Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Long and Winding Road - My Transition to Minimalist Running, Part 6

My primary care physician
is right.
The Barefoot Running Cure
Metatarsalgia is evil. Just when you think it's gone, you step on something in just the right way to light the fires of irritation once again. After suffering through a couple of weeks of not running (by this point, I was a running endorphin addict), I decided to start walking again. My foot still hurt when I walked in a certain way, but it was at least bearable. Unfortunately, after a mile or so of walking, the pain would flare significantly. Based on the friendly advice of several folks on Barefoot Ted's Huaraches Google group, I decided to try taking off the Vibram Five Fingers and going fully barefoot for my walks.

And it was amazing! My foot didn't hurt at all. Apparently, I was doing something very different with shoes on my feet, even very minimalist shoes, like the VFFs. After a couple of weeks, I was walking 2 to 3 miles barefoot with no pain. So, about 4 weeks from the run which sidelined me, I decided to run again - for 100 yards.

Having a lot of setbacks during the previous 6 months had given me at least a small amount of perspective, so instead of being depressed about my planned 100 yard run, I was excited. And scared. Would the injury make a blazing return, ending my run in agony? Would I ever run again if that happened?

Magic Happens Here
I didn't really plan a specific 100 yard run. I just decided that on my next long barefoot walk, I would choose a smooth, straight stretch of sidewalk and just jog along a bit. So, after walking a half mile or so during my normal 3 mile barefoot walk, I broke into a quick, light-footed jog. AND NOTHING HURT! In fact, it was incredibly awesome. So good in fact, that I ended up jogging several times during my "walk", eventually running about half of the total distance.

I'm not a religious, or even a generally metaphysical sort of person, but something about running barefoot made a very deep, primal connection within my brain. It just felt "right". I think I had reawakened some feedback in my nervous system that had been dormant since my childhood, when I went barefoot nearly 6 months of the year. In fact, I felt very child-like when I ran barefoot. Very happy. But it was happiness with a certain nostalgic purity.

Learning To Run, Again
Over the course of the next few weeks, my barefoot running progressed quickly, and painlessly (unless you count blisters, which I don't). I discovered several serious flaws in my running form that were being hidden by the Vibram Five Fingers. The most serious, was related to my left foot, which was landing much too hard on the outside edge and forefoot area (the blisters proved this). But the human body is amazing, and the form flaws quickly resolved after only a handful of runs.

In short order, I was running 3 and 4 mile barefoot routes. Everything felt great. It wouldn't last.

Barefoot Running Nearly Destroys Me
On an ordinary day, during an easy run, I nearly ended my return to running for good. Not that my life was in danger or anything like that, but I had promised myself that I would stop running entirely if I injured myself again. The injuries simply weren't worth the reward of running.

Trotting along, I was in my normal semi-aware state of being. I didn't see the very small, very sharp rock that I was about to step on. It blended in with the rest of the rocks protruding from the chip-seal pavement of the sidewalk. I had become fairly confident with handling rough surfaces while running barefoot. I could relax my feet and legs enough to float over most rough, hard, paved surfaces without any problems. Maybe I was over confident. Maybe this rock hit in just the right spot. Maybe both. But whatever the case, when I stepped on that little rock, I saw stars. It's sharp little peak jammed directly into the same spot I had suffered with metatarsalgia the month before.

I stopped immediately. I had to stop. I couldn't even bear to walk. After sitting for 15 minutes or so, I was able to limp back to the locker room, but only very slowly. I was depressed about the injury, but more than that, I was scared. This felt bad - really bad.

Diagnosis - Metatarsalgia and Stress Fracture!
I made an appointment with an orthopedic doctor the next day. Usually, I wait to see if things will improve, but this time, when I could barely walk from my bed to the bathroom, I thought it would be wise to go immediately.

The doctor was only moderately amused by my long tale of injury and adventure, and sent me for an MRI the next day. A week later I saw the doctor to review the MRI results.

Classic bone bruise, with a bone surface
 stress fracture. And yes, this is an
actual picture from my MRI results.
The metatarsalgia was sort of expected. Actually, I expected that I had broken my second metatarsal. It hurt that bad. But it turns out that my second metatarsal was simply irritated again. The true surprise was that I had a stress fracture on my first metatarsal. I didn't feel this one at all! The doc said that wasn't out of the ordinary, but that eventually, if I kept running, I would most certainly feel it.

Prescription - 6 weeks of no running.

Result - I quit!

"The horror... the horror...." Yeah, I know,
I'm mixing movie references. Just enjoy
the ride...
Fear and Loathing in VFFs
As Doctor Gonzo said "I hate to say this, but I think this place is getting to me. I think I'm getting the Fear."

I had it for sure. The Fear. Fear of being injured again. Fear of doing some real long term damage. Fear of never running again.

So, I quit. I went to the gym and worked out and rode the stationary bike and tried not to think about running.

I was successful for about 1 week. I'm not a quitter, never have been.

Besides, I couldn't stop here. This was bat country...

A Permanent Stay in the Half Way House
Since I had decided that I would continue this adventure, I spent the next few weeks attempting to find a solution to both my fear and my injuries. The solution to both arrived in the form of a shoe - the Mizuno Wave Universe 3.

Once again, I credit Barefoot Ted's Huaraches Google group for turning me on to this shoe. Four weeks out from my MRI, I tied on the MWU3's for the first time and went for a very short run. No pain! And the shoes felt great! MWU3s are nearly flat and one of the lightest shoes made (about half the weight of my VFFs). But there is enough padding in the sole to prevent even the sharpest of rocks from re-injuring my damaged foot. I felt safe.

Using a combination of safe barefoot running on the track to maintain my gentle form, and MWU3's out in the "wild", I was able to successfully ramp up my running in mid September. This happened very quickly and without any real drama. By late October, I successfully ran my first race - The American Tobacco Trail 10 Miler. The rest, is history.

Epilogue
I continue to use this approach to this day, although my shoe of choice has changed a few times. I now have a road shoe and a trail shoe which I swap around on occasion depending on how I feel. However, the key to everything is the barefoot running. Without that I could never maintain my form (yes, I've tried, and no, it didn't work).

Since my stress fracture in August of 2010, I've run without any transition related injuries. Without any serious long term injuries at all really. Yes, on occasion I over do it (like in most of my races) and end up with a sore calf, a sore hip, or some other sort of ailment, but overall, I'm running very well these days. For me anyway...

Happy running, everyone! And have a safe journey!