Two steps forward, three steps back

It all started this time last year. Texas sweltered through 90 days of 100+ degree temperatures, and I spent a lot of time running indoors, on the treadmill. One day I set it on a bit of an incline, and near the end of my run, suddenly my left hip flexor sort of popped. I felt a sharp pain with every step.

Over the next few weeks I tried everything–stretches, ice, heat, ibuprofen. Nothing helped. I went to a sports therapist. I saw an orthopedist, who found nothing on X-ray or MRI. Then he told me to stop doing the thing that made it hurt. I continued with the sports therapist, and I worked out on the elliptical at the gym. My family ran a 5K while I watched from the sidelines.

Two months later, it felt better, and I slowly started running again. By June, I was up to 8-9 miles a week without problems, so I felt good about beginning this half marathon training.

Reality check: my hip flexor is not healed.

I thought it was–training has gone well for nearly two months, and I ran pain-free for 21 miles last week, save the usual soreness that comes with increased mileage. I felt great, maybe even a little accomplished.

But this week, I crashed back to earth.

About a mile into last night’s training run, I felt a twinge in my left hip. I slowed my pace a little and tried to ignore it, hoping it would go away. Naturally, that didn’t work. The twinge became a sharp pain and I had to walk. At the two-mile point, my coach was waiting. He saw my awkward limp–and the look on my face–and knew something was wrong.

I just wanted to sit on the curb and cry. I’ve been pain-free for six months. I’ve stuck to the training schedule even when it was 102 degrees, when I traveled, and when it required me to wake up at 5:45 on a Saturday. I’ve worked harder at this than at any athletic endeavor since high school. And I am terrified that it all may be for nothing.

I told my coach that I didn’t want to wimp out of the training run, but I was worried this might be the beginning of the same spiral that would sideline me again. He said I wasn’t wimping out–he wasn’t going to LET me run. Classic teacher move–he took the decision out of my hands so I wouldn’t feel like I was quitting. He told me to walk back to the store, then go home and ice my hip. As I walked the mile and a half, I felt like the guy on the losing team, heading dejectedly back to the locker room.

There is no happy ending. Not yet anyway. It feels better today, and I am hopeful that it just needs some extra recovery time from last week’s mileage. I don’t know.

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Nine nine, banana fana, fee fie foe fine, NINE!

Alternate title: Geez you smell awful!

Alternate title #2: This doesn’t mean I’m becoming a morning person, does it?

I went back to work this week, and wow that 5:45 A.M. alarm clock caused a rude awakening, to say the least. So getting up early on Saturday was  not high on my list of things to do, but there I was at 6:30, bleary-eyed, fumbling with my headphones, finding something I wanted to listen to at that ridiculously early hour, and filling my water bottle. Because it was dark when I got there, I had forgotten my sunglasses in the car and had to retrieve them. It took me 15 minutes to get my act together and head out.

On the schedule today: nine miles (which I cleverly gave away at the beginning of this post). The course map took us a different route than the last few weeks, and I didn’t mind the change of scenery. I also didn’t mind the overcast sky and 75-ish temperatures. So off I went.

I had a pretty good distraction going on–an audiobook read by someone who mispronounced a bunch of words. Oddly, my yelling correct pronunciation didn’t cause her to fix this problem. Hm. Anyway, my grammar nerdiness only carried me so far. Around Mile Four I started feeling like a ninja had secretly strapped invisible velcro weights to my ankles and I started dragging a bit.

It was at this point the course took me through a rather, um, visually interesting neighborhood. On one side of the street sat a house with a little sculpture garden containing a huge cross, probably my height, next to a purple hand-painted sign that said “Pray!” Their mailbox stuck out from underneath the sign, amid some cacti. It’s almost as if the family had a message for their mail carrier.  On the other side of the street, the homeowners appeared to be pretending they lived in a tropical paradise and not Central Texas. They’d hung surfboards from one side of the house, and palm trees surrounded a gurgling fountain. I kind of understood what they were trying to do, though, after seeing their neighbors’ collections of broken porch swings, overturned recycling bins, piles of rusting scrap metal, and in one case, what appeared to be remnants of a hot air balloon haphazardly strewn around the yards of their single-wide trailers.

As I turned the corner into a new neighborhood, the leaden feeling returned. Fortunately I’d reached a downhill section and managed to power through. I crossed a set of railroad tracks, refilled my water bottle from the cooler set out by our coaches, and got a bit of reprieve as I waited for the Walk signal so I could cross a busy highway. Onward.

At the 4.5 mile turnaround, I was closer to my house than where I’d parked my car.

The lead-leg feeling stuck with me, unfortunately, but since I was miles from either my house or my car, I had no choice but to keep going. At about Mile Six, I finished the audiobook and said goodbye to the mispronouncing woman. I passed the high school and listened to the sounds of students practicing their marching band routines, the drum major’s voice reverberating through the loudspeakers.

And then I reached the last water stop: eight miles down, one mile to go. The ninja had added more invisible weights. Exhausted and aching, I wanted to walk the rest of the way, but I knew it was mostly downhill and it would be kind of chickenshit not to run the whole damn thing. So I turned up my music and plodded along. Almost done, I looked at my Garmin as I ran down the alley behind the running store, and I realized (with no small amount of horror) that I was going to end up with only 8.90. So, despite the ninja’s best efforts, I kept going through the parking lot. At the Starbucks at the end of the shopping center, I think I surprised some folks sitting on the patio, since it kind of looked like I’d come out of nowhere (hey look, I haz ninja moves too), then turned around for the homestretch, running until I heard my Garmin beep: 9.00 miles. I didn’t quite collapse through the door and fall into a heap on the floor, but I kind of wanted to.

I’m not a morning person–I get up early because I have to. I pretty much have a hate-hate relationship with my alarm clock. But damn, I’d just run nine miles before 9:30 A.M. I looked (and smelled, no doubt) like hell, my leg muscles felt like jelly, and when I sat down to stretch I almost didn’t get back up again. But some little part of me (I’ll blame the ninja) was stoked to finish nine miles before a lot of people even got out of bed.

The skies opened and the angels sang

As I drove to training tonight, clouds rolled in, the temperature dropped into the low 70s, and it started raining–hard enough that I needed to turn on my windshield wipers. This is highly unusual in Central Texas in August, but I wasn’t going to complain!

We are working on the speed portion of our training now–not just increasing distance, but developing a faster, more efficient pace as well. So tonight we ran 1.5 miles to the starting point, then performed what the coach called a steady state run. Instead of running at a conversational pace–where you could chat with a partner–this was faster, maintaining for 20 minutes a pace that would allow only one-word answers. I don’t run with a partner (although I did have Van Halen and Bon Jovi keeping me company today–my iPod apparently thought it was Retro Day) but my Garmin kept track without requiring awkward conversation.

The overcast sky, cool breeze, and occasional raindrop, so unusual this time of year, made an incredible difference. I completed the 1.1 mile loop without slowing down–I even ran up the big hill without walking–and kept on going around again, finishing my 20 minutes with a little sprint at the end! After a quick water break and chat with my coach, I headed back.

As the Beastie Boys told me to fight for my right to paaaarty, the sun peeked through the clouds and I realized that I’d maintained a pace about three minutes per mile faster than I’d averaged over the previous weeks in the heat. For every ten degrees the temperature dropped, my pace sped up by about a minute. I knew this would eventually happen–we train in the Texas summer so that a November race feels easy in comparison. But seeing it in action today was, quite literally, an illuminating moment. My goal to finish in three hours became just a little bit closer to possible.

As Journey so eloquently reminded me, “Don’t stop believin’, hold on to that feelin’.”

What I did on my summer vacation

Back on May 31 when school got out, the longest race I’d ever run (without stopping) was a 5K, and the most recent one of those had been pretty ugly. I started half-marathon training in July, and today I completed 8.28 miles. And yes, that .28 is significant, just like when you were a kid and you told people you were 9 3/4 so they wouldn’t think you were only 9.

Here are some highlights, AKA What I Did on My Summer Vacation:

  • running three miles in New York City’s Central Park on a cool June morning, after three days of Vacation Death Marching my way through every major attraction in the city
  • hitting Austin’s hike-and-bike trail, then cooling off in Barton Springs
  • spending early mornings, sometimes in the rain, sometimes dodging mini-golf players and picture-takers, on the Sports Deck of the Carnival Magic cruise ship, where seven laps equaled a mile. I ran 84 laps, or 12 miles–in tropical humidity, which totally should give me credit for another mile or two–over the course of a week
  • circling (and circling, and circling…) around my neighborhood while my 9-year-old waited in the driveway with water and encouragement for me each time I passed
  • last weekend’s 5K on the beach in Galveston

To get from 3.1 to 8.28, some things had to change. I started training with a group, which meant getting up at the crack of dawn on Saturdays to meet for our long runs. But I return to work on Monday, and I must change things again in order to be ready for 13.1. Work is going to be hectic at the same time my training mileage will continue to increase. Mentally, I was okay with 7am training runs during the summer, knowing I could sleep in the other six days of the week. But starting Monday, I’ll get to work before 7am and don’t relish giving up a chance to sleep late (and recover from a stressful workweek) on Saturdays. My weekend runs will hit double digits, then will be longer than the distance I drive to work each day.

So yeah, you could say I’ve been busy on my summer vacation. Stick around–it’s about to get a lot busier, and this blog could end up as an inspirational story of hard work and success, a cautionary tale, or a total train wreck. No way to tell just yet. 😉

Fartleks: tool of the devil

Fartleks.

I’ll give your inner 14-year old a minute to giggle.

Ahem. Ready?

Fartlek means “speed play” in Swedish. It’s a form of interval training, alternating high-intensity running with a recovery period. For example, run hard for 30 seconds, walk or jog 90 seconds, repeat. Add in hills and 102-degree heat, and I’m pretty sure fartlek really means from hell.

This week’s training session went like this: run one mile to where the coaches were waiting with water. Do fartleks for a 1.1-mile circuit that goes downhill, then around and back uphill. Fill up water bottle, drink half and dump half on your head, then fill it again. Run a recovery mile the second circuit. Repeat with the water. Then fartleks one more time, more water, and run back to the starting point. My Garmin said it was 5.54 miles, and I think I filled my water bottle seven times.

The marathon group training alongside us had to do 30-second runs with only a 30-second recovery. I guess I should be glad ours were 30-90. Thirty seconds is a damn long time when you’re thundering down the sidewalk, but it’s no time at all when you’re trying to catch your breath.

It was tough but not impossible. My inner 14-year-old might say these fartleks didn’t stink.

Go ahead. You know you want to laugh at that.

And now for something completely different

This weekend, we took a road trip to run a 5K on the beach in Galveston, Texas.

Galveston is still recovering from 2008’s Hurricane Ike–scattered around every block are empty concrete slabs where homes and businesses used to sit, and many iconic structures are just… gone. But there’s an optimistic vibe to the place too–lots of new construction, including the Pleasure Pier (where the Flagship Hotel used to be) with its brightly-lit carnival rides. The beach is clean and parking along the seawall fills up fast.

We reached the island late Friday afternoon and went straight to the packet pickup spot, hoping we’d make it before they closed. Houston traffic had been a mess, so we were cutting it really close. But we got there with a minute to spare. There was momentary confusion because someone with the same name as mine had already picked up a packet and they couldn’t find my stuff right away. Not only did she have the same name, but she was in my age group and her race number followed mine in sequence. What are the odds of that?

We spent Saturday as tourists–we took a Duck Tour, collected shells (and inadvertently, a whole lot of sand), and ate a seafood lunch on the deck with a view of the beach.

We arrived at Porretto Beach about an hour before the race. The sun was low in the sky, palm trees silhouetted against the sunset, and the temperature was maybe 90. The starting area filled up quickly. We looked at race bibs, trying to spot my alter ego’s number, but we didn’t find her. We discussed shoe options–most people wore running shoes, but a few were barefoot–and I actually said, “It doesn’t matter–it’s only 3.1 miles.” Thank you half-marathon training for this new perspective!

Runners had devised creative ways to illuminate themselves for the night race–some strapped tiny headlamps to their foreheads or draped themselves in glow-stick necklaces; others attached lights to their caps or carried small flashlights. Two women wore pink tutus woven with glowing pink LEDs.

The race organizers had set out light markers down the middle of the beach, but no one actually ran that route. As soon as we passed through the starting gate (it said “Ahoy!”) everyone veered over to the hard-packed sand next to the water rather than slogging through what felt like marshmallows.

Running near the water was easier, but it was not obstacle-free. Throughout the day, kids had constructed sandcastles and moats or had buried one another in deep holes. Someone had built a life-size alligator. Not everyone went home after dark either–some folks still sat in folding chairs, their flip flops sticking out into the paths of about 600 runners. I was glad I carried a bright flashlight–beach chairs and toys, even toddlers appeared suddenly out of the darkness at times. A woman in front of me stumbled in a hole and fell hard onto the sand.

About the one-mile mark, I started to notice the fast runners coming back towards the finish, having made the 5K turnaround. Because many of us were still on the way out, running closest to the water, the returning runners had to stay more inland, on softer sand.

At the halfway point, the 5K course turned back onto the marshmallow sand, funneling us through the chip-time gate and sending us back the way we came. I ran back along the water, into the wind. I turned down the volume on my iPod and listened to the waves crash onto the beach. Runners’ headlamps bobbed all around me while the neon lights of the carnival rides at the Pleasure Pier blinked in the distance. My flashlight wouldn’t stay on, but fortunately I managed to avoid moats and sand alligators anyway. Before long I could see the red and blue lights at the finish line, the “Ahoy!” sign welcoming me back.

The last 50 yards I angled away from the water and back through the marshmallow sand. Instead of sprinting to the finish, I ran at sort of a wobbly jog. That was the toughest part of the whole race! Spectators stood on either side of the course, cheering and clapping. As I crossed the finish line and the announcer called my name, I looked at my watch and realized I’d run a lot faster than the Chuy’s 5K back in May. I’m still not lighting up any records, but hey, it was a good time for me, especially considering it was on the beach.

I drank a bottle of water, then got in line for the BBQ. Two college-aged guys behind me were swapping stories. One of them came in third. The other complained that he was seventh in his age group but eighth overall. Apparently a 17-year-old girl smoked everyone and at least one of the guys didn’t like chasing her dust. I say more power to you, girlfriend. Rock on. I looked it up online later–she finished in 19:57; the male winner was more than minute behind her. I was not long past the halfway point then.

This was probably the most fun I’ve had at a race. It was well-organized, the temperature was comfortable, the BBQ was great, and the beer was free. Best of all, I felt good. I wasn’t tired, nothing hurt. It really was only three miles. Oh and the woman with the same name as me? I beat her too.

Useful tips?

I saw this article on Facebook today, about tips for running in the heat. I thought, “Oh yay, someone else who’s struggling like me–maybe this will be helpful.”

Yeah. No.

They had me until the part where the author discussed talking to a runner who had “just finished a run in 92-degree heat – which is today’s forecast!”

I won’t see temps like that until late September.

Carry on.