Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lesson Learned

I was eight miles in to what could have been an eight mile run or a long run last Sunday.  I was a half-mile from home and I had to decide whether to soldier on for another eight to nine miles, or call it a day.  My knee was tight and covered in KT tape.  My hamstring was covered in so much Tiger Balm I could smell it through my tights.  It was 21 degrees.  And as I stood there on the side of the road next to the Erie Canal in Newark, I reached a catharsis that would have been obvious to any impartial observer.  Not only was it time to call it a day.  It was time to stop training for the Boston Marathon.

The possibility had been in my head for weeks.  From January to February, I gradually got to a point where the idea of running and racing was still thrilling, but the actual act of running was dreadful.  Out of seven weekly runs totaling in the neighborhood of 80 miles, it was a good week if one of them felt good.  Most of them felt clunky.  Some of them felt downright terrible.  On the latter type of runs, I would come back and tell Lauren that if I had one more run like that, I was going to pull the plug on Boston.  The next day, I would feel just good enough to expunge that thought.  This happened no fewer than five times.

Now that I have had a week to reflect upon, regret and then reaffirm this decision, it's pretty clear that I never should have signed up for this race in the first place.  The first thing -- literally the first thing -- I said when I crossed the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon was "that's enough of that for a while."  I said it to myself, but I said it out loud. I was exhausted in a way I have never been exhausted before.  It was almost like an out-of-body experience. Two days later when President Obama gave a rousing speech in Boston as I listened outside the building, I did a complete 180, letting the emotions of what happened on April 16th cloud my common sense.

I had started to get sick and developed chronic insomnia before the 2013 race.  By race day, I was sleeping an average of three to four hours a night and was only scratching the surface of what might be wrong with my body.  The race just added extra stress to a system that was already at capacity.  I ran a half-way decent half marathon five weeks later for God-knows why.  Then, I ran a couple of sub-par five mile races in Central Park before spending the rest of 2013 running what I believed to be a reduced volume and intensity.  I put getting my body healthy and training myself to sleep without anxiety at the top of my priority list and actually started cracking the mystery in the early fall.  It was hard, costly, frustrating work.

By December, everything was back to normal and I was feeling strong and determined again.  I raced a couple of low key five milers, finishing second in one and winning the other and a 15K in the bitter wind and snow during which I raced my heart out with two local runners who are generally in my wheelhouse when I'm in good shape.   At that is where the pendulum starts to go back in the opposite direction.

In early January, my knee flared up randomly forcing me to take a week off.  I bounced back quickly and was running 80 miles a week and hitting the time goals of all my workouts.  But, if I am honest with myself, I rarely felt like I was firing on all cylinders.  Something about my stride and my effort wasn't right, but I can't quite pinpoint what it was. On top of that, this winter has been soul crushing.  I grew up with brutal winters, but I have never attempted to train through a winter as relentless as this one. After a 22 mile run on the course in Boston in early February, my left hamstring and left foot bothered me and that quickly caused my knee problems to return.  I took another three days off and was back at it again.  After that, the knee hurt 75% of the time.  It never returned to a point where running was impossible, but it sure did a good job of sucking all the joy out of it.  Worse than that, if I did a hard workout, I would spend the rest of the night unable to sit or keep my knee bent for long periods of time because it was unbelievably uncomfortable. 

Mendon Ponds County Park is where I did my first "long run" as a teenager. This winter, I slogged through a long run there for the first time in 12 years.  During my run, the Regional Snow Shoe Racing Championship was going on. 

In the end, I just decided I didn't want to do that for six more weeks.  Could I have toughed it out and raced Boston?  Most likely, yes.  But, it would only have been a memorable experience for how much it sucked.  I also started to think long term.  If I pushed my body to Boston when it clearly didn't want to go, how much more damage would I do?  I love running.  It is not my exercise.  It's my therapy.  It's my church.  To say it's a big part of who I am would be an understatement. Do I want to risk all that to settle some sort of emotional vendetta?   I want to be running and racing 20 years from now.  But, only smart runners get to be lifelong runners.  Runners who don't listen become triathletes.  (just kidding!  Making sure my tri friends are paying attention).  I went to great lengths to get healthy again and it was working, but after nearly a year of health issues, I don't think I gave my body enough time to recover to a point where it could handle such intensity.

I have great training partners in New York who are going to demolish Boston, hills be damned.  I have a coach that I believe is probably the best kept secret in marathon running.  Those are the people who indirectly made this decision way harder.  That's a good thing.  I didn't want to stop training with them and working under Terry's guidance.  They made it easy to forget about the pain because the camaraderie was so much fun. 

I can't not be in Boston on April 21st.  I will be there, but in what capacity I don't know yet.  I've thought of running it for fun and taking it all in if my knee is better after a prolonged rest.  I've thought of working.  I've thought of being at the finish line.  I have some time to make that decision.  What is going to be amazing about Boston this year is the show of force from everyone who comes out on race day.  From the runners to the spectators, we all play an important role in being Boston Strong.  I plan to play my part.

I stopped writing about running in this blog months ago because I was afraid it was getting too negative.  Hindsight again being what it is, that feeling is something I probably should have addressed more carefully.  So, I hope this post doesn't come off negative.  I'm bummed about not racing next month, no doubt, but at this very moment, I am filled with optimism.  Even after a week of complete rest, I feel like a different person.  I can only imagine what I will feel like after at least two more weeks of complete rest.  It's something I haven't done in seven years.  The focus is on the summer and the fall and running fun, fast races.  But, I don't see any marathons in my near future.

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