You might think we are given the amount of time we spend dealing with our various aches, pains, and overuse injuries. This season I’m dealing with a flare up of plantar fasciitis that I originally struggled with many years ago walking the 3-day walk for breast cancer. P-F wont kill you, but it sure makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning. (And getting out of bed has been hard enough as it is lately with the return of stupid daylight savings time.)
What causes P-F? Well, running for long periods of time on hard surfaces (check). Also being overweight (check…). I find that one particularly frustrating. I am running so I can be less overweight and this thing I’m doing to be healthier is actually negatively impacted by being overweight. I have no one to blame for the weight problem but myself, but it still feels slightly unfair now that I’m trying to do better. I am doing any manner of the things recommended for treating plantar fasciitis except the one thing that would probably help the most – stopping running. I don’t think runners so much like pain, but we sure do love running and we’re willing to put up with a lot of discomfort in order to keep going. I am happy to report that some of my measures are starting to show results (so you can stop worrying now, parental-type readers), but it’s likely to be an issue I’ll have to attend to throughout the season.
A co-worked asked me this morning if I got snowed on while running this past Saturday. It was cold, it rained some, snowed a little, and the trail was covered in puddles. By the time I got done with my run my shoes and my legs were coated with mud. It’s the kind of weather that chills you to the bone and I’m not going to lie it’s a little bit miserable at the get-go, and maybe at the middle bit, and definitely after the end when you are standing around, but for that part where your muscles are warmed up and you aren’t cold anymore and you are running down a dirt trail through the woods, literally nothing beats it. There are two times when I love running more than just about anything else – when I’m in that zone where the world melts away, and the moment your feet step across the finish line of a race. When I close my eyes and think about the satisfaction and pure joy I will get from finishing the half-marathon in June, plantar fasciitis is the equivalent of getting a paper cut while reading your favorite book. Painful and annoying, but hardly worth throwing the book away. So, runners are not masochists and we don’t love pain. We’re much more like addicts, jonesing for our next finisher’s medal or runner’s high, and willing to stop at little to get it.
Tonight I carpooled to practice with a fellow Team in Training participant. As we inched onto the road to take us to Green Lake, traffic got slower and slower until we came to almost a dead standstill. Then we saw the sirens and lights, which pretty much guaranteed we were going to be late. As we sat there in the car, the weather got worse and worse. It started to rain, and then rain harder, and then a light snow started splattering the windshield. My car mate looked at me and said, “I am not running in that weather.” I tried to make light of it by saying the temperature wasn’t all that cold outside and given the traffic it might be gone by the time we got to practice anyway. But she would have none of it and said these conditions simply were not working for her. (She told me later that it was probably for the best that I was driving as she would have turned the car right on around and headed for home.) I told her that I hoped it would clear up as I wanted to get our run in whatever the weather or whether we were profoundly late (which was quickly becoming a certainty). We got the car parked and found the rest of the team doing laps on one of the hills and were given instructions to do some warm-up and then hit the hill. As we started out, the snow and wind was blowing directly into our faces and I thought my partner was going to pack it in right then and there, but she was a trooper and soldiered ahead.
Running hills is actually one of my favorite phases of the training season. It’s not that I’m any good at it. I huff and puff my way up and generally my face turns red from the effort. And we slow-pokes do not go any faster on the hills, so my usual slow jog becomes a true slog of snail-like proportions. But I am the little engine that could and snail speed or not, I chug my way up the hill each lap. I get supreme satisfaction from reaching the top of the hill and the steeper the hills become, the greater the satisfaction. Plus at the end of a hill-laced run I physically feel great. My blood is pumping, my legs feel strong – I am the queen of the universe. It’s also hard to be cold when you are expending so much energy. So, sitting there in the car on the way to practice, I was anxious to get there and excited to get started. It’s even ever so slightly possible that I was jabbering on and on (and on…) about how great it was as we inched our way there.
After we got warmed up and knocked the hills out, we walked back to the car and compared notes about how the run was for each of us, weather not withstanding. I mentioned that this was a cold run, but hardly the worst weather I had seen compared to other seasons or even to one of my personal runs this season (along the waterfront when the skies opened up and dumped literally buckets of water on me). She commented that she had never trained for a race before (of any length). She always ran just for fun or exercise, so if the weather was bad there was nothing pushing her to go anyway. Her experience with Team in Training was the first time she had to force herself to go run when any sane person would stay put. I had completely forgotten what it was like to do this for the first time. I was so used to putting up with any manner of crazy conditions and situations that I already knew tonight would not be so bad. I wanted to slap my hand to my forehead for being so dense. As usual, I made the classic mistake of assuming anyone else would have the same expectations or experiences that I have had. It’s easy to go run in the wet spring snow when you already know what it’s like. Far more impressive to get out there and run in those conditions when you have no idea how cold it will be, whether you have dressed warmly enough, whether you can get up hills you have never run before. So kudos to her on this dark and dreary night for running anyway.
Team in Training asks that we do not wear headphones during our training runs. A lot of folks find it difficult, if not impossible, to run without some kind of musical distraction. Fortunately, I have always run without headphones or music, so it’s not a problem for me. Although I definitely wear them on the treadmill (treadmills are of the devil and music or TV is the only thing that makes them remotely tolerable), I find that wearing headphones when running outside leaves me too disconnected from what’s going on around me. And when I run along the waterfront from my office in downtown Seattle, there are too many countless opportunities to be mowed down to not be fully aware of my surroundings. Methods of potential maiming include; trains, cars, buses, cyclists, pedicabs, segways (it is Seattle), skateboards, roller blades, and perhaps the most dangerous of all – TOURISTS and COMMUTERS.
That being said, I do run the risk of getting a little bored if I don’t have some sort of mental activity to keep my brain stimulated as my body slogs along. Way back when I first started running, I used to sing to myself as I went up the one long, steep hill in our neighborhood. Unfortunately, the only song I know all the words by heart is the 12 Days of Christmas. But on the upside I did find I could track my progress by the number of “days” it took me to get up the hill.
For the course from my office, I created a little narrative to carry me down the waterfront. From the gym, I head out to the parking lot at Pier 48, there I pick up my theoretical car and take it with me down to the Ferry Terminal, where I send it across the Puget Sound. Then I decide I am theoretically hungry so I run to Ivars Acres of Clams for a little make-believe snack. From there I decide I should go check out the Seattle Aquarium and I run down there. After cruising the aquarium, I think I might like to have a party. A huge party that will take an entire PIER to hold everyone. So I run on down to Pier 62/63 to check that out. Then I think my party will probably want more adventure, so I head over to the Cruise Ship Terminal. But then I think I’m getting tired of all that partying and decide to run to the Edgewater Hotel to see about a nap. At that I point I think to myself, “hey, I have a day job, I better get on back” and I turn around.
The return trip has a little bit of a different bent. My mind returns to that classic animated Sesame Street episode where the kid gets lost on his bike. If you haven’t seen it, this bizarro character (seriously, someone over at the Children’s Television Network had to be taking some serious drugs when they made that thing) tells him to remember all the landmarks he passed along the way and just go through them backwards to find his way home. So, I replay all the landmarks I passed on the way in reverse and suddenly I’m back at the gym and the run is done.
I suppose that’s a goofy way to get through a run and I probably risk revealing too much of my inner weirdness by sharing this, but surely I’m not the first or only person in the history of running to employ some unorthodox practices to get them through their runs…
I found this Dr. Seuss quote that seems to better justify my techniques…
“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living; it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.”
My training schedule calls for two “rest” days a week, on Mondays and Fridays. On these days we are supposed to limit the time on our feet, which means no cross training, no nothing. Relax, enjoy life; you know, rest. I am pretty faithful to keeping my Monday nights clear, but I’m lucky if I have even a fifty-fifty success rate for resting on Fridays. I get so busy, I can never seem to get all my runs in on the other five days. Which is not to say I inadvertently rested on a Wednesday, instead of on a Friday, but rather that I ran with the team on Tuesday, worked out with my trainer on Wednesday, walked two-plus miles home from work on Thursday, and all the sudden I’m out of days and I need to get one more run in for the week. There is something fundamentally messed up at being too busy to make time to do nothing.
I intellectually know that resting is an extremely important part of training (per the Team in Training guidelines, “Recovery days are mandatory!”). When we stop to rest, we let our bodies heal and are just that much stronger for it. I can think of countless times when the run after a rest day is particularly good. That should be evidence enough that it’s a good idea. But I think there is a the nagging feeling that chases many runners that if you stop and rest you wont start again. After all Sir Isaac Newton even came up with a LAW regarding being at rest:
A body that is at rest will stay at rest ~Newton’s First law of motion
But, then again, the guy came up with the theory of gravity laying around watching apples fall on his head, so I’m guessing he was not much of a distance runner.
Our bodies are actually very ingenious at getting what they need and they will take a rest day (or two, or ten) for you if you don’t take them proactively. Don’t take time off your feet and you are more likely to get sick (there goes three days of training). Ignore the need for healing and you are more likely to get injured (there goes three weeks of training). I would know, I’ve experienced both.
The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it. ~Sydney J. Harris
So, this season I’m working hard at taking my rest and relaxation seriously. My Mondays are, in fact, sacred, so I can count on getting at least one rest day each week. I have also reminded myself that nothing bad happens if you only run four days one week. And stopping to take a break now and then is not just good for running. How many times have any of us been banging our head against the wall trying to solve a problem and when we finally let go of forcing ideas, the solution presents itself to us as is by magic.
Don’t just do something, sit there. ~Buddhist Quote
I was walking home from the local grocery store a few years ago which included walking up a short, but steep, hill. A woman was about half a block ahead of me with two extremely full grocery sacks. It was obvious that her arms were heavy as she hauled them up the hill. About two-thirds of the way up she stopped in her tracks. I thought, naturally, it was because the bags were heavy, but she did not even set them down. Instead, she leaned over, planted her nose in a rose that was in full bloom along the sidewalk and took a huge deep breath and then went on along her way. You could have hit me over the head with a frying pan I was so shocked to see a real person actually stop and smell the roses. But the truth is if you don’t stop once in awhile and take in a big, deep breath, you will miss all the flowers.
Every Saturday we start our practices with a “mission moment” in which we hear stories about how blood cancer has touched the lives of those we are raising funds for and their families. Each season I go into the practices thinking that I will not be as impacted as I was the first year, and somehow I end up being more affected than the year before. There are the stories of survivors, memories of those who fought valiantly but ultimately succumbed, and hope for those still in the midst of their personal battle. Blood cancer doesn’t seem to discriminate based on age or gender and strikes children and grandmothers alike. For some reason, the stories that are the hardest for me to hear are those about the very little boys who are afflicted. This Saturday we heard the story of Joseph Boyle who was diagnosed when we was 2 and left this world for a better place when he was just 5 years old. Yesterday would have been his 21st birthday.We were all given laminated pictures attached to safety pins to wear on our run.
Standing in the cold and rain at 8am on a Saturday morning, it was honestly a little tough for me to totally absorb this little boy’s story. I was moved and saddened, but also distracted by the thought of running in the rain. And it was a rough start. My feet were like lead blocks that I struggled to lift with each step. Everything was stiff and I felt like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz in desperate need of an oil can. It was only a 40 minute run and I slogged and dragged my sorry self every step of the 20 minutes out.
But then I turned around and something happened. My legs warmed up, my joints loosened up, and I began to relax into the second half of the run. It was at this point that I started think of Joseph Boyle. What kind of fucked up cancer takes 5 year old little boys from this world?? What must his parents have gone through – so excited to have him join their family, only to have him taken away so soon. And it was not an easy life, considering his final years were spent with doctors and in hospitals. I started to get mad and the madder I got the faster I ran. Every footstep became my personal rage against this injustice.
Blood cancer – you are a ruthless, evil disease, and you don’t play fair. You are a thief and a cheat. I may not be fast but I’m determined as hell. I’m coming for you and the running trail is my warpath. Every dollar I raise is a nail in your coffin and I run for the day I can dance on your grave.
I was on the phone with a client this past week who also happens to be a runner. I asked her how her training was going and she said not very well, that she hadn’t been running and was going to have to basically start over. We chatted briefly about how the “re-start” seemed to be a fixture for most runners.
There are those for whom running has become an ingrained fixture in their lives and they couldn’t imagine going more than a day or two without running. If that’s you, I’m both happy for you and hate you a little. I am not one of those people. It’s one of the reasons I train with a group like Team in Training. The group keeps me accountable and focused on my next endurance event. But I will tell you after my feet cross the finish line five months from now, the only running I’ll want to do is towards the sofa.
The price I pay for half a year of laziness is that I have to start over from scratch every Jan/Feb when I get itching to do another endurance event. Here in the middle of February my body has figured out that things have changed… It’s discovered that those first runs were not a fluke and my hibernating muscles are being rudely awoken from their slumber. And like waking a sleeping bear, they are not happy about it. Things ache, muscles get sore, I get sore, I get sleepy. I probably have another good 2-3 weeks before my body settles back into the routine and ‘remembers’ what it’s like to be a runner.
I suppose my running life would be easier if I kept it up year round, if even just in a maintenance program of light running in the ‘off’ season. But there seems to be something equally important for me psychologically of not running. I love doing the Seattle Rock N Roll half marathon precisely because it’s held in late June and am able to ‘take the summer off’ and save the very best of Seattle summer weather for whatever fun stuff strikes my fancy. That often includes being active – riding bikes, kayaking, hiking. But it also includes cloud gazing, porch lounging, and lazy Saturdays spent reading. I love being a runner and no matter how many times I leave it behind, I’m always drawn back into it. And I also can’t imagine a life in which there is no room for cloud gazing, too. I wonder sometimes if this time away is also part of the draw. I miss running which is what prompts me to sign up each January. It’s hard to miss something if you don’t have a little time and space away from it.
And other obstacles get in the way of our best laid plans. A runner’s life is inevitably filled with injuries large or small that take us off our feet for periods of time. Never mind life in general with work, travel, illness, family, weather, holidays. It’s easy to say those are simply excuses, and sometimes they are, but other times we have a few too many balls in the air and something has to give, and sometimes that thing is running.
The good news is there is much to be said for starting anew. I look forward to starting my training, meeting new people, seeing old friends again. The fun I get from these re-starts reminds me that you can get back on the horse. I have re-started so many times that I know instinctively that a break from running is far from a permanent situation. Success in running, or in anything really, is not about how many times you stop or fail, it’s about making the choice to start again.
Fall down nine times, get up ten… ~Japanese proverb
On Tuesday evenings I run with my Team in Training group around Green Lake and at this time of the year it’s still getting dark pretty early. For tonight’s practice, we ran on the “inner” loop which has no path lighting. This means we run in the dark. I have a small headlamp, but it mostly just allows me to see the time on my watch and maybe 1 foot down the trail. And my eyesight is only good for staying on the path (generally) and not falling on my face (most of the time), but otherwise I have to rely on my other senses to keep my bearings. Because of my pace (faster than walking, slower than running – I call it “slogging”) I am quickly by myself for all but the very beginning and end of the runs. Despite being a ridiculously social person, I enjoy having my running time to myself. When you run in the pitch dark, you are truly alone with your thoughts. Mostly I focus on my breath and tell myself to relax into the run. Somehow, when it’s just me and my breathing and the darkness, relaxing comes easier. Tonight I ran a negative split (meaning the second half of the run was faster than the first). Running a negative split is about holding back and starting out slow to warm up, and then easing into a more steady pace for the finish. I will confess that I have never been very good at negative splits. It’s not that I start out too fast, it’s more that I start slow, warm up slow, and then finish off slow – I’m usually all about the even split. For whatever reason, tonight, running in almost complete darkness, I was able to focus solely on my running and finally achieve the elusive negative split.