A close friend of mine is struggling at the moment, recovering only slowly from a broken femur following a skiing fall. I have said “Don’t worry, keep going, it will improve in small steps: don’t compare what you could do yesterday, look back a few weeks and see how far you have come”. On this, I do know how it feels: a few years ago I had two operations for a nasty problem and when I first came home I couldn’t stand; my goal then was to be able to walk to the corner, and then the 2nd streetlight,.. but in time I successfully ran the “2009 Ward 51 to Humber Bridge Half Marathon”.
Last July I had my first-ever “DNF” against my name in a race result; “Did Not Finish”. It was a 10-mile run, I wasn’t particularly racing, and my range at the time was comfortably in excess of 10 miles. But with barely any warning I had a recurrence of a calf injury: the one which had prevented me running the Dublin Marathon in 2006 and had niggled periodically since. It comes as a ragged stabbing pain (cramp-like but more sharply localised, a rusty 6-inch nail embedded deep in the centre of the muscle) and you can neither land nor push off.
I had been due to run the Robin Hood Half Marathon in September, so I rested for a week or so and then tried tentatively to see if I could still make the start-line, but at my first jog it was clearly not going to take it. That would have been my 18th year at the event (including two full-marathons)… instead it became only my second miss in twenty years. The frustration and disappointment hurt as much as the torn calf muscle.
Coming back, 10 paces at a time
This time I did it properly: for six weeks I didn’t run at all, but cycled and swam and walked and even tried yoga, at the same time as stretching and massaging and strengthening. When the day arrived that I had marked to try a run, I was so nervous I actually stalled for almost another week. Off to Mal’s Field, and I tried a jog of ten paces: no pain.
For the first couple of weeks that’s how I did it: jog 10, walk 50m, jog 10, walk…. tentatively extending the jogs from 10 to 15 to 20 paces….. then 50m, 75m, 100m….. then eventually allowing myself simply to jog, walking only on the steeper uphills or occasional rest. Then a jog was allowed to become a trot, then a full stride, a slow run….. and then, by degrees each time I went out, returning to my natural form.
I have been cautious in my training, and have had a late disruption due to a (non-running) back problem; but I ran over fifteen hilly miles last weekend, and comfortably. I won’t be racing or chasing a PB on Sunday – this is one step towards my Robin Hood Marathon in September – but it means a lot to be able to do it.
From stationary to a Half Marathon… in a little over 6 months.
Not for the first time, I am and amazed at my body; at its power to repair, and rebuild. Also at its ability, well into middle-age, to still grow, to become stronger, and continue to adapt.
It was some years ago that I made a promise to my body: I had been hurting it training to chase a time in a 10k, and it dawned on me that as I got older I simply could not keep pushing further, harder and faster. So I promised that after that race I would ease off: still run, but respect my body and care for it better. That promise eventually became TARS and my body continues to tolerate me and carry me to wonderful places; and I am humbled.
The anticipation of pinning on a race number this Sunday has prompted me to write this down, but in reality I think this a lot, and often marvel at how my body can still do such things. So I will close with ten things a regular runner might recognise:-
- Heart. I am a regular blood-platelet donor, and usually have a smile when the nurse takes my pulse in the pre-checks. An average adult rate might be around 78-80/minute, but my resting rate is often below 50: the nurses scratch their heads, tap their watch and (don’t tell anyone) I do quick shallow breaths to increase my HR, otherwise they’re not supposed to take the donation. “Oh hang on, you’re a runner aren’t you…”
- Weight. My weight hardly ever changes, but the composition does; but when I am running regularly and especially if at race fitness I am leaner and notice a different definition. You won’t see me on the cover of any magazine, but I can feel it.
- Cruising. At times, I can run almost without effort, forgetting that I am actually running at all, cruising along in a daydream: heart, lungs and legs all in perfect balance. This happens particularly after endurance training has built up, and is a huge high: to feel like that at a point which might normally be the limit of a long run.
- Wot? No Wall? There is no question that your body responds – learns – from endurance training. “Oh here we go”, say the Numskulls, “he’s off at that pace again. Better switch to dual-fuel now so it’s all smooth later”. Amazing.
- Off-Road. Grass, trails, bridleways, mud… to begin with it feels like a shocker of extra hard work and you are tempted to get back to the pavement – lurching around and uneven strides and picking a way between obstacles and slipping about and trying not to trip over a rock or tree-route. But, not only is all this kinder to your joints than the pounding and repetitive action of the road, once you get used to it, it actually strengthens your lower-legs, and your body learns to find a different rhythm on the uneven ground. So much so that when you then return to the road it feels much easier, or you get more performance from the same level of effort. (Oh, and getting into the countryside and splashing around in the mud is fun and good for the spirit too – have that as a free bonus point.)
- Dehydration: I can top-up and pee in the hour before a long run, and then down a half-litre of squash in the 5 minutes immediately before running, but somehow it
doesn’t bloat my stomach, and never makes it to my bladder. Again, my body has learnt to throw some switch when I run, and divert the fluid elsewhere where it can be used. I can guarantee that this would definitely not be the case if, say, I drank that volume and then got in the car on the motorway.
- Food & fuel: you start to view food differently. This is not to reduce the enjoyment, but rather you also become acutely aware of the balance of carbs (fuel), protein (muscle, repair), vitamins & minerals (defence, repair); and of course fat, which is a good thing in the right proportion, a lubricant as well as a store for the more demanding spells.
- Speed Works. I don’t race – except with my own goals – but speed-training can be very powerful. I once worked near a public track and went once a week for n-times-400 speed reps: after a while, my times came down and my heart-rate steadied and recovered quicker. But it worked far beyond that: my overall endurance improved, I managed hills better, my running-form became smoother and more efficient. It doesn’t need to be a track: threshold runs, hill-reps, fartlek, intervals…. Fit them in your training and you will turbo-charge your 10k, Half or Marathon.
- The cold plunge. Yes it works; but what’s interesting is that eventually you start to crave it. There is some kind of Pavlovian witchcraft going on here, such that despite the shock and pain, your body knows it has a healing effect and in the later stages of a long endurance run I find myself fantasising not just about the cup of tea and doorstep-mansandwich, but also the ice-bath: my body has become conditioned and trained me to expect that “for this level of fatigue there must follow a shock-chill”. So even though it hurts, I give it what it demands. (I apply the same principle later with a beer, but that’s a different thing.)
- Variety. Given the choice I will always run, it seems the natural thing. But it is worth mixing something else in from time to time, partly to keep yourself fresh, and partly to vary the parts of your body being worked. And boy does it do that!: my smug runners-heart-rate seems to explode when you put me on a bike or in a pool… but again, given time, your body learns and adapts. I tried yoga during my enforced non-running spell, though I use the term loosely and apologetically. This is from a beginner’s book, untutored and not part of a class: I gather that there any many different schools and disciplines of yoga and mine is definitely the Arthritic-Grunting-Hippo variety. But it is definitely doing something: apart from the fact that I can now wear a couple of shirts which did not fit before, I get fewer aches and pains, I am more flexible, have stronger core and torso, run with a more upright position and flatter hips, and can feel my whole body making a contribution.
So even now, this old body is still learning something new. Amazing.