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.

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