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Fitting a run in

Friday, 31 May 2013

If I have no other commitments and any of my friends – Dave, Bruce or Mike – are available, Friday is golf day, weather permitting.  We’re pretty much just “hackers”, and only play nine holes, but we start early and generally have the course to ourselves up at Peats Ridge, a pretty course about 40 minutes drive away.  Afterwards, we buy a late breakfast at a local cafĂ©.  Because of the early start, it can be a challenge to fit in a training run.

Early morning at The Springs, Peats Ridge
For a few years, I went for a run after the golf, but it was always a chore.  I didn’t want to miss the post-golf breakfast, so I ended up running on a full stomach, rarely a pleasant experience.  So, I have adapted my schedule to make Fridays a very easy training day and now get up early and go for a slow 5km before showering and heading off to golf.  It means I break my rule about not running too soon after waking, but I always start slow.

Getting out for regular training runs becomes a challenge for everybody at some time, especially if you're working full-time.  When I was a serious athlete, training twice a day, I found it easiest to run to and from work, usually going in on the weekend to leave a week's clothes and lunches.  Depending on my program, I might run home via Olympic Park for a track session or meet friends for a tempo run, or tour the Melbourne suburbs for a long run.  Later in my working life, when I was a less serious runner, had children, and lived overseas with a job involving a great deal of travel, my routine evolved.  I developed the habit of getting up at 5am or earlier every workday morning, regardless of jet lag or the time I went to bed, and running 10-12km with longer runs, and maybe races, on the weekends.  Although running after work might have been more attractive, I quickly learnt that a tough day at the office, or unexpected events, could make an evening run difficult or impossible.

After yesterday’s longer run, I was stiff and sore in the quads all day, and my right Achilles and knee were painful.  I was dreading this morning's early jog and it lived up to my expectations.  I was shuffling particularly slowly and trying not to put too much strain on the damaged Achilles.  Miraculously, but not unexpectedly, I felt much better by the time I finished.  My time was slow – 30 minutes compared to the usual 25 minutes for this course – but the run had the desired effect.  It’s amazing how 30 minutes of running transforms your outlook and loosens the body.  I still have a long way to go before I feel like a runner again, but another day has passed and I feel I am still on track.

Loosening up

Thursday, 30 May 2013

My right Achilles was sore from the moment I got up.  I hobbled around trying not to stress it while I got ready for the regular 6:00am Thursday track training session that I supervise at Terrigal Haven.  I use the word “supervise” somewhat loosely, because the sessions, which are attended by about ten of my Terrigal Trotters’ friends, would happen whether I was there or not.  I do map out a program tailored towards peaking for several major marathons, and I think everybody is happy to have someone else tell them what to do.  The sessions last about an hour and I don’t do much more than spell out what the session entails and offer encouragement and sometimes advice on injuries or to novices.  I enjoy the camaraderie and try to keep walking around to loosen up for my own run, which will follow.

Terrigal Haven, where the Thursday morning track
sessions occur.
The runners prefer to do the sessions on the grass rugby oval, even though it is very dark to start in winter, and some wear headlamps.  This morning, in addition to the marker cones I traditionally use to define the lap, I brought along some cheap LED lights ($1 per unit) I had purchased on eBay and put them out with the cones.  It worked well, I think.

The walking around while the runners ran their laps loosened my Achilles and when the session was over, I was ready to run.  After the runners left, I stripped off at my car and set off to run a 22.5km circuit as my day’s training.  My quads felt very tight and heavy right from the start and I resigned myself to a laborious two hours of running.  I tried not to push at all and, early on, worried about a few niggles, especially in my left hip that had been the site of some problems in the last two years.  My chronic right knee injury hurt, but I expected that and knew it would cope.  Thankfully, the shooting pain I briefly experienced climbing the stairs soon after rising this morning did not return.  So many things that can go wrong with a runner’s body, that I often wonder how (and why) we keep going.

I plodded along, negotiating the substantial hills en route, and just tried to ignore the muscle fatigue and stiffness.  It’s all about risk management, really.  It did feel risky setting out on a two-hour run when my muscles were so fatigued.  However, it is also true that just five days ago I had hiked nearly 50km in a day carrying a 20kg pack at the end of many days’ of hiking.  It seems reasonable, that so long as I run slowly, I should be able to manage 22km.

I finished in 2:06, which though slow, was faster than I had expected or felt like I was running.  I savoured my warm-down 15 minute walk around the perimeter of The Haven in the warming sunshine.  Injuries often show up one or two days later, so I can’t be sure whether my decision to run was wise.  For the moment, I’m still on track.

Comebacks don't get any easier

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

I set out for this morning’s 10k (the Avoca/Ascot Ave loop) not expecting to feel any better than yesterday and wasn’t disappointed.  My quads ached quite a lot and my right Achilles tendon was painful, but I knew my best strategy was just to keep going and not force the pace and that’s what I did.  Comebacks get harder as you get older, I have found, but there are no shortcuts and you just have to look ahead to the time when it will get easier.  The longer the lay-off, the longer the comeback will be.  My rule-of-thumb for shorter lay-offs (less than three months) is that it will take about as long as you had off to get back to where you were.

Official results for my PB marathon
I am optimistic that after a couple of weeks I will suddenly feel that I am moving better.  It has worked this way in the past after a lay-off, and I have only missed three weeks of running while hiking this time.

I believe that the most important training session for any runner not blessed with great talent is the long run, regardless of speed.  My theory is that running efficiency develops through repeating the action, within reason.  The more running you do the more your body adapts to that action and the more efficient you become.  Your running muscles strengthen, your stature improves, your stride lengthens and your cardio-vascular capacity grows.

On earlier occasions in my running career, when I was trying to come back from a lay-off and was reasonably confident that I was uninjured, my fast track way to fitness was to do a very long slow run of approximately 40km every third day and run “no pressure” shorter runs on the intervening days for recovery.  It can be gruelling and tiresome on those earlier long runs, but when I have followed the regime for two or three weeks, I quickly gained good fitness.  Of course, things don’t always go to plan, and there’s no value in persisting with this program if injuries become apparent.

For the next three weeks, I will be pursuing a version of this comeback strategy, starting with a 22km tomorrow morning after the regular track training session I supervise at Terrigal Haven.  At the end of these three weeks, I will move to a more well-rounded training program that I have outlined in Excel but not yet completed.

Transition from hiker to runner

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

I was very stiff getting up in the morning, as I had been during my recent hike, and shuffled carefully through my morning routine that included the usual short set of stretching and strengthening exercises.  The exercises haven’t changed much in 35 years and I’m quite religious about doing them.  But the repeats have reduced in deference to advancing age and I do give myself a discount on weekends.  I start with sit-ups (also known as trunk curls) for stomach muscle strength, followed by push-ups for upper body strength, a body curl to stretch the lower back, some calf stretches and heel raises to stretch and test the Achilles tendons and lower calves, and finally some quadriceps stretches.

Taking a break while hiking the Hume & Hovell Track
It’s not a lot, maybe 10-15 minutes worth, but that has value in itself.  I’m a great believer in setting achievable goals and think the reason I have been consistently able to maintain this schedule is that it is not an onerous task.  Yet, it is enough to wake my body up, build strength in some key muscle groups, and highlight any injuries that may need attention.  The range of exercises developed in response to various serious running injuries I have had over the years.  I still suffer from some of the same injuries, but am confident that the exercises have reduced the frequency.

This morning, the heel stretches and heel raises highlighted some pain in my right Achilles tendon that has been an occasional problem in the last six months and was quite sore on occasions in the last three weeks while hiking.  One of my genetic deficiencies as a marathon runner seems to have been the structure of my Achilles tendons.  When running, my tendons have had a tendency to rub on the heel bone, causing inflammation at first and then chronic swelling, destruction of the bursa, clagging of the tendon in the sheath, and finally serious tearing of the tendon.

The result was a series of chronic left Achilles tendons injuries in my first fifteen years of running addressed with cortisone injections, NSAIDs and finally three successive surgeries.  The last of these was radical and removed a corner of my heel bone on the theory that this would eliminate the root cause of the problem.  I was one of the first in Australia to have the surgery from a specialist who had recently returned from working in Canada where the procedure was pioneered (I think).  The recovery was lengthy, but it seemed to solve the problem.

Twenty years later, in my early fifties, I developed similar problems with my right Achilles tendon whilst living and working in the US.  I saw a specialist and had the same surgery as had been done on my left tendon and, after a very lengthy recovery period (nearly a year), I was able to run again.  However, I’m starting to worry that a chronic problem is beginning to develop again with the right tendon, probably associated with running style changes to adapt to a chronic right knee problem.  The pain seems to come and go, so I’m hoping it will gradually clear up.  I try not to tie my shoes too tight so that there is not too much pressure on the heel and switch the shoes I wear from day to day in the hope that keeps changing the pressure points.

In another concession to age, I now wait longer before I run after getting up and now try and make it at least 90 minutes with a minimum of 60 minutes.  Otherwise, I feel like I am forcing my body - the ligaments, tendons and muscles – when it’s not ready and risking injury.  It also feels uncomfortable.  Ten years ago, the minimum time was 30 minutes.

When I finally headed out for an easy 10km, not having run at all for three weeks, I decided to walk the first 500 metres before starting to jog as another risk-mitigation exercise.  To my pleasant surprise, it didn’t feel too bad when I started jogging.  Though it was slow, I wasn’t bothered.  I know the next couple of weeks is going to be all about getting my body back into running mode and that there are no short-cuts and lots of injury risks.

I crawled up the Copa Hill and round the usual morning 10km, studiously avoiding forcing the pace and constantly examining my body for niggles and potential injuries.  There were a few – left lower back and right Achilles tendon – but they didn’t seem to grow worse and I finished the regular course in about 56 minutes, which is middle of the range for the course.  It was good to have the first run out of the way and I was longing for that feeling of being a runner again.

The idea forms

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

I was cruising as I climbed the gentle grade from the campground at Burrinjuck Waters along the sealed road winding its way out of the valley.  The air was cool, the surrounding bush shaded the road, and there were occasional glimpses to the large reservoir below.  Having tapered for Canberra, I should have been feeling good, although there was still some stiffness across my lower back to remind me of my folly.

Trail beside Lake Burrinjuck
Canberra had been a disaster.  I kept reviewing the failure and considering what I could do about it as I climbed higher and higher.  Maybe I never had a chance of running sub-3.  At best, it would have been close, with few of my lead-up runs offering evidence of top form.  Mark and Ian should both have gone close to sub-3, but each faded in the latter kilometres and missed by a few minutes.  Maybe I was kidding myself to think that, on the day, I could have done better.  They had both been whipping my butt over 10km recently.

As it happened, I was never in the race anyway.  Bending awkwardly to pick up a heavy bike rack two days before the race, I felt something in my lower right back give and, over the balance of the day, realised that I had a problem with some constant low-level and specific pain in the sacroiliac joint.  I think I knew as soon as I felt something give in the back, that my Canberra ambitions were on hold, but spent the day hoping that I was wrong.

The next morning, before the five-hour drive to Canberra, I ran down to the beach and back, a distance of 2 kilometres, to test the back.  It wasn’t as painful as I feared, but I could still feel a specific point of pain and the lower back muscles were tight, probably compensating for the minor ligament strain.  I needed to be running at my best, and knew I wouldn’t be with a tight lower back.  I went home, dug out a three-year-old packet of Celebrex, an anti-inflammatory, and took my first pill.  It said one per day, but the marathon was tomorrow, so I resolved to take another one in the evening and then again tomorrow morning.  I have used a variety of anti-inflammatory drugs over 45 years of running, but use them less frequently these days.  I have come to the view that, by masking pain, they increase the chances of incurring further injury and that you are better to be conscious of any injury-associated pain.  However, I’ve always been willing to make an exception when an important running event is imminent and found Celebrex to be effective in the past although suspected that it had some effects on my psyche in competition.  Research has found it to affect mood in some individuals and I can remember in the past feeling that it dulled my competitive edge when racing seriously.  It can also affect digestion, though this hadn’t been a significant issue in the past.  I was in a bind and didn’t want to waste all the time and hard work I had put in to prepare for the marathon.  My alternatives were to withdraw, to take no pills and race in the hope the injury would prove unimportant, or take the pills and hope any side effects were negligible and that I didn’t damage my back more seriously.  I chose the latter and it didn’t work out.

Fastest marathon in my teens
The Celebrex affected my digestion, and when the race started, I felt very bloated and needed to go to the loo.  I had already been several times since rising and was in the queue to go again when I heard the ten-minute warning for the race and I abandoned my place.  The starter’s gun fired, and within 500 metres, I knew it wasn’t my day.  My back was tight, my stomach was painfully bloated, and I needed to find a loo.  Kim and Joel soon cruised pass me, and though both were in the simultaneous Half Marathon, I should have been able to comfortably run at a similar pace.  My dreams of sub-3 marathon glory evaporated and I began contemplating my race options.  Dealing with failure is always confronting.  I have learnt that it is best to be rational and unemotional though that can be hard to do in the moment.  I questioned myself about what was the right thing to do.  Maybe it would be better to keep running and accept a slower time and run the risk of exacerbating the back problem.  Not finishing always looks bad to others (for whom you may wish to be a good example), though there is a tendency to exaggerate the negatives.  I chose the alternative, slowing to an easy jog and then pulling out near the 10km mark, the closest point to where I had parked the car.

Now I was debating what to do next when struck by a very motivating thought.  Maybe it was unlikely, but I still believed I could run a sub-3 if everything went well – planning, preparation, execution – and I had some good luck.  At the age of nineteen, I had run my first sub-3 and followed that with at least one in each subsequent decade of my life until my fifties.  Then, in two attempts, the best I could manage was a 3:07.  It would be a great accomplishment and very personally satisfying to run a sub-3 in my sixties.  Not quite a straight flush, but pretty close.  I know that a stretch target is very motivating to me and it seemed a great opportunity to deploy all of my running experience and knowledge in pursuit of a worthwhile achievement.

Recently, I had begun digitising training diaries from the first fifteen running years of my life, up to and including my prime.  In many respects, it was a shameless exercise in nostalgia, but it also reminded me of the lessons I had learned about running and life along the way.