Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Walk, don't run

Now in my eighth week off of running, I admit that I'm sort of coming around on this whole walking thing. Don't get me wrong: I am terribly eager to begin running again, and it's probably the fact that this brief interlude is nearing its end that I'm beginning to feel some tenderness toward my captor. But I love bipedalism in all of its variations, and over the last two months, have realized that there are some distinct advantages to walking, and not running.

1. The stink factor. I've always enjoyed "running" my errands when I can: running to and from the market if I just need a small item or two, running to the library to pick up and drop off my books, or even running to and from a concert at a nearby club. I almost always run to my polling place on election day, although this favorite tradition has probably alienated me from most of my neighbors. I'm not one of those people who delicately glistens when I run: I sweat. It takes a lot longer to get everywhere by walking instead of running, but I'm not a gross mess once I arrive, and it's been sort of nice not having to apologize when I get into elevators.

Two feet. Four eyes.
2. I can see where I'm going. I'm near-sighted and have worn glasses my entire adult life. Every year I tell myself I'm going to get a pair of prescription running sunglasses made so that I can see while I'm running, but I still have never done it. Because glasses will not stay on my face while I run (see "sweaty mess," above), I've just learned to run while unable to see clearly. I can see well enough to ensure my basic safety, but am always missing quite a lot of what's going on around me. But as a walker, my glasses can stay on my face, and in spending some long hours over the past two months in places where I'm usually running, I've realized just how much I usually don't see. I can get a better look at the flora, the architecture, and the public art as I pass by, and I can read the signs! And because I'm going slower, I seem to just be paying more attention. Last weekend I passed by the runway of the airport, which I do regularly (I live 2.5 miles from it), and saw lots of activity going on as I went by that I've just never noticed while running.

I seriously love my glittery tights.
3. The clothes are much cuter. Because I don't get so hot when I walk, I get to bundle up when I head out for these long walks in ways that I just can't when I run, even in winter. Despite being a lifelong runner, I've just never had those lean, muscular runner legs, and look and feel far better in a pair of tights than I do in a pair running shorts. I (and surely everyone I encounter during my morning workouts) have been deeply grateful for the chance to don my knit caps and gloves, puffer vests, and my favorite sparkly long tights. I usually wear pretty ratty running clothes, but am starting to see the wisdom in investing in some warm-weather running items that make me feel cute.

4. I can touch my toes. It's amazing how much more flexible I've become in just seven short weeks. Decades of running (and not paying enough attention to flexibility as I've grown older) have left me with hamstrings like tree trunks, literally unable to touch my own toes when standing with straightened legs. Since stretching my calf muscles and ankles has been an important component of the rehabilitation from this injury, I've been more regular in getting to a weekly yoga class, and doing stretching exercises on my own. The other day I found myself grasping onto the balls of my feet while seated with legs straight, and wanted to jump for joy. But jumping is still strictly off-limits. <sigh>

5. I've even lost a few pounds. Over the past couple of years, some extra pounds have slowly crept their way on. I'm far from overweight, but for a small-framed marathon runner, an extra 5 or 10 pounds has consequences. As a person who's always had good exercise habits and a naturally healthy diet, I've never really concerned myself with the volume of what I eat or drink. This has mostly worked okay for me until recently, but apparently even marathon runners are not immune to shifting mid-life metabolisms. So when I began this rehabilitation process, I made a conscious decision to adjust my attitudes toward indulgence when it comes to food. Being unable to use my usual excuses for that extra slice of pie or another beer ("I'm in training," or "I ran six miles this morning," or "I'm running twenty miles tomorrow"), I'm instead paying more attention to how hungry I actually feel, and a few pounds have easily come off, even though I'm burning far fewer calories through exercise than is typical for me.

I'm hopeful that, once I'm back in the warm embrace of running, I won't forget the lessons I've learned over these last couple of months. Maybe I'll buy myself a new running top or two, and finally spring for those prescription sunglasses. Hopefully I'll maintain my improved eating habits, and keep showing up at yoga class. But, sorry neighbors: I'm still going to stink in the elevator.


Rehab update: Seven weeks of rehabilitation are in the bank, and I'm feeling healed and so completely ready to get back at it. Last week I walked 11 miles, did some strength and stretching sessions, yoga, and was back on a stationary bike for the first time since the muscle tear. All has felt great, and even when I'm walking fast up hills, everything seems back to normal. Last weekend, I felt 100% ready to start running again, so in light of my clearly limited insight and poor judgment, I decided I should wait one more week. :) Anxiously awaiting that slow, easy one mile run next Sunday morning. Valentine's Day.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Are you smarter than a marathon runner?

Last week during an episode of Jeopardy, there was a rare three-way loss: every contestant got the Final Jeopardy clue wrong, and had bet everything they had. I'm not even going to pretend that it was a coincidence that I happened to be watching when this unusual turn of events went down. Jeopardy airs at 7:30 pm where I live, and we're almost always watching it because a) it's usually on while I'm making dinner, and b) I am, and have always been, about 75 years old on the inside. The category was state capitals, and the clue was "A 1957 event led to the creation of a national historic site in this city, signed into law by a president whose library is there now."

One can imagine the satisfaction I derived at nailing the answer immediately: Little Rock, Arkansas. And then the thrill of watching the answer stump all three of those contestants and send them packing? People, this is the stuff that dreams are made of. I'm not a trivia buff, and in fact have a pretty lame memory for facts and figures, so I don't generally do very well at Jeopardy. But having just been to Little Rock four weeks prior to run the Three Bridges Marathon, I had also just visited the Clinton Presidential Library, and the historic site at Little Rock Central High School. This was where nine courageous black teenagers (the Little Rock Nine) faced an angry mob and a blockade by the Arkansas National Guard as they integrated the previously all-white high school in the wake of the Supreme Court's historic Brown v. Board of of Education ruling, a pivotal moment in the early civil rights movement.

Running gives me so much. It has kept me strong and energetic as I've crossed over into my fourth decade. (Wait, I guess technically I'm now in my fifth decade?) It keeps me sleeping well at night, and ensures a healthy appetite and (mostly) stable moods. And racing in marathons all over the country has given me even more. It's taken me to important places in our nation's history that I might have otherwise missed, like the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. It's reminded me that art and beauty can be found anywhere, including Fargo, North Dakota. It's given me running friends who live all over the country, and countless delicious new foods to try. From the Cuban coffee and guava pastry in Miami, to the beer brats and Bloody Marys of Wisconsin, to the glorious cheese steaks of Philadelphia .... this land was made for you and me.

I'm currently wrapping up week six of rehabilitating that calf muscle that tore in mile six of the Three Bridges Marathon in Little Rock, which for reasons that still elude me, I finished anyway. So the bottom line is: yes, you are smarter than a marathoner. This one, anyway.


Rehab update: I walked 10 miles this week (plus the 10 or so that I meander per week with my dog), did some strength training, a mile in the pool, and one gentle session of yoga. The calf is holding up and I am pain free, although I feel it tighten up when I walk uphill, so I know it's still delicate and I am being careful with it. Next week I intend to add a few more miles of walking and some easy cycling into the mix, and I'm currently targeting February 14th as my date to try a first gentle bit of running. Eight weeks from the injury, and the day that we celebrate love. Sounds on target to me.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Switching to de-calf

“It’s a heavy burden to look up at the mountain 
and want to start the climb.”
-Abby Wambach

I don’t generally write much about my running. I know that’s weird (and I do realize that this is supposed to be a running blog), but I’ve never really felt I have a lot to offer when it comes to the documentation of my runs, the things that I eat, or the way that I train. As a mediocre-at-best runner, taking my advice just isn’t going to get you very far. Well okay, it might get you a little further, it just won't get you there much faster. And you definitely don’t want to be taking my advice on the subjects of diet or fashionable sports apparel. But after running more days of my life over the last thirty years than I have not, I do know a lot about being a runner. And I love writing about that. Running is more than just the backdrop of my life; in many ways it’s the very canvas upon which the layers of my days get painted.

It's time to learn a few new techniques
At the moment, that canvas is looking a little barren. I’m now nearly five weeks out from the nasty calf muscle tear I sustained in my last marathon, and am adapting to a new (and hopefully very temporary) identity as a person who doesn’t run. But I’ve still got a few more weeks without running ahead of me, so I’ve pulled out some new paints and am learning a few new brushstrokes. I don’t have a lot to teach you about the way that I run, but I do have a few words to say about the way that I don’t run. I hope you'll learn from my mistakes, my friends. Muscle strain + marathon = stupid. Just don't do it.

I had to wait for the swelling, discoloration, and pain to resolve before I could start any activity, which took nearly three weeks. I did continue to walk my dog regularly, but did so slowly and with great difficulty, careful to avoid hills or movement that required any real “pushing off” on that calf muscle. I walk about ten miles a week with her, but don’t usually consider it exercise, because we’re moving pretty slowly. I also continued with the weekly yoga class that I attend on Mondays, because it’s restorative and not strenuous, and I can protect that muscle by adapting the poses. But until I could use the muscle without pain, I did nothing during those three weeks that required physical exertion or elevated my heart rate. In short: it sucked.

Last week I was able to add in some additional walking - on my own, dog-free, and at a pace that at least makes me sweat a little. I did this on three mornings, for a total of eight miles, and eventually got used to the feeling of just walking fast for the sake of walking fast – not just a warm-up before breaking out into a run for my “real” workout. I went back to the gym twice, and got in one relatively gentle strength workout (that still left me plenty sore) and a half mile in the pool. I swam in the shallow indoor pool that I usually avoid because it’s kept warm for people with arthritis, figuring this would be easier on the damaged muscle. And in fact, it was really nice to get in and out of the warm water in comfort rather than with the usual blue lips and chattering teeth, and to be able to stand in my lane and stretch out all those happy muscles that had been used for the first time in many weeks. In short: last week sucked a lot less.

Learning to appreciate the joys of walking.
This week brings more miles of walking, a little more weight at the gym, more stretching and strengthening of the calf muscle, and a few more laps in the pool. I’m trying to adapt my eating habits to reflect my much lower calorie output, and am doing battle with the negative thoughts and feelings of overwhelm at the mountain of recovery that’s still ahead of me. And this week, I expect, will suck even less than the one before it. Whether I’m running or not, I’m a runner, and I’m ready for the climb.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Fun with pie charts

Alright, alright. I know I was supposed to do the new year’s resolutions thing a while ago now. Timeliness has never been my strong suit. I’m working on it. I have been jotting down notes to myself for a couple of weeks, however, reflecting on last year’s progress and setbacks, the obstacles I hope to overcome in the year ahead, new habits I want to cultivate, and old habits I want to let go of. And as much as I try to avoid it, the pages are filling with stuff I want to do: Volunteer with a homeless services organization. Read more books. Update my advanced directives. Talk to more strangers. Improve my skills as an educator and a non-profit manager. Visit another national park. Learn some good jokes. See more art. Dedicate myself to a strong rehabilitation from December’s injury, and come back stronger and more flexible than before. Nail a personal record in a fall marathon, and cross off another one of those 50 states.

Who doesn't love a well-timed fortune cookie?
The aspect of myself that I’ve been working hardest at over the past year is less doing. That is to say: better alignment between what I value and what I do. Today I have fewer commitments that clutter my calendar and just make me “busy,” and have made a career change that has me doing work that better fits my skills, interests, and professional mission, in an organization that fits my values and my personal mission. With that important transformation now behind me, a lot of free space has opened up in my grey matter, and I need to be careful about what I let back in. I’ve always carved out the time and space for running in my life, and there's always time for a good new joke. The rest of it will take some planning.

So while I’ve been doing all of this thinking about the things I’d like to do in the coming year, I’ve also given a lot of thought to the time that it would all require. Everything needs to fit, not only within my existential personal framework (who I am, who I’m becoming, who I want to be, blah, blah, blah), but let’s be real: it also just needs to fit within your basic 24-hour day. So I did a little math, and here’s how it all breaks down:

Sleeping and working account for nearly two-thirds of my life, but as luck would have it, I really love doing both of those things. Another fifth of my life is spent doing other grown-up things like eating (listen: food and who I eat it with is important to me, and thoughtful preparation and enjoyment takes time), grooming (which in addition to your basic personal hygiene also includes things like ironing my clothes, getting the occasional haircut, and trimming those nasty runner toenails), chores-ing (laundry, cleaning, shopping, and errands), and walking my aging but still-high-maintenance dog. And in an average week, it turns out I have the gift of 31 precious hours with which I am free to do as I please. 

I don’t have kids, I’m not in school, and I don’t need to work a second job to make ends meet. I’m not caring for an aging parent, or dealing with a personal health crisis. Life changes quickly, though, and for now I’ve got an enormous gift in that time and freedom, and I know I’d better use it wisely. Thirty-one hours (which breaks down to 2.5 hours of free time per average work day, and 9.2 hours of free time per average weekend day – what can I say? I love Excel spreadsheets) is not nearly enough time to do all of the things I’d like to do, no, so I need to make some choices. But I’ve got the time for more volunteer work, Sunday mornings spent with good books, and time spent in beautiful places. And – no excuses – I’ve got the time to get to the gym and get this calf muscle healed, hit the road (once it’s ready) and build my mileage back up, and rock an awesome marathon this year.

So, who’s got a good joke?

Friday, January 1, 2016

"What a life."

January 1st. The perfect day for a shift in perspective.

While walking my dog in Balboa Park this morning - a blue skied and perfect 63-degree morning - the old girl quit on me. Norma is an eleven year old terrier mix that we adopted from a shelter a decade ago, and while she's gotten old and gray, she's still got some pretty good energy. She walks several miles a day, chases a ball or a stick or anything you throw for her, and can do a mean "sit pretty" for anyone that she thinks might have a treat. But she's definitely slowing down and, like me, her aging joints give her occasional moments of grief. 

Today, a mile or two into our slower-than-it-used-to-be stroll through the park, she stopped. I felt the tug of the leash and looked back to find her sitting with one paw lifted, clearly in some discomfort. I gave her a quick check to see if something was stuck in her paw, and finding nothing, moved us off of the walking path and into a soft, sunny patch of grass to just give her a few minutes of rest (which usually does the trick). She limped over to me, laid down, and we sat together and watched the walkers, runners, families, and dogs go by. No one walking by would have known that she was in pain. I love dogs, and their infinite toughness.

The old girl, in her happy place
Almost everyone who passed us gave us a wave or a hello, moods surely elevated by the sunshine and all of the promise of the first day of a new year. One woman took a long, smiling look at Norma, reclining in the grass and soaking up the ear scratches, and then looked over to me and said: "What a life: sunshine and love." She certainly didn't know that we were taking our moment of pause because Norma has a bum leg. And frankly, in that moment, Norma probably didn't know that either. Sunshine and love were the name of the game. After we'd rested for a while, she was back up and walking normally, and trotted happily home.

I saw my doctor this week, and got a sports medicine consult to check out that calf muscle I damaged two weeks ago during the 3 Bridges Marathon. I received the best possible news: no tendon damage, and a moderate tear that will likely require 6-8 weeks of rest, but that is already healing nicely. The pain and swelling are nearly gone, and in another few days I can start stretching and strengthening my leg, gently. Come February, I should be able to start running again. It will be slow, and I'll need to avoid hills and speed work for quite some time. I'm not sure when I'll be able to start training again, but I know that I will start training again, and I'll keep that happy thought on my horizon. I can choose to be frustrated by my bum leg and the setback. Or I can just enjoy the opportunity to soak up some sunshine and the love, and call it good.

Happy new year, friends! May you find yourself invigorated and ready for whatever it is you're looking to tackle in the 366 days ahead. And may you also get a break and a good scratch on the ears whenever you need it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Hope, Arkansas

There are a lot of great running blogs out there providing readers with solid advice from well-trained and experienced running coaches on how to properly train for and run marathons. And if it weren’t already abundantly clear, this post should settle it once and for all: this is not one of those blogs. My running last weekend of the 3 Bridges Marathon in Little Rock Arkansas was a spectacular, three-dimensional, technicolor explosion of bad judgment, a veritable how-not-to manual for the recreational runner. But after three days of beating myself up about it, I’ve turned that now-familiar corner and am ready to share the painful – and I mean painful – lessons learned.  

To properly set the scene, it’s important to note that I was in Arkansas: 2000 miles from home, and a surprisingly expensive and difficult place to get to from San Diego. I’d trained (minimally, but adequately) for four months for this race, which would be my 19th marathon, and the 16th state of my 50-state quest. I had no expectations of a PR, but was hoping for a comfortable race, and a nice visit to a part of the country I hadn’t yet visited. And I’d made this race into a fundraiser for my favorite non-profit organization, and had raised over $900 from my endlessly-supportive family and friends. So I had a lot invested, emotionally and financially, in getting across that finish line.

Four weeks prior, I’d raced in the USA Invitational Half Marathon, and had run decently well, but finished the last four miles with what I believed was a cramp in my right calf. It slowed me down a bit, but I was able to finish the race in only mild discomfort. After a couple of days of soreness, I’d forgotten all about it. On my next long run, however, it seized back up on me six miles in, in the same place but much more painfully. Uh oh. That wasn’t a muscle cramp last weekend, was it? I scrapped that run, deciding it was probably a muscle strain. “Well, I guess my taper is just starting a little early.” I spent those last three weeks managing it carefully, and giving it plenty of rest. I can’t say that I knew for sure when I flew out to Little Rock on Friday morning that my calf was ready for the full 26.2. I just hoped. I hoped that my body was familiar enough with the distance to get me through it, and I hoped that if it wasn’t, I’d have the good sense to know when to stop.

I arrived in Little Rock the evening before the race, and to add the figurative insult to the literal injury, had come down with a head cold as well. But I did all the right things: ate well, hydrated, got to bed early, and did some more hoping.

But hope, as they say, is not a strategy. And while yes, there are things like Ironmans and ultramarathons and other more difficult feats of which humans are technically capable, a marathon is still a significant distance, and it does, in fact, require some basic strategy for we mere mortal types. General health and the absence of a painful injury to a large leg muscle, I would suggest, should be part of any marathoner’s basic strategy.

Sunrise on the Arkansas River
This race is named for three beautiful bridges that cross the Arkansas River. They’re the only hills in the otherwise-flat course, which runs along the serene river trail, and the first one comes early, at mile 2. Heading up the slight hill of that first bridge, I knew I had a problem.

At mile 3, I was officially in pain. I had brought a scrap piece of jersey knit to wear as a makeshift scarf that I would toss once I warmed up, so I took it off and wrapped it around my sore calf muscle for compression. I look back at this decision point now with a sense of disbelief: I actually did that? By mile 6, the pain was affecting my gait, so I stopped and walked for a couple of miles, while I considered my options. Dozens of friendly runners slowed as they passed to ask if I was okay, and I gave each of them a confused smile and a nod, not really knowing the answer.

Somewhere around mile 9, I began experimenting with different gaits until I found a slow, short, clumsy one that kept the pain to a low dull ache, and decided I could give finishing a try. By mile 12, I’d reached a zombie-like mental and physical state, and was convinced that I could finish, if very slowly. So I just kept going.

Look closely, and you can see my
bright blue makeshift compression wrap,
still in place around the mile 21 mark.
In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami, one of my favorite writers of fiction and himself a distance runner, shares a mantra that I’ve thought about on many occasions, but never actually put into practice until this weekend: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Things started getting pretty ugly around mile 18, and it was the silent recitation of this powerful thought that got me to the finish.

Fortunately, everything else about this race was idyllic. The course is scenic and fun, and it’s a friendly and well-organized marathon-only event of about 400 people, mostly local. I couldn’t have asked for better weather, with a cold start (low-30s) that quickly warmed up to the mid-50s once the sun came out. I’d recommend it to anyone. Anyone, that is, who isn’t injured.

I woke up the next morning to a calf muscle that was clearly torn, swollen, and so painful I could barely walk. I know that I would have advised anyone who asked me to not even consider running it in that condition – and so, conveniently, I just didn’t ask anyone for their advice. In the days since the race, my running family and friends have all expressed understanding about my dilemma and poor decision-making, and support and admiration for the accomplishment. My non-running family and friends, while also supportive, now have all the evidence they need to confirm their long-held belief that every marathoner has a screw loose.

It remains to be seen just how much damage I did to that leg, as I can’t get seen by sports medicine until next week. (The week before Christmas, it seems, is a particularly bad time to do something stupid to yourself.) But the swelling and discoloration have both subsided, and I’m walking in reasonable comfort again, so I’m hopeful the news won’t be too bad, and that the recovery period won’t be too treacherously long. I know I’ve done some serious damage, though, and I’m committed to rehabilitating it properly, and waiting to come back until I know I’m ready, and I’m not just hoping.


Hope is a city in the southwest corner of Arkansas, 
and the birthplace of President Bill Clinton.

Thanks to the great town of Little Rock
for an otherwise fun visit!