Sunday, March 23, 2014

Being the Best

I've never been the best at anything, even the things I worked hard at. Oh, I'm mediocre in lots of areas, and even above average in a few (for my weight, I'm a decent beer drinker), but nowhere am I brilliant. However, I'm beginning to change that.

Slowly, it has begun to dawn on me that I may have discovered my hidden talent. Since I started my second athletic life several years ago with this whole running thing, I've had grand aspirations to be slightly better than average. To finish in the top half of the field. To perhaps even squeak out an age group award. Alas, lack of talent has prevented my attainment of that lofty goal. Well, lack of talent, lack of training, lack of will power, and lack of restraint in beer drinking have factored in heavily as well.

But now, I think I've found the true measure of my greatness - illness and injury. No one, and I mean NO ONE can injure themselves as easily as me. Over the past few years, I think I have tweaked every single joint, ligament, tendon and bone from the tips of my big toes to the base of my skull, all simply by running. On the illness front, I've spread more contagion in race starting corrals than Typhoid Mary could ever dream of at her pathogenic best. I've been sick before, during or after every single race I've run for the past 3 years. I'm thinking of changing my trail name to Symptomatic Scott.

Think you have the stuff to challenge me? Think you can depose my monarchy of malady? Well, let me leave you with a taste of what you are up against.

If you've been reading this sad blog, you'll know that I gave myself a raging case of plantar fasciitis at the Medoc Trail Marathon way back in October. In and of itself, that's not so grand of an injury. However, since that time I've been struggling to recover. I've been cross training. I've been visiting a very bemused physical therapist. And I've been lamely attempting to run again, on a foot that seems to be permanently busted. Four months after my injury, still struggling to heal, I missed my favorite local trail race this year because of that latest injury. Sitting out the Umstead Marathon was it's own exquisite torture - a masochistic volunteering pleasure.

Oh, I had big plans for even my volunteer activities at Umstead. I couldn't run, so I volunteered for bike duty, and was lucky enough to get one of the lead bike assignments. I would pace the leaders through the race and into the finish. How exciting is that?! So, weeks before the marathon I began biking. I hauled my bike into work, and spent my lunch hours pounding away the miles in Umstead, beating my quads into shape. Of course, I injured myself. I gave myself a wicked case of patellar tendonitis, and had to drop out of the biking volunteer duties.

That's right. I injured myself trying to train for volunteer duties at a race that I was already too injured to run. Think you can top that? I think not. I am the best!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Blood and Whisky - Uwharrie Mountain Run 8 Miler

Whisky is the answer. The questions are many, but pointless, especially after whisky. But here's one to ponder - how do you make Uwharrie Mountain Run your first trail race after a long injury layoff? Whisky. Just trust me on this.

Ok, I don't blame you for not trusting me. Hell, I don't trust me when it comes to running, racing, or training advice. But stick with me here, there's a more important idea behind my madness that I'll get to eventually.

The Long Suck
I've never been a great runner, but I do like to run. Actually, I need to run. It's what keeps me healthy and sane. Having a doctor tell me that I couldn't run for at least 2 months and possibly up to 6 months (or risk permanent disability) was like being smacked in the face with a porcupine. It sucked! Of course, I couldn't complain too much. It was my decision to run my last trail marathon with an injured foot. So don't feel sorry for me, that's my job anyway.

After 2 months of suck, filled with pool running, bosu ball balancing, and innumerable sessions of stretching, I finally ran again. For ONE minute. Starting back slowly was one thing, but this was ridiculous! But I stuck to the plan of my physical therapist (also a runner, who sympathized with my situation) and slowly ramped up over the coming month, making it all the way back up to 4.25 miles. Not that my foot was perfect, it hurt after every run, but I was moving again.

Great Friends And Bad Decisions
I had long ago given up hope of running Uwharrie this year. I just didn't have the training miles or the health. Luckily, I have a co-injured running friend who is even more prone to rash decisions than me. Although it was stupid beyond belief, Ryan and I goaded each other into running the 8 miler at Uwharrie.

As soon as I committed to running the race, I started worrying. Originally I only wanted to drive down and pick up my race shirt, and then hang out at the finish to see friends. Actually running a race again, especially Uwharrie, scared me. Deciding to run the race from the rear of the field and committing to have as much fun as possible, was the smartest decision Ryan and I could have made, although it wasn't even close to leveling the overall stupidity of the situation.

Blood And Whisky
Determined to have fun, even if I self destructed on the hard, rocky trails of Uwharrie, I brought some decent whisky along for the trip. We bought a couple of McDonald's coffees (and an apple pie or two) just before arriving at the check-in. I dumped Maker's Mark into my cheap McDonald's coffee and less than an hour later, poured my decrepit old body onto the trails of Uwharrie.

I don't think I've ever had such a good time during a trail race! The whisky helped, of course, but running with a like minded friend made most of the difference. Not that I could ever strip down to some questionable bikini briefs for most the run, like Ryan, but running with no goals and no worries was pretty damned nice, especially on a gorgeous day in Uwharrie.

Yes, Uwharrie is insane.

And gorgeous!

Not everyone can or should attempt this
sort of douche-baggery. Eventually, afraid of tripping
and smashing my front teeth on a trail rock, I had
to run in front of this distraction.

A beautiful day in Uwharrie.

Good to be back.

Have you ever been scared to do something you love? Scared of failure? Scared of injury? That's what coming back to running after a long recovery from injury was like. Thank goodness for Uwharrie. And great friends. And good whiskey.

Totally worth it.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Ultra Marathons Are Easy

That's right, ultras are easy. Trivial. Formulaic. Combine the right training and a dash of stubbornness, with an insouciant attitude towards suffering, and anyone can run an ultra. Hell, if a broken down 40 something dude with middling running abilities can finish an ultra (or TWO ultras within TWO months), absolutely anyone can.

You are nodding your head, screaming at your screen, politely disagreeing or totally confused at this point, but don't worry, I do have a point to make. For those of you nodding your heads - internet high five! For the screamers out there - settle down, it's only a blog. For those who politely disagree - I politely disagree with your disagreement. For the confused - read on.

Ok, perhaps "easy" isn't the right word. But in the grand scheme of the ultra marathon achievement, and in hindsight of my own ultra runs, it's close enough. Hindsight is the key here. I've "done" it, so I can tell you that all your doubts about achieving a distance milestone, be it a 5K, a half marathon, a full marathon, or an ultra marathon, should be laid aside. You CAN do it. The only difference between you and the zombie hoard of naysayers out there is your decision to actually get off your ass and do the training to achieve the goal. If this seems simple, it's really only because it IS simple.

There Is No Try
I know what you are thinking. There are a million different reasons (injury, disability, age, laziness, etc.) that would prevent an individual from running an ultra marathon. And you are correct. But I'm not writing to those people. I'm writing to the person who is reasonably healthy and actively running. The person that looks at the half marathoners, or marathoners with incredulity. The person who thinks ultra marathoners are super human, alien life forms. Yeah, you. If you've really ever considered, even for a split second, running an ultra marathon, but immediately dismissed it as some endorphin fueled brain fart, here's your virtual face slap (SMACK!). Now, sign up for that 50K, or 40 miler, or 50 miler, or even 100 miler. Put together a reasonable plan and get out there and become an ultra human.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Done With Running

I'm sick of running. Sick of the monotony. Sick of the training. Sick of the fatigue. I'm ready for a break. I mean, there are only so many trail races I can run and so many reports I can write before the whole enterprise becomes a tedious exercise (ha! a pun!) in masturbatory self promotion. You're tired of this whole mess too, right? Right?!

OK, I admit it - I'm not done with running, but running seems to be done with me. I'm hurt. Injured. Wounded. Decrepit. And currently, out of action. The left foot had the last laugh following my most recent marathon. Unfortunately it was the sort of evil laugh a sadistic executioner might use upon discovering that his beloved beheading ax was duller than the butter knife he included with your final meal - a meal of bread with no butter.

What's wrong with my foot you ask? Well, sit back and let me tell you all about it.

I. Don't. Know.

Yeah, that about sums it up. I have no f'n clue what's wrong. What seemed to be plantar fasciitis has morphed through several different stage of painful, indistinct suckitude. Doctor Google tells me it is a combination of plantar fasciitis, post tibial tendonosis, and heel fat pad atrophy, served with a demi-glace of calcaneal stress fracture. My running bud, Randy, says my foot has been infested by tiny, evil gnomes. I think Randy has better odds of being right.

So, I'm off to the doctor, again, for x-rays and probably an MRI. With my luck, the evil foot gnomes have been hammering tiny iron nails into my foot bones, which will all come exploding out of my foot like so much reverse shrapnel when the MRI cranks up. I can only hope it takes out a few of those little bastards at the same time.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Success Through Failure - Medoc Trail Marathon

"I'm giving up on running. I'm OUT! Running sucks. Running injured sucks even more! And having a wheel fall off during the last 6 miles of a marathon is just miserable. I'm tired of this whole lifestyle. Too much training. Too much pain. I could be sitting at home, drinking a nice cold pale ale and enjoying life. Instead, I'm cursing every painful footstep just trying to get to the finish line."

I think every runner has lived through that sort of mental train wreck in one race or another, and I'm no exception. It's exactly what I was thinking in the last 6 miles of the Medoc Trail Marathon this year. But before I get too far into the Freudian analysis of my self destruction, I want to talk about the race itself.

The Race
Aside from the great course, excellent aid stations, and superior race swag, what makes the race truly exceptional are the people. Medoc is magic, and the magic ingredient is the people who make it possible.

This is my third year of running the Medoc Trail Marathon, and honestly, the race just gets better and better each year. I just can't say enough good things about the guys who organize the race and the volunteers who spend their day in the remote woods of Medoc Mountain State Park cheering on the runners and serving up gallons of Gatorade and other goodies. You people are simply awesome! I wish I could do something greater than simply saying "Thank you!"

I've said this before, but if you are thinking about your first trail marathon, or even your first marathon, do yourself a favor and sign up for Medoc. It's special. You won't regret it.

That Headsweats hat is from 2 years ago
(still my favorite finisher prize ever), but the shirt
medal and cap (awesome!) are this year's
marathon goodies.

My Race
OK, on to the deconstruction of my self destruction. Even with my gimpy, plantar fasciitis riddled foot, I thought I had the conditioning to finally pull off the elusive sub 4 hour trail marathon. In fact, I was sure of this, which was probably why I failed. Never make assumptions with anything related to running. Unless you want to make yourself look like an ass.

My foot has been steadily improving. I made it through the Salem Lake Trail 30K with no long term damage (even though the race itself was painful, I still maintained a sub 9 minute pace), and my fitness seemed better this year than in years past. But Medoc, and my foot, had other plans for me.

The first couple of laps (miles 1-17) went according to plan. I passed the a halfway point in exactly 2 hours, feeling pretty darned good. The foot felt tight, but overall was behaving itself and I felt comfortable with my pace. By the time I made it back to the start finish area (mile 18-ish), I had started to feel the first rumblings of pain in my foot and the 9 minute per mile single track effort was starting to really take a toll (I told my friend Ryan, who had finished the 10 miler and met me at the aid station, that I wished I were done). But I expected to be in this mental state around mile 18. Miles 18-26.2 wind through demon fighting country. You've got to be prepared to fight those mental demons. This being my 6th trail marathon, I assumed I had the right weapons for that battle.

The Lap of Failure
I'm good at modifying my race goals on the fly. Years of practice I guess. So, when I made it to the top of Medoc Mountain and arrived at the aid station outside the window of a possible 4 hour marathon, I quickly switched my goal of running a sub-4 hour marathon to simply beating my previous marathon PR (set last year at Medoc) of 4:18. I had plenty of time to make that goal and was still feeling pretty good physically, although my lack of 20+ mile training runs was starting to chip away at the foundations of my mental fortitude. With a bit of encouragement from Frank Lilley (one of the race organizers helping to run the aid station. See!? Awesome people!), I headed down off the mountain, confident in achieving a new marathon PR.

Unfortunately, my foot had other ideas. Ideas like "not running anymore" and "sending level 10 pain signals to my brain". Less than a mile from the top of Medoc Mountain, I was reduced to a hobbling shuffle. Pounding down the mountain at 8 minute pace had apparently pushed my foot to the breaking point. After 20 miles, my foot was DONE. Cooked. Smashed. Destroyed. And very, very angry at me for putting it through such an ordeal. So, for the last 6 miles of the race, it had its revenge. It sent wave after wave of high intensity pain signals into my fatigued brain anytime my pace crept below 13 minutes per mile.

Oh, I tried to compensate. I ran on my forefoot to take the pressure off my left heel. This resulted in a totally cramped calf around mile 23. I tried using my right leg to maintain the pace, but my right hamstrings just laughed at me and promptly took a cramp break around mile 24. Eventually, my entire lower body was just one giant convulsing cramp. I was an angry, cramping rock in a steady stream of other runners as they flowed past on their way to the finish.

Finishing And Friends Make Everything Better
Limping to the finish, I had the total mental break down (the opening of this post). I've never hated anything more than running in my entire life in those last few minutes. I crossed the finish line well outside my PR, and far, far away from my sub 4 hour goal. I crossed angry and miserable. But within seconds, I was surrounded by smiling friends. By other runners who had both good days and bad days out on the trail. And that camaraderie, that trail runner communal friendship, totally washed away my bad attitude. The failure had somehow reminded me of why I love trail running so much. The people.

How do you turn a total failure of a race into a success? Simple, look at it through a different lens. The goals we make for ourselves aren't the measure of happiness, or success, at the end of a race. What matters is friends, and fellowship. Simple connections with your fellow humans. That's success. And by that measure, I won Medoc this year.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Salem Twitch Trials - Salem Lake 30K Trail Race

Running while recovering from an injury is like running on the edge of a knife. One false step, one little slip, and you risk total evisceration. You must delicately balance the training with the slow recovery from injury. Not too fast. Not too much.

Training for a big race while injured is like running on the edge of a knife with paper plates strapped to your feet. You can pull it off, but it requires ninja like concentration and dexterity.

Racing a big race while injured is like throwing your naked body off a rooftop into a dumpster full of samurai swords. While being sprayed with alcohol from a firehose. It just can't end well.

I knew when the alarm went off at 4:45AM that running the Salem Lake 30K Trail Race would be stupid. My PF riddled foot was already throbbing and I hadn't taken my first step. So, I turned off the alarm and told the beautiful wife that I couldn't run. I think we were both relieved. My foot is a mess and her mileage has been way down recently (life with small kids preempts running very often in our house).

Fifteen minutes later, I was out of bed and scrambling to get ready for the race. No reason to start being smart about running at this point. Besides, being smart about my running would probably mean never running again.

Twitch Trials
The beautiful wife and I have had a series of showdowns over the past year or so, with her getting closer and closer to finally ending my winning streak. Luckily, we both agreed that this race would be a training run for the upcoming Medoc Trail Marathon, so the pressure was off.

Due to terrible parking logistics and a race site packet pickup that was located somewhere other than the start/finish area (really, Salem Trail Race organizers? Really?!), we missed the race start by over 2 minutes. Well, I wasn't stressed about missing the start. This was only a training run. Or so I thought.

Within the first mile, I knew I had been totally tricked by the beautiful wife. She pulled ahead of me and began passing dozens of people running a pace I knew I couldn't maintain for 10 miles, much less 18.6 miles. I hung on for dear life trying to stay on her shoulder. I managed to stay with her for about 11 miles before my PF battered left foot had had enough and I had to let her go. She was totally out of sight within a couple of minutes. My winning streak had come to a sad, injured end.

I thought someone had hidden a red hot knife inside my shoe. Each step felt as if the knife were slowly, painfully, cutting the heel off my foot. I arrived at the turn off for the 7mile race, which was a short cut back to the start/finish line of the 30K race and had to make the decision - quit or continue. I slowed to near crawling speed to give myself a few extra moments to consider the decision, and noticed that my foot didn't hurt. Maybe I could finish the last 7 miles of my run, only at a much slower pace. I lumbered on, running near the edge of debilitating foot pain.

I ran the next few miles at what felt like walking speeds, but slowly, imperceptibly, my pace increased. I was passed by about a dozen people and could never even see the beautiful wife on any long stretch of open trail. By the time I passed the 3 miles to go marker, I had regained a good bit of speed. Somehow, I had managed to find a running style that didn't aggravate my foot. Unfortunately, this involved using my "good" leg in a kind of super aggressive limp-run. And my right hamstrings were screaming at me for the abuse.

Passing the 2 miles to go marker I thought I saw the beautiful wife through the trees on the trail on the opposite side of a particularly long finger of the lake. I couldn't be sure though, but it gave me a bit of hope that I could perhaps keep the streak alive one more race. I pushed a bit harder.

After passing the 1 mile to go marker, I rounded a turn onto a long straightaway and was sure that the person just disappearing around the far bend was my wife. She had slowed down to a sane pace in the last third of the race, but was still moving well. I had a shot at catching her! I went all in with an over striding, foot pounding, spit spewing, curse filled sprint trying to catch her.

I closed the gap to less than 100 meters, but I was running out of trail very quickly. I passed a spectator who cheered me on, telling me the finish was right around the corner. Time to enter the puke zone! I threw everything I had left into an ugly, slow motion impression of a 90 year old Usain Bolt.

I caught the beautiful wife within 50 feet of the finish line, smugly putting my hand on her shoulder and chirping "Hey honey!"

At first, she was surprised and happy to see me. "Oh, hey sweetie!" she said. Then the look on her face changed to anger and she said "Oh no you don't!"

She sprinted hard the last 40 feet.

I couldn't catch her.

I lost.

By 2 f'n seconds!

Well, the streak is over, but I can't say I'm that unhappy about it. Actually, it's kind of nice to be done with the pressure. I failed the twitch trial, but was fairly beaten, and by quite a beautiful, fast, little witch.
Post race beer heals my
wounded pride.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Killing My Plantar Fasciitis Beast

So, you have plantar fasciitis (PF). Me too. Sucks doesn't it? In fact, I would say it's one of the most evil injuries that can afflict a runner. Pulled muscles heal in a month or two. Tendinitis can be managed while continuing to train. Even broken bones heal in 8 to 16 weeks.

Plantar fasciitis can last for many months. Or years. Or forever. It's evil. Pure evil.

I've had PF before, in my right foot. I tried all sorts of remedies and therapies but not much worked. Some things would help, but only temporarily. The PF always returned. Over the course of a year, I eventually worked out a seemingly effective treatment strategy.

Note: I am not a doctor, nor do I claim to be one. I'm just another knuckle-head runner with a blog. This recovery regimen worked for me, but don't blame me if it doesn't work for you. Your mileage may vary. Take with water before bedtime. Do not operate heavy equipment under the influence of this therapy. May cause hair loss and extreme boredom. Do not attempt these therapies if you do not have PF or if you have no feet. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA, the FBI, or the CIA. The NSA denies the very existence of PF.

Calm The Beast
First, I had to get my PF beast to calm down and stop thrashing about it's cage. Here's what I did.
  1. Stop running. Don't panic! It wasn't a long break. I gave my foot about 2 weeks to recover from the inflammatory injury cycle (i.e. running) that I had been putting it through.
  2. No, really, stop running. Yeah, you saw me out there, limping along. OK, I'll head back to step 1.
  3. Reduce the inflammation. This is tricky. Inflammation is required in the body's feedback loop of healing, so I didn't want to eliminate it entirely. But I wanted to reduce the pain and inflammation enough to begin the actual recovery exercises. I didn't go on a 2400mg per day regimen of ibuprofen in an attempt to be pain free. That wasn't the goal. Actually, I just avoid NSAIDs like ibuprofen entirely when possible, mostly because I value my colon (don't ask). Topical anti-inflammatory creams worked, but I had to use a lot since the skin on my feet was fairly thick.
Herd The Beast
Second, I began herding the beast towards the slaughter house. I followed these steps on a daily basis until I was pain free.
  1. Deep massage. If you've had PF for a while, you probably have a nice little build up of scar tissue. I sure did. Deep massage using my thumb helped break up the scar tissue and started realigning the collagen fibers of the fascia. Think of the injury site as a pile of collagen fiber spaghetti with scar tissue meatballs. Deep massage started breaking up the meatballs and aligning the spaghetti strands. I massaged from my heel towards to my toes, just because that was easier. Warning: In the beginning this hurt! However, it became more tolerable after a few sessions. Another more advanced massage technique I tried was rolling a hard ball under my foot, back and forth across the plantar fascia (from heel to toe and toe to heel). I used a pool cue ball, but a golf ball or something similar would probably work just as well. This provided both massage and stretching of the plantar fascia. And speaking of stretching...
  2. Gentle stretching. There are several ways to gently stretch the plantar fascia, but I had a favorite. I sat in a chair and crossed my afflicted leg on top of the other leg. I placed the ankle of my crossed leg on top of my knee, allowing the foot with PF to hang slightly to the side. I held my heel in the palm of one hand and wrapped my other hand over my toes and around the ball of my foot. Then I pulled the ball of my foot towards the knee while bracing the heel with my other hand. When I did it correctly, I felt a gentle stretch in the arch of my foot. Go here for another description and to see the source of this picture. 

  3. Strengthen the feet. Believe it or not there are muscles in your feet, and they can be strengthened. My favorite strengthening exercise was the foot "scrunch". I did this while sitting (easier) or standing (harder). The idea is to scrunch the foot by pulling the toes and ball of the foot towards the heel using only the muscles of the feet. I started in a seated position with my foot flat on a towel which was lying on the floor. I then attempted to scrunch up the towel using only the scrunching motion of my foot. Once I was able to do that proficiently, I wore a sock and performed the same foot scrunch while standing on a smooth floor (no towel required since I had learned the proper form from the sitting scrunches). Three sets of 10 scrunches a couple times a day really helped me after a week or two.
  4. Wear a boot. I was very reluctant to wear a boot at night. I didn't think I needed something so drastic. But the boot seems to help the fascia heal in a more neutral position, so I eventually got a boot and wore it to bed every night. I regretted not doing it sooner because my foot felt much better almost immediately once I started wearing the boot. Don't worry, I didn't wear it forever. Every few weeks, I would sleep without it for a few days. Each morning I would see if I could take a pain free step out of the bed. Once I had a pain free week without wearing the boot, it went into the closet. 

Kill The Beast
OK, it's been pretty standard protocol up to this point. Now we get to the hard parts, and some would say the controversial parts - lifestyle changes. Yeah, sorry, but the only way I was able to truly kill the PF beast was to change some aspects of the way I live and exercise.
  1. No arch support. Yeah, seems counter intuitive, but believe me, I wasn't doing my plantar fascia any favors by perpetually propping it up on top of arch supports. Using arch support, my plantar fascia would heal, and I was even been able to run again, but it never became strong and PF resistant (PF came back regularly). The only way to ensure development of a strong, healthy plantar fascia was by actually using it as intended (as part of the spring complex in my foot's arch).
  2. Run barefoot. I wanted strong feet, so I sucked it up and ran barefoot. I don't care if you think it's hippy trippy dippy crap. It worked for me! I'm not saying I ran exclusively barefoot. I just added some barefoot running (or even walking, but preferably running) to my normal training. I ran barefoot once every week or so, not more than a mile or two. It didn't take much barefooting since I was gaining foot strength by running without arch support, but it did seem to be necessary to get back to 100% foot health, at least for me.
  3. Stand up. Aside from the other health benefits of getting off your arse, standing is good for the feet and legs. I started using a standing desk at work and spent most days on my feet. I would stand and balance on each foot for several minutes at a time during the day. If I got tired, I sat down, but I tried to spend more time standing than sitting. Sitting is nearly as evil as PF.
  4. Roll the calf muscles. Yes, really. Tight calf muscles (or muscles with painful spots/knots) put persistent pressure on my achilles tendon, which put persistent pressure on my plantar fascia. I bought a foam roller and went after the tight spots in my calf muscles. If you are a masochist, you will really enjoy a "fun" session of rolling out the knots in your calf muscles. 
My right foot has been PF free for a couple of years now. I expect to kill the beast in my left foot in short order.

If  you too have PF, best of luck to you in your quest to kill the beast! I'll be cheering you on.