“You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can’t know what’s coming.” Frank Shorter, 1972 Olympic marathon gold medalist.
However, with half marathons, it’s ok to run one, and then run another two weeks later, which is long before your mind has forgotten the last one.
So, on June 6, 2015, two weeks after running the Corporate Challenge Half in about 1:41, I was in the corral for the Hospital Hill Half. Waiting for the start, I snapped this fabulous picture, very colorful, like a coral reef. I love this place, this time.
I ran a 1:40:26. It’s unofficial, but close enough for the calculations we will consider. (The night before, I went with my family to Zio’s, had a cruddy dinner, and spilled a glass of wine on my wife, but that’s a footnote.)
I ran strong throughout the race, at a pace that I could sustain through the finish. I had some gas left, but not a lot. I drafted this guy in a red shirt. He carried me through most of the second half; I was zoned into his shoulders and watching his feet. Then I passed him at some point, without even realizing it; then he passed me on the way into Crown Center. We exchanged low-fives, saying something like, “Hey,” to each other.
I was not going to run any faster than I was running. I was not trying to beat him. He pulled away from me strong. Still, I may have run the end too fast. That may have been when I stressed my IT band (knee) and right calf. On the slight downhill, I felt the weakness and threat of pain, the possibility of structural-failure. Despite this, I was happier with this race, because I paced myself better and I didn’t make any pit stops.
Now that I’m looking back on it, and now that I have made peace with my current ability, which took several days, I’m planning to train for the Kansas City Half in mid-October at a 1:40 pace. There was a question about training for the marathon, but a recent attempt at a 35 mile week quashed that. And there was a question about setting my paces at 1:35, but that would not have been based on the evidence, the experimental results. I did not earn it. I have about 13 more weeks of training before the horn goes off. I hope I have not plateaued here, but I also know that pushing too hard, too soon leads to injury. I’d rather not spend any more time in that purgatory than I have to.
And I read recently that you shouldn’t start a training plan if you have any niggles. So, I’m not going to be on a training plan (really) either. I’m just going to watch my mileage and track my times.
It’s not a race. It’s a journey. Neil Peart of Rush
It’s not a workout. It’s worship. Nelson Townsend
One of the nicest things that anyone has said to me was, “You know what… You are an injury-prone runner.” The key to me hearing it was who said it (a good friend of mine who is a talented, patient runner) and how he said it (with gentleness and understanding) and when he said it (in the middle of a run as I was plotting my training plan for the LA Marathon).
When I heard myself called “injury-prone” by someone who knows me and cares about me, I heard it in a new way. It sounded different from the little voice in my head that had been whispering it for years, nastily, insinuating that I was weak, fatally-flawed. This time I heard, “You should be careful. If you are feeling good and strong, you have a tendency to push yourself until you are hurt. And you don’t need to do that.”
I knew that already. He was right, and I believed him. I took it to heart. But I ran right off a cliff again anyway. And right now, as I write this, I am icing that IT band, which is my last, tangible reminder of that sad chapter. And these past months I have been reading stories of other runners who have gotten injured, and I have been comparing them to my own.
There is Laura Fleshman. Her story is the last one in the link below.
In summary, she was on target to medal in the Olympics in the 5K when she went on a lark to train and run the NY Marathon. She was going to run the marathon and then start seriously training for the 5K. But in the race, she blew out her IT band and spent a year recovering from it. (A year!) Because of the injury, she finished “dead-freakin-last” in the Olympic Trials 5K finals , giving a gutsy effort. And that is not bad. But it was not what she was capable of. I feel like I am reliving her story. I’m hoping I’ll be 100% in a year… that should be about December if my time-math is right, which it frequently isn’t.
Then, there is my own story of success followed by crashes. I spent a year recalibrating after a 1:35 in the 2011 Hospital Hill Run in 81 degree heat. I didn’t know how much heat could affect your running back then. Now I have some idea. I wound up giving myself “credit” for a 1:30 race and training at that level only to wind up with blown-out Achilles for that fall’s KC marathon. In 2012, I backed off, ran comfortably hard efforts in training, and came back with a banner year in 2013, with a 5K in 20:00, a half in 1:29, and a marathon in 3:14. Wish I could get back there…
I went into the 2013 winter running strong but slipped and fell on my piriformis (Latin for one of your butt muscles). And it’s been a long slog since then. I recovered from the piriformis injury to run a respectable KC Half in 2014. Wish I could get back there… but then promptly blew out a couple of nerves into my lower left leg and foot by increasing my mileage too quickly. Several trips to the chiropractor fixed those. But I think I injured my IT band as I cross-trained on the elliptical, putting in monster sessions as I tried to keep my fitness up for the LA Marathon. Now, in the middle of the summer of 2015, I’m icing it, licking my wounds, watching my mileage creep up, listening carefully to my body, having good days and bad days.
Then, there is Meb Keflezighi. I just love Meb. I saw this appreciation article, subtitled “Amazing as a runner, inspiring as a person.”
As an excerpt, I offer this: “And despite the major marathon wins, Olympic medal and national titles, running has often been difficult for Keflezighi. Inside a compact, muscular body are, apparently, some pretty fragile tendons, ligaments and bones. It’s more often the case than not that Meb gets injured during a marathon build-up. While his competitors are cranking out hard 35-kilometer runs, Meb is riding an ElliptiGO and seeing a physiotherapist twice a day. That’s the sort of thing almost any dedicated marathoner would put up with once before a big race. But again, and again, and again? Most in Meb’s situation would have called it a career years ago.”
This story has a recap of Meb’s injuries, including his most debilitating, a pelvic fracture that occurred during the 2008 Olympic Marathon Trials. And I know one more thing about this injury. Meb wrote about it in “Meb for Mortals,” indicating that it was because of his extremely low body weight that his bones were so fragile. He had been so focused on racing light, losing weight, that his bones had become too weak.
I’ve been there, racing on the edge, feeling great.
You can be too light, but it’s easy to tip the other way, too. And Meb’s struggles with getting down into racing shape are like my own. At some point, once you are a trained athlete, it is not easy to lose the weight. You reach equilibrium. The pounds, the ounces, do not melt off.
I haven’t fallen that far down, but I have heard that siren song. Meb inspires me because I think he shares some of my demons. Sometimes my head is so strong that my body can’t stand up to it. So, Meb’s ability to live with those demons and quiet them encourages and inspires me. I think I can do that too. I can learn to train smart. Let my body tell my head when I’ve had enough.
And at the very end… The author summarizes the lessons he has learned from Meb. “Give thanks. Draw strength from setbacks. Work hard while maintaining perspective.” Amen.
There is another article with words of wisdom from Meb: “Meb still loves NY.”
In the video at the top of the page he says (not verbatim, but close): “I’m not training like I used to do probably. And my tempos or intervals… but I’m solid. I’m solid, and I’m close to it. It’s hard to compare. 10 years ago versus now. I changed my training just a little bit to give more recovery. And biggest goal is to just stay healthy (big smile). And that’s hard.”
And I think, oh yeah. He knows my demons. The demons that whisper you’re not as fast, not as strong. The ones I’m trying to run away from, ignore, or out-smart. I tell them, “I’m solid. I’m solid.” They whisper back, “You will break.”
Meb is on his own 9 day training calendar. Because he is an older runner, he does his hard workouts further apart and he focuses on marathon-pace instead of intervals. But I am still on the work-a-week seven-day calendar. And I’m trying to squeeze in three hard workouts, three cross-training days, and a rest day. Sometimes it feels like I’m trying to solve a complicated Sudoku puzzle. How am I going to get these miles in with these workouts on this schedule? It’s part of the fun and insanity of this running life.
In reading Meb for Mortals, I came away with two new ideas. The first is “letting the pace come to you.” This has never been my style. I’ve always gone out on runs, hit the pace after a cursory warm-up mile, and tried to nail it. Most of the time I succeeded. But it has been good to go out on a run with a general idea of what I’m going to do, and then find the pace in the early miles and cruise or push it. It seems to be working okay. Most of the time, my body will get in the groove and beg to run the remaining miles pushing the envelope. But sometimes the Gatorade commercial (with its tag “Is it in you?”) fades to black, and I’m left slogging out the final miles.
The other idea is always looking for ways to improve myself with drills and exercises. I don’t think I’ve been so good at this in the past. I’ve gotten in ruts with certain strength circuits, and I know my form has suffered as I tried to do more reps and weight. These days, I focus on maintaining my form. And when I feel good, I mess around a little. I play. I run in the grass. I think it is helping.
I am feeling solid on my runs. These legs were made for this work: going and then returning home. Your feet are going to be on the ground. Your head is there to move you around. So stand [run] in the place where you live. Stand by R.E.M. I know why the clock goes tick-tock: Because it is not perfectly symmetrical. It does not go tick-tick. My legs are mis-matched pendulums, going tick-tock beneath me. I can feel the new smoothness, the precision. My arms swing for balance around my rock-solid core. And I am keeping time with the world, the universe as I glide above the city streets. Patience. Practice.
It’s a little disheartening though. Training at a 1:40 pace for a half in the fall means that I am far, far away from Boston. Many miles. A 1:40 half roughly translates (double the half and add 10 minutes) to a 3:30 marathon. That’s good, but it’s not a 3:23. It’s not what I am capable of. And right now I am in no mood for taking on a marathon. Not until I am stronger. Not until I have forgotten LA with its DNF. Not until I have healed. My mind “can’t know what’s coming.” And my body has to want it.
At the same time, I’m trying to maintain perspective. I am in great physical shape, healthy, and enjoying the running and training. I have enough time to do it, and I have a supportive family. I really couldn’t ask for that much more. But it is the human condition to reach. And it is the runner’s condition to set a goal and strive. Today is not good enough. Tomorrow (in 13 weeks) I will be better.
Here’s the downer. A lot of the time, I feel like a broken coffee mug that’s been super-glued back together. There is this art (this idea) “kintsukuroi,” which is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold or silver lacquer, with the understanding that the piece has been repaired because of its value, and that it is now more beautiful.
But I don’t feel more beautiful. I feel like a wreck. And I am crushed by the setbacks, shattered. I need to be gathered up, glued back together, and set aside carefully until I dry, until I am healed.
But at the same time, I am amazed at my body’s ability to repair itself, to recover. I am thankful that despite all of the mistakes I have piled up, I am given another chance, a new day.
Wait. Wait. Wait. As I thought longer about kintsukuroi, I thought I am a precious piece of pottery. I am a precious vessel containing, carrying the Ruach, God’s breath, the light-life. But I can feel the cracks, deep fissures running through my body, the weak places, prone to issues, not quite trust-worthy. When I feel this, I need to remember that I am over-worked, in need of a vacation, a cut-back-week, some rest and relaxation, some TLC, tender-loving-care. And God isn’t using super-glue, the get-fixed-fast cheap stuff. No. I am being repaired with gold lacquer. I am being rebuilt slowly with intricate, delicate filaments of tendon and ligament, tiny accretions of bone. I need to give it time to set up, to get strong.
And then I couldn’t get this song out of my head… It’s gonna take time. A whole lotta precious time. It’s gonna take patience (and understanding) and time. To do it (to do it, to do it, to do it, to do it, to do it) right! (I Got My Mind Set On You by George Michael)
And I have a vision that it is not really me that will determine whether I qualify and run Boston. No. That has already been a gift to me. Now it is my job to live into it, to work toward it. It’s not a workout. It’s worship. And given this running gift, the ability and the enjoyment of it, all a creature can do is return thanks and praise.
If I can afford the trips to the masseuse. If I can afford the chiropractor. If I can avoid them… If I can maintain my concentration, my balance, I will get there.
This journey (this labyrinth) is my laboratory, almost heaven; and the lessons I learn and share are the treasure.