The Stupidity of a Long Distance Runner

Last week, Iunfortunately spent a morning in the emergency room at Cheshire Medical Center.  Although I have never had anything but a pleasing experience at the Clinic, it’s not a place you want to find yourself.    Usually, the times I am there are either scary or stressed.   Although I have had worse visits, this one had some degree of both.  The adventure that would inevitably lead me to a stretcher at Cheshire Med. began the night before, when I decided to leave work a little early and do my long run through the back woods and dirt roads of Hillsboro.   

I had it all planned out by nine in the morning, I skipped my lunch, and by the time 4:00 hit, I was ready to go, I was really looking forward to the run.  Weather was perfect, and the first half of the run was uneventful; uneventful but beautiful

At one point I actually found myself running alongside a Llama farm!  Llamas are not the expected sight or sound on one of my average runs, and I was surprised when I stumbled upon them.   I actually stopped and watched a pair for a minute or two.  

Later on the run, I passed some gorgeous farms and fields, and I even stopped to snap a picture in a couple of places.   There were some waterfalls, a raging brook, and plenty of stone walls that stole my attention from one corner to the next.   It was only when I reached the 7 mile mark of my 14 mile run that all hell broke loose.  As is my standard operating procedure, I stopped at the half way point to take a two or three minute break and allow my heart rate to return to normal and the air to return to my lungs.  As I took a swig of water, I decided to walk a couple of minutes before kicking it into gear for the return trip home.

After finishing the water and tightening up my shoelaces, I jumped ahead.    In the next instant a piercing and incredible pain ran up my foot, and leg, and I found myself in a heap on the side of the road.  After the initial pain of road rash as I crumbled subsided, I knew I was in trouble.  Something had happened to my ankle and the pain was intense.

I shimmied up to a rock, sat down, and unlaced my shoe.   As I did, I literally saw my ankle start to swell, and turn this funky color.   I like to tell folks that the only part of me that isn’t Italian is my feet, which embraces the Irish Scot in me.    Usually, they shine in their paleness.   On the side of the rock, I watched as they turned a lovely shade of purple-gray.

I sat there for a moment, massaging my foot, wondering what my next step would be.  As I sat cursing my poor fortune, I noticed the skies becoming ominously dark.    A storm was rolling in.   I had better call the run quit, and give someone a call to pick me up before the storm rolled in.    As humbling as it was to call my wife (45 minutes away), it was worse than dealing with the sheering pain or the drenching that was about to occur.  As I turned on the cell phone I was greeted with the less than pleasing “no service” warning.

As I cringe at the memories of this moment, I would like to show you a picture.  

This is my training binder.   It contains all you need to know about my running.   It contains logs of my runs, the number of miles on my sneakers, how much I plan on running tomorrow, next week, or next month.   It contains information on my calorie intake and if I had the 50% carbs, 25% protein, and 25% targets.   It even logs the number of hours I have slept the night before each run, and the general feel of my thighs, knees, calves and shins.   It tells me when I should eat my jelly beans or gels on each run.   It reminds when I need to take a salt capsule.

As I compose this post, light has dawned on Marblehead.  That binder is the most absurd thing ever.

For the deep woods Hillsboro run I planned absolutely everything.   I took some time strategically placed water bottles along the route before I took off.   I made mental notes of blind curves so I wasn’t caught of guard.   I marked my mile markers along the way.  I even checked for cell phone service.  What I hadn’t accounted for was the brewing storm, and those dark clouds preventing service on my phone.   

I ended up trying to make the run back home, but only made it a mile when by the time the pain set in.  No cell phone service.   After a little way further, I found a stick on the side of the road, and used it to carry some of my weight.    It wasn’t long before the skies proceeded to open and the deluge began.  It rained, and rained, and rained some more.    Then there was lighting and thunder.    I shivered, cold and wet, as I limped the many miles back to my car.    I hit the parking lot where my car was at 9:00pm, after almost 4 hours of hobbled walking through nowhere.

That evening back in my house, I was sure that I had broken my ankle.    I was convinced that I wouldn’t be walking, let alone running, for a long time to come.  We headed to the emergency room, where I was told I had a serious strain, with potential ligament damage and I needed to stop running for 6 weeks, and use crutches.  To be honest, I stopped listening at that point.  

My marathon was at that point exactly 9 weeks away and I had just paid the $125 for registration that morning. I could not afford a day off, let alone 42.   I said to myself; “Self…what does that doctor know?”    I turned to the oh-so-great physician called the internet for a better answer. 

At some site, aptly named something akin to I learned that using a splint or air cast often delays the onset of healing by weeks, so I tossed that away.    I learned that crutches do the same, so enough of them.   At a myriad of sites I found exercises, recommendations for icing, stretching, and compression, and cranked them all up.   I even decided to do some water laps in a pool.

Four days later, on Sunday night, I assessed my ankle to be at 75-80% of normal.  Really not sure what that meant and impatient to run again, I decided to test out the ankle, and I ran a good three miles across the City. They were slow and steady, and nowhere near the miles upon miles I had pushed myself through just a few weeks prior, but I was running.   In the end the  ankle throbbed, but it still hovered around 75-80%.    Unfortunately I was reminded in that throbbing, that the hefty 10, 15, or 20 mile runs are completely out of the question, for at least the time being.

Despite the fact that I was able to run and I beat the 6 weeks (We should not lose site of the fact that I am indeed Superman), the odds of me being able to run the mileage needed by early October are decreasing day by day.  With this realization (which I am more effectively dealing with today than I was last weekend), I have admittedly become a bit depressed.  

I have worked really hard to get where I am today, I clocked a great deal of time on the treadmill, on a bike, through the back roads, or on Nautilus machines. Over the past year,  I made running an absolute chore that at times has come close to sapping all of my energy.  I was like a chemist trying to find the right balance of energy gels, supplements, and salt tabs, and all was for naught.    I was running 20 miles evenings and now I was feeling lucky having completed 3 or 4. 

I look at that colossally stupid binder, and realize in an instant that all my planning has, in the end, failed me. For the second year in a row my body had broken.   Today, I am not sure I want to fully admit it, but I believe my marathon target is very close to become a goal for 2012, instead of October.    Feeling broken and depressed as this recognition grew, I told Stacey that I was not sure what I was going to do.   What now I asked out loud…   

Stacey, in those moments that just make me mad, employed a bit of the Wisdom of Solomon.   “Don’t you miss running simply for the fun of it?   All the plans, all the binders, all the stress of the plan….   Is it really what you want?”    At first I brushed her off (as I usually do, when I don’t want to admit that she is right), but I thought on it.

Those runs through Keene during the past week… maybe a half hour there,…or an hour here….   That is truly running.  The gentle rhythm of running on Arch, Maple, or Hasting Avenues is meditation and escape.  Watching the world as you count off distance in 100’s of yards is what running is all about.

The four hours straight on a treadmill that is something else.  Trying to figure out how to eat while running so your body does give out, doesn’t seem right.   Trying to relearn the mechanics of movement when you have hit that wall at 18, 19, or 20 is absurd.     The crazy sessions of strength conditioning at the gym are about as tedious as you can imagine.

I don’t like to exercise, I like to run.   Running is a holy moment for me.  Those shorter runs are my Sabbath, and I had forgotten about them.   I have started to realize that the binder and the plans have turned running into something else.   I missed the simple run to make it to the next corner approach to running.   I realized that when I couldn’t run 2 minutes straight but was willing to try like hell, I was falling love with running and the person I was becoming.  I thought about the runs where I would stop at 18 unable to go any further and spend the remainder of the night calling myself a failure.   What had snapped?

As of today, I have decided to toss out the binder, and work on returning to running for the love of running.  I have decided to just run for the month of August.   No plans, no goals, no agenda.  Maybe on the 1st of September my foot will be better but maybe not.   If come October the marathon is on the docket so be it,..   If not, so be it.    I need to respect the run again.    I need to embrace the Sabbath.

Although the trials of a bruised ankle is trivial compared to the road blocks and hurdles of so many, I am in the process of remembering that sometimes I too need to be better at practicing what I preach.    Too often we are convinced that we can control the world and our lives, by having one more spreadsheet or binder.   We plan for every eventuality, and without fail we are surprised when life shakes our footing.  In the end, I am guessing that is why I am sharing this story.   

We all need the reminder that we don’t come to church on Sunday or fight for our faith, to check off another item from our Binder.    We come because we need to embrace the reminder that life is not something we can plot, manage, or use sheer will power to direct.  Someone else is in control.   Someone else has a plan.   Someone else is in charge.  

I am glad that I can see this in something so small like running, and I pray that I can remember this in the bigger, more important aspects of my life.  Only when we respect that fact we are not in complete control, do we experience all life has to offer.    Through the really big moments, and those more everyday ones, we need to be people that are willing to toss out the binders and the spreadsheets in order to embrace the peace that a life of living in God delivers.

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” – (1 Corinthians 9:24-25 NIV)

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