Saturday, March 12, 2011

It wasn't my day

It has taken me a while to get to this entry. It is now close to 4 weeks since my first marathon of the year, or attempt at it anyways. For the first time in my running career I failed to finish a race I started. This is a humbling experience but I have certainly come to know that you learn more through failure than through success. In this case, I learned a lot but left many questions.

On February 19, I took on the Golden Gate Marathon, a Coastal Trail Runs event in the Marin headlands, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge (Facebook friends, click here for photos from this event). This is a spectacular place for a run and was my second such event up here. I always enjoy coming to Marin because of their incredible beauty and challenging terrain. I had also chosen this event because of its elevation gains which are a necessary part of my training, as I am taking on some very mountainous runs this year. Golden Gate Marathon provided over 4,000 feet of climbing throughout a double loop course that started at Rodeo Beach and looped around the headlands overlooking Mill Valley, Sausalito the tops of the Golden Gate Bridge and the gateway for which it is named.

It was a miserable day for a run, turns out. The temperature was perfect; in the 40s to start and throughout but rain fell nearly the entire day. It was a light rain, rather than a downpour, but was cold enough to produce sleet and hail intermittently and the kind of cold that went right through you. The night before had been one of the coldest in the Bay Area, dusting the foothills, Mt. Diablo, Skyline Ridge, and as I would get to confirm first hand, Mt. Tamalpais with snow.

As some of you will recall, the latter half of 2010 was a bit of a challenge for me, not only in the number of events I took on in completing the Rock n Roll series but due to an injury I had sustained sometime before the Denver marathon. That injury naggingly stayed with me throughout the rest of the year but never impeded my running. It would talk to me, communicating through a series of muscles in my right leg for the first several miles of each race, then warm up and shut up allowing me to complete each event in my usual times. However, after Denver and Los Angeles, the rest of the Rock n Roll series were relatively flat courses and hills seemed to bring out the most muscle conversations - and soreness post event.

I backed off a bit from the long distances in January so my injury could heal and took up more hiking and got even more acquainted with my foam roller. But around the end of that month it was time to start hill training in prep for the 2011 race schedule. And as it turns out, the rest I gave it wasn't enough. I continued to have pain in my right leg; sometimes in the quadriceps, others in the knee and IT band, others in the hamstring or calf. The non-specificity of the pain was the most frustrating part as I was unable to arrive at the right course of treatment.

Yet, based on last year, I felt that while my body was talking to me in a bigger voice than usual, it had never let me down and I had two days in the snowbanks near Yosemite immediately following the Marin race, so I'd have plenty of chance to recover.

As I pulled off the Great Highway and into the parking lot at Rodeo Beach, it was raining lightly. Everyone was scrambling from their cars out to pick up their numbers and shirts, then rushing just as fast and uncomfortably back to their cars to huddle in the warmth. I pulled on my rain jacket and dodged puddles from the lot to the tent and followed suit. As I waited for the volunteers to locate my bib I was greeted by my good friend and work colleague, John Rymer who was cheerful as always and looked ready to run. He and I had talked another colleague, Mike Gualtieri, into staying in California an extra day to run this race with us. He was in from Boston for a Forrester conference and we had hoped to give him a taste of what makes the San Francisco Bay Area such an incredible place to live and run. Oh well.

After a short greeting the rain picked up a bit more and we high-tailed it back to the parking lot to get warm and await the start. There I ran into Coach Kim from our Peninsula Team in Training group. I had hoped to see one of my fellow coaches here as we all need lots of hill training since we plan to run the Grand Canyon together in April, and this was a great course to test the training thus far.

That was the real reason I was running this event - to test my endurance as a signal to where I was along my training plan for this monumental challenge. I had been wanting to run the Grand Canyon ever since Reesa and I, along with the LLS' Hike for Discovery program (now part of TNT) had ventured down into this abyss several years ago. As we were ascending the South Kaibab Trail we were passed by a small team of runners who had started at the North Rim and were emerging at the south. I had suggested this run to my fellow TNT coaches who jumped at the idea but wanted to do it one better, suggesting we run it Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim. I hesitated at first because that took a 21 mile idea into ultra marathon territory and doubled the climbing. I agreed knowing it would be a serious challenge and my health and training would have to be tops to do it. So Golden Gate needed to go well.

The first half of the Golden Gate Marathon was simply spectacular. It began with a serious climb up to the headlands ridge, past a series of World War II gun bunkers. Part of this section was through a tunnel those soldiers must have called home during these freezing hours of duty. There were several rooms off this tunnel and a duty roster and schedule that looked like it had recently been restored. As we emerged from the tunnel it was up again along another ridge that provided the most spectacular view of the day - a snow-dusted Mt. Tamalpais. Having lived in the Bay Area nearly 18 years I had never seen this site and hope someday I do again - simply gorgeous.

So far my right leg had been cooperating. I was taking it relatively easy, knowing I had 24 more miles to come. My quad and I had a painful conversation on the second ridge but as usual, it had shut up by the downhill. The course then dropped through some farmland, then up another ridge providing a fantastic view of a fog-covered Mill Valley at the foot of Mt. Tam. I ran alongside a professor visiting from a small college in Tennessee who had specifically selected a conference in San Francisco the week prior so he could come do this run. We understood each other instantly.

Our conversation carried us up that hill which turned out to be as steep as the two before; it then leveled off for a meandering 7 or so miles with, first Sausalito off to the left, then just the tops of the Golden Gate Bridge ahead. The trail was narrow and technical which is always fun provided you mind your footing, and I was being extra careful not to tweak anything. On a few uneven surfaces I came down painfully on my right leg but was able to recover each time.

At the next rest station, I grabbed some food and along came Coach Kim who escorted me the rest of the way through the first loop. At around mile 12 we were running down the road that returns us to Rodeo Beach and when I was jogging on the asphalt my right leg started talking again. This wasn't the usual one-muscle-at-a-time whining but a total upper leg statement of fatigue. It wasn’t pain. It felt as if it was weakening. On level and uphill portions the discussion died down and when I was able to get off the asphalt and run on the shoulder it went away. Was my leg allergic to pavement?

Kim and I crossed the midway point as the majority of the runners around us turned toward the half marathon finish. We kept straight and were soon climbing the first hill once again. This was a very different experience for me the second time around. After ascending the stone and then log-built steps of the first ridge the fatigue in my leg returned. I fought it through the gun bunkers and set my goal at seeing Mt. Tam once again.

I've learned that in endurance running it helps to set small goals throughout the race - make it to the stop sign, then once there, make it to the turn up ahead. I was using this technique now. Coach Kim, had long left me and was disappearing around turns far above as I headed to the soldier's tunnel. Fatigue in my right leg was a constant conversation now.

I reached the clearing, and turned to see the mountain but it wasn't there. Clouds which had continued to roll in as the race progressed were obscuring it. I started up the next ridge and the fatigue in my leg kept with me. I set my next small goal to get to the farm house, it would be up this ridge and down the other side leaving just one more large hill to go, but my right leg wasn’t cooperating.

I was immensely frustrated. My mind was up for the challenge. My heart, lungs, left leg, heck every other part of me was ready to climb, but my right leg was not cooperating. I tried ascending the ridge once again but that leg had nothing left. After a few more feet, I stopped. I contemplated quitting; not for the first time – every runner contemplates it from time to time (usually around mile 20 of a marathon, or so). But each time prior I had worked through this thought. I turned to look back and saw I was barely above the start of this hill. It would be a rough climb. I started ascending again but my right leg protested immediately. I wasn’t going to make it. It wasn’t pain I was fighting, it was fatigue. My leg simply couldn’t go on.

If the protestations were this strong now, I knew I would never make it up the next ascent which was twice as long and steadily rose. I had nearly 11 miles ahead of me and was one leg down.

What finally made me quit was this thought, “this isn’t the race.” While it was certain a race it was merely a training run for the Grand Canyon. That was the more important goal. And I knew further injuring my leg trying to get through this race wasn’t going to help me achieve that one. So reluctantly, I conceded that this simply wasn’t my day. I turned around and headed back down to the half-way point and the parking lot.

The following day, deep in the snow at Tenaya Lodge, I booked a sports massage so the rehab could start immediately and found both legs incredibly tight with my quads and calves protesting the most. When I returned to the Bay Area I booked an appointment with a sports medicine professional – it was time to get to the bottom of this problem.

Now it is mid-March and so far the diagnosis has been inconclusive. I’m still running and training but have woven in yoga, physical therapy, reverse elliptical training and less hills. The pain and weakness persists but I have been able to complete several long runs as well as a few hill challenges with no return of the defeating fatigue. The doctor hasn’t ruled out a muscle or tendon tear but thinks it unlikely. The next step, if needed will be an MRI.

I’m in Redruth right now, an old mining town in the heart of Cornwall, England resting up for the Dutchy Marathon, the second of my goal events for the year. I’m heading into this race thinking, once again, that this is simply a training run for the Grand Canyon but knowing it is also a test of the leg as well as a mental line I must cross.

While this small town marathon won’t be the equal to Golden Gate, it is hilly and remains 26.2 miles long. As a training run, I know I don’t have to complete it. The bigger goal is in April and for this run, the more important objective is to return to marathon running free from total right leg fatigue. Fail that and the Grand Canyon will be in jeopardy.

Wish me luck.

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