Sunday, November 30, 2008

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.

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