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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.