“To me, a running-healthy program is more important than a training plan geared toward improving performance. That’s because I’m more interested in increasing my years of running than in decreasing my race times.” Amby Burfoot.
I was talking with some people after the race last Saturday about how I was actually looking forward to the taper. The “taper” is the scheduled reduction in mileage at the end of most distance running training plans. The idea is that in the last two to three weeks of training, you benefit more from running less and letting your body fully recover than you do from continuing to pound out long runs and piling on more miles. It makes sense to me. I’ve experienced minor soreness after long runs and the consistency of training is definitely wearing on the body. Not to mention the benefits of being able to mentally prepare and get your game face on.
If you look up any number of articles/blogs/forums on tapering though, you’ll see how so many runners don’t enjoy it, don’t follow it, or both. I’ve read and heard about the mental struggles tapering runners experience as they worry that running fewer miles will allow their endurance and strength to wane leading up to their race day, or just anxiety caused by all of the free time making them feel like they’re overall fitness will suffer. Training can be a hard habit to break I guess.
From what I’ve read, many of those concerns can actually present themselves. Statistically, runners get sick more often during the taper, experience muscle aches and pains, have trouble sleeping, and often generally just don’t feel good. Now I’m not a very experienced runner or a psychologist, so I can’t speak to how much of those effects are actually physical or mental manifestations. But I do believe the mind can play some funny tricks on the body, which is also why there are no shortage or stories about runners refusing to taper their training and ending up injured or underperforming on the big day.
I’m look forward to tapering for two reasons.
1) It does make sense to me. I’ve done the majority of my training runs in the evenings after work and usually after being awake for nearly 12 hours. It’s hard for me to properly fuel for a long run in the evening. I like running in the a.m. when I’m rested and energetic. And after months of training, I like the idea of a taking it down a notch for a couple of weeks so my body can be fully recovered, strong, and 100% healthy for race day. It makes sense to me.
2) I have so many things that I have put off and neglected over the last several weeks, that I’m looking forward to trying to catch up during those last couple of weeks before my race. Shit, my apartment is almost embarrassingly messy right now. My “to do” list is currently being printed as a six volume serial for ease of transport. I’ve got lots of books that I want to read or finish reading. I’d like to continue working on some recording projects with my songwriter friends. And I’ve got some artwork to get done (read as: artwork to start) for a disc golf tournament I’m supposed to be helping to organize. I’ve got plenty to do.
But first, I’ve got a Half Marathon to train for and run.
I was excited to run the final Tidewater Striders Distance Series race on Saturday because I knew it was going to be the last and most representative test I needed in order to judge my readiness for the Shamrock Half Marathon. And it was every bit of the test that I anticipated. I just didn’t score as highly as I wanted to. I gave myself a B-minus.
I felt pretty good before the race. I was fairly well rested for a guy that never sleeps enough, and my body felt good. It was yet another rainy day run, but I’ve almost gotten to point where I don’t even care about rain anymore. And I finished the race in a good time.
I started the race a few seconds slower than my pace just like I wanted to, and settled into something close to it by the end of the second mile. I was running right behind a small group of more experienced runners who were all pacing better than I sometimes do. And I was running at a comfortable enough pace that I was able to speak with relative ease when I felt the urge. But I don’t generally talk very much when I’m running.
In the previous weeks’ long runs, I was starting to really take note of how much energy I was spending and how weak I was after those runs. I had trained up to nine mile distances without carrying any water or food with me, but after noting just how gritty my skin was with salt following eight and nine mile runs I started taking some water with me on all runs longer than that. Actually I carry coconut water, because I want the electrolytes, but I don’t really care for Gatorade’s taste. And after running eleven miles a couple of weeks ago and being so tapped afterwards that simply turning the key in my apartment door was difficult, I thought it was definitely time to start figuring out how I was going to take in some kind of carbohydrates and food calories during my long runs. It is something that I had researched well in advance, but let the last couple of weeks’ crazy ass schedule push it from my mind. Staying busy is not always a good thing.
I grabbed some little gummy candies at the running store when I picked up my bib on Friday and put them in a resealable bag for the race. They tasted alright and I could tell that they did help, but because I wasn’t sure at all how I would stomach them, I didn’t eat enough of them and I’m pretty sure I hesitated too long before starting to take in calories during my run as well. There’s a reason why they tell you not to try anything for the first time on race day. But these races are very much designed as training runs and I was running out of time.
That hesitation to eat combined with less diligence in drinking the fluids I had strapped to my left hand led to me being almost completely wiped out a mile and a half before the end of the race. And even though I finished with a respectable time and pace (1:56:41 with a 9:23 pace) for a newbie, I hated feeling that spent. And I wasn’t totally sure that I could’ve eeked out the 0.7 mile extra I would’ve needed to complete a half marathon.
I felt good. But I didn’t feel ready. I wanted to feel ready.
Later that night and the following day, I experienced the usual tightness and soreness that I always do after pushing myself through each week’s long run. My hips and calves were a bit tight, and my ankles were both a little sore…partially from having to run with rain soaked, heavy feet and partially from what I’m sure was a pretty shitty degrading running form as my body ran out of nutrients towards the finish.
On Monday afternoon, I went for a simple 4 mile “speed of comfort” run. It was so well intentioned. Work is a little crazy right now, I’m not getting nearly as much done as I’d like, and I wanted a relaxing therapy run. And I thought running a low intensity fun-run would be a perfect chance to test my slightly iffy ankle. It was a good run. And as always, I felt better afterwards.
Then BOOM! My worst nightmare. As the night went on my right ankle got tighter and more painful until eventually I was gimping around my apartment like a person with an (gasp!) injury. I iced my ankle, smoked a cigarette, and went to bed scared and annoyed. The following day, it wasn’t any better and after limping around on it at work all day with the pain and swelling getting worse, I was starting to convince myself that I might have a small stress fracture in my ankle.
I’ve mentioned probably too many times that avoiding an injury is my number one goal, and the idea that I had somehow fucked that up had me way more than a little anxious, scared, and angry. Not only because being hurt sucks, or because I sometimes need the therapy of running in my life, but because I hated the idea that after living a life of spectacularly unmotivated underachievement I was going to get this close to a goal that I’ve worked hard to achieve in an activity that I truly love, and then let it slip away because I pushed too hard and/or didn’t properly prepare. I was pissed…at myself.
I revised my earlier grade for Saturday’s race. The time and the pace are fine, but my weakness and the resulting poor form towards the finish had likely resulted in excessive foot pounding that led to my sore ankle. And if you get so banged up that days later you can’t run a leisurely four mile run without getting injured, then there is a lot room for improvement. C-minus. Or maybe even a D-plus?
I cannot recall a single instance in my life when worrying about something did anything at all to improve the situation, so after going to the gym and eating dinner I finally relented and took my ankle in for an x-ray. Knowing has to be better than wondering, right?
The Runner’s World Big Book of Marathon and Half Marathon Training is one of the books I’ve been reading recently and sitting in the hospital reading about injury prevention seemed kind of funny to me. Maybe I should’ve been reading this book a little more regularly since just three pages from where I last put it down was the section on stress fractures. I found that somewhat amusing as I sat listening to people hacking and coughing over whatever crime drama was blaring out of the TV behind me.
Researching stress fractures earlier in the day had revealed horrible things like the potential of a 6-8 week recovery period depending on severity. And the idea of missing my race and not being able to run for such a long time were the largest sources of my anger and anxiety. But sitting there in the waiting room with so many people in much worse shape than I was, I started to calm down, recalculate, and devise a contingency plan.
At that point, the foot was out of my control. But how I reacted to the foot was totally up to me. I decided that if I couldn’t run, I’d see if the Shamrock organizers would just roll my registration fee into next year’s race. I’d wait for the doctor’s diagnosis, and choose the next available half marathon to run depending on how long I’d be out of commission. And I decided that until I could run again, maybe I’d volunteer at other races while I waited. Having no way of controlling the diagnosis, I fell into the “hope for the best, plan for the worst” mentality, and I immediately started to feel better.
The doctor poked and prodded my foot and ankle. Took a look at the x-ray and informed me that…drum roll please…No break. She said it was just a slight sprain with a deep bruise chaser, but there were no broken bones. I was told to ice it, elevate it, rest it, and don’t run until it’s better. I swear it felt better almost immediately. The mind has weird power over the body, and simply lifting the uncertainty was a pretty effective pain reliever.
I wrapped it all day at work today, removed the wrap before going to gym, and it feels a lot better. I might be able to go for a light run on Friday…but I might not. I will not run again until it’s ready. I will channel that effort into the gym and cross training. But I will not stop running. If I have to, I’ll pause for injury. But I will not stop. I am more than excited to report that I should still be able to run the Shamrock, but it looks like I’ll be starting my taper a little bit early. I’m okay with that.
I’ve got plenty to do.