Frustration and acceptance: a marathon dream

The following dream is responsible for my only having had six hours of sleep last night. It was worth it.

It’s marathon morning and we’re on the starting line. I wish Jonathan a good race and he heads up to the front while I hang back a few rows.

For some reason, we’re running the race in a third world country that I can’t identify. It’s vaguely Middle Eastern and the entire city seems to be under construction. There is scaffolding and concrete road dividers everywhere, and we can barely hear anything over the constant din of saws, nailguns and jackhammers.

The weather is most notable for its complete absence. Earplugs block hearing. Stuffed sinuses block taste. The weather here has been blocked somehow. It’s simply not there.

The race is about to start. I look down and see that I’m wearing…flipflops. I’ve managed to leave my running shoes and socks upstairs in the room. Well, this won’t do. The race starts and I head back to the lobby of our hotel, a massive tower a few blocks from the start. There’s bank of eight elevators, seven of which are out of order. So I wait for the single working elevator’s arrival. It takes a long time.

Everyone piles in and we make at least 18 stops on the way to our floor. I get my shoes, grab my laptop, and head back to the starting line. Needless to say, no one’s there, although I’m grateful that the start is still apparently open.

My shoes are on and I’m ready to go. Wait a minute. What’s my laptop doing here? Why did I bring this with me? Should I just leave it here? I’m 45 minutes behind schedule. But I paid $400 for this thing. I’m not going to guarantee that it gets stolen when I can reduce the chances of that by at least 50% by bringing it back up to the room.

So up I go again, although this time I take the stairs because I know it will be faster than waiting for a broken elevator. I’ll just treat it as my warmup. In the room, I do a final check in front of the mirror to make sure I have everything I need and nothing I don’t. Check. I head back down the stairs.

I return to the starting line to discover that it’s been moved. So now I wander the streets, looking for race volunteers. I find one who gives me vague instructions: “Left for 100 yards, then catty corner right to the construction lot, look for the portapotties…”

Miraculously, I find it. I look at my watch. The race started exactly two hours ago. Should I even run it? Fuck it. I hit the Start button and go. No matter how well I do the official results will be an embarrassment, as there are no timing mats. But at least I’ll know what I ran.

In the first mile I pass two people: men in head-to-toe dresses, moving at a crawl. Even here in Buttfuckistan, or wherever this is, there are fitness walkers! I realize I’m the only woman I see anywhere, on the course or on the street. I’m wearing my split shorts which, under the right conditions, may as well be a g-string. It occurs to me that this might be one of those countries where women get beaten by strangers and family alike for so much as revealing a bare wrist. But everyone seems cool with my scantily clad self.

I’m running comfortably, passing the odd guy in a dress, when I realize that for the first time ever I’m able to hit all the tangents. I also notice that the organizers have been thoughtful enough to paint a steady line along the course. This is a relief, since, given that the course snakes through a giant construction site, I was figuring it was only a matter of time before I got lost. The line is a soothing green with some blue in it, and it’s rendered brighter against the dull backdrop of steel, concrete and battleship grey of the day’s weatherless skies.

I see the male leader on his way in. Then, about 15 minutes later I spot Jonathan, his form unmistakable: silver haired, floating, fat free. He looks tense and I realize that he’s probably concerned at not having seen me on the course. I’m pained to think that he’s spent most of his race worrying about me.

He spots me just as I pass the 3 mile marker and gives me an OhGodWhatTheHellHappenedToYouThisTime?! look. I smile and give an enthusiastic thumbs up, which manages to make him look even more baffled. Then I start laughing my ass off.

Introducing The Performinator

Have you been frustrated by your inability to accurately predict how you’ll do in your next marathon? Or even know if you’ll finish the damn thing?

Well, wonder no more! Now there’s The Performinator, the first online calculator that can answer that tough question: “Will I be like Happy Paula or Sad Paula next Sunday?”

Click on the image above to see a larger version.

Pretty exciting stuff, huh? If it actually worked, you’d see something like this. The reality, however, is more like this.

And that’s what makes the marathon so exciting and mysterious.

Happy feet

I’ll say it again: cortisone is a fucking miracle drug. 48 hours after the shot into my tendon and the problem is all but gone.

I did my penultimate marathon-y run on the track yesterday: 12 miles with 9 at a few heatbeats below marathon effort. My heart rate during the warmup miles was just way too high — low 70%s for 10:00+ minute miles. Something was off. I suspect it was a combination of lousy night’s sleep, monthly hormonal shenanigans and possibly the effect of being on heavy duty NSAIDs for the past week. Not surprisingly, my speed for the higher effort miles wasn’t anything to write home about either.

I’m not allowing that performance to rattle me. I do know that it’s been very easy for me to run at 85-86% effort for long periods of time (up to 2 hours) and finish up with plenty of energy left over. So I’m confident in my endurance and feel that if I hit things on the right day, my speed will be respectable. I’ve been off the NSAIDs for 24 hours and this morning’s recovery run seem to indicate that things are getting sorted out with regard to energy output vs. speed. I’ve got a little bit of speedwork on Friday, so that should be another checkpoint.

I have a goal time for the race, but I’m not going to share it this time around. There are so many variables and my goals for this race aren’t so much about seeing a particular time on the clock as they are about running at the appropriate effort and managing my energy output. A negative split would be a bonus.

I’ve raced five marathons and four of them have been mediocre to disastrous. What I want most next week is to run a solid, consistent pace — without spending the last 30-45 minutes of the race feeling like I want to die.

Fall Training: Week 11

Interesting week. Not quite the one I wanted. But I’m learning that I can’t control everything, and that can’t be a bad thing.

First side tangent about control: I was reading a book about adventure travel (Robert Young Pelton’s Guide to the World’s Most Dangerous Places) recently. There’s a chapter on adventure racing and it’s noted that marathon runners usually make lousy adventure racers. We’re control freaks, apparently (who knew?). In an adventure race, everything is constantly going wrong and you have to deal with it, adapt and change plans along the way. Compare not having the right flavor of gel to losing two of your kayaks on a four person team, or watching helplessly as all of your camping equipment slips into a deep ice crevasse, and you get the picture.

Second side tangent about control: I’ll preface this paragraph with the caveat that everything I’m about to say is completely speculative in nature; my personal observations and opinions only. This year’s NCAA Cross-Country Championships featured one of the most bizarre races I’ve ever seen. College phenom (and Olympian) Jenny Barringer, initially in the lead, but with Susan Kuijken right on her tail, not only faltered at several times in the race but actually appeared to pass out for a moment. She rallied, but with all those stops along the way ended up way back in the field.

I suspect she had a panic attack midrace (timely, given my recent post). Why? Besides the enormous pressure on her, as the favorite, to win, she just looked uncomfortable from the very start. Kuijken was right behind or alongside her for the start and you could see how aware of her Barringer was. Barringer’s facial expression and physical demeanor changed dramatically in the moment that Kuijken passed her (8:00) and things when rapidly downhill. You could see Barringer, looking distressed, talking to herself. Her form was shot and she didn’t look good. Then, a bit farther along, she wobbled, dropped to her knees, and collapsed (0:54, 1:42).

Where was her coach? Even if it wasn’t a panic attack, she clearly wasn’t in racing shape and belonged in the med tent. Even more disturbing than watching her struggle to her feet to finish the race was that she allowed herself to be interviewed right afterwards. On camera, she was clearly upset and shaken from the experience. I saw her doing everything other than taking care of herself. It struck me as profoundly sad, because she seemed so utterly alone.

Updated: Here’s an extended interview with Barringer after the race in which she discusses the incident and the confluence of pressures, transitions and expectations that may have contributed. I’ve also added links to the video above, along with where you can see the key meltdowns.

Anyway, back to my week. My big run on Sunday of Week 10, as I’d suspected it might, pushed my foot into a whole new world of pain. My ankle and foot also blew up overnight, resembling a Virginia ham. My sports doc couldn’t even determine which tendon was the source of the issue, so I spent the week taking NSAIDs (oral and topical) and the swelling and pain improved enough that I could run easy on the treadmill. My one run outside on Saturday caused the problem tendon to flare up, though, so I went back to my sports med guy yesterday, who (surprise!) gave me a cortisone shot.

Needless to say, I didn’t run my 4 mile race in Central Park on Sunday as that would have qualified as Doing Something Stupid. While I’m disappointed that I didn’t get to try for that first corral bib, I gotta keep my eyes on the prize, which is December 6 in Sacramento. Doc gave me the all clear to run and race as much as I like, starting today, with the warning that my race may hurt a little (and possibly a lot afterwards). But I won’t be doing any further damage to myself by running it.

Ankle and foot look and feel better this morning thanks this miracle drug. I had a planned 12 miler with 9 at just below marathon effort. I’m going to go attempt this on the track right now.

Exercise and anxiety

I used to suffer from chronic anxiety. This illness took many forms, the most pervasive of which was my compulsion to worry constantly, envisioning the worst possible outcome of any situation or endeavor. I would also brood, spending hours, days or weeks blowing up the smallest negative interaction into some sort of globally applicable proof of all that was wrong with me, my life and the world. Another delightful side effect was periodic hypochondria. But the crowning feature was the full blown panic attacks I’d suffer every few years, often with several clustered in a short period of time. If you’ve ever had one of these, you’ll know that they are intensely frightening, uncomfortable and exhausting experiences.

For years I attempted to treat this problem through traditional talk therapy. Years. Well over 10. In hindsight, I probably should have tried a more practical variety, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, but, despite rejecting many of its theories (Oedipal complex? please, spare me) I bought the psychoanalytic approach hook, line and sinker.

I don’t feel that those years I spent in the chair were a total waste of time and money. Insofar as I had a sympathetic ear once or twice a week, I think that I was helped in some ways during those years in terms of getting some perspective. But the issue that brought me there in the first place — horrendous anxiety — remained, sometimes abating for a few years at a time, and in the process convincing me that I was over the problem. But it was always a matter of time before it came roaring right back.

I’d been running 15-20 miles per week since the age of 34. Then I started upping the mileage and effort at 39 in training for my first major race, a half marathon. Shortly after I started running more, and running harder, I noticed subtle yet unmistakable changes in mood. Not just the cessation of anxiety attacks (I’d seen that before), but a lifting of the constant dread and chorus of negativity that permeated my inner mental world.

So I ran more, and I ran harder. I got better, both as a runner and in my head. The daily devil of nagging anxiety had at last been banished. I felt so much better that I finally quit therapy, a decision I’d been struggling with for several years. I didn’t need it anymore. That was about four and a half years ago. Not coincidentally, that is the longest I’ve gone between anxiety attacks since I started having them in my preteen years.

I decided to post about this after reading this article in the NY Times, which seems to bring some scientific evidence to bear on my anecdotal experience.

Of course, what this means is that I can probably never stop running. I can live with that.

Fall Training: Week 10

09fall-training-10This week started out well but rapidly nosedived as a new injury emerged. On Tuesday, toward the end of a midlength run, the top of my left foot suddenly started hurting. A lot.

With icing it seemed to get better overnight and I felt good enough to go do my tempo run at the track on Wednesday. That went very well until the penultimate fast mile when the pain started to come back. I could still run fast, but it wasn’t a pleasant experience. The recovery run later that day was a bit better and I was encouraged to find that the more I ran, the better the foot felt.

Then on Thursday I did a nine mile recovery run with the same expectation, but ended up with a completely different experience. My foot hurt like hell for the entire run. Aside from one incredibly hot and humid half marathon in which I had a small…um…”accident” in my shorts just past mile 4, these were the longest 9 miles I can recall ever having gritted my teeth through.

After that run the pain started to migrate upward from the top of my foot to the lateral side of my ankle. There was no obvious inflammation, which I suppose was a good sign, although the area was tender.

As much as I hated to do so, I backed off for the rest of Thursday, as well as Friday and Saturday, chopping my mileage by close to 30 miles in the process. I’m upset that it came to this, but what could I do? After Thursday’s sufferfest I felt that running on it further would only delay the process of healing.

Fortunately, I have a stationary bike for just such occasions, so I whaled away on that for a couple of days. At the risk of offending duathletes and triathletes, biking is not that hard. I averaged 16mph at 60-63% MHR with a resistance setting of 5 (on a scale of 1-10). Maybe I need to put these monster legs onto some pedals one day, since I know I’ve got the running nailed.

Last night I did a 20 minute run test on the treadmill, scooting from 11:00 pace down to 8:00, just to see what my tendon would do. It didn’t get worse, which was good enough for me. Hardly the best test, since 20 minutes on a flat treadmill at a slow pace does not equal 20 miles in Central Park at a fast pace.

Since I take some measure of pride in being an honest blogger, even when it makes me look like an idiot (see shorts shitting episode above), I’ll confess that I took a serious painkiller for this run: 500mg of Hydrocodone (prescription only!). I resorted to this measure only because OTC meds had no effect on the pain over the preceding days. I took half one hour before the run and kept the other half in my shorts. I took that at the 13.5 mile mark when my ankle was starting to whine.

I know that it’s generally not a great idea to include narcotics in one’s training plan, for the usual reasons: they mask pain, they can have unpredictable physiological effects when mixed with high effort, one can become overly reliant on them as a “band aid” of sorts, yadda yadda. But I’m a big girl and know the risks. I knew going in that my tendon was inflamed and would hurt. I knew I didn’t have a stress fracture. I knew that 500mg of something in my system during a few faster miles wasn’t going to wreak havoc. I used to be alarmist about such things, but I’m not anymore.

The run went well. I did 5 miles at around 10:00 and then picked it up to average 7:35 per mile 7:50 per mile (I can’t do math properly) for the faster 15. This is a very good decent pace for me in Central Park, which is constant ups and downs. I avoided the huge hills at the top of the park, opting to go clockwise along the 4+ mile “inner loop” (utilizing the two major transverses at 72nd and 102nd streets) for most of the run. It was also around 60F and 92% humidity. Add in that I was running on a bum ankle and I’m happy with today’s performance. I know I worked hard because I came home and slept for 2+ hours.

Random fun facts: I counted four people who were running faster than I was today and they were all guys in their 20s and 30s; that always makes me feel good. Also, there was an ice cream cart on the corner of the 72nd street transverse and West Side Drive, but no one was buying ice cream. I bought one at the end of the run and it took the guy about five minutes to excavate the desired item from the bowels of his cart. I wondered if it had been buried in there since September.

Next week is the transition from training to taper. I’ve got my last speed session (I skipped the one planned for Friday of this week) and a 4 mile race in the park on Sunday, in which I will make my second attempt to garner a NYRR First Corral bib. As for my tendon, regardless of what it does overnight I’ll go see the orthopedist this week for a cortisone shot. It wouldn’t be marathon season without one.

Mixes: Accelerate

I’ve got another 20 miler today. I’ve been listening to the same playlists for months, so it was time to build a new one. Since my run will start off easy for 5 miles and then work up to slightly below marathon effort for 15 (gulp), I wanted a mix that reflected that pattern.

There’s a lot of uptempo stuff in here, but I’ve thrown in a calmer tune every so often to remind myself to relax when I’m running fast. I find that if I listen to too much relaxing music while running fast, my mind drifts and I get complacent (and I slow down). There will be none of that nonsense today.

Here’s what I’ll be serenading myself with this morning.

More Than This – Roxy Music
Dance Away – Roxy Music
Same Old Scene – Roxy Music
You Should Be Dancing – Bee Gees
Friend – Christine McVie
Shade And Honey – Sparklehorse
Traffic and Weather – Fountains of Wayne
WannaBe in L.A. – Eagles Of Death Metal
The Laws Have Changed – New Pornographers
You Look So Fine – Garbage
Blue Morning, Blue Day – Foreigner
Lust For Life – Girls
Black Albino Bones – F*ck*d Up
Pretend That You’re Alone – Keane
Technicolor Health – The Harlem Shakes
I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris – Morrissey
Say You Love Me – Fleetwood Mac
21st Century Breakdown – Green Day
Girlfriend – Phoenix
Sitting Still – R.E.M.
We Started Nothing – The Ting Tings
Let Down – Radiohead
Planet Telex – Radiohead
Freeway – Aimee Mann
The Shock Of The Lightning – Oasis
Her Voice Is Beyond Her Years – Mew
White Riot (Alternate Demo Mix) – The Clash
Oliver’s Army – Elvis Costello
Something In The Air – Thunderclap Newman
Little Favours – KT Tunstall
Switch On – Paul Oakenfold
Oxford Comma – Vampire Weekend
Wave Of Mutilation – Superdrag
I Thought About You – The Beautiful Girls
Holiday Road (Live) – Lindsey Buckingham
Cannonball (LP Version) – The Breeders
Come On/Let’s Go – Paul Weller
Radiation Vibe (LP Version) – Fountains of Wayne
Day After Day (2009 Remastered) – Pretenders
My Lucky Day – Jason Falkner
F*ck and Run – Liz Phair
Pathfinder – Gay Dad
The Warrior – Scandal
I See You Baby (Fatboy Slim Mix) – Groove Armada
Jumpin’ Jack Flash – The Rolling Stones
Gimme Animosity – Superdrag
The Nude – Catherine Wheel

Listen here.