Saturday, September 3, 2016

Was It Worth It?

Last summer, I had to make some tough choices.  After a groin injury in early May, I only had a few weeks to heal before the Comrades Marathon.  That wasn’t enough time, and there was no way I was going to miss that race.  It’s an expensive trip, and the flights were already booked.  Besides, it was my only change to run the “down” and “up” courses in back-to-back years.

With 20K to go, my leg started to bother me.  To finish, I had to put a compression wrap on my right thigh.  It was slow going for the rest of the race, but I finished.  I got my back-to-back medal, and my time was still good enough for a bronze medal.  Running that race set back my recovery, but I have absolutely no regrets about that decision.

My next scheduled race was the Bighorn Mountain 100 in Wyoming.  I had three weeks between races.  Again, that wasn’t enough time to heal.  I decided to go ahead with that race, knowing I wasn’t fully healed.  I knew it was a bad idea, but skipping that race seemed unthinkable.  I had a heartbreaking DNF there a year earlier, after falling into a stream during the night.  I was going back for redemption.

Well, I didn’t redeem myself.  After 30 miles, I realized I wasn’t going to finish so I dropped out before I made my leg any worse.  That was a smart decision.  Starting the race wasn’t.  If I could go back and do one differently, I would skip the Bighorn Mountain 100.  Had I done that, I might have been able to recover before my July races.  Instead, I set back my recovery again.

Starting with the first weekend of July, I had races scheduled almost every weekend.  I was pursuing multiple long-term goals.  One was to run at least 51 marathons or ultras for the third straight year.  Another was to finish my 300th marathon or ultra at the Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Marathon in November.  Another was to finish my second circuit of marathons in all 50 states at the Honolulu Marathon in December.

If I could have healed by skipping one or two races, I would have.  At this point, I needed at least six weeks off to heal.  In July, that would have meant skipping at least six races.  I could find a way to make up for one or two races.  I couldn’t make up that many.

I also didn’t want to eat the travel expenses.  Most of the races were out of state, and the flights were already booked.  I had international trips scheduled in July, September, October and November.  There’s no way I could take a six week break without cancelling at least one international trip.  Did I mention the flights were already booked?

At the beginning of July, I made a big decision.  I committed to finishing the rest of my race schedule, even though I knew my injury wouldn’t begin healing until I took a break in December.

This decision was based on two assumptions.  First, I assumed I would somehow find a way to finish each race.  If, at some point, I couldn’t stay on schedule, it would not have been worth it to try.  I also assumed I wasn’t doing any permanent damage.  It might take a long time, but eventually I would heal.

It was tougher than I thought.  By the middle of July, I had to wrap my right leg with an elastic bandage.  That threw off my stride and put undue stress on my left leg.  Before long, both legs had similar injuries.  At times, I could barely walk.

I was no longer doing any real training between races.  That led to an unexpected problem.  I started experiencing stiffness and cramps in both legs, mostly at night.  Apparently, I need to run, or I have circulation problems.

By the end of September, lack of training caught up to me.  My times deteriorated until I was no longer capable of finishing a marathon in five hours.

More than once, circumstances outside my control caused me to miss a race.  Each time, I found another race I could fit into my schedule.  That sometimes meant doing two races in one weekend.  Sometimes it meant running a 50K instead of a marathon.  I did whatever I had to.

When all was said and done, I reached my goals.  I ran my 300th marathon or ultra at the Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Marathon.

Three weeks and six races later I finished the Honolulu Marathon.  That was my 51st race of the year and my second 50 states finish.

I somehow finished my races and reached my goals.  That means it was worth it, right?  Not so fast.  There’s still the matter of not doing any permanent damage.  By the end of the year, I wasn’t so sure.

I originally assumed I would need to take it easy for six to eight weeks.  I naively assumed I could still run about 10 miles a week, if I wrapped my legs and went easy.  I was wrong.

By early January, I realized I wasn’t getting better.  I needed complete rest.  I saw my doctor to find out if there was more damage than I realized.  That led to X-rays, an MR arthrogram, a consultation with an orthopedist, and physical therapy.

There was good news and bad news.  The good news is that I didn’t have any permanent damage.  In fact, my injuries were mostly healed.  The bad news is that I had been walking and running with an unorthodox gait for so long that several different muscle groups were now too weak.  I was no longer capable of walking or running normally.  I needed to rebuild several muscles before I could run at all.

There was also the matter of my stiff legs and cramps.  When I was still running marathons, I was at least getting some exercise.  Now I wasn’t getting any.  I didn’t just have issues at night.  Now my legs stiffened up any time I sat down for more than a few minutes.  Getting out of a chair and beginning to walk was a process.  I had to do several slow deliberate motions to gradually stimulate circulation in my legs before I could begin to walk.

I had always assumed this was related to my Raynaud’s Syndrome, but I didn’t know for sure.  My doctor ran numerous blood tests to rule out anemia and various nutritional deficiencies.  He eventually came to the same conclusion.  He prescribed a medication that helped, but the symptoms didn’t go away completely.  It was about half as bad as before.  I had to have faith that if I could get back to running regularly, it would stimulate better circulation and make the symptoms go away completely.  For the time being, though, I wasn’t ready to run.

After a month of PT, I got the green light to begin training.  At first, it was tough to run with any kind of reasonable stride.  I had to really force myself to use my hips.  Even as my form improved, I still couldn’t run fast.  My top speed was about 11 minutes per mile.  That wasn’t my top speed for a marathon.  That was my top speed for a sprint.  For distance runners, oxygen transport is usually the thing that limits you.  If you run too fast, you get out of breath.  Not me.  I couldn’t run fast enough to get short of breath.  My clunky mechanics and weak muscles held me back.  It was like my legs just didn’t work.

I had to have faith that if I kept up the PT, eventually my glutes would get stronger, and I would once again develop a faster stride.  It took time, but eventually I saw improvement.

In the meantime, the Boston Marathon was coming up.  I had already cancelled plans to run two marathons in February.  I didn’t want to skip Boston.  This was my fifth consecutive Boston Marathon, and I wanted to keep that steak alive.

I wasn’t really in shape for it, but I managed to finish this year’s Boston Marathon in 5:08.  To qualify for next year, I would need to bring my time down to at least 3:40 by mid-September.  I had my doubts.

Since then, I’ve kept up my training, I’ve kept up my PT, and I’ve seen steady improvement in my marathons times.  I had a big breakthrough at the Med City Marathon in late May, finishing in 4:19.  That’s when I realized I had a realistic chance of qualifying for next year.

As my glutes got stronger, I was able to run faster, if only briefly.  I pushed myself to run at my old marathon race pace for one minute on a treadmill.  That used to be my “all day” pace.  Now it felt like I was sprinting.  Still, it was a start.  Before long, I could run that pace for a mile, then two miles, then four miles, and eventually for an hour.  Then it was time to push the pace a little faster.

Objectively, I could see improvement, but nothing was easy.  Running was always hard work from the first mile.  I was always stiff or sore.  I really missed the days when I could go out for a run for the sheer enjoyment of it.  Now, even runs that should have been easy were hard work.  I kept at it though.

At some point in the last few months, I realized my legs were no longer getting stiff during the night.  More recently, I realized they also weren’t getting stiff after long periods of sitting.  I felt normal again.  Apparently, I was finally running enough for my circulation to improve.

All the hard work paid off two weeks ago when I qualified for Boston at the Super Tunnel Marathon.  My time of 3:36:39 was a Boston qualifier with 3:21 to spare.  That should be good enough to get me into next year’s race, but I’ll try for a faster time at the Big Cottonwood Marathon.

I’m still haven’t reached the fitness level I had before, but I have the tools to get there.  I’m able to train.  For years, I was already in good shape and only needed to maintain my fitness.  Getting in shape from scratch is much harder.  I’m willing to do the work.  I just wanted to have the chance again.

This week, the final piece fell into place.  Thursday I ran 10 miles, and it was easy.  I wasn’t going very fast, but that’s OK.  It was the first time in more than a year that I ran that distance and never felt like I was working.  I ran another 10 miles on Friday.  It was the first time this year that I ran 10 miles on consecutive days.  I feel like a runner again.

I finally have all my answers.  I didn’t do any permanent damage.  I was able to recover.  I’m not in peak shape yet, but I can get there.  My circulation problems did, in fact, go away once I was able to get enough exercise.

The last year wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.  I have no regrets.  Sometimes I push myself too hard, but you can never know your limits if you don’t test them.

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