It’s been 10 days since my sutures were removed. At the time, I mentioned I had hopes of possibly walking the first race of the Prairie Series. At the time, my longest walk since my back surgery was four miles, and I was increasing that by only a quarter mile each day. The race was only 17 days away. Do the math. I wasn’t going to get there unless I ramped up my walking at a ridiculous rate.
Then Deb reminded me there was also a half marathon. I was registered for the marathon, but I could always switch to the half. I originally registered for that race so I could make progress toward my long-term goal of doing every marathon in Minnesota. Doing the half marathon wouldn’t help with that goal, but it would still be an important stepping stone toward walking the Helsinki City Marathon four weeks later. Ramping up to a half marathon was still an ambitious goal, but it was much more realistic.
There’s a reason this blog is named, “Goal-Oriented Runner.” Everything I do is goal-oriented. Having goals gives me a sense of purpose. I don’t just have goals for races. I have goals for each workout. Being able to associate a workout with how it will help me in my next race sometimes makes the individual workouts almost as exciting as the races.
For now, I can’t run at all. I can only do one form of exercise: walking. I’m walking with zeal because it gives me a sense of purpose. I can’t understate how important that is to my psyche right now. For most people, their identity is tied closely to their careers. That’s never been the case for me. I’m retired now, but even when I was working, I hated my job. It’s what I was good at, but it was never what I enjoyed. My identity has always been defined by my running. Now that I can’t run, it’s identified by my walking. It’s all I have.
With the half marathon in mind, I started increasing the length of my daily “long walks” by a half mile. Then I start increasing them by a mile. Ideally, I wanted to do the half marathon distance on my own before I did it in the race.
Because I was ramping up my “long walks” so quickly, I didn’t do as many short walks. I didn’t want my total daily mileage to increase too quickly. As a result, my “long walks” made up a larger proportion of my total mileage. Here’s a bar graph of my daily mileage in the three weeks after surgery. The blue portion of the bars represents my longest walk of each day.
At first, I was doing all my “long walks” on a treadmill. That allowed me to be disciplined about my pacing. I always did the entire walk at the same pace. I started at 3.0 miles per hour (20:00 per mile). A few days later, I picked it up to 3.1 mph. If the pace felt too easy one day, I would nudge it up again the next day.
On Monday, I walked seven miles at a 16:13 pace. Then on Tuesday, I decided to do my “long walk” outside. I assumed that would make the miles less monotonous. By now my “long walks” were taking about two hours. That’s a long time to walk on a treadmill. I also assumed I would have to go at a slower pace. I thought walking on the treadmill was making it easier to maintain my pace. My first assumption was correct. My second assumption was wrong. The treadmill was actually holding me back.
I set out to walk eight miles. At first, I was going slower than my indoor walks, but I gradually accelerated. I was doing multiple loops, and each one was faster than the one before. I ended up walking eight miles in 2:70:30. That’s an average of 15:56 per mile.
On Wednesday, I walked outside again. This time, my goal was nine miles. Emboldened by Monday’s walk, I started much faster. Through the first seven miles, my pace was fairly uniform. My time after seven miles was more than 13 minutes faster than it was on Tuesday. It occurred to me that if I could speed up just a bit more, I might be able to finish nine miles in less time than it took me to walk eight miles the day before.
In my eighth mile, I lit a fire under myself to walk faster, if I could. Up until now, in all of my walks, I had been simply walking at a fast pace. As I told myself to go faster, I found myself occasionally slipping into race-walking. It’s a different gait, which includes noticeable rotation of the pelvis. It felt much more fluid than my previous gait.
I walked that mile in 13:36. I had one more mile to go. Realizing I could beat my eight mile time from Tuesday, I continued to lift my effort. I did that last mile in 12:59. My total time for nine miles was 2:06:17. My average pace was 14:02! I wasn’t expecting to get that fast so soon.
Some of my friends were understandably concerned that I was race-walking. Knowing I’m recovering from back surgery, they cautioned that I shouldn’t be rotating my pelvis, because it would cause my back to twist. I’m supposed to avoid bending or twisting my back. That’s the reason I’ve been careful to keep my shoulders square and avoid excessive arm swing.
The next time I walked on the treadmill, I briefly experimented with a race-walk gait, so I could watch my belly. I could see the side-to-side movement. If my belly was moving, my lower back was moving. After that I avoided race-walking.
After my fast nine mile walk on Wednesday, I noticed painful blisters on the heels of each foot. It was a hot, humid day, and I was working up a sweat. The blisters were painful, and they forced me to take it easy on Thursday. I only walked seven miles that day, and my longest walk was only four miles. It was the first time since my surgery that I didn’t increase the length of my “long walk.” It was more important to give myself an easy day, in hopes that my blisters wouldn’t be as painful on Friday.
On Friday, I found that I could walk without pain if I kept the pace casual. Anything faster than a 20:00 pace would hurt. For my “long walk,” I went outside again. My goal was 10.5 miles. I didn’t want to do the whole thing at a casual pace, but I quickly realized that anything faster would hurt. The faster I walked, the more it would hurt.
Under the right circumstances, I can suppress a great deal of pain. There are two ways to do it. The first is physiological; the second is psychological. The physiological method is to exert yourself hard enough to produce endorphins. Endorphins are natural painkillers. The psychological method is to distract yourself. For example, if I was focused completely on my effort and my mechanics, I would stop noticing the pain. Either way, I had to walk fast.
I started out at a fast enough pace that I could tune out the pain. Almost from the start, I had a race-walk gait. I looked down at by belly. I could barely notice the movement. Then I reached behind me and touched my lower back. My hand was right at the bottom of my lumbar spine. I could feel the movement.
Next, I moved my hand up an inch or two. Now the movement was barely noticeable. Finally, I moved my hand up to the middle of my back, so it was just a few inches below my incision. I couldn’t feel any movement at all. That was a relief.
If I had a lumbar surgery, any movement in my lower back would have been alarming. My surgery was on the upper back. My upper back wasn’t moving at all.
At this point, I had a choice. To tolerate the blister pain, I had to walk at a fast pace, but there are only two ways to increase your pace. You can increase your stride length, or you can increase your stride frequency (i.e. your cadence).
When you run, you’re airborne until your lead foot strikes the ground. You can increase your stride length by “flying” farther. When you walk, you always have at least one foot on the ground. You can only increase your stride length by rotating your pelvis to reach farther forward with your lead foot. That’s what I was doing. It’s a big part of the distinction between a conventional walking gait and a race-walk gait.
The other way to increase your pace is in increase your stride frequency. You have to get your legs to turn over faster. When I was 30 years old, I flirted briefly with race-walking. I went so far as to attend a clinic held by a member of the US Olympic team. One of the drills was to try walking without moving your arms. We tried and tried, but nobody could do it. That was the point. When you move one leg forward, you move the arm on the same side backward. You have to do that to maintain your balance. Picture a toddler taking his or her first steps. They’re wobbly, because they’re still learning how to keep their balance while moving forward. Before long, it becomes second nature. You can’t not do it.
Then she taught us a mental trick. Sometimes, the easiest way to move your legs faster is to focus instead on moving your arms faster. If your arms move faster, your legs will move faster too. You can’t not do it. That’s the mental trick that enabled me to walk a mile in 8:43 and 5K in 29:38 with only three months of training. I could walk fast, but I had a vicious arm swing.
I had three choices. First, I could rotate my pelvis, knowing it would cause some rotation in the lowest part of my back. Second, I could have a vigorous arm swing, knowing it would cause rotation of my upper back. Finally, I could do neither, which would limit me to walking no faster than 15:00 per mile. I could live with that, but that in turn would probably make it impossible for me to ignore the blister pain. Then I’d be limited to a pace of 20:00 per mile or slower for a really long time. Given those choices, I opted for a small amount of movement in my lower back.
I was again doing multiple loops of a route through our neighborhood. I started at a pace that was noticeably faster than my last “long walk.” I was going noticeably faster than 14:00 per mile. That effort proved to be unsustainable. I slowed down a bit in the second half, but still managed an average pace of 13:50.
The Helsinki City Marathon has a time limit of six hours. That’s an average of 13:44 per mile. I’m already getting close, and that race is still five weeks away.
After my walk on Friday, the blisters on my heels were worse. Going forward, that may be my biggest obstacle. Today was another easy day. I’m not sure if I can do another long walk tomorrow. I have to figure out how to cope with the blisters.
Why am I pushing so hard to walk farther? Why am I pushing so hard to walk faster?
Running marathons is my whole life. It’s who I am. It’s what I am. When I was told I couldn’t run for 12 weeks, it just about killed me. I’m clinging to walking as a substitute.
I knew I couldn’t run the Bighorn Trail 100. That was my most important race of the year, but I accepted that. I knew I had to cancel the Firecracker Quadzilla. I love those races, but I accepted that. The Prairie Series doesn’t have time limits. That means those races are walkable. Ideally, I’d like to walk at least one of those marathons. I’ve willing to settle for walking one of the half marathons.
Looking farther out, I’m scheduled to fly to Europe in August to do the Helsinki City Marathon in Finland and the Solidarity Marathon in Poland. The Helsinki City Marathon has a time limit of six hours. That’s possible, but it will take some work. The Solidarity Marathon has a time limit of five and a half hours. That’s a real stretch. Ideally, I’d like to walk them both. I’d settle for walking one of them.
I’m scheduled to do the Moose Mountain Marathon in early September. By then, I should be able to run again, but I won’t have any training. It’s a rugged trail marathon that might be as difficult as any marathon I’ve done. I won’t be in shape to run it, and it’s not a race I can walk. Even if I could, it probably wouldn’t be wise. For the time being, I shouldn’t do anything that rugged. I can accept that.
I have another marathon scheduled in late September and two more in October. I won’t be in shape to run the whole way, but if I’m in shape to walk a marathon, it wouldn’t take much running to be able to beat the time limits. Do you see why the walking is so important to me?