Sunday, November 30, 2008

It's Supposed to Hurt

“It is always by way of pain that one arrives at pleasure.” - the Marquis De Sade

What better way to describe long distance running? The reason we push ourselves. The justification for engaging in the sport in the first place. No, not to intentionally get hurt running. That’s an unfortunate side effect most likely to occur when you’re over reaching a goal, or not running smart. But to find the point when running begins to hurt, and how you handle that pain.

I’m not speaking of the general discomfort most people would associate with running for exercise, or even for health or fitness. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that approach, but I’ve never known an “exerciser” to run more than a few miles. A 5k or 10k at best. I’m talking about a half marathon minimum, or of course a full 26.2 miles. Something happens out there. You’re testing yourself. Your limits. Your spirit. And the reward is proportional to the sacrifice.

It’s supposed to hurt. It’s a marathon. The intent is to get you to run further than your body will want to run. How you engage in the physiological war that your body wages is entirely up to you. You can always stop. Take walk breaks. Or even drop out all together. But for those who choose to stay and fight, subjecting themselves to the pain, pushing through every mile, and eventually every step, the accomplishment of completing the race is all yours. The feeling of making a commitment to yourself and keeping it. Honoring yourself.

So enjoy your pain. Define your limits. What better why to get acquainted with your true character?

What an Ass

Almost three months to the day after incurring a stress fractured tibia I was about to make my second attempt to run. My first endeavor two days earlier ended in a complete disaster as I ran, jogged, walked and almost crawled my way back from what should have been an easy five miler. Apparently my diligent efforts to cross train failed to keep me conditioned, or more accurately failed to keep me conditioned for running. The fact that I can swim a thirty-six minute mile was inconsequential when my running shoes are laced up and I am unable to complete a routine five miler.

Today I felt a little better out of the gate. I set out on my run a little more cautiously, lowering the bar slightly. Instead of trying to determine how much conditioning I had lost, my goal simply became to finish the run sans walk breaks. A very modest goal for someone who runs twenty-five miles a week consistently when healthy, but I admit, I was seriously rattled by my first attempt.

The reduced pace made this the type of run I would have been bored with pre-injury, but much like during a marathon I was intentionally holding on to precious strength from my very first steps. Immediately I noticed my legs felt fresher than when I ran regularly, with the exception of a subtle twinge where my fracture had been. Just past the first mile mark I began to feel more optimistic. In the past I’d learned not to evaluate a run prior to running, or even within the first few miles. They often felt bad. Sometimes they felt really bad. There were times when I had contemplated writing the whole thing off as “not my day” initially only to tough out a mile or two and then go on to set my own course record for that route. On those days in spite of my perceived high effort level at what felt like an excruciating slow pace, to my surprise the finish time was lower than expected.

As I got further along in the run and deeper into thought I was starting to feel the noose loosen, releasing me from the feeling of hating every step. “Hating” might be a little strong, yet “not enjoying” seems inadequate. I have never been able to incorporate a mantra into a training run for more than a few minutes as I’m normally unable to keep my mind focused on a single thought or theme amidst so much stimulation, from both my environment and from within. I found myself subconsciously repeating “just get through the run” in my head when I was distracted by the sound of an approaching automobile from behind me, causing my train of thought to shift and I lost my focus as it approached on the isolated stretch of road.

Out of my peripheral vision I see the car as it slows down beside me. A red flag for most runners. Definitely a significant enough distraction to cause me to lose focus on my "get through the run" mantra. Typically it is just someone new to the overwhelming metropolis known as Los Angeles slowing to ask for directions, but on occasion the intent turns out to be a little more devious. In fact during my three years of road running in the city I’ve been approached by prostitutes, both male and female, inadvertently interrupted drug deals, and I’ve been chased and bitten my more dogs than most postal carriers. Any slowing car warrants my immediate and full attention.
Anything less would be irresponsible on my part.

A quick glance over my shoulder and I realize it’s not just a car, it’s a police car. I breathe a sigh of relief. I’m immediately thankful because I’m not sure I have the energy to deal with any serious situations today. Nonchalantly I look behind me to see if some homicidal maniac is in the vicinity only to find I’m all alone on my favorite work route along the train tracks, with the sole exception of the police car.

“What are you doing?” is yelled through the speaker system on the vehicle. Now I’m convinced someone I didn’t notice is nearby, perhaps a homeless person doing god knows what on the train tracks. Obviously someone was doing something they shouldn’t be doing, but who? So I continue plodding along, ignoring the officer. I figure it’s better to just mind my own business at this point and not interfere. Automatically my pace increases due to adrenaline, not a conscious decision, as I attempt to put some distance between me and this potential situation.

Abruptly the car speeds ahead of me before coming to a complete stop and this time the officer yells “What do you think you’re doing?” while looking directly at me. What do you think you’re doing is a completely different question to someone that holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. I thought I was improving my fitness, although given the level of effort I was putting into what was essentially a recovery run, even that was debatable. Confused, I stopped running and walked toward the patrol car to see if maybe I can be of assistance.

“What are you doing?” he repeats for the third time, although he did not use the audio system this time, instead opting to bark at me through the open passenger window. Not intending to be a wise ass I replied “uh, running?” as I struggled to catch my breath. I’m thinking “is this some sort of trick question?” I mean isn’t it fairly obvious? I’m wearing running shoes, shorts and a tee shirt. I must be missing something here. Obviously he’s not a detective, this much is obvious, but even a street cop should recognize an honest attempt at fitness. He didn’t respond verbally and his glare intensified. Wrong answer, I could tell. In an attempt to diffuse his mounting frustration I offer “I guess I don’t understand your question.” Again maybe that’s not what he wanted to hear, but it was absolutely true.

“Can’t you see the sign?” he continues, managing to sound both aggressive and condescending at the same time. Quickly I glance up. I had run this route more times than I can recall, and yet I’ve never noticed a sign prohibiting running. The closest sign to us is a street sign.

“San Fernando?” I reply with a compliant tone and confused look on my face.

“No, the other sign” he snaps back. Apparently he felt I was toying with him or just playing stupid. So now I play along and look up again. There are only two signs directly visible; the aforementioned street sign and a speed limit sign. Sure on a good day I might actually exceed a 15 mph speed limit, but that would of course be during short intervals while running downhill with a tailwind. This definitely wasn’t the case today. Besides the posted speed limit was 45 mph. He must mean something other than the street sign and the speed limit sign, but what?

I responded apologetically “I’m sorry, but I don’t see it.” My only other option was to say “45 mph”, but I’m afraid at this time that answer might be misinterpreted and I will be beaten down and probably left for dead. Sadly in my weakened post injury state of conditioning I knew I was probably too tired to out run him. I decide I had better hold off on the genuine wise crack.

“Up by the tracks” he exclaims, this time nodding his head in the general direction of the train tracks. So I move a few feet toward the street to get closer to his vantage point and look in the direction he appeared to nod. There it was:


It’s written in bold red letters on a sign with a black and white image of a figure crossing the train tracks. Why had I never noticed this sign before I wondered? I guess I’m normally too concerned with my footing along the rocks that often accompany the tracks, and the unstable terrain to look up and read the nearby road signs.

“There’s no running here!” he barks, obviously angry for some reason in spite of my compliance.

“I’ve never noticed that sign” I reply. Whether he believed me or not, I have no idea. “So I can’t run here, anywhere?” I’m at least 30 feet away from the train tracks. I’m astounded that I’ve traveled down this trail so many times without incident that this entire side of the road is off limits.

He reluctantly concedes “just stay close to the road” in a tone consistent with the entire dialog, as if I had angered him by intentionally doing something wrong. He gives me one last look of disgust and then begins to drive away.

Slowly I begin to make my way again, this time staying within a few feet of the road. The terrain is much rockier near the road, and there are no level areas that are easy to follow. As I continue balancing on the uneven terrain and jumping between rocks and stones I begin to notice that the sensation I previously felt in my tibia was gone. I no longer felt short of breath like I did prior to being lectured by the officer. In fact, I began to feel as if I could start running instead of jogging. As I continue to run my mind is replaying the incident, and with each stride I get more angry.

What was he trying to prove? Badgering someone who obviously had no criminal intent in an area with more than a fair share of those who, shall I say not so morally minded, makes no sense. It was like a good cop/bad cop scene in a movie minus the good cop. As I effortlessly approach the four mile mark I realize I’ve covered more ground than I was aware of and was using a mantra effectively for the first time. Although it wasn’t encouraging me to continue, as I had intended earlier, but it was powerful enough to over shadow any further distractions.

As I accelerated my last half mile to complete my five mile run, and more significantly my second run after nearly three months off, all the thoughts of my injury and my failed attempt to maintain my conditioning via cross training become the furthest thing from my mind. Instead a single phrase seemed to stick with me the entire last three miles, and even stayed with me post run.

“What an ass” officially became my first running mantra.

Rose Colored Race Glasses

Something that I still struggle to understand is the why most marathon training plans are expected to work? I’ve followed a couple of different plans only to come up short of my goal on race day. Typically they propose running various types of runs, each run with a different purpose, and incorporating a long run once a week with the focus on time rather than tempo. I understand the intent and potential benefits of the shorter, faster runs. That seems fairly obvious. However, the goal of the long slow run is where the running water starts to get a little murky.

Regarding the long training run, the vast majority of information that I’ve found supports the same conclusion. Training for more than three hours is not advisable. Some studies even suggest that training in excess of three hours is detrimental to your conditioning. You get beyond the point of making any gains and actually start doing harm. So my question is this: if you can’t finish a marathon in three hours, and you don’t do any training runs lasting more than three hours, how exactly does one make the leap from three hours to finishing the remaining miles to complete a marathon?

I’ve followed a plan that included a twenty two mile long distance run, another that never went further than twenty miles. In both plans the longest of the training runs beat me up pretty good. I remember completing both runs and felling very glad I didn’t have to run one more mile. From that point the long runs begin to taper off through race day. Are we just hoping that the race gods will smile on us that day? Or are the people creating the marathon training plans simply wearing rose colored race glasses?

Is there something to training faster than you anticipate running in the race that will carry you through the last miles? Maybe. But how a tempo run at one minute faster than race pace for five or six miles equates to a holding slower pace for twenty six miles is beyond me. The hill repeats or interval runs, while exceptionally grueling if done right, push your conditioning and your fortitude to the limits yet somehow seem insignificant when running more than ten miles at any pace.

I have yet to follow a training plan that specifically talks about fuel during long runs. Perhaps it’s one of those subjects that is so unique to each individual runner that there is little if any common ground, and as such it is ignored. Besides, I train without any food or water on all runs. I have never exceed twenty two miles outside of a race, so I’m wondering does the additional few miles actually warrant some form of race fuel? I don’t yet have that answer.

One thing I have learned, albeit not from reading any literature is that I don’t want to attempt anything in a race that I have not done in practice. Forget about the race gods smiling on me that day, or other romantic notions that some runners seems to hold dear. Before my next marathon I will run twenty six miles more than once while training. I will absolutely test my long distance limits, mentally and physically, without an audience and competition of the race. I will build upon each previous attempt until I am comfortable with the distance. The confidence I develop on my pre race training marathons will get me through the last few miles in the race regardless of the race conditions. And if all things go well on that particular day, perhaps I’ll be wearing the rose colored race glasses as I cross the finish line.

Running in the Rain

I would speculate that most runners have an aversion to running in the rain. Perhaps that is an understatement; most of us have an aversion to being in the rain. In spite of popular opinion I have learned to accept the fact that inevitably it will rain on days I need to run. As such I’ve come to terms with it, and even learned to find it comforting. Especially on a long run. I transform the rain mentally into my own personal cooling system which I can then use to my advantage during a race. At least this was my intention this February when I ran an entire ½ marathon while it rained from the start line to the finish.

In spite of the alarm rousing me at an ungodly hour in order to allow sufficient time to get down to the race, find parking, and shuttle to the start line, I felt energized when I awoke. The race was almost local, only about 60 miles from home. The shoreline course would be a pleasant change of scenery from the local desert mountains that I had come accustom to over countless miles laced up throughout the years. As such I was looking forward to it. Instead of the usual bargaining with myself for an additional ten minutes of sleep on the days when my motivation to get somewhere is, shall I say, less enticing, I immediately got out of bed and started preparing for the race.

The mandatory pre-race expo the day before had proved to be worthwhile, in spite of the brutal LA weekend mid day traffic. Typical of most of my previous decisions to sign up for a race, I had managed to encourage a friend to sign up along with me using a delicate balance of compassion and baiting. Subtle encouragement such as “You can do it” eventually gave way to challenging his ego with “Dude, I’m an old man and I can do it.” The advantages are obvious. Someone to train with, someone to travel with, and someone to celebrate with in the post run beer garden as we recap our performance sharing our sense of accomplishment.

We quickly picked up our bibs and chips before deciding such a perfect day at the ocean should not be entirely ignored. We wandered a few hundred yards to the shoreline and sat on the sand while pondering the vastness of the ocean. Okay, I was pondering. I’m not exactly sure what his thoughts were because men don’t typically discuss their inner dialog. I cannot say with any degree of certainty if the ocean had the same effect of my friend, or whether or not it has a similar affect on most people. A simple yet undeniable reminder of how seemingly insignificant we are in comparison to something so eternal. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The temperature was mid 70’s. You could not have asked for a nicer, more picturesque day to be sitting in the sand, just beyond the break.

When we reluctantly departed I anticipated that tomorrow would be ideal for racing. The weather report was calling for rain on race day, yet as we had just sat on the beach captivated by the picture perfect climate, it seemed as if they were dead wrong yet again. In defense of those who try to forecast the weather predicting the rain seems about as accurate as predicting how I’ll do in a race. There are far too many variables to really know what will happen. Past experience or previous patterns are no guarantee of future performance. "Why can’t I be that inaccurate at my job" I wondered on the seemingly endless drive home?

So here it was race day morning as I began shuffling after my feet found the floor toward the bathroom. My race day enthuasiasm was not curbed by the high mileage shuffle I'd become so familar with over the last few years. Personally I accept the theory that our recovery occurs while we rest, mainly during sleep, and that's when runners actually make their gains. We don't beomce better runners while running. But the process is still an aquired taste. While the muscles regroup and repair they tend to tighten up often times making those first few steps an ordeal, and a not so subtle reminder of our recent running efforts.

A couple of times during the night I had thought I heard rain, but I wasn’t quite sure. California rain isn’t real rain, at least not in comparison to most places in the world. It’s a form of mild precipitation from overcast skies that never seems to commit to the idea of really raining. Intermittent at best, sporadic at times, but never heavy rain. Real rain. Just trickles here and there in a feeble attempt at rain amounting to an occasional break from the otherwise clear blue sky.

At first glance out the patio door things appeared bleak. Although still pre-dawn it was hard to be sure. As I continued shuffling along to the bathroom I began wondering if perhaps the weather forecast wasn’t actually correct? I suppose it is bound to happen sometime. I managed to inhale a quick bowl of cereal before receiving a text message announcing my race partner's arrival and we were off. Out into the elements with racing gear concealed by sweat pants and a rain proof jacket.

On the freeway we encountered a few rare moments of real rain. At times the rain came down hard enough to make driving difficult. Fortunately the one time you can count on little or no traffic in LA is early morning weekends. We were able to travel at seventy plus miles an hour, in spite of the less than favorable conditions. The sudden rush of adrenalin from our briefs stints of hydroplaning livened up the drive and kept me bright eyed in spite of the fact that left to my own devises I would still be in bed.

As we approached the designated parking lot I realized that traveling sixty miles definitely made us non-locals. If we had any real knowledge of the surface streets we would have avoided the last two miles, which took almost twenty minutes to travel. The anticipation of the race was kicking in as we both got a little giddy, commenting how the rain “didn’t look all that bad.” That nonsense quickly ended when one of us would roll down the window and put an arm out to gauge the rainfall. Not only would other person yell to roll up the window immediately because of the cold air coming into the car, but the rain drops stung your hand as they landed hard, causing you to withdraw your hand suddenly to avoid the sensation of what one could only imagine to be equivalent to acupuncture. Windy and cold I thought, as I sank into the passenger seat feeling somewhat discouraged.

After the usual pleasantries associated with race day parking and a quick stop at the race course rest rooms we decided to forego the shuttle and walk to the start line. Waiting for the shuttle in the rain was less appealing than walking in it, and we were in agreement. As we set out on foot, donned now only in our race attire, we avoided puddles in the parking lot trying to postpone a race day soaker for as long as possible. Quickly the cold wind took a toll on our uncovered legs, causing me to shiver.

Once we were in the corral people huddled together hoping to form a wind break from the painful Artic breeze coming in off the ocean. Instead of the usual pre-race antics that often include stretching, jogging in place, jumping up and down, and flailing about in general attempting to loosen up, most of us stood sedentary and soggy, already feeling somewhat defeated. Prior to the sound of the starting gun we were literally soaked from head to toe. I could not have been more wet if I had jumped off the pier...

Running in the Rain Prt II

I told my partner to “run your race” acknowledging that I’ll see him at the finish line. The gesture meant nothing more than to run how you want to run, not how I run, knowing that he hadn’t put in enough training hours to keep up with me. Being much younger and notably faster when he trained regularly, I knew The Kid would have a hard time letting me go ahead of him when his conditioning, or lack of conditioning, got the best of him. We all have our egos, no matter how close the friendship. In fact, I might even argue that being closer friends makes us that much more competitive. But eventually, barring a miracle from the running gods, he would have to let me go.

Earlier in the year I formally identified my goals for the year. They were as straightforward as I could be: a 1:50 half marathon, a 1:40 half marathon and a 1:30 half marathon. Rather lofty goals for someone who had never raced a half, but they seemed reasonable to me. I wasn’t yet a fast runner, but I believed that with more consistent effort this year and more intelligent training maybe I could become one.

So here it was early February, and I was about to wage war on my first goal: the 1:50. This was to be my first formal attempt to race a half marathon. Why not attempt a 1:50 I thought as I test the water? In spite of the unfavorable conditions, it still felt reasonable.

As we set off racing I intentionally held back the pace, allowing many runners to pass. This is admittedly one of the most difficult aspects of any race, letting people go up front. I’d learned from my race experience though that it pays huge dividends later in the race when it’s a lot more meaningful to be able to pass people because you have some fuel left in the tank. So I console myself with the thought “I’ll see you again” as what felt like the majority of the runners in the race made their way around me. My first mile was a very casual 8:45 pace.

I noticed about this time that my breathing wasn’t regulated yet. I hadn’t been laboring heavily enough to create a pattern that naturally gets in sync with my stride. My usual one inhale to two strides, one exhale to two strides wasn’t yet necessary. This felt more like a casual long, slow distance weekend run, or dare I say jog. Again forcing myself to listen to my inner common sense and not my race ego I decided to keep at the casual pace and see how things unfold during the race.

The Kid managed to tag along during the first few miles. In spite of his labored breathing he was actually hanging tough, always on my left or right but seldom behind me.

I realized that being completely soaked was somewhat liberating. You lose the fear of getting wet. And once your feet are soaked you no longer need to avoid the puddles. As far as wetness was concerned, there was nothing left to lose.

The wind had seemingly subsided as the racecourse turned away from the ocean. I no longer felt the sting of the droplets of rain against the few areas of exposed skin, mainly on my face. Or perhaps the wind was now at our backs, but I could not really be sure. Either way it was no longer a factor that contributed to making us miserable. The cold was sufficient. My toes began feeling numb around mile six. I imagined it was from the cold, and not fatigue. I had found my regulated breathing pattern somewhere past mile five.

As we made a turn at mile marker eight onto the final straight away, I realized we had five miles to go. A clear shot along the Pacific Coast highway to the finish line. No more turning and weaving through neighborhoods, wondering which way to turn as we approached an intersection. As I checked the time I realized that my pace wasn’t going to suffice if I were to make my 1:50 goal on my first race. I wished my partner well and congratulated him on running eight miles with me in ungodly conditions, and told him I was surprised he held it together this far in lieu of any real training. But it was time for me to go.As we made the turn to head back toward the starting point I realized what had happened with the wind. It hadn’t died down, but apparently it had been at our back. How come we don’t notice the wind when it’s at your back, yet there’s no denying it when it’s in your face? The rain drops once again felt like they were creating tiny piercings on my face as they landed yet somehow I managed to put the pedal down. Still locked into a fairly packed crowd I noticed The Kid was gone from sight within ½ a mile.

Running a 1:50 half marathon requires an 8:23 average pace per mile. My pace to this point had been consistent with my first mile, about 8:45. I needed to come up with some quicker miles, and I needed to do it now. As I headed into the wind, feet completely numb, water covering my glasses so heavily that it was difficult to see, I began pushing myself faster all the while thinking how much this sucks. It sucked that the day before was picture perfect. It sucked that I managed to run a smart race and set my self up for negative splits, or a faster per mile average pace on the later miles of the race, and now it was questionable how much longer I could run in general.

But mostly it sucked because I was making it suck thinking about how miserable I was. And then it hit me. This sucks for everyone. It has to. It was that simple. No one was enjoying themselve. No one was smiling or laughing, or even chatting at this point. Everyone was plodding along, head down to avoid the sting of the rain in your eyes, and avoiding puddles out of habit, not necessity. What would it matter at this point, our feet were completely soaked.

I continued making my move. I removed my glasses to clean them off and restore some sense of visibility, only to be immediately blinded by the raindrops as they stung my face and eyes. Running with them on was going to have to work.

“You call this rain?” I thought as I looked up and laughed to myself. This isn’t rain. This was just an inconvenience.

I managed a 7:50 pace on the ninth mile. Better, but not enough to get me in sub 1:50. So I continued to put the pedal down, extending my stride as much as possible. My clothes felt as if they weighed 20 lbs and the numbness of my feet was extending to my legs. Must be the cold I thought as I continued pushing forward.

“You call this cold?” I declared as I chuckled inside for another mile, trying to be as relentless as possible with my pace. Ironically in spite of the miserably cold conditions, I was getting really hot during my increased effort.

Then with only three miles to go I was hitting a low. A real low. Not an imaginary feel-sorry-for-myself low, but an actual running-out-of-steam low. I remembered reading somewhere that the feeling of fatigue originates in our mind, not our body. Quickly I summoned “You call this tired?” as I smirked again for a few paces, attempting to talk myself into not yielding on the final few miles.

I’d noticed from the moment I said goodbye to The Kid, I had not been passed by another runner. In fact it was at that mile I noticeably began passing other runners. The same people I had to let go up front thinking I’d see again was true. And now was exactly how I’d want to see them, laboring and out of steam as I passed them. If anyone attempted to pass me during my five mile surge, I used them as my pace car. I thought “if they can do this, so can I” as I got on their heels and decided the rest of the race would be a war that is won with a series of battles. And I continued digging in.

Finally with one mile to go I was unaware of my time relative to my goal. I was too tired, and distracted trying to overcome the negative thoughts in my mind to do any further math in my head. I was pacing with another guy about my age for over a mile after he attempted to pass me when he began to pull away. “It’s over” I thought as I tried but couldn’t respond. Chalk this one up to bad conditions. I could no longer keep this pace. He started losing me as he made his way around others still pushing forward at an accelerated pace.

This was the ultimate low. The worst point in the race. Less than a mile to go, by my last estimate my goal was within reach, and yet I didn’t have the strength to keep hustling out the final mile. I thought “hey a five mile move after running eight miles is pretty impressive.” Yet I didn’t feel better. I had no concept how far I had to go. I didn’t pay any attention to my split time, or my per mile average pace, at mile twelve. It seemed like I had been running this mile forever. Honestly I had no idea if I was even half way through mile twelve.

Then I saw it. "FINISH" in large letters waving in the wind on the banner over the middle of the street. Instantly my spirits were lifted. The crowd was small due to the ghastly conditions, which would explain why I didn’t hear it coming. Usually the crowd noise gives a runner some indication they are approaching the line. But there it was. Without a conscious decision my turnover increased. My stride instantly extended to a six minute mile pace and I was off. I no longer cared about my goal time. Or the race in general. I just wanted it to be over. To stop pushing myself, without guilt.

The next thing I know I’m almost full sprint passing people right and left. The guy I had to let go ahead of me earlier hollered “nice move” as I blazed past him, as he was unable to respond. I bound across the finish line, grabbed a medal and had my chip cut off my shoe before I realized the race was over. I went to stand along the finish line and await The Kid before I realized I never stopped my watch. But it no longer mattered. Whatever the time was I was satisfied with my performance under those circumstances on that specific race.

Later as we huddled under a tent to attempt to enjoy a well earned post race beer my hands were so cold I could hardly hang on to the cup to hoist it to my mouth. Out of a sense of entitlement we knocked back a single beer, while in complete misery. Even free beer wasn’t going to make this situation any better. So we agreed to begin our pilgrimage back to the car. The only question now was, should we start walking or wait for the shuttle?