Where do the slowpokes belong?

24 10 2009

A recent article in the New York Times about the phenomenon of “slow marathoners” prompted me to write today.  Despite my opinionated nature (and anyone that knows me well will attest to this fact), I normally try to be un-biased and tactful on this blog.  Beware: today, I’m going to be writing a bit of an “editorial” with my honest and personal point of view.  So, be prepared for some of my opinionated nature to shine through in this blog entry!

Here’s the link to the article…

The New York Times article discusses how there has been an enormous increase in the numbers of marathon finishers in recent years.  Some people view this as a wonderful thing – in a largely obese and sedentary society, there are some who “get off their butts” and get moving in a positive way.  It doesn’t matter how slow they finish an event.  Just finishing makes these people “marathoners.”

The other perspective presented in the article is from faster, more elite runners who feel that these slow “plodders” are polluting the sport.  No longer is the attainment of a finisher’s medal special because just about anyone can crawl to the finish of a 26.2 mile race.  Being a marathoner isn’t special anymore because there are no longer high athletic standards.

I can certainly acknowledge good points in both sides of the argument.  However, I don’t think that the article presents the full “picture” of what’s actually going on out there in marathon-land, and in American culture in general.

I find that the slow marathoner phenomenon is emblematic of two pervasive and problematic issues in our culture.

Issue Number One: making money and the “bottom line,” corporate sponsorship.

It’s idealistic to think that most major marathons exist to give people a positive opportunity to get off the couch and get into shape.  I don’t necessarily believe that these marathons and their respective organizers operate out of altruistic kindness for others.  Frankly, I think marathons have become a business.  The more runners, the more profit.  That’s the bottom line.

Take a look at the number of corporate sponsors at any given road race or major city marathon.  Take a look at the circus otherwise known as the “race expo.”  How much of this is meant to encourage people to get in shape and just run for the simple joy of it?  How much of it is intended to encourage people to buy products to enhance their running?  Hmmm.  Just think about it.

Personally, I could give a crap about having the latest and best running shoe, the nicest running gadget, the cutest running outfit, a bumper sticker with “26.2” emblazoned on it, a “marathon diva” shirt, etc.  I own three pairs of running shorts, most of which I’ve had for at least five years, about five or six running shirts/singlets (two long sleeved and the rest short or no sleeved – and I’ve received those from races that I’ve run), and a single running jacket.  I own a GPS ONLY because I want to know how far I’ve gone on the trail.  It’s a luxury and I know that.  I own a hydration pack that I’ve had for years and two water bottles.  That’s about it.  For someone who runs five days a week and cross-trains the other one or two, this isn’t exactly that much stuff…only enough so that I don’t have to do laundry every day.

I have a feeling I’m in the minority in terms of being a relatively simple runner who doesn’t want much in terms of the latest and greatest running products.

Marathoning has evolved over the past 20-30 years.  Today, it’s an industry, much like the “Ironman” triathlon business.  The more entrants, the more corporate sponsors = more money for the race organizers and more profits for companies that produce running products.

Issue Number Two: American culture, entitlement, and lack of self-responsibility.

We live in a culture of quick fixes and cheap satisfaction.  I remember reading Huxley’s “Brave New World” many years ago when I was a teenager, and thinking how oddly prophetic that book was.  Feeling bad?  Take a pill.  You’re not pretty enough?  There are things to fix that.  You want to achieve something important or make lots of money?  You don’t have to work hard; you just deserve happiness because of the virtue of your mere existence.

OK, this is highly generalized, but I think we can see the same kinds of tendencies in marathoning culture.  For example, certain charity programs promise to take you from couch potato to marathon finisher in four months if you can raise enough money to participate in their training program.  This works for some, but for others, can easily lead to burn-out or injury.

Running a marathon takes work.  That’s a dirty word today, and people avoid admitting that.  But, there is NO substitute for putting in your training miles.  Unless you train, REALLY train, for months and years acquiring a substantial mileage base, a marathon quite realistically can hurt you.  Sure, you can crawl to the finish in seven hours, but you might be sore for quite a while and end up with some nasty injuries as a result of not having put in the miles.

You want a finishers’ medal?  Maybe you should think about earning it honestly.

When I decided to run my one-and-only marathon, I trained for TWO years.  I made sure to have a year and half of a solid base, during which I took my weekly mileage from ten miles up to about twenty-five with no injuries.  Then, I did a five-month training plan that I found in a book and stuck to it.

My finishing time?  4:56.  That’s slow, folks.  Damn slow.  But, I trained to finish at an 11-minute pace, and I was fairly consistent through the race.  And, I have absolutely no innate talent for this sport.

However, I knew that I had a very good chance of finishing because of my consistency in training.  I also knew that I had very little chance of missing a cutoff – and you know, if the race had a 4:30 cutoff, I NEVER would have entered it.  Problems result in marathons and ultras when slowpokes, like myself, lack the perspective of “hey, I’m slow, I might not finish.”  Hence, we slowpokes, if we’re not honest with ourselves about our limitations, end up as liabilities to race directors.

Case in point: during my last bout with peroneal tendonitis, I did some work as a race volunteer for a local ultra, in order to just stay involved with the ultrarunning community here.  The race was publicized as having a SPECIFIC time limit.  The race was known for being a tough trail event.  However, the final finisher got lost on the course, and even came into the finish line from the wrong direction, an hour or so after the cutoff and after teams of sweeps had been sent out looking for him/her.  And that final finisher apparently had a bit of a history of “getting lost.”  When that final finisher reached the finish, there wasn’t much gratitude for those of us who stuck it out, making sure that he/she arrived in one piece.  Personally, I thought this was disrespectful to the race director and volunteers.  I mean, if you know you’re that slow and have a tendency to get lost, take a MAP with you or maybe even pick a race that might be more suitable to your abilities.

Whatever happened to having some responsibility for ourselves?

If you’re really, really slow, or really undertrained, maybe you haven’t EARNED the right to participate in an event…

Keep in mind I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who usually finishes well at the back of the pack.  My history of running?  I started in ’89 as a member of the cross-country team.  My 5K times were usually in the 22-23 minute range at my fastest.  Not exactly something to write home about.  I remember being heartbroken when I saw a doctor back in ’91 about my scoliosis; he took a look at my bone structure and told me then that I’d never be a fast runner.  He was right; I’m so grateful the man was HONEST with me, instead of giving me a line of BS to preserve my “self-esteem.”  I just don’t have the genetics for fast running.  Today, I don’t think I’d have a prayer of running a 22-23 minute 5K.  At 130 pounds, I’m between forty and fifty pounds heavier than I was fifteen years ago!

So, I’ve never been fast, not at any distance.  Never will be.

But, I love running.  I run for the sheer joy of it.  I could care less most days if someone runs with me, if I get a T-shirt or finishers’ medal at the end of the race, or even whether or not I run a “race.”  When I do run a race, I make absolutely sure that it’s within my range of ability.  Do my training times on similar terrain indicate that I’ll able to finish within the time limit?  If not, I realize that I’d be a liability to the race director and race volunteers – and I don’t sign up.

At this point in my running life, a race is simply a responsibly chosen, doable mileage goal for myself with some aid along the way.  That’s it.  To be honest, I get more enjoyment out of my solitary days on the trail or road…running for the simple pleasure of it.  Running to run.  Here’s to avoiding the circus…


running is a way of life

12 10 2009

It was Thursday night, and I was much more excited for the weekend than usual.  Jason, my husband, was flying into San Diego.  I hadn’t seen him in about seven weeks, since he left to go back to Amherst, Massachusetts for his teaching job.  The long-distance marriage thing is certainly a challenge, but it was a risk I thought was worth taking for Jason’s career and long-term happiness.  This is the second year we’ve done the “bi-coastal thing.”  We’ve pretty much got it down to a science now – there might be a couple of stretches of six or seven weeks, but most of the time we don’t go more than three or so weeks without seeing each other, and we video chat on Skype every day in the meantime.  There’s nothing like living apart to make you never take your spouse for granted, that’s for sure!

I wanted to maximize my time with my husband over the weekend, obviously.  But, I also didn’t want to skip my long run and lose momentum in my training schedule.  Consistency is so important when you’re coming back from months off due to injury.  However, equally important is keeping things in perspective, and having my husband home certainly trumped any inclination to train in the mountains for the majority of a day.

As a result, I devised a plan to satisfy both Jason and myself.  He could go for a daybreak surf session with his friends while I did a twenty-mile road run up the coast along Pacific Coast Highway.  I’d call him at mile 18, let him know where I was planning to stop, and he could pick me up alongside the road at the end.  Perfect solution.

We both woke up early Saturday morning (I was up at about 4:45 am to have the ritual pre-run breakfast of cereal and applesauce…no soymilk!) and drove to La Jolla Shores beach.  We said goodbye at 6:30 am, right on schedule.


Jason is really stoked to "crew"

Jason is really stoked to "crew"

I ran up La Jolla Shores Drive, an incline of about 350 feet in about a mile.  Nothing compared to the mountains, but for a road run, it’s considered a hill.  I hit Torrey Pines Road, which turns into the Pacific Coast Highway and headed to Torrey Pines State Beach and Del Mar.  There was a little more climbing, but then a nice, long descent during which I had to avoid the on-coming weekend warrior cyclists toward the beach.

Watch out for oncoming buses!

Watch out for oncoming buses!

Torrey Pines State Beach

Torrey Pines State Beach

Del Mar was uneventful, as was Solana Beach.  At this point, the PCH goes through the quaint “downtown” business districts of these beachside towns.  Cardiff, where I stopped at the state beach to refill water (mile 12), was really beautiful.  Views of the Pacific really made me appreciate living in San Diego, despite having to do a road run (which I normally can’t stand).

Encinitas was annoying.  This has to be the home of every “tri-geek” known to humanity.  Hordes of cyclists and runners in cute, coordinated outfits streamed down the road and sidewalks.  I was pushed off the road by a group of slow walkers, with huge water bottle fanny packs, in matching pink singlets and skirts.  I mean, really.  Do you need to push a runner off the road if you’re doing 20 minute miles, let alone wear a fanny pack like you’re going on some kind of crazy expedition?  I call an intervention with this.

if you want to meditate while running, you can always stop at the Self-Realization Fellowship!

if you want to meditate while running, you can always stop at the Self-Realization Fellowship!

At mile 16, I heard some familiar voices.  Jason’s friends suddenly called my name – they and Jason were having breakfast together at a café in Leucadia and had been waiting for me to run by.  This was a nice break.  We talked for a little while, took some pictures, and I ate some more Sharkies.  Fabulous.

Jason and the boys

Jason and the boys

Only four miles to go!

At mile 17.5, I reached Ponto, or South Carlsbad State Beach.  This is one of my favorite stretches of the PCH in San Diego.  I called Jason and told him to meet me there, and did an out and back through the campground.  I finished twenty miles strong, not feeling in the least bit tired or sore, and very happy to see my husband’s smiling face at the end.  He asked me if I wanted to run twenty more miles, and you know, it sounded tempting!  I felt great!

My favorite thing about running on the beach roads post-run is being able to “ice” my legs in the Pacific.  I took off my shoes and socks and waded in the water for about ten minutes while inhaling a bag of Saltines.  Later I ate almost an entire can of Pringles, the essential post-run food.  Good times.

post-run awesomeness

post-run awesomeness

In the past, I’ve been so obsessed with training schedules and racing that I didn’t try and figure out ways to integrate running into “life.”  Here was a great example of how to do this, to make my run a part of family life.  It may sound crazy in light of running ultras, but you do just have to find some balance with the whole training/family thing if you’re going to have any longevity in the sport.  Let’s be honest: what’s really important?  I’m looking forward to more runs like this one…even if I have to run roads…

Be grateful.

5 10 2009

There has been a long silence on this blog.

A very long silence on this blog.

(Insert crickets chirping HERE.)

I’ve avoided updating this blog for fear of jinxing myself.  It seems like every time I start blogging again, I get injured again and again.  I’m challenging my own superstitions by writing tonight.

About a year ago, I felt the very first twinges of pain in my Achilles tendon.  At first, this would occur after a long run – but only during the drive home from the mountains.  I would get out of the truck after my ritual consumption of an entire can of Pringles and a bottle of 7-up and hobble the first few steps back into my condo.  I wasn’t a pretty sight; in fact, my upstairs neighbor spotted me a few times and gave me looks of grave concern.  “No worries,” I’d say, limping along, encrusted with salt all over my face, drooling, and covered in potato chip crumbs, “I’m fi-i-i-ne. Just ran 35 miles in the mountains.  No problem.”

However, within a few weeks, the problem became too painful to ignore.  No more 35 milers in the mountains on Saturday mornings.  (And no more post-run Pringles binges.)  No more mid-week 18 mile runs.  No more blaring alarms at 4:15 am before putting in a twelve hour work day.  I seriously had no idea what to do with myself on weekend mornings if I wasn’t getting up several hours before dawn to go run.  What – I don’t need a headlamp today?  Utter confusion.  Despair.  Boredom.

I reduced my mileage after taking a few weeks off.  By the holidays, I was steadily building again in hopes of running a 24 hour event in June.  By April, sixty mile weeks were beginning to appear on my training schedule once again, although I was doing the bulk of my training on the roads.  The week before Easter, although I had hardly been running ANY trails at all for the prior six months, I was invited to join several friends for an “easy” 22 mile run out in the Cuyamaca mountains.  “Don’t worry – we’ll go slow,” I was told.  Of course, I should have known better.  Starting out a 22 mile run at 5000 feet elevation on mountain trails at a 9:00 minute/mile pace is assuredly NOT slow.  I held back for the first couple of hours, but was able to keep up by the end of the run and felt like I was healthy again.  I had very little pain or discomfort in that Achilles tendon at that point.

The next week, I went for a 24 mile run on the roads – after all, the 24 hour event I was going to be participating in was a road run.  I remember my calf beginning to feel tight at about 14 miles.  I would stop and stretch, run another half a mile or so, and feel the knot start to tighten again.  Stop, stretch, run, then another “ouch,” then another breather and so on.  At 18 miles, I had the sudden sensation of a knife stabbing into the outside of my left ankle, above the ankle bone.  This was some of the worst searing pain I have ever experienced.  I’m no pansy – this HURT.  I had over six miles left to go to get back to my truck and had to walk every step.

I went home, iced the area, applied my trusty arnica ointment (which is great for inflammation), and prayed for the best.  The next day, I felt like there was a red hot swelling underneath the skin, some kind of other-worldly throbbing gristly being with a mind of its own, bent on tormenting me, just buried inside of the side of my ankle.  More ice, more arnica, more praying.  After a week, the gremlin inside dwindled to just a whimpering nuisance, so I thought I’d give a little baby six mile run a shot.

I headed out to Fiesta Island, an infinitely boring, flat route around a man made island in the middle of Mission Bay.  After two miles, the throbbing began again.  “Hey, it’s not STABBING, at least.  I’ll keep going.”  Smart.  Not.  After four miles, I threw in the towel and headed back to my truck to find that yet again my vehicle had been broken into and all of my credit cards were stolen (third time within a year, each time while running.  Is this a sign?).

After dealing with the credit card emergency at home, I contacted my coach about my injury and was told emphatically that I needed to get right back into my orthotics and to call my podiatrist right away.  I made an appointment, and headed into the foot doc during the first week of May.

The prognosis was peroneal tendonitis, or basically an inflammation of the peroneal tendon.  The peroneal tendon wraps around the outside of the leg and ankle bone, and attaches to the fascia at the bottom of the arch on the outside of the foot.  I was told that this was the “worst injury a runner could have,” that I “may never run again,” and that I would most likely have to face surgery.  Oh yeah, and don’t even think about running.  AT ALL.  No running, no hiking, no cycling, no elliptical trainer, no lower body weight training, no ANYTHING that placed any stress on that tendon.  In fact, if I could just not even use that leg, that would be great.  Don’t stand up.  Sit.  For how long?  Oh, a few months or so…maybe forever since your leg is now useless, Steph.

Holy crap.

I sat in the truck before heading home from the doctor’s office and just cried and cried.  Are you kidding me?  Never run again?  EVER?  I’ve been running since 1989.  That’s twenty years – this is an enormous part of my life.  I live for the solitude of the trails, the sweat and the blood, the challenge of climbing a mountain, the gorgeous sunrises, the falling on my ass.  No running?  No backpacking?  No hiking?  I remember just being in a daze for a few hours.  I sent emails to some of my running buddies saying that I was giving up on running.  It was a good twenty years and a good time in my life, and now I had to say goodbye.  I was utterly devastated and heartbroken.

It was a rough few weeks.  On top of the injury, both of my grandparents passed away (within five weeks of each other) and my husband and I went through more drama with his job situation.  I had no escape from any of the other tragic things that were going on.  For one of the first times in my life, I was forced to deal with issues up front.  Consequently, I decided to face my injury head on and take every bit of advice that the podiatrist had given me in the vain hope that someday I might be able to run a little bit again.  Even a 5K would be satisfying.  I went to my wonderful acupuncturist, Adrian, who tried to keep my spirits up.  (For the record, he thought the doctor was too hasty in his diagnosis.)

I also went to physical therapy as had been prescribed.  It was a horrible experience. The first words out of the therapist’s mouth were “if it weren’t for people like you, I wouldn’t have a job.”  (Sadistic chuckling.)  Hmm.  Then there was, “Oh, I found the bad spot,” and pointing at the tiger tattoo on my leg, “it’s right by the third toe.  At least that tattoo is good for something.”  By the third session, I got up the nerve to ask a few questions about my treatment and what I should be doing at home, and was answered with an angry voice shouting, “Stephanie, if you continue to ignore everything I’ve told you to do, you just won’t get better.”

That was it for me.  The guy was a jerk, and I had had it with being injured.  I wasn’t going to take anyone’s word that running was over for me, and I certainly wasn’t going back to physical therapy with this [insert appropriate expletive here].

The next few weeks I did a great deal of soul searching.  I went to acupunture three times a week and felt the pain begin to recede.  I went to a psychologist who helped with some of the stress I was experiencing.  I tried visceral manipulation, which had astounding results beyond helping my injury (my crooked jaw is now perfectly straight for the first time in almost twenty years!).

The big lesson I learned – beyond there’s more to life than running – is that you just have to take care of yourself.  Simple, cliché, yes.  But you can’t go at such a frenetic pace, always running away from the issues that may plague you.  By running higher mileage, I literally had been trying to run away from some of my personal problems.  Mind and body are so interlinked; this gets ignored frequently in Western medicine.  But stress can cause a HUGE toll on your health.  Here’s an illustrative example:

In the fall of 2008, my husband moved to Massachusetts (a long way away from San Diego) to take a temporary position at Amherst College.  This was terribly stressful.  I was worried about our marriage, whether or not we’d “make it”.  Add to this financial problems, huge issues at work, and beginning my part-time tattoo business on top of everything else.  I was working seven days a week, most days around twelve hours or more, all while training.  I slept maybe four to five hours a night.  Something had to give, to snap, to break.  And that was my health.  I was continually sick – I was plagued with sinus infections for well over nine months.  And I got injured badly, never letting myself fully recover from that Achilles injury.  I never realized that it’s OK to take a day off now and then, that it’s OK to cancel a gig (even though you THINK you need the money) because you’re just completely exhausted, and that you can say no once in a while to a job or gig because you need to sleep more than four hours at a stretch.

Thanks to acupuncture, visceral manipulation, and a lot of energy work (based on Donna Eden’s wonderful book Energy Medicine), by June, I was beginning to jog a very little bit.  I remember getting up the morning of the San Diego 100 mile run, where I was going to crew for my fried Jill, and going for a three-mile jaunt where I walked for four minutes and ran for one.  I was so proud to finish that three miles without a smidge of pain.  Within a month, I could run three miles at a stretch again…slowly, but I could do it.  Within two months, I was back up to eight to ten miles on the weekends.  Laughably short “long runs” for an ultrarunner, but I wasn’t upset by the lack of mileage.  Rather, I felt humbled, knowing that I’m NOT invincible…

Nearly six months have passed since that day in April where that imaginary knife sliced into my peroneal tendon.  Yesterday, I ran my first twenty miler since returning to training.  I chose a challenging route – a solo trail run ascending Mount Woodson, then through the Blue Sky Reserve and an ascent up to Lake Ramona.  It took five hours even (5:00:38); for perspective, in my prior training on flat roads, a twenty mile run would take about 3:30 at a conservative pace.  This run was HARD; over 5400 feet of vertical ascent, and some rocky trails on Woodson.  But I smiled every step of the way.  My quads are aching and sore as I write this; I can’t even remember the last time I was sore from a training run.  Fabulous!

I’m back.

I’d love to talk to that podiatrist and physical therapist now.

What’s the moral of the story?

Be grateful for every moment that you have.  Be grateful for your health.  It’s a gift that can be taken away at any time.

As a religious person, I thank the good Lord for my return to health and for helping me to find the tools to maintain my physical and mental well-being.  Whether or not you believe in a higher power, I think gratitude is always a good thing to have.

What’s next?  Stay tuned…

on the trail, Ramona in the distance

on the trail, Ramona in the distance

Elevation profile for 20 mile run...

Elevation profile for 20 mile run...