Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Running Considered

As a runner I consistently take stock of what works and what does not. What habits and tendencies lead to success. What patterns lead to failure. At least this assessment and reflection has been necessary for me over the years to learn, grow, and improve, but perhaps most importantly to cope with the difficulties of injuries. I have tried to learn from injuries and setbacks, getting sick, when to run and and when to rest, but the cold hard truth that I have learned over the years has been to accept some mystery and then move on. When and how injuries come is not always as predictable as everyone else around you seems to claim, but there is a silver lining. With time and patience almost everything heals.

The author at Smoky Mountain
Running Camp, July 2016
My first truly disruptive injury was in 1989. By October, and the heart of the cross country season, I had overcooked things with training and my body was basically falling apart. Our team was running fast about three times a week and I was no longer the boss of my body as I had been the year before. A coach that didn't listen to the athletes was the last thing I needed, yet, what I had. This pain and the communication breakdown were the first major setbacks I had incurred in my fledgling running career and I didn't know how to proceed. My knees hurt on nearly every run and I was unable to complete my first competitive cross country season. The coach implied that I wasn't being tough, and even at 14, I knew he didn't believe what was coming out of his mouth. He was simply frustrated and didn't know what to do to get one of his fastest runners healthy again.

I went from being the fastest runner on the high school team to one of the walking-wounded, side-lined for nearly all of the next four years. I have since connected the fact that I was not only growing muscle tissue from hard training, but I was entering a two year period of rapid genetic growth. I just had not grown much at all during my middle school years and I went from five feet to six feet tall in less than two years at an inopportune time for the purposes of running, 9th through 11th grade. Every time I tried to lay on the other type of neuromuscular fibers, the kind that comes from endurance training, my body would fall apart. Again and again, I tried and failed as a runner.

I did not know much then. Thought I would never run again. Thought all of my running dreams would be de-activated or un-activated. But I got better. I got back on the proverbial horse and was having consistent running success again by my mid-twenties. That seemed, at the time, like a lifetime, but it wasn't, now that I look back on it with a bit more of the long view. I had run in the decade between ages 14 and 24, but it was sporadic as I was mostly injury plagued. I unfortunately was not able to do what I had imagined, run successfully in high school and then develop into a competitive college runner. I missed that critical window during youth where big-time speed and strength is typically developed, where I might have run 4:15 or better, for one mile, and I am sad about that fact to this day. But sometimes, you get what you get.

But by age 25 or 26 I was consistently running 50 miles per week and I brought my 5K time back to an area I had not seen since age 14. I ran 16:25 in a Charlotte 5K during the year I was engaged to be married and the main thing that had changed was that by the Fall of 2001, I was experimenting with running 70 or more miles per week. This time my body was somehow able to manage a whole new workload and I was getting stronger and stronger. Friends and family would probably describe me prior to that season as having looked like a boy. I was a late bloomer, and I had high hopes for post-collegiate success now that I seemed to finally be done growing. I started to achieve some of my running goals, not everything that I wanted as a runner, but more than most. And I give thanks.

I am 41 now and while I have run trail races, and road races and 15 marathons, my true passion is that of the young runner, who pursues middle distances such as the 5K and even shorter, the mile, the 800 meters. My training for these shorter events is not all that different from marathon training. It takes a lot of miles and strength is the name of the game to competing at a high level.

Many don't know it, but there is a whole sub-culture of runners that are over the age of 30 and some as old as 100 who pursue these middle distances. I love the track, but won't race there unless I am healthy and fit. There is no where to hide on the oval, indoors or out, and while I love to run, I will only run publicly if I am "ready," a measurement that is assessed by me personally and subjectively, and tends to only occur a few times a year, if that often. I wish it were more frequent, but track fitness is serious business. I still don't want to be on the track if I can't break five minutes in the mile and that is not all the time. If I am completely honest, I think serious fitness, even at my age is only under 4:50 and I have only been there a handful of times.

Getting fit is risky, but well worth it and there are always memorable times that it didn't quite work out. In the picture above I am on the UNC Asheville Track where I was included in a week of training with 15 and 16 year old boys at a perennially awesome summer running camp. I even attended the camp a few summers as a teen. This time was July about a year and a half ago. I ran twice a day with the young horses. I did their workouts on the track. I got really fit. I had been running successfully for months prior, but this was a bigger training week, not unreasonable, but starting to incur some risk with two runs a day in the heat of summer. A month or so later, my running kind of crumbled and my knees were troubling me in a whole new way--different than my childhood trouble. I took off the next five months, sought out all kinds of therapy and treatments, thought at the time, "my running is over for good." 

But then I got better, a lot better. I started training again. Had a great summer in 2016 by breaking five minutes in the mile three separate times and headed into a Fall where my mileage spiked back to around 50 miles per week.

I did not race this Fall until a 5K Cross Country race this past Saturday. It was a disaster. My calf seized up so badly that I had to pull off the course four minutes into the race. It was such a bewildering disappointment. I thought surely that I had it right this time. I don't know why it happened. My left calf had not been a problem at all in the autumn months--until it was and I limped back toward the starting area at McAlpine Park scratching my head.

Everyone around you is an "expert" on injuries and why they happen, but they don't know your body. You may not know your body. Mine remains a mystery to me. Injuries occur for almost every runner if they stay at the sport long enough and train in a way that raises the risk bar. I wanted to break 17 minutes for this latest 5K, or at least come close, and that takes a certain type and volume of training that puts parts of my body at risk. Is it worth it? Apparently so, I keep doing it over and over again. If you ask people around me, I am generally happy and content when it comes to training. I am not one of those runners who hates all the work of training or loathes each and every run. I love it. Meet God out there. Pray for my neighbors, my enemies, my loved ones. Sort out my work during daily runs. I love to run and I love to keep trying to run fast as I age.

If I have matured at all over the years as a harrier, it has been in letting go of the need to explain and justify it all. The wisdom that has come for me is that even when I don't have crisp answers and explanations regarding the injuries, I am more seasoned and resilient about not getting "down" for too long even if there are some embarrassing and painful outcomes. I have learned that this is, or can be, how it goes and my body will get better and will usually surprise me with its' ability to heal. I support it with stretching and strength, diet and rest, but even all the maintenance does not always account for all the successes or the failures. Sometimes you just don't know how you struck gold or why you came up empty when you were certain there was oil at the latest drilling site. There are coaches around the world who will tell you otherwise, give you all the guarantees so you will write them checks aplenty, but they know better if they coach themselves and others long enough. We coaches must admit that with big goals comes big risk.

If you love to run--then do it when you can and do it over and over. For me, I love to run fast and I accept a certain measure of risk that comes along with teaching my body to cope with speed. It's not that easy on the back or the knees, but it is worth it to me. I hope you are running or exercising, or writing, or praying or fasting, or innovating in a way that is enjoyable and is for your pleasure, not someone else's. I hope you have some goals that are a bit out of reach...or are they?

George Linney has been a runner now into a fourth decade. He considers himself to be at the midpoint of his running career. He has been a writer and a pastor for far less time, but he wants to keep doing those things too!