Friday, July 28, 2017

Today I Had My Six Week Follow-Up

It’s been six weeks since my back surgery.  Today, I had my second follow-up appointment.  The nurse practitioner at the neurosurgery center was pleased that I’m not experiencing any pain, and I’m no longer taking any medication for pain.

She examined my incision and confirmed it’s completely healed.  I was pretty sure it was, but it’s hard for me to see it, since it’s in the middle of my back.  I can now shower, bathe or swim without any need to bandage it.

Then we talked about which activities I can do and which activities I still need to avoid.  I can’t do anything high impact (including running) for six more weeks, but it’s OK to do low-impact activities like bicycling or swimming.  I can also continue to walk, which was my only form of exercise for the last six weeks.

The nurse practitioner  I saw today was different than the one I saw four weeks ago, so I had to bring her up to date on my race-walking.  We talked about how much I’ve been walking, my upcoming marathons, and how fast I’ll need to walk them.  She said it’s OK to go ahead and walk those marathons.  She would have been more concerned if my surgery had been in the lumbar region, but because it was a thoracic surgery, there’s far less risk.

That said, she couldn’t guarantee there wouldn’t be any risk at all.  It takes 12 weeks for a herniated disk to fully heal.  Until then, there’s still an increased risk of re-herniation.  Prior to 12 weeks, somewhere between eight and fourteen percent of patients experience re-herniation.  That’s why I can’t do any running.  They worry most about activities that can be jarring to my spine.

Until today, I wasn’t supposed to do any housework or yardwork.  Now I can begin doing those activities again, so long as they don’t hurt, don’t cause excessive bending or twisting, and don’t violate my lifting restriction.  I asked specifically about mowing the lawn.  I shouldn’t do that for six more weeks.

My lifting restriction will be my biggest headache for my upcoming trip to Europe.  Until today, I couldn’t lift anything over 10 pounds.  Now I can lift up to 15 pounds, and I can increase that by about two pounds per week.  When I go on my trip, I’ll still need to pay attention to how much my bags weigh.  I may have to get a suitcase with wheels.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

My Brief Flirtation with Race-Walking in my 30s.

This is a Throwback Thursday post.

I started running while I was in college.  Every two weeks, I would get together with friends to run a timed mile on a track.  Then we’d go out for burgers and malts.  In between these informal mile races, we would each train on our own.  I can still remember my first mile race.  It took me 6:56.  After I finished, I was curled up on the grass trying to catch my breath.  I never knew running could hurt so much.

Eventually, my friends and I graduated.  I continued to live in Minnesota, but most of my friends moved to other states to pursue their careers.  When they would come back to visit, we would reunite at the track for a mile race.

In 1991, I ran my first Boston Marathon.  After that race, I started to develop a mild case of shin splints.  I continued training, so I could run Grandma’s Marathon in June.  After Grandma’s, my shin pain was worse, and I decided to take a break.  For the rest of the summer I cut way back on my running mileage and stopped doing any running at a fast pace.

It was near the beginning of this break that my friend Rick came to Minneapolis for a ballroom dancing event.  While he was in town, we organized one of our reunion races.  I didn’t think it would be a good idea to run an all-out mile, so I decided to see how fast I could walk a mile.

I already knew I could walk really fast for short bursts, but I had never tried to do it for an entire mile.  I started too fast, but eventually settled into a pace I could just barely sustain.  I don’t recall my exact time, but it was in the low 9:40s.  After I finished, I was curled up on the grass trying to catch my breath.  I never knew walking could hurt so much.  I learned it was possible to put yourself in oxygen debt by walking fast.

A short time later, I learned about a walking event in Minneapolis called the Race-Walk Classic.  It was a 5K race.  I went to an informational meeting where they explained the rules of race-walking to runners who were new to race-walking.  There are two rules.  The first one is simple.  You always have to have at least one foot in contact with the ground.  Failure to do that is called “lifting.”  The other rule is less obvious.  Your leading leg must be straight as your foot makes contact with the ground.  It must remain straight until the leg passes under your body.  Failure to do this is called “bent knee.”

In a judged race-walk competition, there are multiple officials watching the competitors to ensure they’re following both rules at all times.  If one of the judges observes an infraction, they can either give you a warning or a “red card,” depending on how flagrant the infraction is.  If three judges give you “red cards,” you’re disqualified.

This particular race had medals for anyone who could complete the race in 30 minutes.  I still had most of the summer to train, so I focused on race-walking while I was taking a break from running.

To break 30 minutes, I needed to average 9:39 per mile.  That was just slightly faster than my first attempt to race-walk for a mile.  Most of my workouts were on a track.  First, I had to improve my pace for a mile.  Then I kept increasing the distance, one lap at a time.

I also attended a clinic for beginning race-walkers put on by a member of the US Olympic team.  She demonstrated how elite race-walkers walk and put us through a few different drills.  I was too new to the sport to get much pelvic rotation.  Mostly, I just walked really fast.  Over short distances, I could do that, but I always felt like I would break down at any minute.

By late August, I could walk two miles at a 9:30 pace.  My final tune-up before the race was 5K on a track by myself.  I wanted to know I could break 30 minutes on my own before trying it in the race.  It was different than training to run a 5K.  I wasn’t worried about having the aerobic fitness.  I was worried about whether I could make it through 5K before my mechanics started to break down.

The race was in September.  It was on roads, which felt different from walking on a track.  I was on a good pace from start to finish, but I attracted the attention of one of the judges.  He crouched down close to the ground to watch me as I went by.  Then he dashed ahead of me so he could watch me a second time.  He never said anything, so he must have concluded I was legal.  I’m sure my form looked a bit awkward.  I was near my limits, and I was never as smooth as experienced race-walkers.

I finished the race in 29:38, which is an average pace of 9:32.  I actually finished ahead of an experienced walker who led the informational meeting I had attended a few months earlier.  For breaking 30 minutes, I earned this medal.

It says “elite walker,” but I knew I wasn’t really “elite.”  An elite race-walker could walk 5K faster than I could run it.  Still, it took three months of hard work.

A week later, I had another mile race with my friends.  I race-walked a mile for the last time.  I managed to improve my time to 8:38.

By then, I was no longer experiencing any shin pain, so I returned to running.  Until this year, I only walked one other race.  In 1994, I was out of shape after not doing any running during the winter months.  My sister Betty was going to walk the Gary Bjorklund half marathon in Duluth.  That’s the half marathon that’s held in conjunction with Grandma’s Marathon.  I only had a few weeks to train, but I decided to join her.  Our goal was to average 12 minutes per mile.  I wasn’t at all smooth.  I had an exaggerated arm swing and felt ragged the whole way.  I did it, though.  I finished that half marathon in 2:34:59.  That’s an average pace of 11:49.

Based on that experience, I couldn’t imagine ever race-walking as far as a marathon.  Now I’ve already walked one marathon, and I’m working on getting faster so I can beat a 5:30 time limit.  That’s an average pace of 12:35.  Had it not been for my brief flirtation with race-walking when I was young, it wouldn’t even occur to me to try.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Race Report: 2017 Prairie Series, Day 2

Today was day two of the Prairie Series.  I was signed up for the marathon, but I wasn’t sure if I would race at all.  I got to bed early and slept well.  I didn’t set my alarm, but I still woke up at 4:00.  If I got up, I could still be ready in time for the 5:30 start.

After my marathon yesterday, I felt wiped out.  It was an all-out effort to walk that fast for almost six hours.  Later in the day, my legs felt a little bit stiff.  This morning, I woke up feeling OK.  After a warm shower, I felt good as new.

I started walking the day after my back surgery.  Since then, I’ve walked at least three miles every day.  Today was no exception.  Since I was going to do some walking anyway, I might as well do it as part of a race.  If I did the 5K race, I’d get in my three miles before driving home.  I was already here, and I already paid for the race.

When I got to Wells Park, I went to the registration table and told them I was signed up for the marathon, but I was dropping down to the 5K.  They had to give me a different race bib.  I was already wearing my marathon bib, so I pinned the 5K bib over it.

The 5K course used the same 2.54 mile out-and-back course as the marathon, but we only had to do it once.  In addition, there was a short segment at the beginning to bring the total distance up to 5K.  We started on the North Dakota side of the Red River.  After crossing the river, we did one lap around Wells Park on a gravel road.  Then we turned around and did the same out-and-back that the marathon and half-marathon runners were doing.

I wasn’t sure how fast I would walk.  On one hand, this was a shorter race, so I should be able to walk it faster than yesterday’s marathon.  On the other hand, I viewed today as a light recovery day.  If I wasn’t doing a race, I would have been content to just go at a casual pace.

When the race started, I quickly got my answer.  By the time I crossed the river, I was already getting out of breath.  There’s something about pinning on a race bib that flips a switch inside my brain.  I was in race mode.

Going around the park, it was tough to push the pace.  That gravel road isn’t the best surface for race-walking.  When I reached the start/finish area, I turned around to begin my “big” lap.  That started with a lap around the park in the opposite direction.  Then I crossed the river to get onto the nice paved path on the other side.

This was where I could really push the pace.  It’s a nice surface for walking, and it’s fairly straight.  I wanted to make good time here.

Doing this race gave me a chance to see friends one last time before driving home.  I saw a lot of the same runners I saw yesterday, but there were some new faces today.  I saw a friend from England and a friend from Iceland.  For me, this was a local race, but other runners traveled from all over.

I started to notice some light rain.  At first, it was just a few drops.  To my right, I could see pink clouds as the sun rose.  To my left, I could see a rainbow.  A few runners stopped to take pictures.  I didn’t have my camera.

By the time I reached the turnaround, the pavement was starting to get slick.  It still wasn’t raining hard, but the pavement was now coated.  I could feel the slight difference in traction.  Here, the wet surface was a detriment, but I knew it would help when I got back to the dirt road for the last time.

By the time I crossed the river again, it was no longer raining.  Off in the distance, I saw a flash of lightning.  We weren’t out of the woods yet.

As I walked around the park for the last time, I could tell the road was damp.  It wasn’t wet enough to be slick or muddy.  Instead, it was firmer than before.  There was no dust or loose dirt, so it was easier to walk on it.  With half a mile to go, I worked to finish as fast as I could.

I never look at my watch during the race, so I was curious to know what my time would be.  I finished in 35:58.  That’s an average pace of 11:34 per mile.  This wasn’t the first time I walked a 5K race.  When I was 30 years old, I did a 5K walking event.  I was significantly faster today than I was in yesterday’s marathon, but I was also significantly slower than my 5K PR.  That’s not surprising.  I’m much older now, and I haven’t done as much race-walk training.

They have a different style of finisher medals for the 5K and 10K.  They still have medals for each state, but the top piece is different.  I was tempted to add the North Dakota medal to yesterday’s chain, but that wouldn’t be proper.  That chain was for marathon medals.

A few minutes after I finished the race, it started raining hard.  It was a brief shower, but I was soaked by the time I reached my car.  On the bright side, it rinsed the dust from my shoes.

When I took my shoes off, I noticed two new blisters.  One was on the side of my left heel.  The other was on the tip of one of my toes.  Both were easy to drain, so hopefully they'll be OK in a few days.

Up until yesterday, I was focused on building my distance, so I could walk a marathon.  Now that I’ve done that, my focus has shifted to walking faster.  I have two races scheduled in August.  Both are marathons.  One has a time limit of 6:00.  The other has a time limit of 5:30.  I can’t run for eight more weeks, so I need to be able to walk them.  In the coming weeks, I expect to do lots of short walks at a fast pace.  Today was a good start.

Race Statistics
Distance:  5 kilometers
Time:  35:58
Average Pace:  11:34 per mile

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Race Report: 2017 Prairie Series, Day 1

This morning, I did the first race of the Prairie Series, in Breckenridge, MN.  When I signed up for this race, I assumed I would be running it.  Instead, I walked it.

This is the first race I’ve done since my back surgery a month ago.  I can’t run for eight more weeks, but I can walk.  I’ve cancelled five races so far, but this one didn’t have any time limit, so it was feasible to walk it.

When I had my follow-up appointment two weeks after my surgery, the neurosurgery nurse wasn’t too keen on the idea of my walking this far this soon.  His concern was that I wouldn’t be willing to stop if I started having back discomfort.  It’s like he knows me.

Aside from that, I really didn’t know if I could ramp up to a marathon in only 24 days.  At the time my longest walk since the surgery was only four miles.

When I told Deb I might not be able to do the marathon, she reminded me there was also a half marathon.  I was signed up for the marathon, but I could always drop down to the half.  With that in mind, I started ramping up the distance I was walking, to make sure I’d at least be ready to walk a half marathon.

Last Tuesday, I walked 14 miles.  At that point, I knew I could do the half marathon comfortably.  The marathon would still be a big step up, but I didn’t have to commit myself.  I could wait to make that decision during the race.  I could walk the half marathon and this see how I felt.  If I still felt good, I could continue.  If I later felt like the marathon would be too much, I could always stop, knowing I was still a half marathon finisher.

Obviously, I wanted to do the marathon if I could.  I signed up for this race because it’s a Minnesota race.  I want to eventually do every marathon in Minnesota.  Finishing the half marathon wouldn’t help me make progress toward this goal, but it was still a consolation prize.  By finishing either distance, I would finish 25 races with Mainly Marathons.  When you do that, you’re called a “Mainlyner,” and they have an award for that.

Breckenridge is about a 220 mile drive for me.  If I had to fly, I wouldn’t have been able to go.  Besides not being able to run, I have other restrictions.  For now, I can’t lift anything heavier than 10 pounds.  When you fly, you need to be able to carry all your bags at once.  Try packing for a trip without taking more than 10 pounds.  Fortunately, with my own car, I could have a few light bags and make separate trips to the car for each one.

I drove to Breckenridge on Saturday.  I wasn’t sure how comfortable my back would be on such a long drive, so I made frequent stops to get out of the car and walk around a bit.  There wasn’t much lodging in Breckenridge, so I stayed just across the river in Wahpeton, ND.  After checking in and unloading the car, I went to Welles Park in Breckenridge to pick up my race packet.  This was the first race in the series, so you could pick up your race packet the day before.  They also had a free pasta dinner, which was an opportunity to see old friends.

The marathon and half marathon both started at 5:30, but there was an early start at 4:30.  It was a hot day, so they were recommending the early start for anyone who expected to be on the course for more than six hours.  I knew I would take longer than six hours if I did the marathon, but I didn’t want to start in the dark, so I took the regular start.  My longest walks have been in the late morning and early afternoon, so starting at 5:30 I expected to feel comfortable for the first few hours.  I only had one concern about starting at 5:30.  I didn’t want to be the last one on the course.  There’s usually at least a few people needing eight hours or more, so I was hopeful nobody would have to wait for me.

The course was a 2.54 mile out-and-back that we ran or walked 10 times.  We started with a shorter out-and-back to bring the total mileage to 26.2.  Half of the race was in Minnesota, and the other half was in North Dakota.  We finished each out-and-back in Minnesota, but the shorter one started in North Dakota.  By the rules of the 50 States Marathon Club, this race could be counted as either Minnesota or North Dakota.  I was planning to count this one as a Minnesota race.

The North Dakota side of the course was paved, but the Minnesota side was a gravel road.  Had I known I would be doing half of my walking on gravel, I would have brought gaiters.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find that out until I got here.  There wasn’t any place nearby where I could buy any, so I just had to hope I wouldn’t get too much grit into my shoes.  I was most worried about the area around my heels, where I already had blisters.

I had to make sure I knew the course, because I was going at a different pace than everyone else.  The runners were all faster, but the other walkers were all slower.  I was the only one trying to race-walk, and it resulted in an in-between pace.  At first, I was almost keeping up with a few of the runners, but that didn’t last long.

When I finished the short lap, I checked my watch.  Zero.  Apparently, I never started it.  I quickly started it as I began my first of 10 full laps.  That turned out to be a mixed blessing.  I didn’t know my time for the short lap, but it made it easier to see what my pace was on my full laps.

The next time a runner passed me, I was able to compare my time to hers.  That told me my short lap was about 10:04.  That was faster than I expected, but the distance was less than a mile.  My first full lap would give me a better idea of what pace I was starting.

I was working to walk fast, but I still felt like I could be going faster.  My pace felt like it might be sustainable for the whole race.  When I finished my first full lap, I was shocked to see it was under 33 minutes.

To put that in perspective, I made a range of estimates before the race for what my time for a full marathon should be.  My most optimistic estimate was 6:20.  That’s about 37 minutes per lap.  I started four minutes faster than that.  I was on pace for 5:40.

My next few laps were also about 33 minutes.  I was surprised that I could walk this fast so easily.  I suspect it was because the temperature at the start was only 59 degrees.  That’s much cooler than any of my training walks.  I was able to work harder without getting too hot.

I expected the pace would eventually wear on me.  Typically, when I get fatigued, I start to have lapses in concentration.  Then my pace becomes erratic.  I decided to be pre-emptive about it.  The paved path on the North Dakota side was a great surface for walking.  The pavement was uniform, the path was mostly straight, and it was fairly flat.  Here, I pushed myself to go fast.  When I got into a good rhythm, I could easily stay with it.

On the Minnesota side, it wasn’t such a good surface for race-walking, so I gave myself permission to ease up a bit.  With planned “easy” sections, I didn’t have to maintain my focus all the time.  That allowed me to get through the race without suffering from any mental fatigue.

When I finished my fifth full lap, I was more than half done.  Including the short lap, I had completed 13.5 miles in 2:56 and change.  I was easily on pace to break six hours, and my laps times were still consistent.  There was no longer any question that I was going to walk the full marathon.  I still felt great in spite of my fast pace.  The only question now was whether I would need to slow down at some point.

I had been putting off a bathroom stop for a few laps.  The sweet tea I had with breakfast was going through me.  At the beginning of my sixth lap, I finally made a bathroom stop.  It seemed to take forever to empty my bladder.

By now, it was getting much warmer.  The sun was at a higher angle in the sky.  Parts of the course were shaded, but where we were exposed, I was getting hot.  I expected my pace to deteriorate.

Most people doing the half marathon were done, so there were far fewer runners on the course.  That made it easier for me to walk the tangents.  I was passing fewer walkers, and fewer runners were passing me.  That made it easier for me to maintain my focus.

The people still on the course were mostly people I know.  They all knew why I was walking, and they gave me lots of encouragement.

That lap was two minutes slower, but that was mostly due to the bathroom stop.  In my next lap I was back to 33 minutes.  I only had three laps left, so I figured out how fast I would need to walk them to break six hours.  If I could average 38 minutes, I would do it.  I expected to slow down, but not by five minutes per lap.

My eighth lap was slower, but only by a minute.  With two laps left, I only needed to average 41 minutes per lap.  I was getting hotter, but I only had to tough it out for five more miles.

My ninth lap was a minute slower than my eighth lap, but it was still much faster than the pace I needed to break six hours.  Breaking six was no longer in doubt.  I needed a 37 minute lap to break 5:50.  So far, all of my laps had been faster than that.  If I held my pace, I would do it.  If my pace continued to erode, it would be close.

I tried to pick up my pace, but I couldn’t do it on the Minnesota side of the course.  The surface was just too difficult for walking fast.  Once I got to the North Dakota side, I really pushed to go fast.  The heat was getting to me, but I only had two miles to go.  I maintained my focus until I got back to the gravel road around Welles Park.  Then it got difficult again.

I finished in 5:47:24.  This was my first walking marathon, so that’s a PR.  It’s actually faster than a few of the races that I ran.  That exceeded my wildest expectation for how fast I could walk a marathon.  My average pace was 13:15.  Five days ago, I walked 14 miles as fast as I could, and my pace was 13:53.  You’re not supposed to get faster when you’re walking almost twice as far.  I’ve been doing some shorter walks where I’ve focus on improving my pace.  They must be paying off.  It also probably helped that it was nice and cool for the first two hours of the race.

The finisher medals for the series form a chain.  The top piece is for anyone who does at least one marathon or half marathon of the series.  I like the covered wagon design.  The next piece is for today’s race, which I counted as a Minnesota race.  If I did the marathon or half marathon tomorrow, I could add a North Dakota medal.

I didn’t know how my feet would look when I took off my shoes. The uppers were coated with dust.  When I got the shoes off, I could see that some of the dust got into my socks.  How were my feet?  They were no worse than before.  I still have large blisters on my heels, but they didn’t seem to hurt any worse than before.  They might have been slightly larger, but there wasn’t any blood.  That was a relief.

I was originally signed up to do the second race of the series as well.  It would have been convenient, since it’s the exact same course.  Most people are counting it for Minnesota on day one and North Dakota on day two.  Ordinarily, I wouldn’t hesitate to do marathons two days in a row.  Under the circumstances, however, it would be too much.  I may decide to drop down to one of the shorter distances.  They have a half marathon, a 10K, and a 5K.  It all comes down to whether I feel like getting up at 4 AM again.

Alternatively, I could sleep in, but still go over to the park to walk a couple of laps with friends.  I walk every day, so why not walk here before driving home?

Race Statistics
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  5:47:24
Average Pace:  13:15    
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  337
Minnesota Marathons:  43
Walking Marathons:  1