In praise of pets

Long before there were these strange things known as blogs, I would sometimes write up a little essay to commemorate something important that had happened in my life and send it to people who I knew would appreciate it.

Coach Kevin is coming to terms with the imminent loss of his parents’ nine-year-old golden retriever. His posts about the experience prompted me to dig out what 10 years ago would have been a blog post. Here it is.

Saturday, 10 July 1999

We have suffered a great loss today. Our cat, Stumpy, died this morning. On Wednesday evening he suffered something called a “thrombosis,” or a blood clot which lodged at the base of his spine, paralyzing his back legs, and sending him into shock. He spent the next few days at the vet’s office, where he recovered from his shock and even very briefly regained a bit of strength and sensation in his legs, but they almost immediately returned to full paralysis.

The vet took him out of his cage early this morning and exercised his back legs a little, looking for signs of improvement, but found none. Stumpy went back to sleep upon being returned to his cage, and died sometime later this morning, in his sleep, presumably by the formation of another blood clot.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), we hadn’t seen him since bringing him in Wednesday night, since we were told that he would probably be further traumatized if he were to see us and then be abandoned by us again. A part of me thinks that Stumpy may have somehow chosen to spare us from having to make the decision to end his life if his condition wasn’t ever going to improve. Or maybe he simply couldn’t abide by it himself and gave up.

I wrote the following in an effort to cope with the sudden shock of losing him.

I have only good memories of Stumpy. In fact, I still clearly remember the day I discovered him. The art department I worked in on Madison and 32nd had an adjacent open roof area, a little 30 foot square patch of grimy tarmac braced by three walls and our window, in the middle of which sat an ominous, blackened piece of building machinery illuminated by a narrow, creeping shaft of sunlight.

One afternoon, someone pointed out that there was a black and white cat playing on the roof. Peering out the window, I could see the cat batting a scrap of paper around the perimeter of the square with great enthusiasm. He happened to look up and see me staring at him, at which point he ran over and hopped up onto the window ledge to peer back at me through the glass. He then began to strut back and forth along the ledge, rubbing against the glass and wedging a paw under the crack of the open window in an effort to touch me.

At such close range, I could see that he had a serious injury: all but the first four inches of his tail was gone, and the remaining span was a gangrenous, bloody mess. I suspected the giant piece of machinery of having initially served as a warm place to sleep, only to prove itself a massive Cuisinart as far as the cat’s tail was concerned. Yet, he seemed oblivious to the injury. I reached my fingers under the window and he happily rubbed his face against them. He was purring so loudly, I could hear him through the thick glass. When I pulled my fingers back in, the tips were coated with soot and grease.

For the rest of the day, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the window. Every time anyone went to look at the cat, he would leap up to the ledge and engage in the same campaign for attention and affection. Since he lacked a collar (and a tail), it was pretty clear that he was in need of help.

That evening I went home and engaged in my own campaign with Jonathan, which I began with by saying, “You see, there’s this cat…”

The cat was on his way home with me the next day, after a quick trip to the ASPCA in Manhattan, where a staff vet declared him “a fixed female, about three years old. She’s had some kittens.” Stumpy must have made a trip to Sweden at some point because, in actual fact, he was a neutered male, about a year and a half old. Whatever he was, he really seemed to enjoy the ride home on the Staten Island ferry at sunset.

After a few hundred dollars for a garden-variety tail amputation and industrial strength shampoo and blow dry at a Staten Island vet’s office, the cat was good as new thanks to me and MasterCard. Since his new stub of a tail was his most notable feature, we took to calling him “Stumpy” affectionately while we debated on a “real” name. Eventually, the nickname stuck.

Stumpy was the most unique cat I’ve ever known. I’ve had three other cats, and Stumpy was the best of the lot. I think this is mostly attributable to his being so atypical of a cat. Cats are emotionally aloof; Stumpy was constantly giving and asking for affection. Cats often prefer to spend their time alone, elsewhere in the house; Stumpy always wanted to be around me, and would follow me from room to room, settling down to sleep wherever I happened to be. Cats do not often come when called; Stumpy always did. When I came in the door, he would run up to greet me. When I drove into our driveway, he would be sitting on our walk, waiting to say hello. For all intents and purposes, this cat was a dog.

He absolutely loved people. We recently held a birthday party for our friend Adele, in which there were close to 25 people in our living room. I assumed Stumpy would be afraid of all the noise and bodies and would surely spend the evening under the bed in the guest room, his traditional hiding place from thunderstorms and vacuum cleaners. But at one point during the evening, I noticed him sauntering around the room, mingling with the guests and moving from lap to lap, settling on the lap of whoever would have him, for as long as they’d have him. In his own mind, he seemed to consider himself as having equal stature to anyone else in the room, and may have even assumed the party was for him, had the cake not read “Happy Birthday Adele.”

Stumpy was the sole daily constant who persisted through Jonathan’s and my years together as a couple. Part of the reason losing him has proven to be so devastating to both of us is that adopting Stumpy was the first really important thing I asked for from Jonathan, and he gave it to me without hesitation, despite the fact the he had no desire to own a cat, and in fact had never even had a pet. I moved in with Jonathan in November of 1990. Stumpy joined us in the early spring of ’91 and has accompanied us through every terrible and wonderful ripple and wave of the past eight or so years.

Over those eight years, Jonathan’s affection for Stumpy grew to equal my own, even though he would still occasionally sternly mumble exclusionary observations such as, “Your cat wants to go out.” But we both knew he was our cat, not just mine anymore.

When we both began to work together at home, Stumpy became an even more attached to us, and we to him; he spent as much time in our studio as we did, often stealing my chair if I left the room for a few moments, or sleeping on our sunny window sill, waking indignantly at the sound of crows or squirrels who dared tread on his property. If we insisted, he would allow us to put him outside during the day, but he would sit just outside the front door, ready to leap back inside the house to be with us again if we let him.

Stumpy’s love of people extended through all facets of his behavior. He wanted to meet everyone who came into the house. He was amazingly sensitive to moods, comforting us if we were upset or sick, getting distressed when we were angry, wanting to be in the middle of things if we were laughing.

When our vet first met Stumpy he couldn’t help but comment on how gentle and friendly a cat he was, how he’d obviously been the recipient of a lot of love over the years. Most cats are totally uncooperative on the vet’s table, squirming and scratching and meowing. But Stumpy was acquiescent and amenable, calmly allowing his temperature to be taken in that most unpleasant manner, resigned to accepting shots and all the other necessary annual pokings and proddings. Like all animals, he wasn’t happy at the vet’s, but by all accounts he wasn’t unhappy there either.

He was such an innate charmer. I found out recently that over the years he was regularly given preferential treatment there, where he was also boarded. While we were away on vacation, agonizing and feeling guilty about shutting Stumpy off in a tiny cage in a room full of other imprisoned cats all day, the reality of how he spent that time was actually quite different. In fact, he spent the majority of his days wandering freely around the vet’s rooms, most of the time hanging out in the reception area where the action was. Somehow it seems appropriate that if he couldn’t be with us when he died, that he was there, where he was equally appreciated and cared for.

One of the worst things about losing someone suddenly is the fear that your primary memory of them will always be the final, overwhelmingly negative one. I do hold a horrific memory of my last hour with Stumpy in which he, Jonathan and I are all equally distressed. But minutes before Stumpy became ill, I was sitting with him out on the driveway (where he liked to spend cool summer evenings, lying on the warm pavement), talking to him and helping him stalk a tiny green grasshopper. And so I’ll choose to hold those five minutes of our last hour together as the very last of thousands of memories that began to accumulate on that lovely spring day in Manhattan in 1991.

Happy trails, Runs Like a Girl

The former incarnation of this blog, Runs Like a Girl, has been sitting around on Blogger for well over a year since I moved over here and underwent a name change. Since I’m getting sick of moderating comments submitted to a dead blog, I’ve pulled the plug on the old Girl.

Just so you know.

My left foot

Oh, you poor thing.

I know why you’re so unhappy. I forced you to run 18 miles in a newish pair of Adidas Adizero Tempos, which, with their slightly too-narrow toebox, pinched your award-winning bunion. You were also probably working hard to compensate for the right leg’s compromised hamstring.

Then I took you on a 22 mile spin along the Central Park hills despite the fact that you were still iffy in the bunion department. You let your displeasure be known on Tuesday, at mile 11 of a 14 miler, again after numerous ups and downs on the way to White Plains and back. “Here’s a little tendonitis for you,” you muttered ruefully and then added, more ominously, “Or maybe it’s a stress fracture.”

Oh, sure, I made a show of caring about your needs, wrapping you in ice for 20 minutes several times on Tuesday and feeding you horsepill-sized anti-inflammatories. But then what did I do? I frogmarched you to the track on Wednesday morning and forced you to run 6 miles at around 7:10 pace, with another 4.4 miles around those. You did your best, stifling your dismay until the penultimate tempo mile, during which you shouted in no uncertain terms, “No more! Can’t you see I’m in pain?”

Yes, I could. Because you shared your pain. Your pain became my pain. And now we’re in a lot of pain together.

But not so much pain that I didn’t make you run another 4.6 yesterday afternoon, mere hours after our abusive session at the track. Nor did I spare you 9 miles this morning. You’re probably wondering if we have another run later today. I’m not answering that question.

I’m sorry. I’ve given you the painkillers (Hydrocodone) that we save for special occasions. And I’ll offer you more ice throughout the day and evening. Perhaps even some Swedish vodka.

Forgive me.

I’ve seen this sort of thing before

It’s the last month or so before my goal race and, as typically happens, a host of physical issues are suddenly emerging on the horizon like thunderclouds only to recede just as quickly and mysteriously, having spared me from a soaking, or worse, a lightning strike.

Where have I seen this before? Oh, right. During every single previous training season. Looking over my logs of the past few years (you do keep detailed logs, don’t you?), I see that this is something that happens like clockwork in the 4-6 weeks prior to each marathon.

In the spring of 2007, it was chronic shinsplints. In the spring of 2008 it was a torn fascia in my right calf. In the fall of 2008 it was a general malaise that I couldn’t shake for days at a time, almost as if I was on the verge of getting the flu. In the spring of 2009 it was a twofer: a cyst on one of my left foot’s ligaments accompanied by a mysterious pain in my right quads that migrated from quad muscle to quad muscle for a few weeks. (Ironically, the iron/vitamin deficiency and/or overtraining — which eventually did me in — was the one thing I wasn’t accutely aware of.)

This time around is no different, although I’ve learned not to be completely freaked out by each new complaint. Two weeks ago, it was a hamstring pull. Yesterday, it was some sort of odd, painful ligament or tendon issue on the top of my left foot.

I dutifully take my anti-inflammatories, ice and massage the sucker, and hope for the best. If something persists, I go to the orthopedist, who at this point can probably set his watch by my twice-yearly appearances. After a completely unnecessary, “defensive medicine” x-ray, I usually leave with a good dose of cortisone surging through the area in question and a “good luck” on my next race. Did I see him rolling his eyes too?

I’m like a car that starts to belch black smoke from beneath its hood at the tail end of a drive through Death Valley in July. As long as I can make it to Sacramento on December 6 with my radiator, suspension and transmission intact, I’ll be happy.

Fall Training: Week 9

This was by far one of my most enjoyable weeks of running in recent memory. I may not be as speedy as I’d like at this point, but I am becoming a stronger runner by the day, or so it seems. Even training with a dodgy hamstring, which was more a slightly worrying nuisance than a hindrance, I felt great this week.

By “stronger” I mean that I am evolving into even more of an endurance machine than I usually am. I can run seemingly forever at a moderate effort, and tacking on high effort miles has been almost easy. I’m also not exhausted after any particular workout or at the end of the week.

I’m not sure how you quantify training progress outside of racing times, but this week of training has me feeling that after two+ years of consistently running high mileage, I’ve finally adjusted to its demands. Almost as if I really do now have a “base” upon which to build further, as opposed to a base that I am working to build.

The highlights for the week, aside from running 95 miles without issue, were Wednesday’s tempo run, Friday’s speedwork, and a monster run in Central Park this morning. Tuesday was no slouch either, with 15 miles at a decent pace for 70% effort.

The tempo run was an experiment in hamstring healing. My ailing leg felt okay, so I decided to try running as far on the track going counterclockwise as I could. That turned out to be 3.5 of the 5 faster miles before the hamstring started to tighten up. So I finished up going the “wrong way” and, aside from the slower, cautious first mile, chalked the run up as a success, given the decent paces.

Another thing about that run: I realized while running my warmup miles on the way to the track that I no longer dread tempo runs beforehand or suffer through them. If anything, they’ve become too easy and I have felt in the past few weeks that the faster blocks are too short. I have said as much to Coach Kevin and he concurs that they are becoming easy for me. So we may schedule longer tempo blocks for the spring cycle.

Friday’s speedwork was worrisome insofar as I didn’t want to screw up my leg and compromise the Sunday run. Still, I was feeling brave, so I decided to once again run in the proper direction on the track and see what the leg would do. It held up well, possibly owing to the fact that I had trouble working up to 92% effort due to fatigue. Still, I’m happy with the splits, considering most of them were run at 91% effort.

I should also note that I only had two days of doubles this week, which is not bad for a 95 mile week. I have observed that I am overall less fatigued in the weeks that I only have one or two days of doubles compared to those in which I have three or four. I don’t know whether it’s a function of age or just my own particular physiology, but I suspect I need 24 hours between runs to recover properly. Fortunately for me, I like running long.

Friday evening and yesterday morning, my legs were completely trashed. Not just my legs, but ankles and feet as well. My confidence in being recovered in time for this morning was shaky, but I’ve learned that miracles can happen overnight.

As it turned out, today’s run was, again, no big deal. I’ve decided to do my final long runs in Central Park so I can get the benefit of the hills there. The California International Marathon course is by no means as hilly as Central Park is, but it does feature a net downhill drop. I’d like to avoid another thigh shredding exercise if I can.

I ran three full loops of the park starting at 72nd St on the west side, along with a 1.5 out and back north, turning around at the 102nd St transverse. Holding effort between 76-79% was easy and I felt energetic enough to run the last mile at 86% just for the hell of it. That got me a 7:26 mile over hills on extremely tired legs. I’ll take it.

A random test

I just hooked this blog to something called NetworkedBlogs on Facebook. This post is a pointless waste of bytes, meant only to confirm that that hook-in is working.

See? I wasted at least 20 seconds of your life just now. You’ll never get those back.

Fall Training: Week 8

09fall-training-08This week was a planned recovery week, although it featured exceptionally low mileage due to lingering issues with my hamstring. Interestingly, after watching Paula Radcliffe drop off to fourth place due to a hamstring problem in today’s New York Marathon, I can understand how that happens. It’s possible to run with a problem hamstring, but not as fast as you’d like to. I learned all about this on Friday.

I took Monday off because the hamstring bothered me running. Instead, I took a walk to get the blood flowing to it, then spent some time massaging it to try to head off any scar tissue buildup. On Tuesday I did a little test run in the morning, in which the leg showed improvement, although things were still iffy, so I did another walk in the evening rather than a run.

Wednesday was a turning point, as the leg no longer hurt while walking and I had a lot of range of motion back. It could also tolerate being rolled along the foam roller and massaged fairly aggressively.

I pushed things a bit further on Thursday, with a slightly faster run and an experimental stride at 7:15 pace. There was still some stiffness present, but no pain at that speed. Again, to give it 24 hours rest for the big test on Friday, I cross-trained, this time on the stationary bike.

Friday was the day of reckoning: Could I run fast on the bum leg? The answer turned out to be: well, sort of. But only in a certain direction. I ran to the track and all was well on the way there. Then I started into the tempo work and within half a mile of trying to run fast the leg stiffness evolved into pain. And, like Paula, I couldn’t run fast. The first mile was a disappointing 7:47, owing to my inability to extend my stride with my right leg.

I have no idea why this occured to me, but I thought about the fact that I couldn’t extend my right leg properly and realized that every time I hit a curve on the track I was forcing my right leg to extend further out than my left leg was extending. So, much to the confusion and annoyance of others on the track, I reversed direction for the next three miles and got much better results. At least I was considerate enough to take the extreme outside lane (there’s one guy there sometimes who runs “the wrong way” in the middle lanes and it’s confusing — and probably dangerous — on a track crowded with people).

So I’m not sure whether to call Friday a success or not. I could run fast, but only clockwise on a track. Is that good? Or just necessary for the time being?

For obvious reasons I skipped strides and any speedwork this week. Yesterday was very easy, with another experimental 30 second surge down to 6:40 pace. That speed had my hamstring not so much hurting as tapping me insistently on the shoulder, as if to say, “Uh, what are you doing?”

Fortunately, I knew I wouldn’t get anywhere near 6:40 pace on today’s run (boy was I right about that, as my speed sucked today). But the run today was about endurance and, without making too many excuses, I could still feel Friday’s effort in my legs in addition to having to fight a steady headwind for most of the miles.

I still consider it a successful workout, though. I easily maintained 77-78% effort for 12 miles and then had no problem stepping it up to 88-89% for the last five. I also wasn’t trashed by the workout — no need for naps or other forms of collapse. I credit that more to the lower mileage this week than I do to some leap in fitness.

Toward the end of the run I had matching fatigue and complaints in both hamstrings, which offered some comfort. Although now, six hours later, the right one is definitely complaining slightly more than the left. I have trained injured before, the latest example being the 10 weeks I trained with a mild groin pull, which I suffered on a cold and slippery half marathon in Central Park in January. That was probably worse than what I’m experiencing now (can you hear me rationalizing this away?). But it’s always unnerving to have in the back of my mind, every time I put on my running shoes, the knowledge that something’s not quite right. Kind of like living with faulty wiring and wondering if your house is going to go up in flames at any moment.