Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Wasteland

If you have been running for any amount of time, you know the Wasteland. Maybe you are there right now. It's the place where you feel stuck. Your Wasteland may be a string of bad races, an injury or even unrealistic expectations. The Wasteland is where you feel hopeless—as if you will never attain your goal, as if you are stuck in the mire and no matter what you try, you have been unable to free yourself.

I have been in the Wasteland. In January, I was making great progress, I was ticking off 7:45 minute miles relatively easily and I had just finished a 19 mile long run averaging 8:30 pace. I was getting excited because it felt like I was right on the cusp of achieving one of my goals: breaking my marathon PR of 3:50! I was doing well, but I was tired. I could feel the brittleness of my connective tissue and muscles. (No, really, I could.) But, I had a trail 1/2 marathon the next weekend, so I decided to run it. It was a little slippery and hilly so I used ice spikes. Everything went well, until the end and I felt a twinge in my right Achilles Tendon. Before I knew it, I could barely walk because of the pain. I thought it would heal relatively quickly, but no dice. I was completely out for three months. Three months!

I am now running again and have finished two marathons since the injury (Albany Snickers Marathon and Lansing Marathon), but I feel like I am still struggling through the Wasteland. The marathons were slow because I was still recovering and haven't regained my speed, but I still feel hopeless that they can get faster. The thought of running 8 miles at under 8 minute mile pace seems so foreign that it seems akin to impossible. I gained 10 pounds. I feel like I lost so much.

I haven't though. There is no permanent injury. I was fast enough at one point and though it is insanely tough, I can be that fast again. I finished two marathons (one on an extremely sore Achilles tendon)! My second marathon was 30 minutes faster than my first one! My body is healing and I am seeing some signs of quickness starting to return. I have come through the experience a little wiser about the signals my body is trying to send me. So why do I feel like I am still in the Wasteland? It's my mind.

I think our minds are the last to leave the Wasteland. As the old saying goes: "My body will only do what my mind tells me is possible." Our minds get used to our fragile state and disappointment threatens to keep us from hoping. We have to make a conscious effort to hope—to tell ourselves that our situation has changed, to believe that the impossible is possible. I am in the process of doing that. I am telling myself that my body is ready to make some big strides. I will listen to my body, but train as if my body can handle it. I will believe for big things.

If you find yourself in the Wasteland, join me as I try to change my mindset. Tell yourself that there is a way out. Let yourself hope. And who knows, maybe we will even start to believe it!

Friday, December 16, 2011

How to Survive Your Worst Race

I was 8 miles into the Niagara Falls Marathon and I was in deep trouble. Exhaustion had me in its grip. I'm not talking about the "I'm tired and achy" feeling that you get when you are pushing a little too hard, I'm referring to the bone-wrenching "I can't take another step" weariness that slams into you after you have gone past the point of no return. Yup, I was in trouble. I slowed to a walk to assess the situation.

I had started out the morning optimistic and excited. I was hoping to set a new PR that day (anything below a 3:50 finishing time - 8:50/per mile pace) and though a bit tired, I was confident that I could. I had run a lot of shorter distances and fast miles, many times working out twice a day. Race morning had dawned with perfect weather: cold at the start but warming up to about 50 by the finish. The course was flat and beautiful and everything was in my favor. This was going to be the day! Only it wasn't.

As I assessed my condition at 8 miles, I thought about quitting. I really wanted to. My PR was out the window. My optimism had been beaten out of me by the dismal thought that I still had 18 miles left to run and if I felt this bad now, how would I feel then? But I had never quit a marathon before and that thought brought me to a slow run. I kept thinking; "Maybe this will pass, maybe I will start to feel better, maybe my legs and body will loosen up." I plugged on until 11 miles when the leg cramps started. Usually this is something that happens between 18-22 miles into a marathon yet here I was not even half done and struggling mightily with cramps.

As I walked to keep the tightness at bay, I really had no idea how I was going to finish this race. My legs would only let me run 200 yards at a time before threatening to seize up with paralyzing cramps. Then I would have to walk. With every step, I wanted to lie down, every footfall brought despair and frustration. As multitudes of people passed me, I fell further and further into depression. I had lost the physical battle. The mental battle was just beginning.

Everyone has bad races. It's a given. How you handle a bad race tells you a lot about yourself. You can come out of the experience stronger or give up. So, how do you make sure that you fall in the former category instead of the latter? Here are some tips that I have found for handling a bad race:

1. Redefine your goals.
When your body can't handle a particular pace, or you aren't achieving to the level that you thought you should be able to, you have to redefine your goals. The quicker you do that, the better off you will be. This keeps your mind from fighting your body and will help to keep you loose and calm. When I found that my PR goal was not possible, my new goal was to do the best that I could. When my legs started to cramp, my goal was further refined to just finishing the next mile.

2. Find something to take your mind off things.
The more you focus on the pain, the frustration, the more insurmountable the problem becomes. Find something to take your mind off it. Find a fellow runner to talk to, count your steps, sing a song, recite the Gettysburg Address in your head or out loud. Whatever it takes to keep your mind from getting entangled in the endless loop of pain and anguish.

3. Celebrate the victory.
So you didn't set a new world record, you also didn't quit. Celebrate your victory. Revel in the fact that with every step the voice within you wanted to throw in the towel and you told it to sit down and shut up.

4. Learn from your mistakes and move forward.
Figure out what went wrong. Make a plan to correct it. Then move on. Get up the next morning and go for a run on your favorite route. Breathe deeply. Feel the wind blow by you and enjoy the journey.

I was walking and running short spurts when I noticed a woman that seemed to be matching my pace. I would pass her and have to walk, then she would pass me. Finally, I struck up a conversation. She was having stomach issues and I couldn't run more than a few yards at a time, so we made a great pair. We worked through the miles together, passing the halfway point, walking when we needed to and talking about life, jobs and running. The camaraderie was a salve to my aching muscles and bruised ego. We made it to about 18 miles and then she had to stop to stretch. She told me to go on and so I did, but the miles were much harder. I later found out that she did not finish.

I pressed on with a bone-deep ache in my body. I looked longingly at each park bench thinking that a 10 minute nap would be like heaven. I ran stiffly and painfully when I could. Every step was a small victory. Every mile was forever. Finally though, the finish loomed in my sight and I stumbled forward crossing it on cramped legs. Never have I been so happy to see that line. Never have I felt so proud of such a slow time. And never have I battled myself for so many miles and won.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Dealing with Setbacks

You know that moment when everything changes? That moment when you wish with all your heart to be able to rewind the clock, but the time is irretrievable? When the plans that you made and the goals that you had become very much in doubt? You slow. You stop. And the only eloquence that your mind can squeeze out in that tortured moment is one word: "Crap!"

I was in the midst of a 50 yard sprint when that moment seized me; or rather seized my left hamstring. I felt the clench of the muscle and hobbled the rest of the sprint but knew that I had been damaged. I wasn't sure how severe it was at that point; was it a muscle pull? Did I tear the muscle? Was it just a cramp — or was that just wishful thinking? I had felt the same type of pain before, but in the other leg. It would be fine in a few days. In a week, I would be back to normal. Unfortunately, I only had two days.

I am supposed to run a marathon in two days. This is supposed to be a PR for me! I had imagined myself countless times crossing the finish line, flushed with success at having broke a 2 year slump. This wasn't the way things were supposed to go! (Insert the 5 stages of grief here as I raged, denied and finally came to acceptance.) I guess it doesn't matter how things were supposed to go, this is where I found myself: hurt, with a marathon looming in 2 days. Now the question was; "How do I deal with this?"

I saw my choice as simple: run the race potentially injured and give up my dream of a PR, or don't run. But as I thought more about it, I realized there were more choices than that. I remembered reading that the marathon that I was running would defer my entry to the next year if I wanted. I thought: "I could defer my race, so that I didn't lose my entry fee if I don't run." That led to another open door. I looked on and found that the Niagara Falls Marathon was the weekend after and looked beautiful. This complicated my choices, but also gave me hope that I wasn't facing an all or nothing situation. I could either run this weekend, or defer my entry and run the Niagara Falls Marathon the weekend after.

So many times in training and racing, we face setbacks. At that point we have a choice. We can deal with what is and move forward, or we can allow that setback to be the impenetrable wall that becomes our sticking place. Whether it's hurt or weather, hills or mindset, always remember you have a choice. In fact you may have more than one. How you move forward from a setback is up to you. In my case, I still haven't decided what I want to do, but I feel good about my choices. I guess I will just have to see what the next few days hold and hope for the best.