A New Standard for Success

Long gone are the days when I sign up for and do a race just for fun or just hoping to finish… come on, if you’re a runner or triathlete you know what I’m talking about.   Why else would anyone run more than one marathon or compete in more than one Ironman?  It’s not because they’re cheap or easy or, when you really think about it, fun.  You keep signing up and toeing the line because you have a bone to pick with yourself and you want to see if you can do better.  It can be very, very addictive.  Every race is about a PR.  You might not advertise that fact, but deep down you know it’s true.  Admit it.  I go into most races with 3 numbers in my head:  (1) the time I tell people I hope to get (which is usually a very safe time I know I can do); (2) the time I’m really hoping to get (a PR or close to it depending on my health and how well I’ve trained); and (3) the time I think I could achieve if all the stars are aligned and I have an absolutely perfect day.

As I’ve mentioned before, last year was just ridiculously horrible for me.  I spent the entire year dealing with plantar fasciitis in one foot and then the other.  I scratched every running race I’d registered for.  I ran-walked each of the three triathlons I raced, including Ironman Wisconsin.  It was a totally humbling year.  But what I just said still held true – I had swim and bike splits to improve on and did what I could to improve on those knowing my run split would be abysmal.

So here I am, on the slow road to recovery working with a new coach and a system that, as much sense as it makes, is still foreign and kind of scary to me (insofar as it doesn’t emphasize crazy running mileage to get me ready for IMCDA in, OMG, just about 8 weeks).  I met Coach Al and his partner, Dr. Kurt, in late October of 2011.  As I suspected they would, they put me in run jail while I worked on core stability and functional strength… all in an effort to be sure I was mechanically strong so that I would be able to run properly without falling back into the patterns that led to my injury in the first place.

It was February before Coach Al green-lighted me to start running.  And, to be honest, I’m surprised he did.  While he was pleased with my functional strength progressions for the most part, he wasn’t happy with my single leg squats or my hip stability.  I can remember standing on the treadmill feeling dejected when it occurred to me that he was going to send me home and not let me run.  Instead of running that day we did an hour of strength training… and, out of the blue, he told me to work on my cadence, continue doing the FST (functional strength training work) and he was going to start me on the return to running program.  Huh?  Really?  Are you sure I’m ready?  Wow.  Okay then. So, there I was in mid-February going out to run for 20 or 30 minutes at a stretch, doing 30 second or one minute running intervals.  Back to the very beginning.  Over a period of a month and a half or so, I was running for 15 and 20 minute stretches.  I can remember how excited I was to run my first 20’ segment!   I was even more excited when nothing hurt during or after these “runs.”  Yes, I was impatient to get going, but this system was working…

This past Sunday I was registered for the George Washington Parkway Classic, an annual 10 mile running race that starts at Mt. Vernon and ends in Old Town Alexandria.  Coach Al knew I was running, it had been on my schedule… and he knew I was determined to do it but was admittedly skeptical that I could.  Prior to the race my longest run segment had been 30’ (and I only did 1) and my longest run/walk totaled 4.83 miles.  How was I going to pull this off?  Would I end up hurting myself and moving back to square one?  How can I possibly be ready to run a marathon at IMCDA in 9 weeks?  Coach Al had a plan for me – 15’ runs with 1:30 walks, repeat til finished.  (I will point out he had pace goals for each segment laid out, but I had a pretty bad head cold and those went out the window).

I get off the bus at Mt. Vernon at 7:30 am, hit the bathroom line, which gives me about 10 minutes til start.  I found a spot by a tree and did my warm up hip series and some hopping then got into a starting corral.  2 minutes til the gun.  It’s show time.  I’ve never been worried about finishing a race before (well, other than IMWI with PF).   I’m worried that I’ll get tired and that when I did my body would go on autopilot and revert back to its old patterns (which caused the injury).  I’m terrified something would hurt which would mean that my progression would be stalled or set back and that my hopes of finishing IMCDA strong in 9 weeks would be destroyed… so much weighing on my mind in addition to the fact that I can barely breathe without lapsing into a coughing attack and the fact that it’s really cold and raining (what the hell was I thinking getting out of bed?).

I cross the starting mat, start my Garmin, turn on my metronome (I intentionally left my iPod at home so I could keep the volume of the metronome as low as possible, which is still loud and, I presume, fairly annoying for anyone running near me) and go.  The Garmin was set for 15(1.5) sets so I don’t have to think about looking at my watch but I check it every so often … although I didn’t really need to, it was beeping at me for going too slowly.  Some time during the second or maybe third segment I stopped and deleted the pace goals because I knew I wouldn’t be running as quickly as I could if I were healthy and the beeping on top off the metronome was just annoying.  Okay, back at it.  So far so good, except for the cold rain.  Ordinarily overcast, misty, 50 degree runs are ideal for me – but with a head cold I can honestly say it was absolutely miserable.  I was chilled to the bone and pretty unhappy.  But, things were feeling surprisingly okay at the half-way point.

At mile 5 I became hyper-aware of everything.  I was now heading into unchartered territory.  It was bizarre.  I’ve run 5 marathons and done 2 IMs and here I am scared of a 10 miler, which was, once upon a time, the distance of a normal Wednesday night training run with my friend Paul… During the 6th mile my left hip flexor started to tweak.  I’d had problems with this one before, usually while doing high cadence spinning on my bike.  I took notice but I don’t do anything.  The walking segment helps and I start to run again.  After a few minutes it starts to tighten again.  I pull off to the side, stop my watch, and stretch.  Carry on.  I stopped to stretch 2 or 3 times during the last 3 or 4 miles – damage control.  It never got super bad, but it was disconcerting.  Nothing else hurt and I took that as a very, very good sign.

Let me be honest.  I was not having fun out there; I just wanted it to be done.  I was cold and wet, and well, just over it.  That said, the accomplishment wasn’t lost on me… and I managed to pick up the pace with 5 or 6 blocks to go (when the finish line as in sight) and finish pretty strong!  It was funny, I felt totally fine at the finish.  Some of the people around me were limping, complaining about the steps we had to go down (like 3 of them) to get to the trail to walk to food… and I felt totally good.  No  pain, no stiffness in my quads or anywhere else… hmm… surprising.  Cool.  Standing in the rain in line to get my checked bag I’m shivering… I’d hoped to look for a few friends, but I’m sure they finished a long time ahead of me and gave up waiting because of the weather (at least I hope they did… I wouldn’t blame them).  Finally at the front of the line, get my bag, and walk, quickly I might add, to my car.  Warmth!!!

At home I have 4 flights of stairs to climb – no problem.  Hot shower.  Recovery smoothie.  Stretch the hip flexors, roll on the foam roller… feeling awesome.  Nap!  2 hours later I’m up, and the legs feel totally normal.  Did I really just double my running mileage?  I was cautiously optimistic that I’d wake up feeling fine the next morning… but there was a twinge of doubt that the soreness was yet to come.  Alarm goes off.  Stand up, walk… no problem (not even with the hip flexors)!  Happy dance (well except for the coughing spasm that burned like hell… what was I thinking running in the cold rain with a head cold?).

I know I didn’t set any land-speed records.  And I realize that instead of a PR I probably got a PW (personal worst) for a 10 mile race time… and you know what?  I’m thrilled.  I NEEDED to finish that race without incident.  Yes, I trust Coach Al and his system but honestly, I had to wonder if there was a prayer for me to be ready for a marathon in 9 weeks when my longest run/walk had been less than 5 miles.  So, while this race involved testing my physical abilities and progress, it was so much more about putting me into a good mental place… giving me the confidence I need to head into CDA after a year of injury.  I appreciate that CDA may not be a PR day for me, and that’s okay.  It will be a good day and I will be strong and ready.