Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Other Day at the State Hospital . . .


...as I was laying down a solid foundation for 2010 with some pace work on a typically cold and blustery January day in Evansville I began to hear voices in the wind. Granted, I was on the grounds of the Evansville State Hospital (yes, a mental institution), but I was merely a visitor. A couple of years ago one of my non-running friends called me to inquire about a random picture of me running - sprinting - along the 1200-m asphalt loop on the hospital grounds after that picture appeared in the local newspaper. He quipped, "How long before they caught you and put you back in your room?"

Funny, but sad. Sad in a PC way and sad in that the local commununity has invested so little into a healthy lifestyle that many runners must travel to the state hospital in order to run workouts in relatively safe conditions. There really are no other sites for interval training since the local tracks are inside of locked fences. I write "relatively safe" because cars do drive on the same roads and the drivers of said cars are not always courteous or mentally balanced. Occasionally, a dog on a long leash will reroute a timed run. And there is that one very unstable and sloppily obese guy who has verbally attacked many of us runners and walkers with threats of bodily harm and even death. He "chased" me once while I was timing my team. He repeatedly yelled "Come here you f'ing f--got, so I can snap your neck!" as I slowly back-pedaled and held my cell phone out for the 911 dispatcher to hear. I assume that he will one day either occupy a room in the nearby building or a cell in the state pen. The only other hinderences to timed running on the loop come from the ducks and geese. They often hang out on the edge of the lake, but will occasionally waddle into the road. The largest ducks are about three feet tall and will hiss and snap as they actually chase after runners. I secretly hope that the ducks will someday eat the mean guy.

Once a runner learns to avoid the inconveniences, the asphalt loop does provide a tranquil running experience. I have been circling the loop since 1998, completing everything from strides to K sets to a 39-lap (30.5 miles) ultra run. The nearly flat road is in the middle of a tree-filled park that includes about one hundred grass acres sprinkled with soccer and baseball fields. The mature trees, including state and national champions, offer shade in the heat of the summer and a bit of a wind break all year round. The low end of the loop, sitting 7 feet lower than the hind end, gently arcs around a two acre lake. This, of course, is where those thug ducks hang out waiting for handouts or runners calves.

Sometime in the mid-1990's a New Zealander named Ann Audaine moved to Evansville and ended up choosing the State Hospital Loop (SHL in my log) as the site to carry out her workouts. Any longtime fan of running knows that Audaine was an awesome and revolutionary track and road racer who in March of 1982 set the 5000 m world record at 15:13.22. Ann carefully measured the SHL, marking each 100-meter increment around the 1259 m loop and even continued with the markings on the other side of the narrow road to the 1600 m mark. My own Jones Counter measurements have proven to me that Ann did a fine job of making the original markings. I repaint them every year to keep them visible among the other, less reliable markings that have been measured with a wheel. I have even carried the measurements out to 2000 and 2400 meters. On the day that I heard the voices I was running a set of 2K's.

Ahh, back to the voices. The voices in the wind were coming from some high school runners who were making fun of me each time we encountered each other. The comments were issued loudly and in my direction. The comments were meant to be hurtful, but they were not. And they were anything but original. In fact, those boys might be surprised to know that people have been lobbing such comments at me for thirty years.

In fact, the first person to bring the subject up to my face was my soon-to-be high school track coach during a cross country practice. This coach pointed at my feet as he came up to me just after I had completed an awesome workout and said, "Thread, you need to do something about that foot. Did you break it or something?" He was referring to the fact that my right foot swings out at about 25 degrees as I move forward. I had never noticed anything out of the ordinary and I wasn't quite sure what he was talking about, but I was immediately worried about it. Shortly after that day I experienced the first of many injuries due to the severe turnout and pronation of that foot. The problem is further exasperated by the fact that my right leg is three-eighths of an inch shorter than the left from the knee down.

I've learned to deal with the poor biomechanics by developing a training system based on specification that has allowed me to enjoy running and riding without injury for twenty years. I have also learned to smile at those who point at, heckle, ridicule, and insult me because of the problem. Thirty years ago I would have most likely started swinging at those boys at the state hospital. Thirty years of living a runner's life have taught me to recognize, focus on, and be excited about the abundance of positive and exhilerating experiences running introduces into my life. Things like sunrises, sunsets, falling leaves, a finish line, misty spring mornings, snow-covered forests, chirping birds, a running buddy, interesting trees, a smiling supporter, a running squirrel, a new pair of shoes, a really great workout, an endless cornfield, a friendly dog, a really bad workout, a cold drink after an August long run, a steep mountain ascent, a steeper mountain descent, a starting line, and a mood or landscape appropriate song. And sleeping ducks.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Running With Rockets

Participation in endurance sports for more than thirty years has taught me that life seldom allows me to move smoothly toward my goals. I accepted this long ago and I learned to adjust my training to make certain that life’s surprises, anomalies, and misfortunes had limited effect on my ability to reach the overall goals. This, of course, was preceded by my learning, through years of self-experimentation, to make certain that the workouts themselves did not keep me, or those athletes I coached, from reaching goals. While I believe that the continued positive experiences I have had during the past seventeen years as an athlete and a coach have directly resulted from the continued growth and understanding of this philosophy, I have to admit to having an occasional surprise result. I often write private essays about my travels and races. A friend I shared this one with convinced me to share it with you.

Throughout the last two decades (Damn, that makes me feel old!) I have lived hard and trained hard. That hard living included minimal sleep, long hours of manual labor, extreme backpacking, and mountaineering and it resulted in a couple of herniated discs, a hernia, torn abdominal muscles, several broken bones, dislocated fingers, and a rotator cuff in need of repair (hence duathlete instead of triathlete). The hard training often left me tired and sometimes sore, but never injured – unless I have to count those bones that were broken in the bicycle crashes.

Only twice in my long endurance career have I stood on the starting line of a race without confidence in my training and, thus, without an accurate prediction of my performance. The first time was back in 1989 when I ran a race in southern Illinois after a three-year bout with plantar fasciitis. After more than three years of failed physical therapy and barely being able stand at my work bench as a research chemist, I managed to string together a dozen runs and enough confidence to try a 5K race. The giant hill on the course demolished my legs and lungs while the 18:15 time was about three minutes shy of my pre-fasciitis runs, but I finished the race and began to dream about racing the clock again. I absolutely love to run and ride as fast as my limited ability and poor biomechanics will allow, so it is natural that I love to race.

The second time I stood on a starting line without confidence due to limited and sporadic training was on December twelfth of 2009 when I lined up for the Rocket City Marathon (RCM) in Huntsville, Alabama. Granted, I have not actually trained for any of the half-dozen marathons I have participated in, but my preparation for the 2009 RCM would not be called “marathon training” by any avid or remotely sane marathoner. I have coached dozens of people to PR’s in marathons and most of them put in as many miles in one month as I Iogged during my entire ten-week “build-up.” Come to think of it, each of the half-marathoners I have trained logged at least twice my RCM weekly mileage. Yes, I was somewhat undertrained.

I lined up for the 2009 RCM for several reasons. I went because I like the course. I had finished it twice before, running a 2:53 in 1996 and a 2:51 (PR) in 1999. The 1996 race was a chance to see if my post-fasciitis, low-mileage training would pass the test of a marathon. I raced again in 1999 because a neurosurgeon had called me and angrily told me that I would never run again after I had backed out of a disc surgery. I also went back to the RCM in 2009 because I am infatuated with anything that goes fast and, well, rockets are mighty fast and there are lots of used ones just laying around in Huntsville. Finally, I went because I desperately needed to test and challenge myself - to see if I was still me.

After forty-five years of exceedingly good health, 2009 ushered in a series of ailments. The constant pain of a hernia made me forget about my bad back throughout December 2008 and January 2009. In April I contracted a pulmonary infection from my son, Tyler. That resulted in fluid in my lungs and some nasty cough-until-throwing-up fits when I tried to run. Only in mid-June did I start to feel normal again. Then, on June 28, I learned that I had skin cancer on my back. The minor surgery and chemical treatment did not adversely affect my ability to run or ride (did make me nocturnal and more pasty-white than normal), but it caused some apprehension while giving me an even stronger desire to live a healthy lifestyle - and go fast. So, I trained with consistency and renewed purpose for the ITU Duathlon World Championship in Concord, NC at the end of September. I earned an age group silver medal in that race against other “old men.”

With my Ricky Bobby mojo apparently back in place, I decided to run the RCM to see how I stacked up against the 1999 me (36 y.o vs. 46 y.o.). Once I realized that I had a whole ten weeks to switch from a 15 mile-per-week duathlete to a marathoner, I decided to go big – really big! I drew up a plan that would phase out cycling while increasing the run mileage to an unprecedented maximum of 30 miles-per-week. The bold plan even included a couple of two-hour runs.

On Monday, a week later, I woke up with a high fever. It came with the worst migraine I’d ever experienced and aches in my forearms and shins that made me want to gnaw them off. Also, after a lifetime of insomnia, I could not stay awake. The first test for “the flu” was negative, but I was told that I had it and that I should not return to teaching for the whole week. The fever broke on Friday. On Saturday I felt great (and extremely well rested!), so I completed a secret “test run.” Then, I am ashamed to admit, I woke up the next morning and ran the Evansville YMCA half marathon. I monitored my heart rate throughout the race and kept it relatively low, even slowing the last two miles as the heart rate crept up. Then I went home and slept until the next morning. Amazingly, I felt fine.

Another week went by. I felt great. I ran twice. Then, after working about 17 hours on Sunday, I woke up with a fever again on Monday. This time there were (lots of) blood tests and scans. No tumors, but I did test positive for “the flu” and another virus called Epstein-Barr which is commonly called “mono.” The fever lasted several days again, but the intensified migraine and body aches were barely noticeable since I was asleep most of the time. I napped like a baby throughout October and half of November, sleeping 12-16 hours per day. Luckily, my doctor knows me well. He told me that I could run “easy” after I felt strong enough.

I ran once or twice a week, easily. Wink. Wink. And I napped after every run. I ended up running 182 miles during that ten-week “build-up.” Drop the calculator and move the decimal. That is an average of 18.2 miles per week. A personal record! I averaged 22.6 and 24.2 mpw before my last two RCM’s and my legs locked up in both of those races at about 23 miles. Monitoring my body daily and allowing it to dictate each run, I managed to finish two long runs and a half-dozen other key runs. If I had missed even one more of these key workouts I would not have driven to Huntsville. I always tell the athletes I work with that they need to finish, at a bare minimum, the key workouts to have a successful race. I had logged more nap hours than run miles while completing a bare minimum number of key workouts. Was it enough to allow me to finish? Would I experience pre-mortem rigor mortis? Would I get that damned fever again? To answer the questions I had to go to Huntsville.

I slept fitfully in a bed that was too soft for my back. Aware of the rockets resting nearby, I left the curtains open in order to see them when I opened my eyes. Outside, next to the Marriott, a space shuttle and every other kind of rocket made by the USA had found a permanent resting place at the Rocket Museum. I gazed at those rockets as I fondly recalled growing up during the race to the moon. I never dreamed that I would someday sleep with rockets. Being giddy did not help me find sleep.

Everything went according to plan the morning of the race. My pre-race rituals were normal except for the lack of nervousness. I didn’t even get nervous when I realized I wasn’t nervous! As usual, I stepped out of the restroom and up to the starting line moments before the gun went off (and during the anthem). Then the fun started.

It was cold and windy with the temperature in the mid-30’s and a 15 mph headwind for the entire first half of the race. No problem. I was not there to race. I merely wanted to run at a certain heart rate for as long as my lightly trained (but extremely fresh!!) legs would allow. The pace, which varied a little depending on the wind and the incline, turned out to be the 6:25 to 6:40 miles predicted by the key runs. The group of runners I fell in stride with were as talkative as I am! And they were all teachers! We stayed together through sixteen miles when we came to the largest hills of the race. I was happy to be strong enough to keep my heart rate constant. I was more pleased with the fact that mile after mile passed without an appearance by “the wall.”

At mile 24 I realized that I could go under 2:52 if I ran a couple of 6:50’s. No problem. I felt great and had run the previous four miles in the 6:40 range. So I increased my leg turnover – a lot. And I ran my slowest mile of the day: 6:58. My legs still felt good, so I picked it up again. And I ran another 6:58. The legs felt OK, but the hips had gotten tight and my stride must have shortened considerably. Though the volunteer who walked me to the aid table would probably have bet against it, I am certain that I could have picked it up again to finish a 27th mile in less than 15 minutes.

The 2:52:12 was certainly faster than I thought possible. That I could walk fine after the race and resume normal training days later was more surprising. Back in the Marriott, with the lonely rockets outside in the cold rain, I looked over the heart rate data in my training log another time. Wow! I had logged so few miles. Most of the calendar’s boxes were blank. Yet, each one of the days I trained had served a purpose. There was not a single “junk” mile in the bunch. Each of the trained miles indicated that I could run my normal 6:30ish pace. But the summation of the miles made it doubtful that I could consecutively run 26 of those 6:30’s. Hence, my doubts as I had approached this test on my aging body.

I shut down the laptop, gazed out the window, and smiled in recognition of the rockets as I thought about the fact that great quantities of data can be compiled and analyzed, but only the heart of the competitor and the ability of that competitor to point that heart in the direction of the goal is what really matters in the end.