Monday, May 18, 2009

On Being Injured

If you are a runner, you are going to deal with being injured. I hope that you are very durable, or at least a fast healer, so that your need to cope with running-related injuries is minor. But, trust me, if you are in this for the long term you are going to get hurt. Like I am right now.

Left hip, back side, probably gluteus medius. It’s inflamed, and in spasm. Therefore it irritates my sciatic nerve, so I get the occasional shooting pain down my left hamstring and ITB. Running more than a couple of steps is painful. Sigh.

As an endurance sport, running is essentially a long series of physical stresses followed by periods of recovery. In order to be a runner, you will be testing your body’s capacity to adapt to your workouts and races. That repetitive process, whether played out over minutes, hours, days, weeks, or years, will eventually lead to a break down, or two, or three or more. It is inevitable.

In her seminal 1969 book “On Death and Dying", Elisabeth Kubler-Ross first introduced the now-famous concept of the five distinct stages of grief. At first she intended to apply these stages to those with terminal illness, but she later postulated that the very same coping model applied to anyone suffering a loss that was felt deeply on a personal level. I can’t imagine a better definition of how we runners react to injury.

Stage One: Denial.
You think that the pains you feel couldn’t possibly indicate an injury; after all, this can’t be happening to you. You run, you recover, you do it over and over, so this just can’t be an injury, and it will just go away if you ignore it. You keep running.

Stage Two: Anger.
Of course, the pain intensifies, to the point where you can’t ignore it any longer. You think (and maybe even shout out loud, enraged), “Why me?” At this point your fellow runners and loved ones find it difficult to deal with you. You simmer and seethe; words of encouragement sound as if they are mocking you, and anyone who is running is subject to your resentment, envy, and displaced rage. Of course, you keep running, with gritted teeth and an edge to your attitude.

Stage Three: Bargaining.
Whether you are religious or not, you begin to negotiate your case with a higher power, muttering things like, “Please, just let me get through the next race, then I promise I’ll take some time off and I’ll start stretching regularly and eating right and everything else I should have been doing.” At this point you also start impulsively improving other habits, in the desperate hope that doing right by your body in other ways will magically heal the running-related injury. You make sure to brush twice a day, you eat better, you remember to take your vitamins, and you get to bed earlier. Eventually, you try taking one day off from running, as if you can trade just one workout for a clean bill of health. But, of course, you go right back and you keep running.

Stage Four: Depression.
The pain of the injury has now compromised your ability to run. You take one day off, then two, then suddenly a week has gone by and you haven’t logged a single mile. You stay in bed a little longer in the morning, thinking “That’s it, I’m finished, I’ll never run again.” You find yourself lingering in the ice cream section at the grocery store. Your running shoes are now tossed into the back of the closet; you can’t stand to see them. The latest issue of your favorite running magazine arrives, and you toss it into the recycling bin without even opening the cover. Nothing can cheer you up. You’ve stopped running and you think you don’t care.

Stage Five: Acceptance.
Finally, one day, you look at yourself in the mirror, and you admit, “It’s true, I’m injured.” You feel slightly ashamed at having taken all this time before admitting to the obvious … again! You also start to listen to your family and friends, who have known all along that you probably just needed some rest, or maybe a visit or two to your physician/chiropractor/acupuncturist. While you don’t quite see light at the end of the tunnel, at least you admit that you are in the tunnel. And you stop despairing, and start making the adjustments necessary to get back on your feet. After all, you haven’t lost your identity, you’re just injured. That’s right, JUST injured. You know you need to be patient, and you finally begin the healing process.

Ironically, I’ve been through this more times than I care to count, and yet I fall victim to the same pattern almost every time. You could take my running log, page back through it, and discern the stages as I plodded through them over and over again. Take this latest injury, for example. It was over eight weeks ago that I first wrote “left hip tight and sore”. Did I change anything? Nope. That’s stage one. Then you see the tone of the log entries change, and the stray comment appears such as “damn hip still sore, WTF?” Yep, stage two. Then there are some embarrassingly sincere comments like “need to stretch more” and “taking anti-inflammatories”, and (rolling my eyes as I type this), “just need to get through the 50k at Bear Mountain”. Right … stage three. Of course, I managed to get through the 50k race, despite limping along the entire way. Immediately thereafter I stopped running entirely. Sure, I got on my bike and did some half-hearted pedaling last week, but I also “overslept” a couple of times and missed the bike workout completely. My wife tried to be sympathetic, but I was moping around and detaching. Tsk, tsk, stage four. Then, at the end of last week, I finally faced the music and just admitted that I’m hurt. I also began to recall in more detail the time two years ago when I had a very similar injury in my right hip. I eventually overcame that one, and my right side is completely fine now. Given the right amount rest and easy stretching, I’ll get the left side back in shape someday too. Made it to stage five.

Kubler-Ross emphasized that not only is there nothing wrong with going through these phases, but in fact it is necessary, on a psychological level, to move through them as part of the normal process of coping with loss. She also pointed out that not everyone experiences all of the stages, and not everyone goes through them in the very same order, but to my estimation they remain an elegant and resonant way to describe a very common experience.

May you never be injured. But, if you should fall victim to the rigors of our running lifestyle, try not to beat yourself up too badly for being, well, human.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Bear Mtn Trail Races: Another Look Back

The race organizers of the North Face Endurance Challenge trail races at Bear Mountain did finally get results posted on the web. Scroll down to find the Bear Mountain races from May 9, 2009, each distance listed separately.

I wanted to make sure to recognize a few other performances by friends of mine that I failed to mention in my last blog post:
Cassandra Miller, 1st female in the half-marathon
Clint Earnhart, 3rd overall in the half-marathon
James Redmond, 21st in half-marathon
Bobby Hutton, 23rd in the half, the only other New York Harrier .
Lou Pahnke, 79th in the 50k (his first 50k, I believe, same as me)
Carrie Gatlin, 95th (15th woman) in the 50k
Two other friends of mine, Eric and Mark, were pulled from the 50 miler at about 34 miles for not making the time cutoff. They were disappointed, but seemed to take it in stride. It would seem that the time cutoffs for the 50 miler remain rather aggressive, given the technical and difficult nature of the trails in use. Nice work, everyone. I'm sure I missed a few other Reservoir Dogs who were running, there seemed to be a lot of them out there, that's only because I just don't know everyone on that team.

I've been analyzing my own race over the past couple of days, trying to see if my subjective experience matched my actual performance. Here is a breakdown of my splits from aid station to aid station, along with paces for each and cumulatives:

It's obvious that my pace varied quite a bit, probably in correlation with the terrain and technical nature of the various sections of the race. I also spent more time in aid stations progressively until after 21 mile station, where I ate so much that I felt full the rest of the way (so I paused only briefly for a quick drink at the last two stations). Obviously, I struggled to get from 25 to 28 miles. This section of the course included the climb up and over the Timp Pass, which was the steepest in the race. I walked most of it, and I was so tired that I ran poorly on the rocky descent (sort of race-walking , more than running). Once I got past that section, I rallied a bit on the final 3 miles or so, running my second-fastest miles splits on the day (admittedly, that section was less-technical, although it did have three uphills worth note and I was definitely plodding along with neither grace nor style at that point).

I liked Ben's comment to my last post, that these races are more about mental anguish than physical pain. I wish I could claim it was true for me. If you look at the photos of me nearing the finish line (from my previous post), you can probably notice that I'm favoring my left leg, limping slightly (hips dropping in, lower back a little stiff, shoulders uneven). I wish that my hip had felt better, then I could have faced the mental pain differently ... as it was, I was all-too-focused on dealing with a nagging injury (physical pain with every step).

I feel a little better today, in retrospect, about simply finishing the race. I can't say that I'm measurably proud, because I honestly think I should have been running at least a minute per mile faster ... but I can admit that there is something to be said about not giving up. I also have to be sensitive to the fact that, despite feeling like I struggled all day long, I managed to finish 25th out of 161, which comparatively is not all that bad. Plus, I'm sure those behind me were giving it their best, and suffering with their own injuries, demons, doubts, and challenges.

Funny (ironic) that I can truly say that everyone who completed that course should be proud, and yet not feel quite that way about my own performance. I suppose it's part of the character trait that makes us runners: always hungry, never quite satisfied, always anticipating a better race next time.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Race Report: North Face 50k

Thanks to Andel and Dima from the Reservoir Dogs for these photos

“Oh, I’ve had better days”

That was my response to the question, “How’s it going” at the 21 mile support station during Saturday’s North Face Endurance Challenge 50k trail race. Admittedly, I was playing the line for mild comic relief, but I also have to say that it was the truth.

I suppose we’d all prefer that our experiences could be easily classified into clear, separate categories, such as: unqualified success v. abysmal failure. The fact is that my race on Saturday was neither, or maybe both … but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

I am not the superstitious sort, but even I have to admit that I was surrounded by portents of doom that morning. When my alarm fired at 4:20am, I stole a furtive glance out the back door to see that it was absolutely pouring rain, with occasional flashes of lightning. Of course, my left hip (which has been stiff and sore for over a month) was tight and bothering me already, not a good sign. I wolfed down some breakfast, grabbed my gear and a large umbrella, and managed to speed walk to my car without getting completely drenched. The northbound Westside Highway was partially flooded, and certainly had more traffic than one would expect for 5:00 am on a Saturday ... all of us creeping along in the middle lane, except for the homeless guy pushing an empty shopping cart up the highway in the dark in the pouring rain ... only in New York. I managed to get across the George Washington Bridge okay, but the Palisades Parkway heading north was shrouded in dense fog, a dangerous accompaniment to the still-pounding rain. My hands white-knuckled on the steering wheel, I kept telling myself to relax, go with the flow, I’d get there eventually, etc. Luckily, as dawn began to break, both the rain and fog let up, so I managed to arrive at the Bear Mountain parking lot more-or-less on time. However, as I pulled in, four vultures were standing on the ground just in front of my car, staring at me. I could only imagine that they had heard about that day’s race schedule, and that they had made plans to feast on the carcass of any runner who would fall exhausted upon the trail … perhaps they were sizing me up for a potential meal later in the day.

After the requisite pre-race rituals (bathroom, petroleum jelly, re-tying shoelaces, bathroom, loading up the Fuel Belt, bathroom … you know the drill), I headed to the start area and greeted several friends from the Reservoir Dogs, a ‘sister team’ to my NYC racing team the New York Harriers. It was nice to know that I’d have friends out on the course, and it was a bonus to see that a few others had come along to spectate and support (thanks for the encouragement guys, it made a huge difference on such a long day). I was also pleasantly surprised to be approached by a couple of you who said that you’d been following this blog! Thank you, kind readers. I hope to continue to interest and inspire you.

I was determined to start slowly and run at a pace that I could sustain for about six hours, but this is new territory for me so all I could do was take my best guess. As the eager leaders bounded up the first hill, I hung back and relaxed, chatting with a couple of happy if sarcastic lads from Ireland, who eventually disappeared up the trail never to be seen by me again.

From the gun, my left hip and hamstring were bothering me so much that I could sense myself limping slightly. Not good. The fact is that I limped all day, not really what you want to be doing for an ultra. Sigh. I caught and passed an old teammate, Mike V, who was doing the race with his son. We ran together for about a mile, but eventually lost contact and I was surprised not to see them as the day wore on. I hope they had success and finished strong.

The course was, as expected, wet and rather mucky in parts. While the rain had stopped, there was still a bit of fog and mist in the air, and the trees continued to drip for most of the day. Lovely, really. The overcast skies were a godsend, because the air was quite humid and felt rather warm … sun would have led to overheating and dehydration. I enjoyed the first 16 or 17 miles, running slowly, walking the steeper uphills, trading places back and forth with a few other runners. With the exception of the lead female runner, most of us knew we weren’t competing for any prizes, we were just looking to go the distance.

Results from the race still aren’t posted (almost two days later – c’mon guys, get it together), so when they are I’ll come back to this blog and do a more detailed analysis of my race. For now, I can say that the aid stations were positioned perfectly, and well-stocked with both goodies and volunteers. I broke my race up into sections based on making it efficiently from aid station to aid station, monitoring my effort level and any potential problems along the way. I am proud not to have hit the wall or suffered a major bonk, which I chalk up to having had a large pre-race breakfast and to making sure to top off calories at each chance I got. Between aid stations, I sipped Cytomax, nibbled SportBeans, and sucked on Rolaids (good for keeping the stomach settled and for preventing muscle cramps). At the mile 21 aid station, as I tore into my drop bag and refueled, I apparently won the award for the most-food-eaten-at-an-aid-station-all-day, at least according to friends from the Reservoir Dogs.

But I’ve left out the negatives so far, I suppose I’d rather not even mention them, but then the story would be only half-told. Simply put, my left hip hurt all day. I couldn’t run normally, I had to shorten my stride and concentrate a lot of energy to prevent myself from limping. That was no fun. As the day wore on, I started to wear out. Honestly, I was good for about 20 miles. No, I didn’t drop out of the race, but after mile 20 I was clearly not the same as I was before. I was walking more frequently, my legs were feeling a bit dead, and I was basically in the just-keep-moving mode.

We never like to admit our limits. I think there is a deeply-ingrained aspect of the American ethos (mythology?) that is instilled in us from the moment we arrive: you can do anything you want if you just try hard enough. The question: is that really true? Or, more poignantly and philosophically, how could we possibly be so naïve to think that it could be true?

I’ve run 15 races of marathon length or longer. In all of them, without exception, I find that I can hold everything together pretty well until about 20-22 miles, then it all starts to unravel. The objective observer would ask, “When are you going to admit that your physiology just isn’t made for going past 22 miles?”

Someday, perhaps.

As I get older, and slower, I have begun to hang my hat on the thought that I can just move up in distance, and still be competitive. You know what? It’s not really happening.

I completed the 50k race on my feet, a bit stiff but still moving. I think I can take pride in having finished a tough course on a wet, muddy day. Okay, so it took me 6 hours and 13 minutes. Not exactly what I had in mind. I really don’t know what place I finished, but I’d guess around 30th to 40th. Hopefully they’ll get results posted before too long, because I’m curious about it. When they do finally get published, make sure to take a look at the excellent races run by Ryan and Ben from the Reservoir Dogs, who garnered first and second places overall, and by their teammate Silke, who was third woman overall. Truly impressive running, and results they can be proud of for a very long time.

Post-race, I sat at a picnic table with those three and other enthusiastic friends, and we recounted our experiences in short bursts between sips of water and bites of salty food. I had ambivalent feelings about the day. I’d made it, that was an accomplishment. But I’d walked more than I’d wanted to, and I’d just plain felt tired and worn out for the last third of the race. I wondered then, as I still do now, if perhaps I’m just not cut out for doing events of this kind of distance and duration. Truth be told, I enjoy more, and have had more success, at trail races between 15k and 25k in length … and if I just had enough sense to remember that I’d be in good stead, right?

Ah, but I’m just another stubborn runner. I’ll quite probably never learn.

Congrats to everyone who conquered that course yesterday, whether fast or slow. You deserve to feel good about what you accomplished. I’ll be back with more on this event once results are posted.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Hip pains and anxiety dreams

With only three days to go before the 50k trail race at Bear Mountain/Harriman State Park, the clock is ticking loudly. Meanwhile, my left hip is tight and sore and I find that I’m plagued with anxiety dreams … you know, like when you dream that you are suddenly thrust into a situation that you should have prepared for, but you didn’t, and you start to panic because you don’t know what to do – even though you should – and everyone is looking at you with disdain … and then you realize that you forgot to wear pants.

I know it’s just pre-race jitters, and you’d think after over 700 races in my running career that I would never feel this way anymore. But I do. And to be honest I kind of enjoy it. It’s actually uplifting in a way, energizing. I don’t wake up from those dreams in a cold sweat; instead I wake up and start chuckling. Pre-race jitters means that I still care, truly and deeply, about the race that is pending. It still MATTERS to me. I think that’s kind of cool, and I think it keeps me young.

My hip: I don’t think it’s anything major. Just all the miles I’ve run in the past six months and the fact that I’m all out of whack. The reconstructive surgery on my Achilles tendon 5.5 years ago has left me unbalanced, and it shows when I pile on the miles. Right after the 50k, I’ll get back to some cross-training and see if I can calm down that hip/hamstring over time. For now, I’m just taking it very easy pre-race (a couple days off even), and dropping some ibuprofen and bromelain.

It’s been raining all week, and although the latest forecast says 20% chance of rain on Saturday (race day), it could be a bit wet and muddy out on the course … that’s to my liking. I’d much rather have overcast skies and wet shoes than the opposite: hot sun with a dry, dehydrating wind.

I’ll be back to blog my race report next week. Good luck to all of you on your individual running adventures this weekend. Wish me a bit of luck too, seems clear I’ll need it.