bit of population density, you can find yourself a running team that is a good fit, for you and for them. Don’t hesitate. You won’t regret it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

We runners knew this already ...

But having Will Smith say it out loud and proud to millions of kids is a truly wonderful thing: running and reading are the keys to life (although not both at exactly the same time, of course). For a bit of motivation, click on this video (and share this with the children in your life).

Monday, March 23, 2009

North Face Recon, take two

North Face Endurance Challenge NY: Bear Mountain Course Recon, take two

Last week, my wife Monika and I found that we could both use a vacation day. Luckily, neither of us had busy Fridays planned at work, so we got the okay from our respective bosses and spent a nice full day together. That’s been a rarity since the bouncing baby boy was born six months ago, so we relished the opportunity to spend some time with one another. Of course, we wanted to run trails. Perhaps that sounds silly to some of you, but the fact is that Monika and I actually designed our honeymoon specifically so that we could run on breath-taking trails together every day for one week, such is our love of running on dirt. In fact, on the last day of our honeymoon, we ran a trail race together on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, and she ended up winning the women’s category. But that’s a story for another day.

On Friday, we went back to Bear Mountain so that I could combine our run with some additional course recon. Monika wanted to do about 12 miles and I wanted a little more, so we decided to keep things simple: we’d run the North Face Endurance Challenge half-marathon course (minus The Pines section), then I’d drop her off at the car and head out to recon the 10k course. I will be running the 50k course on May 9, but the first few miles and last few miles of all courses are the same, so for me it was a chance to really memorize the start and finish trail navigation and hills.

Friday was the first day of spring, but you wouldn’t know it at the time we woke up, because it was snowing outside. Beautiful, soft flakes floating down gently on our back patio. It was too warm for accumulation, but it was very pretty nonetheless. When our little guy’s sitter arrived, we headed north on the Palisades Parkway, gazing at the fresh coat of white snow on the trees and shrubs. It was snowing so hard that you could not see across the Hudson River, a temporary white out. By the time we got to Bear Mountain however, the sun was coming out and there was no trace of snow. Sigh. I love running in snow squalls, but Monika probably had a more rational take, “I’d rather not run all those miles while soaking wet.” Good point.

I noticed earlier in the week that the printed instructions in the 50k participant’s handbook did not match the map published therein. Hmm. Looking over the packets for the other distances, it seemed to me that the printed instructions trumped the map, so I went with those. I think they might be updating the map in the packet, because I noticed it was missing from the race packet recently.

The trails for the half-marathon (and especially the 10k) are mostly wide enough to run two-abreast, so passing your competitors in either of those events should not be a problem. There are many sections that are rocky; I think the trails were once carriage roads with cobbles, but over the years the erosion and freezing cycles have dislodged the stones and made the footing a bit tough. Even if you are running the 10k only, I still recommend fairly sturdy shoes or those sharp, loose rocks are going to hurt. The 10k course is a little more wet and muddy than the others, and there is one stream crossing where the footbridge has been washed out, those of you running that distance should have some fun with that. The half-marathon includes some steep climbs in the last 4 miles, the same uphills that the 50k and 50 milers will face in the final miles of their races. Be prepared to walk a little, especially right before you get to the Timp Pass. I dare anyone to run that last uphill … it’s hard enough just to hike it.

After the Timp Pass, there are only 3 small uphills remaining, but they are going to feel like mountains at the end of a long trail race. Luckily, none are very steep or very long, so you should be able to just plug your way along. Me, I just tried to keep up with my lovely wife as she hopped, skipped, and jumped up those hills on her first long trail run since the baby was born last September ... I could tell she was loving it.

When all was said and done, we both had wonderful runs and even managed to locate a Dunkin Donuts afterward (she for coffee, me for the decadent frosted treats). For us, it was a perfect day together, and we were home in time to play with the little one the rest of the afternoon.

I’m scheduled for the Mudders and Grunter’s 5 mile trail race next Sunday (March 29), and with rain predicted later this week that should be a delightful slop fest. That race seems to get more crowded every year, as more and more runners recognize the fun and adventure of running off-road (and crossing a chest-deep, ice-cold stream about a half-mile before the finish line). After that race, I’m going to refuel and then head across the river back to Bear Mountain to run the middle 17 miles of the 50k course. When I'm done, I will have seen the entire 50k course, which should give me more confidence and peace of mind going into the event. Now, you might say that racing a five miler and then heading out for a 17 mile trail run is a rather nutty plan, and you are probably right. But I’m sticking with it because I feel strongly that I need more long trail runs in order to be successful on May 9 in the 50k. I’ll post information about the middle 17 on this blog next week.

Monday, March 16, 2009

North Face 50k Recon Mission

North Face Endurance Challenge New York: 50k Bear Mountain Course Recon

I headed north to Bear Mountain State Park yesterday to scout the trails that will be used in the North Face Endurance Challenge New York 50k scheduled for May 9, 2009. I’ve run some of the trails at Bear Mountain/Harriman over the years, but not quite in the direction/combination that they are using for the race.

I began the day at the starting line of the race and headed out to cover the first 7ish miles of the course. At that point, I cut across due east on the AT (up and over a couple of peaks), and picked up the race course again for about the final 8 miles. I’m hoping to head back in the next few weeks to run the rest of the course (miles 7-23).

Most of the parts I ran were “runnable”, with plenty of wider trails and a sprinkling of technical single track. In addition, the saw-tooth profile is accurate: this thing is never flat, you are either going up or going down nearly all the time. The course descriptions in the North Face Endurance Challenge handbook are fairly accurate, although the navigational directions lack distances, which made for a few head-scratching moments yesterday (e.g. “turn left on ski trail” … um, which one?). In all, I think I made three wrong turns, and only the first one was really significant (and a stupid move on my part, I missed an obvious blaze). One thing I've noticed at Harriman over the years: there are plenty of unmarked trails shooting off in many directions. I suppose that comes with the many years that the main trails have been open, and the fact that the park is criss-crossed with automobile roadways that hikers want to connect to by cutting their own paths. At any rate, you need to keep your eyes open and make sure you follow the right blazes, or you can get off-course in a hurry.

I haven’t done this North Face event before, so I don’t know how well the organizers will mark the course beforehand. There are a couple of tricky nav spots in the first five miles, but only the second one is missing any kind of signage (it’s the turn off of Seven Lakes Drive onto Silvermine Ski Road). I missed that one completely, but I knew I was supposed to be crossing the creek that was about 100 meters from the road … so when I spotted the footbridge off to my left, I just bush-whacked over and was back on course.

Over the final 8 miles, there are three sections that are going to cause me some problems. The first is a short section of technical and narrow single-track on the Bear Mountain trail (yellow blazes) heading uphill, followed immediately by the second: a toenail-blackening descent on the same trail (did these people never hear of switchbacks?). The final tricky section is the descent off Timp Pass on the old woods road, which has been eroded over time and is now just a path strewn with fist-sized, sharp, loose rocks. I was slipping and skidding down that thing and nearly fell twice … that’s going to be fun during the race when it comes around the 26 mile mark.
On the final mile back to the finish, there are a couple of angled cross-trails that can throw off navigation, too. Keep your head up.

My assessment: Despite several sections of fairly easy trails, this race is going to be pretty tough overall. I’m looking forward to it while at the same time a bit nervous, which is probably appropriate. I find that the hardest thing for me to do in these longer trail races is hold back over the middle third of the race. I do pretty well being patient and eating/drinking for the first third, but I tend to get into a kind of rhythm in the middle third, run too hard, not take in enough calories, then pay for it over the final third of the race. I hope to practice a little more patience on May 9. We’ll see.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Plantar Fasciitis

Dealing with plantar fasciitis

If you run, sooner or later you will get hurt. Lately, seems all of my friends are dealing with plantar fasciitis (pain in the heel and/or bottom of the foot). Here is the advice I usually dispense, which seems to be helpful. Major Caveat: I am not a physician and will never pretend to be. What follows is homespun advice coming from my experience with this injury and my attempts to help my friends deal with it. If you think any of this advice is hogwash, well, you are not only entitled to your opinion but you may even be completely right. All I can say is that this stuff has been helpful to a lot of people within my (admittedly limited) circle. If you are in real pain and it’s not getting any better, then stop reading blogs and go see a real doctor!

1. While running: use hard, thermoplastic heel cups in your shoes. These will look and feel funny at first, but they just plain work. In fact, every runner should make sure to have at least one pair around and use them anytime you experience even a twinge of heel pain, arch soreness, or Achilles tendon tenderness. Note: do not even think about those silly “gel” heel cups or anything made of rubber or soft materials; they might seem like a good idea, but frankly they could make your problem even worse. Hard plastic heel cups can be hard to find because they aren’t popular sellers at chain stores. Try checking or under “hard plastic heel cup”. Should be relatively inexpensive, maybe $20 or less per pair.

2. Get some supportive sandals or shoes to wear around the house and as much as possible. There's the classic Birkenstock Arizona, for example, in men's or women's models. There are also some stylish women's sandals by California Footwear Company, they offer support and need almost no break-in period, and IMHO offer the best price for the features that you can find. As much as you can, try *not* to walk barefoot until the foot is fully healed, EVER. Don’t even tiptoe to the bathroom in the middle of the night with bare feet, or you will re-injure tissue that was trying to heal while you were sleeping.

3. For your everyday shoes, if feasible, adding a significantly firm arch support will really help. I think that these $60ish Birkenstock blue foot beds work really well (women’s model shown in the link, but they make them for men too). These are almost as good as expensive orthotics. I've found them available at Zappos or directly from Birkenstock

4. Loosen the calf muscle through gentle stretching. Best stretch is a non-weight-bearing type. Easiest is simply to engage the shin muscles to lift the top/toes of the foot toward your knee, about 5 seconds at a time, then relax. Start with maybe 5-10 repetitions about 3 times per day; you can increase by a little every couple of days until you are literally doing this a couple hundred times a day. (After you are fully healed, do these every other day as a preventative measure).

5. Loosen the calf muscle through self-massage. I like “the stick”: You enter your vital statistics, and they recommend which model to buy. Or just go to the nearest running shoe store, or sometimes your health food store will carry them. Doesn’t really matter that much which exact model you get, using it consistently is the trick. Your goal is to relax and elongate the calf muscle, encourage it to release. Warm soaks in the bathtub prior to the massage will help even more.

6. Exercises: Do only if this doesn’t cause pain! Either pick up spilled marbles with your feet, or do the “dish towel curls”. There are decent descriptions of these on WebMD.
Marble Pickups
Towel Curl
A note on WebMD: while they show these exercises well, the other stretches they recommend are, in my humble opinion, too intense and likely to cause Achilles irritation or even injury. Stick with the stretch in #4 above.

7. Fighting inflammation: The Dr. will probably want you to take anti-inflammatory medication, which is fine (if your stomach can handle it). You can eat certain things that will also be anti-inflammatory: pineapple, mango, banana, garlic, onion, mustard, fresh fish, soy, yogurt … and reduce your intake of caffeine, alcohol, eggplant, cabbage, grapefruit juice, and anything that you might be allergic to (shellfish, peanuts, whole wheat, strawberries, tomato?). Okay, all of this might be just old wives’ tales, but I’ve found that it has worked for me and for others. Finally: never ignore the anti-inflammatory properties of good old ice. For this injury: fill a small plastic water bottle (a round one) with water, freeze solid, then take it out twice a day to simply roll the afflicted foot back and forth on it until it melts. It's cheap, re-usable, and remarkably effective.

8. Go to your local health food store and purchase “bromelain” in pill form. It is a natural substance (found in pineapple) that some studies have shown to be nearly as effective as acetaminophen ibuprofen or aspirin at fighting inflammation, with no real side effects (although be careful taking it with antibiotics or blood thinning medications. (UPDATE June 2015 - I stand corrected by a reader, who pointed out that acetaminophen isn't actually an anti-inflammatory, but is a pain blocking medication. Also, summaries of bromelain's benefits - and minor risks - can be found here and here)

9. Practice patience. I know that you are a runner, and living through even one day without a run is nearly as painful as your foot. But take the actions described above, and you’ll get over this injury just like you have gotten over all of the others. What’s that you say, you never get injured? You are one lucky, lucky dog (or, you are basically a liar).

UPDATE: July 5, 2013: I'm very glad that so many have found these tips and tricks helpful since I posted the information over two years ago. I hope that anyone suffering with the pain and annoyance of plantar fasciitis is healing quickly. I just ran across a short article in Runner's World that offers a few more decent tips: Five Tools for Treating Plantar Fasciitis.

UPDATE: July 13, 2015: This post continues to be the most-visited of this blog, I guess it's got some staying power and/or is a reflection of how all-too-common this frustrating and painful injury can be. I remain hopeful that this information is helping at least some people. I've discovered another article that may add to what's been shared above: New Techniques for Treating Plantar Fasciitis

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Humble Pie

In my last post, I wrote about how running is a kind of adventure, if you open your mind to it. The OED defines adventure as "an unusual and exciting experience". Perhaps it takes some effort to make your everyday run into something unusual and exciting, but there are times when the adventure is just handed to you. Of course, not all adventures turn out to have a truly happy ending like in the movies. Below, I'm going to run an article I wrote last summer, about just such an adventure. At the time, I had no platform from which to 'publish' these thoughts. Well, now I do ...

A Big Slice of Humble Pie
The Escarpment Trail Run, July 27, 2008

Success as a runner will resonate with your core sense of self-esteem, confirming your commitment, rewarding your hard work, and justifying the two dozen pairs of smelly running shoes in your closet. By contrast, failures cut deep … after all, when it comes to running, you can’t blame anyone but yourself. At the 2008 edition of the Escarpment Trail Run, I was handed a very big slice of humble pie. I deserved it, I ate it (with only a bit of complaining), and frankly I continue to digest it. These are the kind of lessons that make of us more than what we would be otherwise. Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself.

The Escarpment Trail Run has been on my radar for years. I love running trails, and usually the harder the trail the more I love it. Escarpment has the reputation of being one of the toughest trail races around, and even though it’s only 30k in distance, runners find that it takes longer to complete than a marathon simply because it’s so damned difficult. In years past, I have had one reason after another that caused me to miss this race: injuries, other conflicting races, vacation travel, insufficient training, etc. This year I made sure to run a tough trail marathon in March so that I could qualify (Escarpment is not for everyone, runners must provide evidence of their ability to deal with the trails and/or the distance by submitting race results along with their entries). Finally, 2008 would be my year to run Escarpment. My training went well through the spring and summer. I ran several long trail races, finishing each feeling strong and near the front of the pack. I was thinking that all signs pointed to my being well-primed and ready for Escarpment. Ah, yes, but pride cometh before the fall.

Race morning dawned humid, overnight thunderstorms having left behind several inches of rain, promising to make the course wet and slick. Still, things went well for the first hour. The course was very difficult, with many hand-over-hand climbs, eye-wateringly steep downhills, and much of the trail overgrown with sharp-thorned raspberry bushes, hanging low due to being wet and heavy. By the two hour mark, I was well-scratched but still feeling great, and had started reeling in the fast-starting runners ahead. This all felt familiar, as I had planned to go out conservatively then finish strong , maybe even crack the top 20 by the end. Yeah, right.

In retrospect, it was the downhills that got me. So steep, so slick, with countless ledges that required severe downhill leaps and bounds. At first I felt like I was handling these just fine, but then came more … and more and more and MORE. Finally, like an old jalopy driven a bit too hard, my brakes just gave out. My quads started to cramp, and I knew I was done. When the mind says “Go!”, and the body says “No!”, there isn’t much you can do. Sure, I tried denial at first, but that wasn’t very effective. Then anger, frustration, willing myself forward. My legs responded with full vengeance, by seizing up completely on a set of downhill ledges, causing me to stop halfway down, yelping in pain, frantically massaging and stretching them, hoping not to be crushed by the next runner leaping from above. A glance at my watch showed that I’d been out for just under 3 hours, and I was clearly in trouble. I knew there were only about 4 miles to go, but it might as well as have been 20. I went from” race” mode to “just-get-there-eventually” mode. And with the risk of cramping up and falling off the side of some cliff, I had to think about life safety. Yeesh.

Humbled and hobbling, I finally crossed the finish line in 4 hours and 11 minutes, more than an hour behind the winner. Frankly, given how horrible I felt, I’m surprised it didn’t take even longer. As I limped back to the car through a cold afternoon thundershower, with my wonderfully supportive wife offering words of encouragement, I was already attempting to be philosophical about the whole experience. I had finished a very tough trail race, definitely the hardest trail I have ever run in competition. I was sore and knew I would be for several days, but I was uninjured. I had seen the beast, and I had survived. I had been humbled, brought to my proverbial knees by a monster of a course that I’m sure has had it’s share of my fellow runners locked in it’s sharp teeth.

Prior to the race, I’d overheard one runner say to another, “Will you beat the mountains, or will the mountains beat you?” I certainly had my answer. I was soundly beaten, thrashed in fact, chewed up and spat out. I can only feel awe and envy for the men and women who ran far faster than I did, and achieved their respective victories: you are all truly incredible, keep up the good work. Frankly, the same goes for anyone who survived that course still on their feet. As for me, I’m going to need to do a lot of quad-specific, ledge-jumping training before my next attempt. Let’s see, if I dump a pail of wet, muddy gravel on my kitchen counter, then leap up and down from it repeatedly while my wife whacks me with a bundle of thorny branches …

Monday, March 9, 2009

Running Toward

I started “running” in the late 1970s. By running, what I mean is actual training in order to run fast in foot races, not jogging a lap around the field as punishment for missing a tackle at JV football practice. Despite the so-called Running Boom that was then underway, and Americans supposedly embracing the phenomenon in massive numbers, I was still dealing with the razzing of the locals in my rather small hometown in southern Wisconsin. At first, and no doubt exacerbated by the fact that I was an adolescent male, I’d get infuriated at the experience. I’d be out running, and I’d get plenty of this type of guff:

“Hey, where’s the fire? Haw! Haw!”
“Faster, faster, faster, heh heh!”
“Whatsamatter, yer girlfriend catch you with her sister?”
“What are you running away from?”

Eventually, I’d reach the edge of town, and get out on the country roads or shaded trails all by myself. Slowly entranced by the rhythms of my own breathing and the tapping of my feet, my active mind would begin to relax in a way that it never would otherwise. If you are a runner, you know these moments … your thoughts begin to unfocus, you can almost deconstruct your experiences and your reactions to them, but without really making an effort. Some say this is a moment of Zen, but I have never been able to find an adequate label or even describe the experience very well. But I know it happens.

Even at that age (now over 30 years ago) my initial anger and resentment started to unravel into a kind of free-floating curiosity. Hmm. What was I running away from? Maybe I was running away from what I could become, if I were to join the herd and shout insults from the porch at what I didn’t understand or envied. Or perhaps I was running away from the intrinsic nature of being an adolescent male, the foaming and volatile mixture of aggressive independence and deep longing for connectedness that boils inside our male souls and drives us all mad.

No, those were interesting theories, and even if they were true in part, they did not describe the WHY of my running. Not even close.

One day, it kind of dawned on me. And I do mean dawned, as in a slow revealing of the light, subtle enough to seem too slow to be changing, but yet unstoppable. I wasn’t running away from anything. I was running toward something. But that something wasn’t the next race, or a few lost pounds, or some distant physical border, or popularity, or any such external goals. It was much bigger and much simpler than that. I was running toward me. I wasn’t fleeing, I was seeking.

This mini-revelation has inspired and influenced my running ever since. To me, running is a kind of exploration, an adventure every day. I embrace the weather, put my face to the wind, and I am alive and on the move. Every run is a chance to discover something more.

Why start a blog? I don’t have a great answer for that question, but I’ll play around with it on my next few runs. Let’s just say, for now, that as I continue my seeking I think there are some things I could stumble upon that might need saying (or writing, as it were). Reactions, ideas, thoughts. I can’t promise they will all be profound or even worth reading. Some will be about running, some about life in general. Maybe now and then you will find something interesting.

In the meantime, join me by going out for a run, no matter where you are. Unlock your thoughts and let them spill out and fall apart for awhile. You never know what you may find.

- Douglas