Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Long and Winding Road - My Transition to Minimalist Running, Part 3

The Ellipse of Life
After being attacked by Thor as punishment for doing Too Much Too Soon (TMTS), I stopped running for a couple  of weeks. Instead I "rode" the elliptical machine in the gym. Joy of joys. If you think the treadmill is boring, don't get on an elliptical machine. You may fall asleep standing up. I recommend vast quantities of caffeine to prevent this. If the caffeine doesn't keep you alert, it will at least force you to take bathroom breaks at regular intervals.

The Top Of Foot Pain (TOFP) in my left foot slowly faded away. As long as I kept my foot flat on the elliptical pedals, I could stay on the machine for up to an hour with no pain.

After two weeks of elliptical workouts I started to lose my focus and feel a bit eccentric. I had to get out and try to run again. That or just give up. And I'm too stubborn to give up.

The Perigee of Recovery
So it was that I found myself once again standing on the track in my VFFs, ready to attempt running. Afraid of re-injuring myself, I focused on keeping my foot more level as I landed. This seemed to work well. I completed a mile with only low level pain. The elliptical workouts had at least given me a bit more cardio-conditioning, so I was able to run within my breath and not feel like my heart was going to burst from my chest and flop away into the bushes attempting to escape from the torture I was inflicting upon it.

In the 3 months since I started running, my calf muscles had really strengthened. I could see muscles that I thought only existed in anatomy diagrams. Of course, this gave me a false sense of confidence. After completing my second run (2 miles) of the week with no sign of foot pain, I decided to return to my previous training distance on Friday. Surely my Schwarzenegger-like calfs could carry me to a successful 3 mile run.

Running is a Pain in my Latus Rectom
Friday. High noon. March 19. Spring-eve. I'm feeling particularly good today. No foot pain to speak of and the previous 2 runs have not left me with the usual crippling soreness. Let's run!

I cruise through the run feeling better than ever. The 3 miles go by and my foot feels great! I decide to go for a new distance record. I'll run FOUR miles today! Yeah, I'm stupid.

Thor vs. Achilles!
Half way through my fourth mile, I'm out of energy and struggling. I stubbornly plod on, determined to make my new distance milestone. I'm obviously favoring my right leg, in a semi-conscious attempt at protecting my left foot. My right calf starts to feel tight and cramped. I stubbornly plod on. A few minutes later, I feel a pinching sensation in the center of my right calf.

"Probably just a cramp" I think. I stubbornly plod on. Only one third of a mile left in my record setting run!

Out of "nowhere" (if you haven't notice, I'm seriously self deluded about running), Thor makes a dramatic return, engaging in an epic battle with my Achilles tendon.

It's no contest. Thor hammers the acid covered ice pick straight into the heart of my Achilles tendon. Within 3 steps, I go from cramp pain levels directly to gun shot pain levels.

I wouldn't be finishing my run. In fact, I could barely walk back to the locker room.

The Apogee of Recovery
Two days later and the calf pain is still extremely intense. I'm allergic to insurance co-pays, so I limp across the street to consult with my neighbor Katie, who just happens to have a PhD in physical therapy (and is also a phenomenal triathlon competitor). She thinks it's obvious that I have a small tear in my Achilles tendon where it connects to my calf muscle. She gives me a recovery plan.

Four weeks of no running.

I'm seriously depressed.

This wouldn't be the last time.

Next installment - Don't Call It a Comeback!

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Long and Winding Road - My Transition to Minimalist Running, Part 2

(I selected this post to be featured on my blog’s page at It is the epitome of my stupidity.)

Let's Roll!
After the raging success of my first minimalist run, I committed to a semi-serious schedule of 3 runs per week during lunch. Not knowing anything about proper, staged transition to a new running style, I simply choose arbitrary increases in my weekly mileage. I have a history over-extending when it comes to physical activities. If I can do something, I can over do it, and usually do.

So, I decided to go directly from one third of a mile, all the way to 1 mile on my second run. That's right, 3 times the distance that nearly killed me the first week.

"Pffft.." I thought, "It's just 1 mile. Should be easy. Let's roll!"

I was only slightly sore after the first run, so I stepped up to the line, started my watch, and trotted off, bouncing along on the balls of my feet. My feet made small, squeaky noises as they slipped around inside my $9 Walmart pool shoes. My pudgy middle jiggled around as I bounced along. Perhaps Kramer was on to something with that whole "mansiere" concept...

I completed the first lap without having a heart attack, but slowed significantly as I started the second lap. My body was confused by this strange new abuse. Apparently, it had completely forgotten that I used to be a runner.

By the end of the second lap, I was sweating profusely and having trouble getting enough oxygen to my addled brain.

"Buckle down, fat boy! Let's get a sub 10 minute mile in the books". I stink at encouraging myself.

The third lap was more of a heavy footed walk than a run. I was no longer bouncing. I could barely get my feet off the ground, and when they came back down, the landing was anything but soft. But, I managed to finish the last lap by walking just a bit (about half of the lap).

I trudged across the line and stopped my watch.

15 minutes.

"Well, that sucked! Running sucks! I suck!" I griped to myself as I staggered back to the locker room.

I shaved for this picture.
The next day, I couldn't walk up or down stairs. Just stepping over the curb in the parking lot was sheer agony. It was as if someone had beaten my calfs with rubber hoses. The day after that, the soreness really set in. On the bright side, I had no knee pain.

 There was no way I could finish the other two runs I had planned for the week. So, week 1 of my return to running saw me run a total of 1 mile. But, I don't give up easily. I can be annoyingly stubborn. Stupidly stubborn even.

My training plan. Days versus Miles.
The Ramp
The next few weeks saw me successfully finish a few 1 mile runs, following by a few two mile runs, as my body adjusted and my conditioning improved. Over the course of a couple of months, I managed to increase my mileage to 3 miles on a single run. The soreness decreased, but never truly went away since I was ramping too fast. By the end of February, my weekly runs consisted of 2 miles on Monday, 2 Miles on Wednesday, and 3 miles on Friday.

I had dropped about 10 pounds of weight over the course of those 2 months as well. This really gave me the drive to continue. I was feeling better with each run.

New rule - never run on Thorsday
As I started the third month of my running, I attempted my second run of 3 miles. I had stopped using my pool shoes (the soles had worn through in the ball of the foot area) and purchased some spiffy new Vibram Five Finger KSOs. I had plans for lunch that Friday, so moved my long run back to Thursday. I would attempt my second 3 mile run in my new shoes a day after my normal 2 mile run (cue ominous music).

Two miles into the run, I knew something wasn't right with my left foot. The top of the foot felt pinched. I stopped to loosen the velcro strap on my VFFs. The discomfort faded as soon as I stopped running, so of course I decided to continue running. Twenty steps later, it was as if Thor himself had hammered an acid coated ice pick through the top of my left foot.

"Holy shat-tastic nematodes!" I howled, hobbling to a stop on the track. Or at least, something along those lines...

I bagged the remainder of the run, and headed back to my office. My primary care physician is Dr. Google, and sure enough, he had an opening. The good doctor told me I had something generally called "top of foot pain" or TOFP. The consensus on the Runner's World forums was that it would fade away on it's own. Who was I to argue with the massive expertise on an internet running forum. I wouldn't let TOFP stop me.

Two days later found me at home on a Saturday, ready to run again. The pain in the top of my foot had eased, so I slipped on my VFFs and headed out the local greenway, determined to finish my 3 mile run for the week.

The ER doctors didn't believe me when I told
them that Thor did this to me. Atheists...
One mile later, Thor hammered my foot again. This time, instead of an acid coated ice pick, he used a large, dull, rusty nail. He had to hit it several times, very hard, to crack it into my foot.

"Damn it Thor, it's not even Thursday! Why me?!!" I whined. I hobbled home, depressed and discouraged.

This time it was bad. Bad enough to stop me from running for two weeks. Bad enough to make me visibly limp (even though I tried to hide it from everyone). I spent a lot of time icing and massaging the top of my left foot, and generally just kicking myself for being so stupid.

This wouldn't be the last time.

Next Installment - Thor Meets Achilles

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Long and Winding Road - My Transition to Minimalist Running, Part 1

I don't have a picture of me on a
long and winding road. This picture of me
on a long and winding wall will have to do.
In late 2009, I decided to learn to run again after a very long and injury filled running sabbatical. This is the story of that transition.

Born To Run
A lot of things have been said about Born To Run, and I won't rehash any of the arguments for or against the basic premise of the book. What I will say is that I agree with a good portion of McDougall's hypothesis about the "running man".

Reading Born To Run, I could truly relate to Christopher McDougall's description of himself as a broken down runner. I felt truly broken down, and not just as a runner.  I had decided that this would be my last attempt to run again. My previous attempts to run again had failed miserably, so with some trepidation, I launched into minimalist running.

New Year's Resolutions Suck
I stopped making new year's resolutions decades ago, after I realized that I never kept them. I was just lying to myself. Promises to "really start writing that novel" or to "finally learn German" were never kept, and dogged my conscience for months. Life is full of enough disappointment without intentionally inflicting it upon myself. So, I stopped making resolutions, and just tried to enjoy the party.

Twenty years later, I found myself making a new year's resolution to start running again. At least this one would be easy to keep. I could "try" to start running again, and if I failed, the resolution would be met (at least in my mind).

The First Run
So it was, that on a cold 45F day in early January 2010, I found myself at the track during my lunch hour wearing shorts, a long sleeve shirt, and $9 pool shoes. This was really "out there" for me. I had a perfectly good (although very old) pair of Nike Air running shoes, but had left those at home, determined to give the minimalist route a try. Standing on the track, the low grey sky seemed more oppressive than usual. A cold, gusty wind  ripped over the field, tearing away what little heat that still clung to my body. I shivered involuntarily.

"Stupid new year's resolutions!" I thought. "Damn you, McDougall!"

"One lap. One third of a mile." I promised myself. "I'll give it one lap. If I feel even the slightest pain in my crap left knee, I'll bail and head back to the warm locker room."

The extent of my knowledge about the minimalist form was "land on the balls of your feet, not your heels". So, off I trotted, looking like some sort of pudgy, deranged, half clothed ninja, searching for a heated pool.

One hundred yards into the "run" I was breathing hard. My heart was pounding and I felt the vein on my forehead throbbing in time. Crap! Was I really this out of shape? Half way around the track, my legs began to burn. There was no way of knowing how fast I was going since I hadn't bothered to start my stop watch, but it felt too fast. I slowed down before my heart exploded. My pain levels receded from "gunshot to the chest" levels to mere "prisoner of war torture" levels.

Managing to finish the lap without dying, I sat down on the steps next to the track and tried to recover. My heart was still pounding. I was sweating (in 45F temps!). I had finished! Once my heart rate had settled down to only a dangerous level, I stood up to take stock of the knee damage. Previous attempts had left me with severe knee pain. This time, no pain! I was shocked. I jogged in place just to make sure. I was certain there would be pain. Nothing!

I walked back to the locker room with a huge smile on my face. I didn't notice the wind or the cold anymore. I could do this!

Next installment - Too Much Too Soon.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Learning the Hard Way - Race Season Prologue and Epilogue

May You Live in Interesting Times
I used to be really, really small,
but also very fit.
I started running again in January of 2010 after about 12 years of time off. I take my time off seriously. Between my last official run, Race for the Cure 5K in 1998, and January of last year, I alternated between the disciplines of skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, and trashing my left knee. I really excelled at trashing my knee. But at least I was in good shape...

By 2006 I was on my third ACL revision, coupled with lots of side work, including MCL reconstruction, cartilage removal, meniscus removal, and massive scar tissue removal (I also excel at growing copious amounts of scar tissue apparently).
Yes, this hurts. Very, very much.
Tired of being on a first name basis with the orthopedic surgeons at Duke University, I decided to stop putting my knee in danger. Actually, I decided to just stop. I had two kids, a very stressful job (anyone up for going through 20 layoffs in under 10 years?) and no time.

Yes, that is my gut.
There was a downside to dialing back nearly all of my cardio activities and concentrating on building my expertise in beer drinking. By 2009 I had gained over 30 pounds and was spiraling into a mid-life health crisis (too many boring details for a place like this). I decided to do something about it before it was too late. I cleaned up my diet and started walking on the dreadmill.

I hated the dreadmill. Hated it with a burning passion. So, I tried to run again. And failed miserably. I couldn't manage a quarter mile without severe knee pain, followed by severe knee swelling, followed by severe depression. OK, maybe not severe depression, but definitely a deep dark mental funk, curable only by massive quantities of beer.

May You Come to the Attention of Those in Authority
I read Born To Run over the holidays of that year and decided to try to learn to run again from scratch in 2010. I bought some Vibram Five Fingers and hit the track. On a cold January afternoon, I somehow managed a first run of one third of a mile with no knee pain. I was on to something here!

“To punish me for my contempt for authority,
fate made me an authority myself.” — Albert Einstein
Over the course of the next 10 months I would re-invent myself as a runner, using a more gentle running form and lots of advice from many very cool, knowledgeable people on Barefoot Ted's most excellent Huaraches Google Group. I'll save that journey for another post. Suffice it to say, I was no smarter on my path back to running than I have been in any of my races this past season. My ortho surgeon actually called me an idiot, but I love stickin' it to the man (who was in this case, a woman) and somehow struggled through until I was ready for my first race.

In the end, I consider myself a bit of an authority on how not to transition to minimalist running.

May Your Wishes be Granted
First 10 mile race. Fat poetry in motion, but
at least I looked like I knew what I was doing.
By late September of 2010, I felt overly confident enough to sign up for a couple of races. My goal for the fall was to run a half marathon, so I signed up for the City of Oaks Half. But as part of my training ramp for the half, I also signed up for the American Tobacco Trail 10 Miler. I wasn't really enjoying the training grind of the half marathon prep, but as soon as I ran the Tobacco Trail 10 mile, I was seriously hooked. I loved racing. Not that I was any good (see subtitle of this blog...), but I really enjoyed the atmosphere, camaraderie, and overall vibe of the event.

I totally wrecked myself during the Tobacco Trail race. My pace was over a minute faster than any training run and I paid dearly for it. I slept for 15 hours after that race. I was so sore, I didn't think I would be able to run the half marathon two weeks later. 

But I did run the Raleigh Oaks Half Marathon two weeks later, and even finished in under 2 hours, but by that point, I was totally burned out. The training plan had killed all the joy I had felt about rediscovering running.

I decided to simply stop any sort of real "training" and just run by feel, for joy alone. And it worked! I took long leisurely runs through Umstead State Park on the bridle paths and rediscovered the primitive joy of running. I guess that's why Umstead is still so special to me.

Still, I wanted to do more races, but not necessarily longer road races, so on a whim I signed up for my first trail race - Run at the Rock. I had so much fun training on the Umstead hiking trails, and then running the race, that I immediately signed up for another trail race - Little River Trail Race. My very first blog post was a race report for the Little River race.

The rest is blog history. I continued to sign up for all sorts of races. I continued to do stupid things. I continued to blog about those stupid things. 

Last half marathon.
My hair has fallen out, but my leg
has finally grown some quads.
And yes, I really am still as confused
about running as I look in this picture...
In the end, I ran 10 races ranging from 4 miles to marathon distance, mostly on trails. I've met some cool folks through trail racing, both online and offline, this past year, and that more than anything else has been the most rewarding aspect of it all. Thanks to everyone who has tolerated my snarky comments on their own blogs, and a special thanks to everyone who reads my blog.