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!

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