Life After Running

I can vouch that there is no good way to begin this topic after writing dozens of different openings over the past few months. I’ve reminded myself that athletes retire all the time, and it’s probably a difficult transition for all of us. But it seems especially difficult when your head is still in the game, and it’s only your body that has given up. At a time when there appears to be no limit to human endurance, it’s hard to accept that your body does indeed have its own independent limit.

I’ve been a runner since the early 90s. My son was in elementary school at the time, and now he’s thirty-six. I ran every morning with an inexpensive watch on my wrist to be sure I made it home in time to dress for work. And when I took a new job that required travel, I ran in beautiful and interesting cities all over the country.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunities to run in Italy, Spain, and Ireland; and on a treadmill in India where I watched the miles go by in kilometers for the first time. I experienced the horrible side effects of running at altitude when we first moved to Ecuador, and the excitement of running with an elite runner when I went to Africa. But the long runs here at home that followed the river down the mountain to the next town over where my husband met me at LuLu’s for lunch – those were my favorite runs.

Runners remember every race – the mood of the race, the course, every ache, pain and decision we make along the way, but it’s the places I remember most.

My husband encouraged me to run a 10k race in 2007. “It’s only six miles,” I remember him telling me. He realized it was actually 6.2 miles while he was waiting for me at the finish line. I found out when there was no finish line at the six-mile mark, and my lungs were already about to explode. The Chicago marathon followed a few months later, and that race changed everything. Training for marathons, recovering from marathons, planning for the next marathon, researching my injuries, researching new training plans, writing about injuries, writing about training – this became my favorite pastime.

The funny thing about following your passion is that if you go in too headstrong, according to some experts, you may crash and burn at the first sign of hardship. You have to ease your way into this new love, bond with it, and nurture the relationship over time. This way you don’t throw in the towel and quit when the going gets tough.

On the other hand, if you don’t throw yourself into this passion wholeheartedly at some point, you may never realize your full potential. I had the pleasure of easing my way into running slowly over many years, and also throwing myself at it completely.

If you truly follow your passion, your life is going to change. The challenge is to regain control of your life afterwards. The Passion Paradox

Achilles tendinitis took hold in my right foot in 2018 a few months after my first 50k. It was my new favorite distance, and I was determined to run this new further distance again – and as many times after that as possible. But when the swelling subsided there was another problem.

Some runners have run with Haglund’s Deformity in one or both heels for years, but it’s a painful existence that never improves. Your heel feels like there’s glass moving around inside. It swells, gets stiff, and then it’s painful to even walk. Surgery is an option, but it’s not pretty nor a guarantee.

I spent much of the spring and early summer of 2018 doing physical therapy to resolve the Achilles tendinitis and re-strengthen my calf. Eventually I could run without pain, but it didn’t last because the bony protusion of Haglund’s irritated the area around the tendon. So I ran every other day, continued therapy, iced my heel daily, and basically spent the last half of 2018 experimenting. I was willing to try anything, but nothing worked, and the pain and stiffness grew consistently worse. About a year ago, I threw in the towel and retired.

An injury leaves you irritable because of the lost time from training. Knowing you won’t ever run again leaves a pit in the bottom of your stomach that’s hard to resolve. I had been careful to identify myself with things other than running all these years, but there was still the question of what would I be associated with so strongly going forward that it would give my heart a place to land.

Around the same time that I retired, I also partially tore my left rotator cuff leaving my shoulder in a painful frozen state for months. Adding insult to injury, a 60-pound dog jumped up and bit my nose while I was saying hello to his owner.

I can’t begin to count the dozens of angry, untethered dogs that have scared me half out of my mind over the years. Two boxers would bolt through their invisible fence on my long runs down the mountain every week. I dreaded them with all my heart. One particularly lively laborador in South Carolina nipped at my elbows, jumped onto my shoulder, and tore the shirt right off my arm. Dogs were everywhere. I had developed a strategy of sorts: turn off my music, move to the other side of the road, stop for a minute, walk, and I’d yell “FOOEY!” when all else failed. Not one of them ever made me retreat, and they never bit me. Then, this seemingly harmless dog on a leash across the street from my house bites me while I’m standing still. It was as if my whole identity was being attacked.

My husband helped me sort through my thoughts in those early months of 2019. He researched surgery options, different shoes, orthotics, even other sports I might try. Meanwhile, I started walking the trail around the lake by my house. The pace was soooo slow, and every runner that passed me was an awful reminder of why I was on the trail around the lake in the first place. But I could walk for as long as I wanted without pain, and when I finally let go of being angry I realized I really enjoy these long walks.

Abby Wambach writes in her memoir, Forward, that she realized, “Soccer is no longer what I do, but it will always be a part of who I am, an indispensable thread of my past.” She recalls a friend giving her a metaphor about retirement:

“Trapeze artists are so amazing in so many ways because they are grounded to one rung for a long time, and in order to get to the other rung they have to let go. What makes them so brilliant and beautiful and courageous and strong is that they execute flips in the middle. The middle is their magic. If you’re brave enough to let go of that first rung, you can create your own magic in the middle.”

I’ve traveled all these miles for all these years with just my own two feet, and it’s been an amazing journey in every way. My shoulder has recovered, the scar on my nose is hardly visible, I’ve learned to manage my injured heel, and I’ve let go of that first rung.

The Chicago Lakefront 50k was my last race, and my favorite race.

A Change of Pace

There seems to be good reason for a half marathon race to be on the schedule for this week….boredom. I am exactly half way through marathon training and this week is very much like the middle miles of a race. It is hard to mentally stay in the game. This calls for a change of pace.

Although there were no half marathons close by this weekend, there is a one-mile race tomorrow night. A far cry from 13.1 miles but a race is a race and I’m thinking it will help resolve the doldrums.

I have never run a one-mile race and I vacillate between going all out and just having fun (the benefit is a nearby children’s hospital).

Adding this new topic to the calendar along with the plethora of running topics we have yet to explore leaves lots of things we could discuss. But let’s not.

Instead I thought I’d send a few snapshots from home. Hope you enjoy.

Dylan taking good care of Mr. Boggs
Dylan taking good care of Mr. Boggs
Dudley after a trip up the mountain.
Dudley after a trip up the mountain.
Mr. Boggs after his own trip up the mountain.
Mr. Boggs after his own trip up the mountain.
A cleaner version of Dudley
A cleaner version of Dudley
Dudley loves to have his picture taken.
Dudley loves to have his picture taken.
Dakota on the back porch
Dakota on the back porch

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It took ten minutes to get a picture of Dylan.
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Five more minutes
Dylan in the snow last winter, the best backdrop for a black dog....and the only time in his life I can remember him sitting still.
Dylan in the snow last winter, the best backdrop for a black dog….and the only time in his life I can remember him sitting still.
My new potting table.
My new potting table.
Dylan and Mr. Boggs…best buddies.

When the alarm barks…..

Since Mr. Boggs is to eventually be an outside dog, we moved his kennel just outside the bedroom door and for the past few weeks he’s been sleeping outside. Problem is that he has a different alarm from the rest of us…and his alarm goes off at 5am every day.image

We reluctantly go along with the new schedule but when he rushes to the door all excited, tail wagging to greet Dakota, our only little girl, she jumps up and bites him right on the jowl. I don’t always scold her. Anyone that gets the whole house up at 5am deserves a slap in the face.

Running has not been top of my thoughts this week but today was my second scheduled run nonetheless. Since my days have been so busy with the move, I decided to do some laundry, pay the bills and take a load of boxes to the recycling center before the run.

Despite the fact that all I could see in the rear view mirror were boxes, and there was an aromatic bag of trash at the back, by the time I got to the end of the drive I promptly turned left toward town instead of right as intended. So I added a few miles of backtracking to the trip as well.

After spending more time hovering over that dumpster than anyone in their right mind should, it was already 68 degrees. I do the quick calculation of what the temperature will really feel like when I’m running and it’s a whopping 88 degrees. Ugh.

When I ran on Monday, everything felt fine. Today my feet were heavy and I think the hills got steeper while I was gone. It was humid; you could feel the heat rising from the ground. The lethargy was so palpable it felt like foreign matter clinging to my body.

I happened to glance up once on the back side of the run just in time to see the longest, steepest hill up ahead. My feet wanted to stop and my heart was agreeing with them on every step. There was a tree limb blocking the sidewalk on the way down this hill. I jumped over it coming out but let’s just say I did nothing of the sort going back up.

I prayed for a car to stop me at every cross walk but of course they all waved me through. Of course.

Just after passing the tree limb, I got the stitch! It’s so uncommon for this to happen to me that I’ve never even researched how to make it go away. It was during a race once that it happened and I took deep breaths in and forcefully exhaled. It took several minutes of this but eventually it worked.

So when finally I reached the nice shady down side of that monstrous hill, I was huffing and puffing through agonizing pain.

It took me 4-1/2 miles, twice by a tree limb and a bout with the stitch before I finally fell into a good stride. At the end of the run I walked around the track and decided there’s a lot to be said for pushing yourself through a run like this one.

I should have left the chores to this afternoon, should have gotten out earlier for the run, should have…, should have….

The lesson from this day is that when the alarm barks just get up and go.

It’s Race Day! What’s our Strategy?

It’s a safe bet the race is going to be tough when the race director sends out an email a few days beforehand to alert every one of a tough hill at the end of the race course. He says, “We just wanted to be sure everyone is prepared.” And, oh by the way, second that thought when this same race director says t-shirts will be available after the race that say “I Survived the Catamount Climb!” It’s at this point you kind of want to switch from race strategy to survival strategy.

So, when you wake up on race morning, how do you get from bedroom slippers to the finish line?

1. First, back it up to a good night’s sleep.

No, not really. Actually, never. Does anyone sleep well the night before a race? I always intend to but something always goes wrong. One of my poodles, Dylan, likes to talk a lot. He decided to talk to everything going on outside that night and little Mr. Boggs chimed in just to practice his big boy bark. This went on all night.Dylan 1

Fortunately, the most important night to sleep well is the night-before-the-night-before a race. Somehow we all do just fine with little to no sleep just before race morning.

2. Don’t start too fast.

it seems like you could decide when and how to use up the available energy for race day but, unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. I read of one elite runner that runs the first half as fast as he can and just pulls himself through the last half. Most of us crash too hard for this to be a winning strategy though.

The best approach for the beginning miles is to run to yourself – let everyone pass you if they must. Run a comfortable pace and don’t let yourself get caught up in the frenzy. When the rookie runners are coughing and wheezing just a few miles into the race, you’ll still be accelerating.

Martinsville Turn 3

3. Squeal your wheels through the inside turns.

If you’re racing a car, you’d want to cross over to the inside lane to take the turn really fast. If you’re feeling in control on your bike, you lean into that turn with your inside pedal up and fly like the wind. The same principle applies to running.

When I was preparing for my first marathon, I read everything the race organizers sent out. One of their topics was how to keep the race at 26.2 miles – not further. This gets your attention, right? Seems the shortest distance is gained by taking all the turns on the inside. Running on the outside of a turn can add miles to a race.

4. Walk if necessary.

A minute of walking may be all you need. On Saturday, I walked on the Catamount Climb – it was monstrous and it wasn’t the first hill in the race! If for no other reason than mental, I needed to catch my breath. I also walked through the aid stations. The key is to force yourself not to take too long a break. Sometimes its hard to start moving those legs again but it only gets harder the longer you wait.

5. Segment the course.

In the first half of the race, the segments may be quite long – maybe to the halfway point. Then as you get tired and deep into the middle miles, the segments get shorter. In a half marathon, I break the race into 3 parts: the first half, and two 3-mile segments. I always tell myself I can run 3 miles no matter what. It’s a distance I feel I can survive even when it hurts bad. In a marathon, the segments are two 10-mile segments and two 3-miles. The last 385 yards are run on pure adrenaline.

On Saturday, I finished first in my age group and 13th overall female. It was one of the toughest courses I’ve run so I was relieved my strategy got me through. At one point I was actually telling myself, just get through this race and you can run slow for ten weeks.

So, that’s my last bit of racing advice – tell yourself whatever you need to hear to get the job done!

Lies, bribes or threats – from slippers all the way to the finish line if necessary.

Finish Line
Finish Line (Photo credit: jayneandd)

When The Going Gets Tough…..

A Pain That I'm Used To
A Pain That I’m Used To (Photo credit: Wiki

I hate 5k races. It takes me 3 miles just to warm up. In shorter races, you experience a great deal more lactic acid, the stuff that makes your legs burn. My lungs burn.

The last 5k I ran, I almost walked off the course 3 times in the first 2 miles, something I’ve never done before.

It hurt so bad, all I wanted at that moment was for the pain to stop.

So I told myself I would just run to the next corner and then I would allow myself to quit.

This always works for me because I will never stop there. If I say I’ll just go to the next light pole, I will almost always go to the one after that.

Eventually I coaxed myself right through that race and past the finish line – swearing all the way. But, in the end, I was so glad I didn’t give up.

I remember reading a book particularly helpful in the topic of pain vs reward. So I pulled out all of my books and here they sit on the table and floor surrounding my chair. I’m not sure how I came upon having so many books in this world of electronic everything, but I finally find the author I’m looking for…. Norrie Williamson:  Coach, Ultramarathoner and author of Everyone’s Guide To Distance Running.

He talks about Desire and Confidence Versus Pain:

“Every ambitious runner wanting to achieve his potential, experiences a point in the race where pain dogs every footfall….and to continue, the mind must accept this “sentence” of pain until the finish line is crossed. Ultimately, your ability to meet this pain “head to head” will determine your performance in the race. If you grab it by the scruff of the neck and toss it out of your mind with the contempt it deserves, you will achieve your goals and possibly exceed your expectations. If it becomes the focus of your existence at that time, if you permit it to erode the importance of the task at hand, you will compromise your goal or finish time. The three-quarter distance mark in long races is what I call the “what am I doing this for?” mark. It is where physical fatique meets mental muscle in a duel for supremacy.”

Whether this happens in the last half of the race, on a long training run or before your feet hit the floor, the key to your success is how you work your way through.

Most authors eventually narrow it down to a few basic strategies:

1. KEEP A TRAINING LOG.

It’s ok to keep a diary of what you’ve done. Some runners’ diaries include pace, heart rate, weather conditions and what they’ve eaten that day. More importantly, make a plan…a training log. Chart out weeks or months of running even if you aren’t training for a specific purpose. Decide how many miles you will run each week and on each day. It’s ok to juggle days around but stay on target for the week. There is nothing I hate more than having to mark through the mileage for a particular day because I didn’t go for a run. It keeps you honest – the same way writing down everything you eat keeps you honest during a diet.
calendar

I save my calendars every year and reference them from time to time, remembering what worked well and what didn’t. My little calendar has become such an integral part of my life, that on the rare occasion that I travel somewhere and forget it at home, I feel lost.

I have been told my life revolves around my running, and I guess I’m ok with that.

2. SEE YOURSELF AS AN ATHLETE.

Lets face it, the percentage of elites at the front of the pack is a small number compared to those of us at the back. That doesn’t mean you aren’t an athlete! Picture yourself running and envision this beautiful (or handsome) fluid style you have.

I watch the elite runners every chance I get. When the TV zooms in on the muscles in their legs, I marvel at how strong they look, how smooth their stride, how steady and confident they are. During my practice runs, I imagine myself crossing the finish line and looking the same as the elite women. Strong, fit and confident.

A few years ago, we spent time in Nairobi Africa. Of course we went on safari and watched the animals in amazement as they ran – sometimes to chase after their food, sometimes for seemingly no reason at all. Just as fascinating were the Masai warriors. They were in the bush and in the city – strong, confident men who by the very nature of their lives were totally fit.

I am an athlete. It doesn’t matter how old I am, or that my legs aren’t as developed as the elite runners – I am a work in progress. I see myself like those Masai warriors (more on this later), strong, fit and confident.

Visualizing yourself as the athlete you want to be will give you the confidence to do something you never dreamed you could.

3. LEARN “ASSOCIATION”.

Most of the marathon training books eventually talk about association and dissociation. We all “dissociate” at times during our runs when our mind wanders to what we have to do that day, the song we’re listening to, the scenery around us or for me, to absolutely no thoughts whatsoever. It’s tough to concentrate even in a race, and especially in the middle of a race.

Studies have shown that most top runners totally focus on the race, monitoring their pace and listening to their bodies. This takes practice. During your training runs, start learning to “listen” to your body – listen to your breathing and practice making it more relaxed, visualize muscles that are tense and practice relaxing them as you run.

Concentrate on your pace and stride. Picture where your foot strikes. The more taxed and fatigued your body, the harder it is to concentrate, which makes it easier to give up.

If you practice association regularly, when things get really tough, whether during a race or in training, you’ll be better equipped to gut it out rather than drop out.

4. BE A WARRIOR.

An exerpt from the Competitive Runner’s Handbook (Penquin Books):

“A warrior prepares fully and purposely for war. He focuses on the impending battle and trains his body, mind, and soul to act with strength and cunning. He lives a spartan existence, denying luxuries that would sap his resolve. He has the desire, motivation, discipline, belief, self-esteem, confidence, courage, and mental toughness to win in battle. He prepares a wise strategy, dwells on it, and executes it while staying calm in battle and fending off pain and fatique. The warrior prepares to fight the ultimate fight, and face the ultimate defeat – death.”

We don’t need to prepare ourselves with such seriousness, but there is a benefit to approaching your training with a warrior’s frame of mind. When you want to skip a workout, or eat that tempting dessert, bring out the warrior attitude; when it’s cold, or hot, you’re tired and sore, or your ToDo list is longer than the day – remember warriors must train no matter what.

My husband tells me I look like a “serious” runner – and I think he’s referring to the look on my face. I thoroughly enjoy running though and maybe when I’m looking the most “serious” I’m enjoying it the most!

I was a big fan of the Rocky movies from many years ago. I was totally mesmerized by the training Rocky endured in his efforts to climb to the top over and over. He was very serious until one time just before the match he allowed himself to laugh with his coach – he was ready and he knew it. He had prepared mentally and physically to fight to the death.

Its fun to run. No one has to teach us how. It comes naturally from the time we are barely toddlers. So remember when you’re facing that tough hill, its cold and rainy, you’re struggling through the last half of a race, or just trying to gut out 30 minutes on the treadmill every other day, take it one step at a time.

You’re an athlete and a warrior….. and you can do this!