Injury! Or how not to train just after a marathon…

I’ve been pacing my home for the last two hours (can it be only two hours!).  I’ve done the laundry (three loads), swept up in the garden, weeded, rang to book a massage, contemplated a haircut, and googled (a lot) about kneecaps -swollen, hot-to-the-touch kneecaps.

Injury.  That’s what it means.  No running on this beautiful blue sky sunny Melbourne morning.  Denial and despair; exercise options; pain relieving options.  I have not found acceptance yet or done that really dreadful thing: rest.

Marysville Marathon was ten days ago.  And Two Bays 56k is about six weeks away.  So, with two big runs within eight weeks of one another, I didn’t allow long enough for recovery.  Duh.  After Sunday’s marathon, I took off Monday and Tuesday completely, feeling virtuous and wise.  But Wednesday came and I taught my BodyPump class, and taught again Thursday morning, following by an easy 5k run.  Friday is what broke me – 10k on my favorite trail, running light and easy and kind of fast.  Stretching afterwards, I was surprised when it hurt to kneel to stretch – that was odd.  I tried to remember if I bumped my knee, but I hadn’t.

When Saturday came around, the right knee was distinctly swollen.  But the kids were home from school, so there wasn’t much time to focus on such things.  Surely it would be fine with two days rest.  Sunday night, I took a couple of anti-inflammatories, just in case, and it felt better.

And here’s where stupid won out over wise. Monday morning, while my husband took the kids to school, I sat writing in my journal for ten minutes before going to the gym.  “I will not run today,” I wrote.  “That would be stupid.  My knee needs to rest and I’ll only make it worse.”  I was very firm and wise, like an intelligent woman who knew how to take care of herself.

Except when I got to the gym, somehow I found myself on the treadmill for my usual 5k prior to weight training.  I rationalised that by keeping the pace slower than usual, and by stopping at the first hint of pain, all would be well.  And that I had to get my mileage up to train for Two Bays.  And that perhaps the joint would, well, lubricate itself, and feel better afterwards.  And there was this guy at the gym who told me two years ago I’d have to give up running, like he did, and I saw him just as I was choosing between cross-trainer and treadmill.  Treadmill it was.

Idiot.  Of course, the painkillers were still working at that stage, so I happily glided along, lip-singing to Bon Jovi on my iPod.  I did my weights.  All was fine.

But would you believe it (of course, you knew this would happen)?  It hurt later, and swelled up again.  If I could bottle some of my own stupidity…

No good beating myself up, I know.  As a runner, I like to think I am immortal, that by going minimal, I have fixed every possible physical ailment and I can run forever as long as I like.

Somewhat true.

But not when I go beyond the limit.  I guess that’s the only way to know where the limit lies, to step beyond.   So I am not running today.  Or for the next three days.  If it’s not better by then, I’m just going to have to hop, because my house will be so clean and the mail all organised and the Christmas presents wrapped – what am I going to do with myself after that?

By the way, my self-diagnosis is suprapatellar bursitis.  Caused by too much stupidity.  Hopefully, I’ll learn my lesson this time.  Sigh.

Take it to the limit: Marysville Marathon 2013

Marysville Marathon Course courtesy of Trails +

Marysville Marathon Course courtesy of Trails +

I’m lying broken on the sofa at 5:30 pm, almost exactly twelve hours since setting off on the glorious adventure that was the Marysville Marathon.  My kind husband is making us dinner to the songs of the Eagles, who are singing one of my favorites, “Take it to the Limit”:  You know I’ve always been a dreamer (spent my life running ’round), and it’s so hard to change (can’t seem to settle down). But the dreams I’ve seen lately keep on turning out and burning out and turning out the same. So put me on a highway, and show me a sign, and take it to the limit one more time…”  A very appropriate choice.

Take it to the limit.  What I love to do.  Except when I hit it – the limit – it hits me back.

I don’t like to dance with the word limit – it makes an ugly tango partner.  I shove it to one side, grind it into the dirt with my trail runners.  But the Marysville Marathon – well, that put that little word right up into my face, where it kept on shouting at me: Stop running.  It hurts. This is too far.  You are too slow.  Look, there goes another person past you.  Just walk.  I bet I’m not the only person who danced with limits on Sunday.

Let’s talk first about Red (freakin’) Hill, because it came up first.  Just like that.  We crossed a bridge, and bam, we were heading up.  The woman beside me used some strong language to convey her emotions; I just laughed inside, as I’d known this one was going to hurt.  But I didn’t take into account my recent ankle sprain, and how cautious I’d want to travel.  A lot of people passed me up and down that hill – I didn’t like it, not one bit, but I knew there was a lot of terrain left to cover and I didn’t want my race to end too soon.  I did the usual thing – coached myself to run my own race, stayed upright, and got to the top and bottom of Red (freakin’) Hill.

Elevation profiles. Image courtesy of Trails+

From there, it wasn’t too bad.  A long (long, long) steady uphill beside a beautiful river, crystal-clear in the morning sun, flowing with power over fallen tree trunks.  The trail was nothing technical, just a gravel road, and not too steep.  I kept up a strong pace – but not strong enough to get in front of someone who chose to run two paces behind me for several kilometres.  It gave me the heebie-jeebies – I didn’t want to turn around to see who it was, and everyone else had spread out with hundreds of meters between them.  The person didn’t say a word.  I sped up; I slowed down; I ate a gel.  Still, this unknown person stayed step-for-step right behind me.  It was unnerving.  I was feeling distinctly unfriendly and wondering if I could blast off into the distance to lose them (I want a little solitude, just a little), when we caught up with another runner.  We all began to chat then, and I moved ahead a bit, leaving the two of them talking.  I didn’t have enough breath for talking.  Problem solved, I thought.  But then he caught me up again!  At least I think it was him – I didn’t turn to look, but this other person dogged my steps again like a shadow.  I thought I might be going nuts and imagining him, but no, he was there.  He stayed with me until the first waterfall, and then moved off either ahead or behind.  I still don’t know who he was, or why he followed me so closely. Go figure.

The trail to the waterfall – green, overgrown, littered with fallen trees that required climbing over or careful steps.  It was magical, though steep.  Front runners were already returning, and this marked one of the many wonderful moments of this race.  Well done, great work, fantastic job, we all shouted to one another, encouraging, supporting, friendly.  It was a single track, but people were polite going both ways.  The waterfall at the top was breathtaking.

Keppel Falls

Keppel Falls

And I was glad for the moment to catch my breath! I took a photo, while enjoying the rest.  In truth, I was pretty puffed by then, at about 14k.  The pace had been much faster than my training runs.  Still, when I turned around, it was reassuring not to be in last place, as I had thought I might be, given how hard it had felt.  The downhill track was more fun than uphill, and I got some pace up, got some dance back in my legs.

I knew the course description by heart, mostly.  Still, it came as a blow to realise that the really big hill didn’t start until after the falls.  From about 14-18k was straight up.  Hard, hot, lots of rocks underfoot.  I wanted to run, ran most of it, but God it was hard.  I must have checked my Garmin every km, wondering why it was taking so long, slogging and climbing and swearing inside.  Unlike my Dandenong training runs, I didn’t want to break into a walk.  I did a few times, but mostly, I pushed it into a slow jog.  Finally, I made it up to the top, and turned to enjoy the flight downhill.  But – ouch – that hurt too.  My minimalist shoes didn’t have enough rock protection for my sore feet, so I had to choose my fast steps carefully.  The field had really spread out by this point, about two hours in.  I didn’t see anyone in front of me on that downhill, but encouraged a few runners who were running uphill.

After twenty minutes without a soul in sight, I was getting a bit nervous.  I knew I was on the right course – but where was everyone?  I kept the pedal down hard, pushing my pace on the downhill, enjoying (somewhat) the feeling of (slow) flying I was achieving.

Finally, in between admiring the river, and swearing at the rocks underfoot, I saw a blue runner in the distance.  I chased him/her.  I don’t know why.  My husband asked me about the race afterwards, why it was so hard.  “It was the pace,” I said.  “It was much faster than North Face, much faster than I’ve been running.”  He looked mildly amused.  “I thought you said you were running alone for a lot of it?”  Good point.  I like to run as fast as I can – I just do.  And I think I was worried that I’d been passed by so many runners at the start, that I’d better try to catch some of them.  I did – I caught two or three.  The blue runner stopped to chat at an aid station; the male runner stopped for a wee by the side of the trail.  Passed them both, standing still.

Eventually, I did catch sight of some other runners.  One guy in a bright yellow shirt and Inov8 shoes became my trail finder.  I could keep him in sight, but couldn’t catch him.  It was reassuring to know I was going the right way.

Well, I was struggling, I’ll be honest.  I’d taken at least two salt tablets and three gels, drank plenty of water, but there was my body, going “limit, limit, can’t you see you are at your LIMIT, you idiot!”

And that’s when Red (freakin’) Hill reared its ugly little head again.

Oh, I’d known it was coming.  Of course I did.  But when it just rose up in front of me, like a tall red demon, I wanted to cry.  The people in front of me weren’t loving it either (“This is not what I want right now,” one woman swore).  Yellow-shirt man had slowed to a walk; everyone was walking.  I was walking.  Hiking the hill, I told myself.  I jogged a bit, walked a bit, swore in my head in much stronger language than I’ll write here at that little stupid hill.  Red like blood; red like anger.  Red rocks, and red dirt, and up and up and up, until, thank heavens there was a little blue tent and two young teenage girls who were kind and offered big smiles.  Someone snapped my photo. “Most tired photo of the event,” I said to the photographer, feeling broken.

But just ahead, at 33k, was the oval where we’d started, where my family might be.  I ran on, got confused because there were no other runners anywhere, was well-directed by volunteers (thanks!), and found my way, and there my family were, cheering (well, asking me to get the lollies from the Aid Station but cheering in their own way).  Some other friends shouted encouragement (thanks Sarah and Claire!) and I saw yellow-shirt man and followed him again.

Now it was up Falls Road, which I remembered well from the half-marathon the year before. I remembered I’d run that hill, felt strong, passed people.  At 34k, it was a very different experience indeed.  I caught up with yellow-shirt man, who had fallen into a walk.  I tried to encourage him to keep running (“I’ve been following you, you can’t stop here,” I said.  ” I”ll try,” he smiled, “I’ll try.”).  Up and up we went, up that painful bitumen road.  I willed it to end.  I told myself to enjoy the trees, the blue sky, the surroundings, but I was pushing too hard.  After a lifetime, I came to the top, and there was the lovely trail leading to the bridge over the falls.  “Hey Patricia”, a friend yelled as he ran by – always a wonderful moment to be known, and I shouted hello back – and I ran on to the falls, where I took more photos (with the same women who had been at Keppel Falls!).

Steavenson Falls

Steavenson Falls

Steavenson Falls close-up

Steavenson Falls close-up

I did a quick self-check:  I was well-hydrated, well-electrolyted, my gear was working perfectly, and I had enough water, gels and salt tablets to finish strong.  But it was 37k in out of 43, and I was running on empty.  Down the Fern Tree Gully Track we ran, those tiny pebbles blasting holes in the soles of my sore feet, and a women or two passing me (run your own race, run your own race, went my mantra).

And then there was Yellow Dog Road.  That 1k out and back.  A test of mental strength, if ever there was one.  Me – Miss Do-the-right-thing – even I had this impulse to turn back part-way.  But I didn’t – I ran all the way to the end, and curled around the turn-around markings on the ground and ran back.

From there, it was back to Tree Fern Gully Track, and it wasn’t far to the finish, just three kilometres.  But I was done, really done.  I’d pushed harder than before at this distance, and all the various parts of me were saying walk.  Just walk.  I did, just once, when a minor incline rose in front of me.  Other than that, I slogged on.  I wasn’t sure where the finish was but I could hear cheering.  I crossed the last bridge, where my family was standing.  My daughter began to run with me then.  I thought the finish was right there, but I’d forgotten we had to do a loop of the oval.  I thought it was too far for her – she’s only seven –  but she was brave and strong, and ran the whole way.  Across the finish, we held hands and crossed together.

And then it was done.  I had completed my first trail marathon in 4:42, twenty minutes faster than I’d planned.  The joyous parts I’ll remember:

The waterfalls, full and strong, cascading over black rocks.

The full river, flowing alongside Lady Talbot Drive.

The song of frogs, ribbetting in the small streams that ran beside some of the trails.

The small trees on the way uphill to Beeches Aid Station – because from below, it had looked barren and lifeless, but really, life was there all along.

Yellow shirt man in front of me, showing me the way.

The shouts of encouragement from all the other runners.

The knowledge that I could take it to the limit – and beyond – and then well beyond, and still complete what I had come to do.

The battles I fought up the steepest of hills, and the inner strength I remembered I had when I managed to complete them.

Take it to the limit, indeed.

Crisis of confidence: of marathon training and life

Six days until my first marathon.  I’m tapering, and feeling all the usual gunk that comes with this useful part of training.  Slow, lethargic, lazy.  I keep waiting for the burst of energy that says this is working, but my energetic bursts are being consistently used up by family and work stress.  So I’m just going to have to trust in the process, and trust in the training I’ve done.

Of course, having dozens of Garmin files to explore and obsess over doesn’t help.  I’ve been comparing elevation gains, height of hills from sea level, length of hills I’ve done in training versus those on the actual course.

My gear is ready.  My body is ready.  My mind?  Well, my mind is never really ready until I’m in the middle of a race and have nowhere to go but forward.  Such is the lot of those of us who obsess over every single detail of training and race preparation.  I’d love to be one of the relaxed few who just come along for the views and to take photos.

Six days and counting down.  Time for  5, 10, and 5k runs to finish off my training plan.  For some short running and nice recovery.

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I didn’t post this on the day I first wrote, as I was experiencing a crisis of confidence, and wasn’t ready to tell you the truth.  A few runs later (rainy runs into a strong headwind, carrying my newly repaired Hydrapak), and I’d love to say I’m fine now.

In truth,  I’m not.  I’m poring over the newly released details of race map transition areas, trying to remember which way our course goes compared to the other three race distances starting the same day.  And I’m trying to summit some more personal hills.

My seven-year-old is experiencing difficulties at school, and I am her safe battering ram when she returns home.  It hurts, all the way down to my soul.  But I was coping okay.

Then last week a BodyPump participant offloaded some really heavy stuff on me – a comment I had made in jest was the straw that broke her camel’s back, and I got in the direction of her personal lava-flow.  I felt like a kid who had been caught doing something naughty, as she raged and raged at me at the end of my class, as the other participants sheepishly snuck out the door.  My apology went unheard, and her wrath untouched.  With a sinking heart, I knew what was coming, because this is what happens.

Both things – my daughter’s stress, and this grown-up’s explosion – threw me.  I recognised that these things were not about me, but were about the other people going through difficult times.  In my head, at least, I recognised that.  That wiser part of me was nodding quietly, saying, “This is their stuff, not yours.”

The less wise part of me – who I know well, and see creeping up on me with a feeling of despair – was less kind.  It blasted me with self-criticism and doubt, with that hide-under-the-bed-and-quit-all-my-jobs kind of advice that does no good to anyone.  My roots were (and are still) shaken.  I’ve had some sleepless nights wondering what I could do differently, tearing apart my faults, and judging myself way too harshly.  Thank God for the likes of Bon Jovi at such times, reminding me that I am not the first to feel this way, that I am not alone.  Thank God for the wise part of me that sits quietly nearby through all the turmoil, and reminds me I’ve survived much worse, that this too shall pass.

Long-distance trail running, alone with my thoughts and a concrete objective is the perfect antidote.  Except I’ve been tapering, so even that avenue has been closed for a couple of weeks.  Which is why I understood so well a recent trail runner’s message on why he runs so far.  He said something like, “Trail running is a drip-feed to my soul.”  Yup, I get that.  Because sometimes I long for what is soulful and simple and concrete, to escape from the complexities of human beings.

Shaken, but not broken – that is how I’m standing today.  Where all of us stand sometimes.  Making mistakes, and picking myself back up again, and trying my darndest to learn.  It makes running a marathon seem easy by comparison.

Here’s what I’m holding onto – that the people of Marysville have risen from the ashes of the 2009 bushfires.  And that I’m going to do just the same in the face my own personal challenges.  I need a good dose of trails to lift me back up, the smell of eucalypts and the feel of dirt under my feet.  Come Sunday in my first real marathon, I’m going to focus on simply feeling alive to every single footfall, to the simplicity that running can bring, to the soulfulness that will enable me to face life’s many challenges.

Because that wise self knows that I will find my stability and peace of mind again, through a long, steady run in the woods.

When You Want To Quit

I was at the 38 km mark of my planned 43 km run.  It was to be my longest run ever.  But I was exhausted.  I had already been running for nearly six hours, up and down the hills in the Dandenong Ranges, trying to complete a race course that I’d been unable to complete a month before, or at least to complete the planned race distance.  This run was also part of my training for the upcoming North Face 50 km Race, just four weeks away.

I had come to the road that led back to my car.  If I turned right, I would be done, I could rest.  I was starting to hallucinate I was so tired, seeing people where there were only trees, startling myself with sudden fear.  I had been running alone since before the sunrise, running and running and running.  Sometimes I had to slow to a walk to climb the steepest of the hills, and walking was becoming more frequent at this point in the long day out.

To my left was the last five kilometres – it began on the steepest hill of all, Dodd’s Track.  It seemed unfair to have to face this hill again, for the second time today.  I glanced down the road towards my car, toyed with the thought of going that way, of finding some excuse to let myself quit early.

Then I turned left, up the hill.  I wanted to go home.  Instead, I dug deep into my pack, found a ziplock bag with banana chips and pineapple pieces, choked some down, took a deep drink from my CamelBak as I walked, and started climbing that hill.  My legs were trembling.  I was starting to hate the look of the trees and the rocks.  But I was going to get to the top.

It went on and on and on.  I talked out loud to myself:  You will not quit.  You are a fighter.  One foot after the other I climbed.  I made it to the top, sweating, shaking, hungry.  I found the next trail and the next.  When I finally made it to Banksia Track I knew I was on the way home.  I stopped for a moment to marvel at my surroundings, then picked up the pace and ran some.  I walked the last steep hill, swearing at it like Sigourney Weaver swore at the biggest of the aliens in Alien.

But I did it, got to the top.  And I ran down the last downhill, cheering myself aloud, being careful of my footing, not wanting to celebrate too soon.  I got to the bottom, ready for joyous elation, ready to have completed my first ever marathon, my first ultramarathon!

And my watch said 41.5 km!  The car was only 250 metres down the road.

Instead of running back in triumph, my work done, I turned back.  I ran back down the trail I’d traversed twice already, coaching myself, saying just go .5 km and turn back, and you’ll have made it, so tired I couldn’t even do math.  Somewhere down that last turnaround my watched clicked over and beeped at 42 km.  I had just completed my first mountain marathon!  I kept running, backtracking towards the car, running out of the park gates, waiting for the 43km goal I’d set to tick by, but with sinking heart I realised I wouldn’t get there unless I turned around again!

So I did.  I turned around and ran back through that same gate, back up the same road for the fourth time, and six and a half hours ticked by, and with a final push, my watch finally read 43 km.

I had done it.  My first marathon, followed a few minutes later by my first ultramarathon.

I wanted to quit so many, many times.  But it is not the desire to quit that matters.

I am sure I will pull the memory of that run out again when I need to remind myself that I have the strength to continue on when life gets tough.  In fact, I pulled it out today.  Polished it.   Savoured it.  And reminded myself that though today was a very difficult day, I have the strength to go on.  To not quit.

Sometimes it takes more than one go to get to the goal you are aiming for.  Sometimes you have to backtrack and try again.  And again.  But that is how we become the heroes of our own stories.  By facing what needs to be faced.  By not quitting.