The MRI experience

Imagine a 50 foot tall wasp humming selections from Laurie Anderson’s album Big Science while operating a jackhammer as rhythm accompaniment. That’s kind of what an MRI sounds like.

Jonathan tried to prepare me for the experience, as did others. But it’s nearly impossible to fully impart what such a visceral experience is like.

After swearing that I had no shrapnel, rods or tattooed eyeliner (?), I was told to strip, put on my gown and wait. Shortly thereafter I was ushered into the MRI room. I need to buy stock in General Electric, because that company makes all these diagnostic machines. It was smaller than I’d expected, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

I’d been given the choice of either the radio or plain old earplugs. I figured chances were good that I’d get stuck listening to Cristina Aguilera and 30 second spots for Ovaltine on Hot 97 if I went with the radio option. So I chose the earplugs and my own thoughts. I was given a little ball to squeeze as an “alarm” if I needed them to stop. In a way, being handed this device made me even more nervous. What were these people about to do to me?

Zoom. Whirrrr. In I slid. The technicians hurredly left the room. One of them crackled into being over the intercom, “We’re just going to do a short one to start.” Pause, fiddle. “Here we go.”

A series of three low buzzes, less than a second each, sounded. I came to think of those as the “Okay, it’s show time, folks!” intro sequence, as they featured before each new round of buzzing and banging that accompanied the creation of each new image, which typically took about 3-4 minutes.

I really was not ready for what happened next. I can’t explain it, but when the loud noises and vibrations started, I suddenly felt awful. My heart rate shot up and I started to mildly hyperventilate. This lasted only for about 15 seconds or so, but it was bad. It passed, probably because I just tried to focus on the rhythm of this sequence’s particular banging and bring my breathing in line with it. I also did not want to screw it up and have to start all over again.

After about 10-15 minutes of sitting through repeated rounds of banging, buzzing and whirring, I got used to it and was able to relax a little. I thought a lot about how powerful sound is. I remembered once reading a chapter in the book Pranks (page 72-74), an interview with an artist named Monte Cazazza who did a lot of, um, interesting things with ultra-low and ultra-high frequency sound. In it, he describes an experiment he did on himself using ultra-low frequency sound. He basically made himself ill:

“You felt bad. If low frequency sounds get to a certain level, the molecules in your organs start rubbing together, and your cell walls could eventually break down and turn to mush. At lesser levels you’d lose control of your bowels…People don’t realize how much sound physiologically affects them — it can make people sick, and it does in their jobs. It’s dangerous to work in a really noisy environment. Of course, some frequencies bother you more than others.”

Another thing I remembered during the cacophony was a former girlfriend of Jonathan’s who claimed she’d once had a spontaneous, totally hands-free climax at a Led Zeppelin concert. Having inexplicably burst into tears myself at more than one classical concert, I was inclined to believe that story.

The power of sound to affect us physically and psychologically has not escaped the private sector. Nor has it gone unnoticed by the military. That second link is a particularly fascinating read and worth the time.

With all this on my mind, the time flew by. As I was slid back out I asked one of the technicians if people ever experience a lot of anxiety during the procedure. Actually, the term I wanted to use was get totally freaked out. She nodded. “Oh, yeah. We have people we can’t do this with.”

On my way out they gave me a CD with the images, since that’s what the doctor ordered. They will not mail one, so I have to mail or bring it in myself. I am tempted to open them up in Photoshop. But I don’t want to break the seal. I’m sure he’ll show them to me while I’m there anyway.

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.

Oh, how I wish I were a masochist

Today I hobbled up to Coach Sandra’s magic workshop in Ossining for something she’s been promising for several weeks — an examination for “weaknesses” (I have lots of them, but I don’t think she’s talking about vodka) and imbalances. But it got put off due primarily to her travels.

Because of my recent incident, however, this visit turned from one of mere examination to therapy. Or should I say torture? Sandra is a myotherapist. I think myotherapy should replace waterboarding as our nation’s preferred interrogation technique. It’s certainly less messy.

The good news is that I don’t have anything seriously wrong with my hip. The bad news is that I was compared to a kitchen sink that has for years gone unwashed. It takes a lot of scrubbing to undo that kind of neglect. The hip is just the tip of the iceberg that is the whole of my problems, it seems. In fact, Sandra was amazed that I haven’t had more issues given how totally fucked up I am below the waist.

To summarize, here’s what happened on Saturday. The hip issue was the final straw in a cascading series of events having to do with tight muscles in my legs. My right hamstring had been giving me trouble for days beforehand. During the race it tightened up to such an extent that everything around it went into spasm and seized up as well.

My hip is not actually the problem — it’s just where the problem is most acutely expressed at the moment. The most notable issue is a large muscle knot (two, actually — but one is much worse than the other) deep in the heart of my right buttcheek (gluteal muscle). It sits at the top of my iliotibial (IT) band, which is no great shakes either. The IT band is not only tight, but it has scar tissue all up the side of it (both of them do, actually, although the right side is much worse than the left is). Did I mention my calves? They are also tight enough to bounce quarters off of.

I got scolded for running on pavement all these years. And not stretching or getting proper massages (meaning deep enough to be painful) all this time. Who knew?

What does this mean for me? A world of pain, the intensity of which I can scarcely describe.

For close to 90 minutes Sandra dug into these problem areas and made me alternately shriek and weep. Lots of her athletes break into tears while she does this, so I was told not to feel bad about it. I was also told that since she is undoing years of neglect, it’s going to really hurt and take at least another few sessions. She said the muscle knots have been there for a long, long time, given their density and size.

I also have about around 50 (seriously) stretching and strengthening exercises that I am to do twice a week now, working up to three times a week.

I was also told that, when she was still running competitively, Sandra would go engage in this process for 10 days with a guy in Ireland who is the best at this in the world. It was basically a Torture Holiday. Myotherapy, then run, then check things and do myotherapy again. Khalid still goes to him for this treatment. She ended up studying under the torture master and forging a parallel career.

Here’s what happens in these sessions:

  1. Sandra picks an area to work on. She digs into it (often using her elbow with full weight on it). I scream and cry. She expresses sympathy, but also warns that she’s just warming up the area — loosening the surface tissue so she can get closer to the source of the problem (knots and scar tissue).
  2. She digs and stabs. Then checks the muscle or tendon. Then digs and stabs some more. Then asks me if that last round of digging and stabbing was any less painful. I am tempted to lie sometimes, but I don’t because I know that will only prolong the process.
  3. Then she focuses on another area, letting the first recover a bit. Then she goes back and works on the original area some more. In the meantime, neighbors call the police because it sounds like horrific crimes are being committed on the second floor.
  4. I go home and take an ice bath. I do my stretches. I go running and see how far I get before it becomes painful. Then we do this again a few days later.
  5. Repeat until knots and scar tissue are gone.

There are some bright spots in all of this. For one, it’s not a serious injury. I was worried about a hip stress fracture or that my award-winning left bunion was causing all of this and would require surgery. For another, if I get all this shit worked out and do my stretching like my life depends on it (and try to stay off of pavement as much as possible), I should never have to go through this “cleaning the kitchen sink” process again.

Race Report: Green Mountain Relay (Part 2)

In our last exciting installment, we hadn’t even started racing yet. Well hold onto your Baby Wipes, kids, because this is where the party starts.

Incidentally, did you ever notice that Baby Wipes smell like jelly donuts? We did.

Van 1, being Van 1 (a tautology, to be sure), started first. Since our two co-captains are in the federal witness protection program or something, they don’t wish to be identified, so I will simply refer to them as The Captain and (Toni) Tennille. Toni was our starter. After picking up our bibs and other accessories (and noting that one team had estimated their average pace per mile at 4:30 — I suspect it was the Canadians. Thinking in kilometers, those crazy northerners. I guess their little brains must be frozen!), Toni lined up with three other team starters and we eagerly awaited the official start of our racing adventure.

One other thing I should mention is that it was fucking hot. Probably around 82 at the start. Full sun. And a steady, hot headwind.

Another thing — I’m skipping around, I know — the van parked directly across from ours had a blowup sex doll strapped to the front. At the start, she was perky and upright. But as the race wore on, we would see her again, in various stages of decline. Just a few hours later, she had collapsed, her head suggestively lodged in her own crotch. Still later, she was a shell of her former bloated self, a dessicated, sagging sack of tawdriness long departed.

Okay. Back to the race. Since this is all about me, I’ll just move onto my leg 1. It was classified as “Hard” and consisted of 6.6 miles with around 2.5 going up a steep grade. One section was over a mile straight uphill. It was probably around 86 degrees when I started at 1PM. As typically happens, I started racing and thought, “Well, this isn’t so bad.”

Within a mile, though, it was bad. I’d had plans to run the first leg at between 75-82% to save myself for the other races. Those plans went out the window as I watched my HR shoot up to 95% as I struggled to run 10:00 uphill. The wind had picked up too, around 15mph steady. There was virtually no shade. It was hard. Had I not been acclimated from some other hot races, and getting water every couple of miles, I don’t know that I could have finished the leg at the effort I was running.

A race through Hades.

I kept my HR at 92% average (that’s half marathon effort for me) and was really careful about paying attention to how I felt. One team dropped out after a runner of theirs collapsed, I think on this same leg (someone said it was 6.6 miles on Saturday at around 2PM). That would have put her about an hour behind me. She collapsed, out cold, broke teeth and had to be flown to an ICU. Last we heard, on Monday, she was out of ICU but still in the hospital.

I finished up in 1:00:16 (9:10 pace), a time I was happy with considering the awful conditions. No one passed me, which was about my only goal, other than surviving. Now it was time to wait and see if that effort would destroy my two later races. I had a headache that wouldn’t go away until around 9PM, just an hour before I would run again. My stomach was also iffy, which always happens after a big effort in the heat. I was a little worried. As it turns out, I needn’t have been. But others were not so lucky.

We spent some of our free time at Ben & Jerry’s, although I wasn’t up for ice cream. Unfortunately they don’t run the ice cream factory on the weekend, so it was just us and a zillion other touristas, eating cups and cones of instant diabetes. In a state of semi-delirium I bought Jonathan a tee shirt with cows on it in the gift shop. Then we went and hung out in the post-apocalyptic van transfer zone featured in Part 1. I attempted to sleep, but it was impossible.

At the entrance to the parking area, a local pizzeria had set up a stand, somehow having constructed a brick oven pizza. It looked good, if you could stomach pizza after a day of racing in high heat and sun. The race course ran right by the al fresco pizzeria, about .15 miles before the end of that leg, which means people were sprinting through. As I was people watching and waiting for more runners, one poor guy staggered in and promptly let loose a prodigous offering of projectile vomit mere feet from the pizza stand. He would not stop. “There goes the pizza business,” I thought to myself.

The Ambers.

It was in this particular parking lot that I noticed what we would come to call “The Amber Van.” Team members’ names were written in pastels all over the windows. We’d hoped to see some Tiffanys, Britneys and Ashleys. Where they lacked in bimbo names, they made up in costumery, however. We pegged the woman to the right in the above photo (yellow shoes) as “Amber” and also discussed the distinct possibility that her breasts were, in fact, miracles of science. Their van was parked right next to us and its occupants, in flagrant violation of event rules (and common sense), were splayed out on the pavement, just waiting for another van to flatten them. We declined this invitation, tempting as it was.

We basically mocked every other team within eyesight. I had no idea there were people on this earth who could be as relentlessly and mercilessly critical as I am. I was in good, cruel company.

As the day wore on, I was aware of my own growing sense of filth. I had done the requisite wipe down in the back of the van (and change into my lounging shorts and tee shirt), but there’s really no replacement for a proper shower or bath. I accepted my stank and moved on. I had been forewarned.

We opted out of finding a restaurant for dinner — too much time pressure, and I didn’t really want a full meal sitting on my already delicate stomach anyway. I grazed through the day and evening on safe foods like bananas, bread and crackers.

Soon enough, it was time for leg #2. This was at 10PM at night. Whee! My first experience not only running, but racing, at night. This leg was friendlier, rated “Medium” — an even 4 miles on a slight uphill grade of .05% average. Practically flat. The temperature had dropped into the upper 60s, but now it was really humid. Still, better than what we got in the afternoon.

I started my run and immediately passed a runner from one of the slower teams. For the next few miles, I ran alone. I felt remarkably good considering my oven-running ordeal earlier. The experience of night racing was one of shifting, sensual impressions. I was not really paying attention to pace or distance. Aside from passing cars and race vans (and a few huge tractor trailers, all of whom considerately moved over and gave me room), I was aware of just a few things: the rhythmic slapping of my flats on the pavement, the sounds of dogs barking in the distance and the constellation of gnats illuminated by my headlamp, and which I had initially mistaken for drizzle. I really enjoyed this run.

At the 3.4 mile mark I heard someone approach from behind, what experienced relayers call a “ninja.” She was a younger woman, running 7:20s to my 7:55s. We said hello, noted the humidity and encouraged each other: “Good job.” I tried to stay with her, but couldn’t. That was fine. I was glad for the company for a minute, and she did pull me along for a bit. I was sorry when the run ended. Stats for that one were 4.08 miles (you can’t run the tangents unless you run in traffic; no thanks) in 32:16 (7:55 pace). Average effort for that one was 91%. I simply couldn’t run any harder than that.

I was now exhausted. I wolfed down some bread with semi-frozen Nutella. At 10:30, we still had two more race legs of our set of six to do, then a 40 minute drive to our cheap motel, where I would collapse and sleep the Sleep of the Dead for 90 minutes. But not before taking a shower to wash off the layer of skeev that covered me like cheap vinyl siding on a Neutra.*

Tomorrow: inclement weather, tasteless tee shirts, the best breakfast I’ve ever eaten, singing Kumbaya.

*See, this is why I pull in buckets of money as a writer. I sleep on a golden threaded pillow from my creatively facilitated earnings, people. Note the clever simile, followed by a sophisticated cultural reference that further contains a subtle reference to my age. Fucking brilliant, I tell you.

The 1500

Last night I did my second track race, again at Icahn Stadium on Randall’s Island. The weather was considerably more amenable than last time, although it was still on the windy side. Fortunately, it was a swirling wind and gusty rather than steady. It was warm, but not at all humid, which also helped.

We got there in 20 minutes. Last time it took us over an hour. So there was a lot of sitting around time. There were a lot more people there this time around, something I was happy about because it meant I’d get to run in a women’s only race rather than a mixed one.

I stupidly forgot to bring any water, so once I warmed up, I was pretty thirsty. I don’t know if the water in the women’s room sink spigot was potable or not. I guess I’ll know in a week or two.

As usual, I felt sluggish and slow during my warmup. But I’m learning to ignore that and not read too much into it. And, once again, I was intimidated by a woman who looked around my age but had much less body fat. I also did not need to worry about her, as it turned out.

I learned my lesson in the last race: starting lane position is important. Last time I started in an outer lane and spent most of the race running wide around people in the innermost lane. This time I lined up in lane 1. On the second lap I needed to hop into lane 2 in order to pass two people, but other than that I was in lane 1 the whole way. We were all really spread out anyway, so crowding was not an issue. But, still, it was good to get a start in the most advantageous lane.

My pacing plan was as follows:

Lap 1: 66 (remember, it’s a 1500, not a mile, so the first lap is 300m)

Lap 2: 90

Lap 3: 90

Lap 4: Run real fast

I was shooting for a 5:36 and had figured that if I could go out just a smidgen faster than goal pace and then hold at 90 for the bulk of the race, once reaching lap 4 I could either try to continue to hold on or pick it up if possible. The race didn’t quite play out that way. I’m still learning how to pace these things.

I came through the first lap in 60 seconds. Oops. So much for even pacing.

Lap 2 was 92. Not too far off.

Lap 3 was 96. The wind was noticeable on that one.

Lap 4 was really pretty awful from a physical standpoint, but I managed to hold on at 96 again. One woman passed me at 30m before the finish, but I held another one off. Another meter and she would have caught me (she was 0.2 seconds behind me). Jonathan said I looked very tight on the last lap. I need to work on staying relaxed while running fast.

Official time: 5:45.8. I was 6th F and Jonathan said he thinks I was probably the first masters woman.

I was fine until about three minutes after the race. I had what I now realize was the fastest allergy attack I’ve ever experienced. Uncontrollable caughing, copious amounts of phlegm, tears, and impressive wheezing. Jonathan disappeared in the stands to watch the other races. I was not in any shape to be around other human beings, so I disappeared around the side of the stadium to continue my dramatic attack.

After about 15 minutes I managed to calm things down, but it was getting to the point where I was getting, “Are you okays?” from people. A few other women who were in the race with me were similarly coughing/wheezing, so I have to think there must have been loads of pollen (or cancer-causing particulate matter from the cars on the RFK Bridge above us).

I was sorry I was such a mess, as I would have liked to have watched some of the other races (mine was the first event). But I wanted to get home to water and an allergy pill.

Today I certainly felt the effort in my body. Mostly my upper body, like I spent the previous day weilding an overhead paint roller. But it was not as bad as after the mile. I managed 7+ miles at recovery pace this morning without issue.

That’s it for track racing this season. I’ll be back next year, with faster goal times. And allergy pills and water in my bag.

Mulling over the marathon

I make it a habit of worrying about things far in advance. Unfortunately, this often has the effect of obscuring my view of what’s happening right now. Or, rather, what’s going well.

While I’m not yet collecting any PRs at shorter distances this season, I am having a great time running all these races. I still am not yet back to where I was roughly 20 months ago, at least as far as race times are concerned. That is a depressing reality that I try not to dwell on.

I do know that things are looking up in that I do seem to be improving and, perhaps most important, I’m not feeling anywhere close to entering the danger zone of overtraining that I spent so much of last year wallowing in. I was flat out exhausted so much of the time last year that it started to feel normal. After a break I’m realizing that it’s not normal. There’s the regular fatigue that comes with stepping up training, but that you can recover from during a pre-race taper. Then there’s the other kind — a kind of tiredness that settles in and becomes a part of you, then takes months to shake.

It’s only April. Yet I feel at a crossroads as far as the marathon is concerned. I’ve been burned by that lady five times out of my six tries. I really don’t know that I want to sit down and roast marshmallows with her again. Yeah, it’s only April, but if I want to do a fall race during the normal window of fall marathons (Oct/Nov) then that means I have to start getting my training ass in gear around July. That’s 10-12 weeks from now. Not so much time to consider the implications anymore.

From day to day, I swing wildly between wanting to give the long race another go, then realizing that the thought of bombing out again makes me feel physically and spiritually ill. I also can’t get my head around going back to running 90 mile weeks. I just don’t want to. It’s too much running. The more miles I run, the slower I have to run the bulk of them and the harder it is to do my faster workouts. What’s the point? Especially if all roads lead to a crap goal race as the reward.

The fatigue of training, it seems, is not the only thing that lingers. I seem to still be carrying the fatigue of failure and disappointment in my bones. I do know that every time I read someone’s post about the spring marathon they’ve got coming up, I am just so incredibly glad to not be them. That’s got to be telling me something.

These days, as I think about what to do in the fall, I find myself gravitating more and more toward the idea of making the fall a transition back to the full marathon distance in 2011 (assuming I ever go back). This is about all my brain can handle.

Once I’ve concluded my spring fling spent whoring around among various distances and dipping my toe (as I intend to) into crazy ultra relays, track racing and cross-country racing, I could then turn my attention to becoming a very good half marathon racer. It’s a distance that I love — long enough that you’ve accomplished something of significance, but short enough that you can do one every month if you want to.

What if I could run a 1:30 by the new year? Or a 1:26? What if.

Wanted to borrow: a working analogue heart rate strap

I was recently sent a doohickey called the ithlete from the developer, a very nice gentleman named Simon Wegerif. The doohickey in question attaches to an iPod and when connected to a heart rate monitor feeds heart rate variability (HRV) data into an iPod application, also called ithlete.

The problem is, neither of my digital heart rate monitors (a Garmin and an older Polar) are recognized by the unit. You need an analog model (treadmills typically come with them) for it to work. Since I’m not  yet convinced of HRV’s legitimacy as a predictor of overtraining, I’m not willing to plunk down $50 for another monitor. I’ve written to the two guys who do the Science of Sport blog in hopes that they’ll do a post or two surveying the HRV research that’s out there.

In the meantime, I’d still like to review the product, since its maker was kind enough to send it to me gratis. So, web community, is anyone out there willing to let me borrow an analog strap for this purpose? I’d like to borrow it for a few weeks to track readings over a span of training and racing. I would mail it right back to you, plus reimburse you for the original postage costs (assuming you don’t include a brick).

If you’ve got an old analog strap lying around that you’re not using, and you’re willing to make a trip to the post office, please let me know. Email me at: raceslikeagirl@optonline.net

Here’s a list of the compatible models:

  • Suunto Dual
  • Polar T31, T34, T61
  • Polar T31 coded (incl Wearlink)
  • Nike analog chest transmitter belt
  • Cardiosport analog chest transmitter
  • Sigma Sport non coded
  • Oregon Scientific analog
  • Decathlon Geonaute HRM Chest belt

Thanks!

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