Monday, April 26, 2010

The thin line

Lately I've been dealing with some issues that are becoming a bit troublesome to me.

I've been having quite a bit of pain in my hips, glutes and lower back after running.  I suspect the individual problem spots are indicative of a generalized scenario with them as a whole, being concentrated in the same region of my body.

I've actually had lower back problems for about 13 years now, the original injury happening as a result of changing a flat tire on my car. For the past year, and up until about three weeks ago, my back pain had all but disappeared. Now, it's flaring up again and the only thing I can attribute it to is the running - in particular, it really started coming on after I did the Ft. Vancouver 15K in late March.

Sometimes it's difficult to know when to stop and when to keep going. You have folks who will tell you that you should stop and assess the issue whenever you feel pain of any sort (to the point where you quit running temporarily and consult a doctor,) but you also have those who will tell you that - at least to a certain point - you should push through it in order to make the muscles in question stronger. I have indeed learned that some things that are very therapeutic also hurt like hell - take deep tissue massage, for instance. I have had a few, and it is NOT fun or relaxing or endorphin-producing. It's a bit like asking someone to please stab you with red-hot pocket-knife blades all over your body, for a whole hour, and hey, I'll also pay $60 for the privilege! Foam-rolling and other forms of self-massage using various hand-held instruments (such as this) that one can purchase at the local running store are also not exactly my idea of a picnic by the lake.

The personal trainer I've been working with for quite a while is being extremely careful about advising me on this problem; I know she doesn't want to end up liable for bad advice, since she's not a medical professional. During my strength-training sessions, I've been very careful but she does advise that sometimes, taking too much care can end up not helping, because there are those times when pushing through is the only thing that will ultimately solve the problem. Her litmus test is always "sharp and piercing vs. throbbing ache" - sharp peircing pain always means "stop now!" and if it's more of a dull ache, that's when a decision is needed about how far to push. This seems intuitively sensible to me, but I can tell you right now that even just a throbbing achy back is pretty difficult to work through when strength training, or running - there is so much that depends on the health of one's back! It's way too easy to take it for granted, and perhaps my recent trouble is a sign that I have.

My whole point is...there is a somewhat thin border between stopping and pushing past the line in the sand the body sometimes thinks it must establish. This idea translates, I think, to running in general and not just the arena of immediate physical concerns. The most valuable skill one can learn through running - or any other form of intense physical activity, for that matter - is listening to the body. Not only is there an awareness of muscles, tendons and even bones never before detected, putting one in close touch with how they are put together, but also an overreaching awareness of just what one can achieve through hard work and determination. Perhaps this is the real story that pain tries to teach - and it is a story that should be listened to, as long as there is an acute distinction made between the right and wrong sort of pain.

I do plan to go see a doctor if these issues don't start to settle down soon. If that's what pans out, then hopefully the news will be something other than an admonition to give up running and find another activity.  With any luck, there will be mutual understanding between me and the doctor about what running means to me and long-desired goals - and the role that pain is now playing with both.//

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Letter (2nd in a series)

Dear Legs:

Oh, how I've enjoyed getting to know you again over the past year!

Back when I was tipping the scales with an embarrassingly high number and hadn't yet started running again, you were looking pretty poorly. (And feeling pretty poorly most of the time as well!)

It makes me a bit sad to think about the volume you were forced to carry around back then, but I wised up, started getting lighter and you started looking and feeling better.

I know you still hate me sometimes. You work like the troopers you are, yet when you start getting tight and tired and I haven't drunk enough water, you have no compunction about letting me know. It seems to help you out when I run on nice dirt trails - I can tell right away you dig those *a lot!* (Except you down there, more of that funny twisting and turning stuff, ok?) I promise to go running on trails as much as possible, especially now that summer is around the corner.

And just what can I say about you, my little bee's knees? You're the powerhouses here....everyone else on the block lives and dies by how you're feeling. When you're all cranky and pissy, there's not much running to be had - that's for sure! The stronger you are, the more everyone else - quads, calves and shins - feels like joining in. Although you tend to crackle a bit when I bend down, I know that with a little TLC and perhaps some glucosamine supplements, you'll be right as rain!

Finally - all those little peaks and curves and crevices you're getting now as the body fat recedes and the muscles get lots of attention - those are pretty darned swell, if I may say so myself! You can just keep right on going in that department!

So here's to ya, legs o' mine - may there be many more happy miles ahead - peaks and valleys and trails and all. We'll never win Boston and The Rockettes would laugh us out of the city, but wherever you want to take me is just fine - as long as we can run to get there!

Sunday, April 11, 2010


Today was Race For The Roses day. I had previously planned to run the half marathon distance, but registered for the 10K instead. Similar to choosing the 10K over the half at last year's running of Helvetia, it was a very wise decision. I probably could have finished the half this morning, but it would have wiped me from the face of the earth in the process. (Not literally, of course, but you know what I'm getting at here!)

The weather cooperated - relatively cool, in the mid-fifties, with partly cloudy skies. There were quite a few runners and a lot of walkers, so I definitely wasn't on my own this time, which was a nice change. And it wasn't that the course was necessarily difficult, because in the scheme of things, it wasn't a tough course. But I felt sluggish for most of the time, I walked a lot more than I was happy with and quite simply, the mojo just wasn't there. I finished in 1:23:28, which isn't too far off my current best, but I had really hoped to break 1:20 today. Obviously, it just wasn't meant to be.

This led me to the revelation that's been brewing in the nether regions of my brain for a while: it's time to get serious about this stuff if I am going to stand a chance of finishing Portland in October without it killing me. To be brutally honest (especially with myself) - my training has been very poor for the last couple of weeks and I have not been pouring myself into it as I should be. My eating habits have slipped and I've gained a couple of pounds, and that is certainly not helping either. In fact, I am about 99.99% sure the most substantial reason for my crappy-feeling runs of late has an awful lot to do with the extra baggage I'm schlepping around. It really is a matter of pure physics - the more extra weight there is, the more mass there is to move and all the more harder it is to run. For those of you who are at your "fighting weight" - or even close to it - try to envision yourself running with a one-hundred-pound pack strapped to your back and you will get an idea of what it's like to be me.

I have to hand it to my cardiovascular system. And my legs.  All things considered, they're giving all they can to the cause, and I know this. To my wonderful heart and my equally fantastic lungs - I love you! To my larger-than-I'd-like-them-to-be thighs and calves - I see those muscles under there, working hard, and I love you too!! So perhaps it's time to start showing them the love by overcoming this stinking weight issue once and for all.

I'm a big believer in the strong connection and inter-relatedness of the mind and the body. One without the other is just not going to work in the long haul. But in this case, I cannot blame my weight problem on anything other than my mind - with weak resolve, incorrect thinking and a certain sort of wicked amnesia about my goals that seems to strike mostly when I'm in line of sight of dietary temptations. My body is blameless in this - it deals with what I give it the only way it can.

I should be counting my blessings that after the many, many years of dietary abuse (lots of yo-yo dieting and really piss-poor eating habits when I wasn't dieting) - as well as a severe deficiency of long-term, meaningful exercise - that I have been able to come as far as I have, but now it's time to step back into the boat and get going again.

This marathon in October - I don't want to just say I finished. I want to say (and know) that I finished well. And I also don't want to say that this marathon will be the pinnacle of my running success. Once I've conquered this particular dragon, there are plenty more of them in the running world to slay - and my honest and sincere prayer is that running continue to be the gift that God allows me to experience and enjoy for the rest of my life.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The relativity of quality

The latest issue of Runner's World has an article featuring several "everyday-joe/jane" runners along with a description of their current self-initiated training programs and advice on how to improve them.

One of the female runners profiled is a pediatrician who puts in a crazy number of miles every week, including "easy" 2-3 mile runs squeezed in during her lunch hour or other odd blocks of free time during the day. RW's advice to her was to cut out those easy runs, terming them "junk miles" and for her to concentrate instead on the quality of her longer runs. According to the experts at RW, these relatively smaller distances do very little towards the goal of measurable improvement.

This made me pause. In her world, with her overall weekly mileage base, this may have been a sage piece of advice - but in my world, there's no such thing as junk miles.

Every time I make the decision to get out there and go for it, regardless of the distance, I am rewarded. Every single mile I put behind me is, in my opinion, another tiny little triumph in a long successive string of accomplishments. Every purposeful step I take that isn't walking - be it running, jogging or plodding - is another minute but tangible increase in the staying power of my lungs, heart and muscles. It's one more mile closer to being ready for Portland in October.

While I was reflecting about the content for this post, another thought occurred to me about the concept of junk miles and improvement: for those of us who run simply because it's something we love, why is there a relentless drive to continually improve on what we already know and do as if improvement was the only end to the means and nothing more? What's the real point in working to finish a 5K in 29 minutes versus 30 minutes, when once upon a time a 30 minute finish was perfectly adequate? Or even amazing? Will finishing that race in 29 minutes make one a better person? Will it somehow change one's destiny in life?

I suppose this is one of those philosophical questions whose only immediate response is something along the lines of "it!" The drive to outdo ourselves is strong; perhaps it's akin to one of those many and varied elements that define being human. But I strongly believe there comes a point where this drive must stop, or it will be stopped because it cannot go any further.

Eventually, we will discover there's no way the current world record for the mile can be broken. There will come a time where ultramarathoners will be forced to draw the line about how far one can push oneself at a sitting (unless you're Dean Karnazes, apparently.) Similar to elite runners, everyday joes and janes have their limits as well, based on a number of factors, and they too will need to identify the boundary beyond which it is simply impossible to traverse. The sky will indeed reveal itself as the limit, contrary to the idea of "inifinite reach" the phrase is commonly understood to represent.

This is somewhat extreme thinking, I know...but the application of such thinking with recreational runners like me ultimately translates into learning to simply be content with what one can do. A couple weeks ago, I thought differently, going on a bit of a rant to my online running friends about how discontent I was with consistent back-of-the-back-of-the-pack finishes and frustration with not being able to maintain sub-13 minutes miles for any serious length of time.

Fortunately for me, I spend a fair amount of time reflecting on things, and this has been a hot topic in my head for quite a while. I've finally accepted that there's no shame in acknowledging limits. This isn't to say improvement is bad, because increasing my speed and endurance means increasing my overall fitness, which is definitely a good thing. Besides, I am confident improvement will occur if I am consistent with my regimen. What this thinking does is refocus the energies normally spent on obsessing about improving back onto the one thing that gets most of us out on the road to begin with - the simple and life-affirming joy of running for running's sake.
And seriously -- there is no such thing as junk miles!!