New elite masters blog: Susan Loken’s Running Journey

Susan Loken (who I believe is 46) is a three-time winner of the USA Masters Marathon Championships and a two-time Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier. She was one of the first fast amateurs who I became aware of, because she passed me during my first marathon, the 2007 More race in Central Park. She didn’t just pass me — she practically singed the hair on my arms off, she was going so fast. I did some reading about her after that race and was inspired to find that, like me, she’d taken up running late in life. Unlike me, she’s gotten a lot faster (and at a much faster rate).

On a lark, I got in touch with her to see if she was trying for a third Trials qualifier and if she’d be willing to be interviewed for the Houston Hopefuls project. The good news: Yes and Yes. The better news: Susan started a blog earlier this summer to document her own progress of building up for this goal after two-odd years of taking something of a hiatus from competing at her usual high level.

Read on: Keep Believing: Susan Loken’s Running Journey

Thanks, Matt!

Matt T. is the host of the running podcast Dump Runners Club. I had the pleasure of spending two exhaustion- and laughter-filled days with him in Vermont for the Green Mountain Relay back in June. He is a talented runner, as is his twin, Mike. Unfortunately, like me he is also struggling with an injury at the moment, in his case a troublesome achilles.

Matt's considerable endowments go beyond the intellectual.

I don’t know how Matt gets through his cross-training sessions, but his podcast has been a sanity-saver for me these past couple of days. As I mentioned in my last injury-related post, I’m spending a minimum of three hours a day on self-rehab, some days as many as five. Now that I’ve discovered that I’m able to ride the stationary bike and walk on the treadmill, that number’s going to go up.

I was sick of my music playlists before my problems set in three weeks ago. For some reason I haven’t spent the time looking for new music (too busy with other stuff, I guess — and being in pain much of the time, which I now no longer am, takes away from things like enjoying music). This week I rediscovered Matt’s podcasts and now am working my way through the older ones.

The Dump Runners Club is unique: it’s a valuable combination of personal experience, reviews, advice and recaps of the world of elite running. There is something for everyone in these 20-60 minute audio treats. Once again am reminded of how marvelous the web is as a medium for enabling individuals with brains and passions to enrich other people’s lives with self-published content — like Matt’s!

Google search oddities

“kick ass romper room”

I really, really, really like this one.

“Balls!” said the Queen. “If I had two I’d be King.”

You want balls? I'll show you balls.

I’d be satisfied with having just two (although, actually, I’m totally okay with not having any of my own). But now I have six!

As it turns out, round objects are essential for any runner’s development — and this is even more the case when that runner happens to be struggling with an injury.

To recap, here’s my problem: I have at least three (I started out with five) really fucking amazing muscle knots in my right hip, buttock and hamstring. I wish they were like trees because then I could count their rings to see how old they are. But some have been there for quite awhile, probably going back to last year when I started having hamstring issues — perhaps even much earlier.

My knots lay dormant, like an inactive volcano, occasionally burping up complaints. But those didn’t stop the training equivalent of clueless real estate developers from putting up a fancy condo development right in their path (this development taking the form of training and racing and a total lack of stretching). Wow, what a tortured analogy! It’s Friday. I’m tired.

On August 7 I ran in the NYRR Club Championships and that race was my personal Krakatoa (or Vesuvius or St. Helens or Eyjafjallajokull — when it comes to volcano disasters, I’m dealing with an embarrassment of riches). Since then I’ve been focused solely on trying to get rid of these knots so that I can walk (and, eventually, run) normally again.

All of these balls have a use, although I’ve “graduated” from one ball type to another in some cases:

  1. This is a golf ball. It is the only thing I have in common with Tiger Woods. It is useful for rolling along the bottom of your foot to work on loosening up tendons. I initially used it to try to help me break up my knots, but it was too small.
  2. This is a cue ball. This is the most valuable ball I own. It is the perfect size for rolling around on, and it’s about as hard a ball as you’ll find. I experience exquisite (but very productive) pain using this ball for an average of an hour a day right now.
  3. This is a tennis ball. It belongs to our cat, but I borrowed it from her for awhile. It’s too soft to be of use to me, so she’s back to using it herself as a useful tool for practicing disembowelments of animals smaller than herself.
  4. This is a miniature basketball. It’s called the “Baller” (snicker). I bought this to work with while awaiting the arrival of the next ball…
  5. This is my second-most-useful ball for therapy. It’s a 10 lb. medicine ball (which makes me think of Jack LaLanne for some reason — a “medicine ball” seems so 1950s) and it has so, so many uses. I used it to “warm up” the knots. I roll around on it for about 10-15 minutes to relax and loosen the top layer of muscles. This is the only way I can then get down into the muscle layers, where the actual knots are, with the cue ball. The medicine ball is also useful for hamstring rolling (it’s harder than a foam roller, not shown in this post because I forgot to photograph it). Finally, it’s a great tool for general strengthening and for expressing rage. My favorite thing to do is to take it outside and bounce it onto our back porch (these are called, appropriately, “slams”) — I throw the thing as hard as I can and catch it when it bounces back up.
  6. Finally, there’s the Swiss ball, which is great for strengthening. There are too many exercises to mention for this one. Do a search if you’re interested.

So there’s your guided tour of my balls.

No, these aren't from Abu Ghraib. They're for helping you!

We have other implements. Would you like to hear about them? Of course you would:

  1. Resistance bands in three tensions. These are great for stretching hamstrings (lie on your back, raise your leg at a 90 degree angle to your body, lock your knee, and pull on the ball of your foot with the band. It hurts like a mother, but it’s effective.)
  2. A more complicated resistance band. I always feel vaguely like a back-alley abortionist when I handle this. You can stick this one in a door and do rows, woodchops and other things. You can also use them for “walking” exercises that strengthen the muscles on the sides of your body and your adductors (tiny muscles in your groin).
  3. Tiger Balm. This stuff is great for applying before and after you torture yourself. It also smells a bit like turpentine and I get transported back to my studio classes in art school every time I open the jar.
  4. Arnica oil. This (supposedly) helps heal bruises faster. I have lots of bruises.
  5. This is a weird massage device that our regular massage therapist gave us. It’s good for digging into muscles and trigger points.
  6. Handheld massager with mysterious attachments. Jonathan uses this more than I do. It also gives off heat if you want it to.
  7. Cubies reusable ice cubes. We have six bags of them. I bought these because walking was difficult enough without also hauling around 8 lb. bags of ice from the grocery store for ice baths.
  8. 10 lb. weight plates. I use these as a poor man’s kettlebell. Among my 4,000 prescribed exercises are various things using kettlebells, but I didn’t want to have to buy those as well. Anything you can do with a kettlebell, you can do with these. I also use them for anything requiring dumbbells (squats, presses, etc.) — I have plates and rods for those too, but I can’t be bothered to assemble them. We have enough crap lying around in the living room as it is.

So here is what a typical day of therapy looks like:

AM session:

  • 10-15 mins of warming up the area with a hot water bottle (heating water to 160F is ideal in the Goldilocksian sense)
  • 30-40 mins working on it with the medicine and cue balls
  • 15-20 mins icing via a pack or ice bath

PM session:

  • 45 mins of manual massage (Jonathan is turning into an expert masseuse and seems quite willing to hurt me since I beg for it now)
  • Repeat the AM routine

In addition, 2-3 times a week I do a 90-120 minute session of stretching and strengthening exercises. I am going to introduce biking again today (just 20-30 mins). I hope to be using an elliptical starting in the next few days. I’m not even thinking about when I can run because that’s not under my control. It’s too depressing to focus on that anyway.

So on a heavy day, we’re talking 4-5 hours of this stuff. This is a lot more time than I ever put into training, where I maxed out at 3 hours on a long run day. It’s unbelievably time consuming and often tedious.

But it is helping. Yesterday I managed 30 minutes of walking before pain kicked in. That’s compared to 5 minutes on Tuesday. This morning I got up and actually forgot for at least the first 10 minutes of consciousness that I had any sort of problem.

New Houston Hopeful interview: Heather May

This one’s with a twist: Heather has qualified for and raced in the Olympic marathon Trials twice already, making her our first “Trials veteran” in the series. Yet her experience has not dampened her enthusiasm for going after a threepeat. Having become a marathoner as much out of ignorance (“I’ve run 10 miles. Now what do I do?”) as out of a desire to qualify for the Trials, Heather’s path as a Trials-calibre runner has been both fraught with peril and filled with opportunities for self discovery.

For the full interview: Houston Hopefuls > Heather May

Baby lurches

If a person’s fitness can be roughly measured by how quickly that person returns to normal after doing something strenuous, then I suppose that I am becoming fitter as an injured person.

There. I said it. I’m injured. After two weeks, I accept this. I still have not gone to the ortho, for a few reasons that I won’t go into here. But they are rational ones. And I’ll go shortly should I stop making progress.

Glimpses that I am slowly lurching toward recovery include:

  • The fact that I haven’t needed to take a painkiller since Saturday. Not even a Tylenol. The pain is sometimes a little annoying, but it doesn’t make me cry anymore.
  • I am walking more or less like a normal person most of the time, albeit still with some limited mobility on the right side.
  • Instead of plunging into a pain-filled oblivion after 5 minutes of walking, I can now go for about 20 before I have problems. Even then, they are not nearly as bad as they were.
  • I can sleep on my right side again. God, was that ever (literally) a pain. Previously, I’d roll over and yelp myself awake.
  • I am not sleeping like an exhausted person anymore. I was sleeping for 9-10 hours, plus sometimes needing an additional 1-2 hours of napping during the day. I think it was a combination of being exhausted from being in pain all the time, plus my body was working very hard to heal itself.
  • When I do screw myself up with too much walking, I’m not screwed up for the rest of the day and evening. I’m pretty much back to normal in about an hour. My injury is now more like LensCrafters than the Manhattan DMV.

I spent 45 minutes today getting a tour of the White Plains YMCA. I looked into some local health clubs, but quite frankly was horrified by their reputations as snake pits of high-pressure/shady sales tactics, overcrowding and filth. The Y was a pleasant surprise. It’s huge, clean, very well-appointed and not crowded. Everyone there is relaxed, friendly and helpful. It’s slightly more expensive than someplace like NY Sports Club or Bally’s, but I can see actually wanting to go to this place. Better yet, I can see Jonathan there. He wouldn’t be caught dead in a clangy, techno-beated gym full of grunting thumbheads.

The bad news is that both the White Plains YMCA and YWCA have closed their pools for cleaning between now and Labor Day. I am hoping the Mt. Vernon Y is not also on a cleaning spree, although the White Plains staff said not to get my hopes up. I’m waiting for a reply to my inquiry.

So, in that regard, the bad timing continues. But at least I know there’s a good local resource for cross-training (I wanted to find access to an elliptical anyway). If worse comes to worse, I’ll see if I can get myself well enough to use a low-impact machine and plan to plunge into pool running (get it?) after Labor Day.

I don’t like thinking that I’ll still be a mess by then. I don’t think I will be, based on the last few days’ progress. But I have to consider it as a possibility and deal with it.

The virtual world remains a source of hope, generosity and envy for me. Patience and acceptance are the watchwords from those who have been or are now injured. A stranger, through another stranger, has FedExed me a doohickey that allows me to use my MP3 player in the pool. But those warm fuzzy feelings are sometimes eclipsed by the envy that rears its head when I see the mundane posts about runs that everyone throws up on Facebook, Twitter and in BlogLand: 8 miles with 3 at race pace, 16 mile long run, 30 minute tempo run, 4x800s, a solid 10K race. These are the runs I should be doing. Reading about other people running, and running well, is killing me with envy, despite how happy I am for them.

Meanwhile, in the real world, as I drove through Scarsdale and White Plains today, I found myself trundling along streets that I’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of hours training hard and dilligently on for the past few years. That got me feeling very depressed indeed. It wasn’t just thinking of all those runs that ultimately led me nowhere in terms of improvement. It was also remembering how pleasurable so many of them were, and realizing how much I took running for granted. I won’t do that again.

Argh.

Well, not only can I not run, but I basically still can’t walk for more than a few minutes at a time. Massage (myofascial and self) both offer temporary relief. But when I say temporary, I mean until I try to walk for more than about five minutes again.

Saturday will mark two weeks with this condition, with no real improvement. I’ve learned also that I can’t do any stretches or strengthening exercises that directly impact the problem area (discreet sections of my right ass, hip, iliotibial band and upper hamstring). Also, if I ride the stationary bike, while it makes me feel that I’m doing something productive, it fucks me up royally.

My orthopedist is back in on Tuesday. I’ll try to get in to see him then. In the meantime, I’ve got one more myo session before Sandra heads out of town. It has done something in that the pain has moved from its original locus (so something’s changed), and I now get to live nearly pain-free until I try to leave the house and do anything, whereas before the pain was ever-present, although mild. I’ll take the next few days to document this thing’s behavior so I communicate it clearly to help with a diagnosis.

Adding to this misery is the fact that Jonathan went out for a 4.5 mile run and three miles into it suffered what I can only describe as a catastrophic failure of his left foot. This foot has hobbled him for two months, but it seemed better. In minutes, he went from a twinge to being the opposite of Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot. It’s funny, but while he was out running I was sitting there working, noting that he’d been gone for well over an hour, and thinking, “Maybe he’s having a great run and decided to go farther.” I relished the idea of him bounding happily up to Scarsdale — or even Hartsdale. But I knew better, because my follow-up thought was, “If he’s not back in 20 minutes I need to get in the car and  go look for him.” It seems he was hopping home at the time already.

So, I’m not sure we can get any more pathetic than this. I headed out for a white-knuckled shopping trip yesterday, returning home with great regret at having ventured out (but happy to have milk again). Now he’s able to walk somewhat normally, and so will assume domestic duties.

Argh.

Argh. Argh. Argh.

I’ve got it all: vitamins, massage tools, strengthening regimens and accessories, homeopathic remedies and tinctures, anti-inflammatories, bags of ice and painkillers. They all help temporarily, but every day, eventually, I’m back to square one the moment I try to function like a normal human being. The last time I felt this hopeless and helpless was during the economic downturn of 2001, when I could not find work for close to a year. I knew it would eventually get better. But I didn’t know when or how. It’s not even been two weeks with this. How do people with chronic pain deal with it?

Boo hoo.

What makes me most crazy about all this is that I don’t feel, as a runner, that I’ve caught a break in two years. And my race and training times reflect this. Something has always happened to derail things. I start to make some progress, giving me a tantalizing glimpse of what I might be able to accomplish…and then I’m suddenly fucked for weeks or months with one thing or another.

Why am I bothering? My only answer is that it’s because I’ve gotten that glimpse, right before it faded into the oblivion of exhaustion or injury.

Yes, fine, I’ll run in a fucking pool. I’ll hobble around this weekend and find somewhere to go and try not to rip the head off of the poor facility guide assigned to show me around. But running and training are kind of the least of it at this point. I would be happy just to walk again.

I am not in a pleasant mood.

In treatment

I had session 2 of myotherapy this morning. My next one is on Thursday to be followed by a fourth on Saturday. Sandra leaves town after that so I hope this gets me well enough to run since she’s not back until early September.

Since I did session 1 without any pain relief whatsoever, I decided to take a painkiller before this round. She’d said that was probably a good idea as she needs to get deep into the muscles and that’s difficult when I’m screaming and attempting to squirm off the massage table.

Today I revised my opinion of Percocet (Oxycodone), which I previously thought was the bee’s knees. This morning it made me feel like warmed over dogshit. While I know it killed some of the pain, it also made me nauseous and drowsy (sensations that don’t go well with driving), and, eight hours after taking it, I’m still incredibly fatigued even after an hour nap. Not just tired, but also dimwitted and hopeless. It reminds me of my occasional bouts with moderate depression, with a touch of flu thrown in.

Much as I’m tempted to take it again before Thursday’s mauling, I’d rather experience pain than lose the entire day to feeling like this again. I think these sessions are supposed to get easier anyway, since I’m getting used to it and with each one the knots and scar tissue are broken up a little more. In my next one I get heat and ultrasound.

It’s only been a week since my hip implosion, but this issue feels intractable. Part of the problem is that I still can’t even walk without pain. Every morning, I get faked out — I get out of bed and for the first few minutes I think everything’s fine. Then the pain comes back and settles over me for the rest of the day. If I try to do anything that puts significant weight on my right leg, the problem flares up and I’m screwed for hours, meaning I limp and grimace. On Saturday, after a few pain-free hours, it happened when I did just one dynamic stretch on the right side. Yesterday, again feeling relatively pain-free and hopeful, I took a few exploratory jog steps — meaning I just hopped across the dining room to assess if I could go for a short run. My hip complained bitterly about this latest transgression and there went the afternoon and evening.

I am walking like my dad did right before he had total knee replacement surgery. I list to one side and grab onto any available item for support. It’s pathetic and infuriating. How did I go from running an 82 second 400m repeat on the track to not being able to walk just a few days later?

The good news is that both Jonathan and I got into the Houston Marathon, which is using a lottery system this year. Houston in late January is my goal marathon. Even though I’m prepared to travel there alone, I registered Jonathan just in case he wants to train for it (assuming his fall plans are blown due to his own injury, which it looks like they are), or just run it for whatever reason. He is running again, with some pain. But, hell, he’s running. That’s after two months of not running — so he’s lost a lot of fitness despite having biked like a fiend.

The idea of running a marathon seems entirely theoretical now, for both of us.

One other piece of hopeful news is that I can ride our stationary bike without it making things worse. I did 90 minutes yesterday. If I can manage to tear myself off the couch, I’ll probably do 2 hours later on today. If I still can’t run this week I’ll also look into pool running somewhere. I can feel my fitness ebbing away. I’m glad my motivation is still there, at least.

Fuck. I really miss running.

I’ve used the word “hope” in this post several times in both positive (“hopeful”) and negative (“hopeless”) forms. Sandra said something to me this morning that made an impression on me, and which in an unintended way gave me hope: “You’ll never run faster if you don’t fix these problems.” That got me thinking about the possibility that one reason I may not have been able to run faster so far has been because of tight muscles. I like to think that all this painful work will lead to not only being able to run again, but perhaps — as a bonus — also running faster than I could have otherwise.

“So. Tell me a little about yourself.”

It’s funny that on the weekend that I am tasked with redoing my résumé in order to satisfy the procurement requirements of a creative agency that would like to hire me for some freelance work, I have also been offered the challenge of describing myself in the style of a Time Magazine cover article.

It’s 3:06 on Saturday and thus far I have managed to avoid touching my dusty CV with all manner of legitimate and illegitimate distractions. I did 90 minutes of stretching and strengthening exercises, people. I think that should more than make up for the fact that I was watching this at the time.

Just as I was about to fire up the teakettle and get to work, TK’s challenge arrived. You can read about the details here. But it’s basically like a sophisticated version of Mad Libs (I know; I’m dating myself.) Since writing funny shit about myself is much more enjoyable than trying to describe my dubious skills to an anonymous HR person, I’m going to answer her call (although I’m breaking form by not using all caps). I’ve still got all day tomorrow, after all. Or maybe I can kill two birds and just make this my résumé:

One of the humans admiring them is Julie Threlkeld. Threlkeld is a member of another perennially threatened species, the pessimistic, repressed introvert with no sense of direction. But she’s not as sanguine about it as others. She’s grateful to be smarter than a box of hammers. She’s a physically sturdy woman, 5 ft. 5 in., with linebacker shoulders and legs resembling tree trunks, but her posture is not so much hunched as unconcernedly collapsed. At 45 (she was 44 before her last birthday), Threlkeld gets carded regularly, which mystifies her given that her hair is as heavily salted as a large serving of fries from Arthur Treacher’s. For awhile her hair was blonde. But that was bankrupting her, financially and otherwise. Can we stop with the hair now?

Okay. Who’s next?

Chimps in the parking lot

I can’t sit quietly in a parking lot for five minutes without another human being engaging with me in a negative way. Why is this? I deliberately avoid engaging with strangers. But for some reason I’m weirdo bait.

Today was not the greatest of days. I spent the morning being therapeutically mauled, which was an exhausting and painful experience. As part of this process, I was given instructions for stretching and strengthening. Naturally, these called for more pieces of equipment: resistance bands and a medicine ball. Jonathan was told to try gel inserts. Fine. We’d go after lunch.

The first stop was CVS. Our destination? The foot care aisle. But upon getting out of the car I noticed a sticky substance along the floorboard of the driver’s side (I always drive; it works for us). A Hammer Gel, lodged in the door pocket, had exploded from the heat and leaked. So Jonathan went ahead while I took a few moments to clean up the mess.

I travel with paper towels, water and extra clothes in the trunk. Band-aids and a flashlight too. You’d think I’d been a Girl Scout, but I rejected that racket when I learned we had to sell cookies door to door.

Did you know that when you open the driver’s side door and then subsequently pull the trunk release lever on a 1997 Toyota Camry LE Sedan that this combination of actions will cause all of the doors to lock? I learned about this feature today.

There they were, on the passenger seat: my car keys, along with my bag containing my wallet, phone and iPod. I knew Jonathan had no car key because he never drives. I limped into CVS and gave him the bad news.

While I mulled over what to do (go to a pay phone and get a cab? Borrow someone’s phone and call Geico’s roadside assistance?) Jonathan was practically running away. Which was impressive since not only was he wearing sandals but he also has not been able to run for close to two months.

We were about 1.5 miles from home. He figured he could hoof it there and back with a car key in about 45 minutes. He was eager to solve this problem. I was experiencing mounting pain in my hip again, as I’d forgotten to take a painkiller. Off he went before I could think about alternatives. As I watched his retreating figure I wondered if he’d remembered to bring his house keys.

So now I had to kill 45 minutes. I had no money, no form of distraction and I was in pain. I made my way over to the edge of the parking lot, found a shady spot and sat on the curb. This was pathetic. I played with my watch and observed fat people going in and out of Dunkin’ Donuts.

Then, excitement. A kid, about 17, came blasting across the lot on one of those Razor scooters. He attempted to use a smoothed over section of curb as a ramp and proceeded to fall ass over teakettle right in front of me. He lay immobile on his back for a few seconds, then got up and looked at me with a combination of anger and sheepishness.

“Are you alright?” I said, more out of obligation than concern. Asking this made me feel old all of a sudden. Matronly.

He picked up the scooter and sulked off.

Three minutes later he returned, looking very agitated. He disappeared among the storefronts, then returned to the scene of his accident.

He asked me a question, which I thought was “Did you see me fall?”

Oh, great, I thought. He’s thinking of suing CVS and wants a witness. Why me? I also thought this was an incredibly dumb question. Of course I saw him fall.

“Uh, yes.” I offered.

“Well, where is it?”

This confused me.

“What? Where’s what?”

“My phone.”

“Oh.” This kid needed elocution lessons. “Your phone. No, I thought you asked if I saw you fall. I haven’t seen your phone.”

This enraged him. He raised the scooter and hurled it to the ground. “FUCK!!!!”

Okay, so now I know I’m dealing with a chimpanzee and not a bonobo.

“I lost my fucking phone!” He starts frantically looking under the shrubbery, continuing his rant. “The person standing next to me when I find it is going to get it. I’m going to shoot up everyone in this place.”

O. Kay. Time to get over to where more people are.

But I can’t walk without looking like a spastic. I lurch and wince. I suddenly have a reluctance to appear weak. I don’t want to be the injured gazelle that gets taken down.

So I just sit there, waiting to see what he’ll do next.

He stomps off again, searching for his phone.

By the time he returns for a third look around, I’ve managed to hop my way over to the Dunkin’ Donuts entrance, where I lean in the blazing sun. This he finds suspicious. I worry that he’s going to come over and demand his phone. I’m ready to tell him to fuck off because I’m having a worse day than he is, and let the chips fall where they may.

He leaves me alone. Minutes later, Jonathan shows up, now in running shoes, with keys. He’s run the 1.5 miles back. He says his legs feel very fresh. He’s not angry or annoyed, as I thought he’d be. He seems, if anything, perky. The day’s looking up.

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