Thursday, April 23, 2009

Boston Marathon 2009 (Part I)

I woke up in Boston a heap of nervous energy. I reached for the running clothes I picked out the night before, carefully choosing just the right socks, and gingerly tying the laces of my Zoom Elites.

I headed downstairs to stretch, breathe, and gather my thoughts, quieting all the “what ifs” and fears zipping around my mind. My stomach was in knots, too uneasy to choke down breakfast. I had never worked myself up into such a state for a run—not even at the starting line of my first marathon.

This was it. After all the many months of working toward my Boston Marathon goal, it all came down to this: a 20 minute jog the day before the race.

The next few minutes would tell me everything I needed to know and I was terrified of taking the first step. Either I would make it to the legendary starting line on Boston’s 113th Marathon Monday, or I’d join the mass of spectators lining the course. The outcome of the test jog would give me the answer.

I had spent the ten days after pulling my hamstring doing just about everything I could possibly do to make it better. I rested, I slept, I elevated, I iced, I walked, I stretched, I strengthened, I ate, I hydrated, I swallowed Advil, I massaged, and I repeated. Religiously. Like it was my job. I visited some of the kindest and most knowledgeable people on the planet at Wharton Performance. I thought all good thoughts. I believed that I would heal. I was confident that I would race.

So I stepped out the door on Sunday morning, into a beautiful sun-drenched day and had faith that my journey still had 26.2 miles left in it. After all of this, how could it not?

A cautious shuffle turned into a light jog. A dull ache twinged, but it was not a deal-breaking pain. Ten minutes passed and a light jog turned into a familiar, easy pace. Five minutes passed, and just like that, I had my answer.

That sudden, sharp stabbing sensation ripped through my leg. I stopped running for a few steps, denying that this was really how this was all going to end. I picked up my right leg to quicken my pace again, and as my other leg swung to do its work, the pain shot and radiated up and down the lower left side of my body.

It was over. Apparently there is more than one way to experience heartbreak at the Boston Marathon—and it needn’t involve any hills.

As I limped back to my friend Jo’s house, where I was staying, I let the tears streak down my face. I allowed myself to finally cave to all the wretched thoughts I had been suppressing for a week. I climbed the stairs and picked up my phone, encapsulating the entire experience into a text message of no more than 200 characters. I sent it to Mike, who was on a plane heading to Boston, and did the only thing I knew would sooth me: I poured myself a cup of coffee.

“I know this is not what you want to hear right now, but it’s true: Everything happens for a reason,” Jo said. “And if I were you, I’d punch me in the face right now.”

I chuckled, because she spoke the truth, and delivered it in a manner that only a closest friend could. And she would know. A world-class lacrosse player, once captain of Penn State’s soccer team, former collegiate lacrosse coach, and a marathoner to boot, I will never experience anything in athletics that she hasn’t already been through, including a game-ending hamstring injury.

“I know and I believe that too,” I said. “I just wish that shitty situations came with a label explaining what that reason is.”

As Jo headed to work, I packed up my car to check into the hotel I had reserved for myself, and all my friends and family that were en route to cheer me on at a race I was no longer running. I went to the expo to defer my race entry, dodging the scores of excited runners picking up their bib numbers and Boston Marathon memorabilia. I tried not to hate all of them. It was hard.

I retreated back to my hotel room for fear that the sight of one more royal blue and yellow, unicorn-bearing jacket might finally make me vomit. I sat alone for a while, aimlessly staring out the window at the planes coming in and out of Logan. I started thinking a lot, about everything. And I came to a few important realizations.

To be continued…

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Highs and Lows

Last Sunday I had the race of my life. Today, I spent Easter downing Advil and taking an ice bath.

A lot happened in between.

Let me back up. Last Sunday I had a goofy grin on my face for most of the day, feeling quite pleased with myself. After five months, I had conquered that nasty winter without the use of a treadmill, a left Achilles injury, a right hamstring injury, a nutrition makeover, and more mileage than I had ever run in my life.

Earlier that morning when I stepped to the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler starting line on a stunning spring day in Washington, DC, I had absolutely no idea what I could do. I just didn’t know where I stood.

Relaxed, calm, and totally controlled, I found out 1:12:57 later: a personal best time of almost 5 minutes. No worse for the ware, no “I’m going to die” moments, no twinges of pain, no post-race soreness—I had clearly made it to spring in the shape of my life.

No matter what you’ve put your time and effort toward, those are the days you dream of—when it all pays off and everything finally comes together better than you could’ve predicted. It’s like you’ve been working on one of those 10,000-piece puzzles for five months and then finally figure out how to finish it in five-minute’s time. And that was just how I wanted to feel heading into Boston just eight days from now.

With a plan to do some last sharpening workouts and head into a 10-day taper before the marathon, I was eager to take my rush of confidence and get back to business.
And then it snowed again. Seriously. After a couple of minutes filled with words I can’t type (my mom reads this blog, you know)…in a déjà-vu moment, my track workout was rescheduled for later in the week and I settled for doing a couple of easy runs in the winter gear I thought I was finished wearing for a while.

But not more than 24-hours after the last snowflake hit the ground, spring was back, it was 60 lovely degrees, and I was headed to the local high school track for one last chance to remind my legs that they can go fast. On deck, after a 20 minute warm-up: Just 5x1000 with 200 meter recovery between each, with permission to kill the last two faster than the previous three, if I had it in me.

I hit the first two right on target. I was feeling sluggish and my legs were kind of tight, but no acute pain, so I went for the third. As I rounded the curve a neared the 800-meter mark, I was abruptly stopped by that familiar searing, shooting pain in the hamstring. Sadly, it was not the previously troublesome right hamstring. No, apparently my left one also wanted to have its very own pity party.

First I denied it and tried to jog it out. That didn’t work. I stretched lightly. That didn’t work. Reluctantly, I headed home, trying to make the responsible decision in the final days before the marathon. Plus, I was convinced that it was nothing more than a little twinge that would go away in a day after some rest.

It’s been four days now and there’s still significant pain. A test run yesterday resulted in a 2-mile shuffle that hurt from start to finish. So I’m pulling out all the stops. Bring on the Advil. Bring on the ice baths. Bring on the miracle cure. I’ve got eight days to kick this thing and get myself to Hopkinton in one piece. Thankfully, though my tendons may have other plans, I am still confident that it’ll all come together just as it should. I refuse to believe the ending to this story is anything but happy.

But after I cross the finish line in Boston, I’m totally shopping for new hamstrings.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Heal Thyself, Part II

I love coffee. I love it so much that I can’t remember the last time I went for 24 hours without it. The best part about my love of coffee is that although I need it every day, I don’t desire that much of it. Just a cup or two in the morning and my fix is done.

Coffee isn’t so bad for you, as it turns out. And some studies have shown that it may have some health benefits as well. However, when you drink it at the same time you’re eating nutritious breakfast and taking your multivitamin, it manages to suck the life out of all the good nutrients you’re trying to intake to jumpstart the day. It messes with iron absorption—something that female distance runners already have enough problems with—and is a diuretic. In short, it flushes all the good stuff out of your system.

As I mentioned, my friend Christine—holistic health counselor extraordinaire, triathlete, and all-around amazing woman—has come to my nutritional rescue many times in the past couple of years. The best part about Chris is that she delivers advice and suggestions without any sense of judgment about bad habits—and almost always makes me laugh in the process. She’s managed to remove 95 percent of any refined sugar, white flour, and a lot of gluten from my diet, without me missing any of it.

Naturally, as I thought about my eating habits and what they meant in terms of aiding my body’s recovery from the marathon-training beating I was giving it, I knew Christine would have some wise words.

“I would never tell you to stop drinking coffee—I drink it too,” she said. “But here’s the trick—drink it separate from your meals. Timing is key here—try to space it an hour or so before or after eating.”

Sounded easy enough, and it has been for the most part. But speaking of all those nutrients, I really wanted to know what kinds I should be focusing on. Obviously my tendonitis was a signal of a lot of inflammation. I thought that eating the right food was a better answer in the long-term than popping Advil every four-to-six hours for six weeks. For starters, I needed to be more diligent about taking in the necessary carbs and protein within 30 minutes of completing runs of more than 6 miles. That alone would start to improve my recovery time.

Aside from that, I do most of my own cooking at home, so changing things up with different ingredients and recipes wouldn’t be difficult.

Christine suggested that I add some healthy fats to lubricate joints and muscles, including fish, avocados, olive oil, and nuts. To reduce inflammation and promote healing, antioxidants are key. I can officially proclaim to be a new fan of pomegranate and acai juice, on top of the blueberry obsession I’ve always had.

“These are the colors in your fruits and veggies—make sure you’re eating a rainbow of these foods every day,” she said. “Mostly try to add citrus, leafy greens, and orange and yellow veggies.”

Do you know what else has antioxidants? Dark chocolate. So the day that I decided to make whole wheat banana bread (with flax seeds, for good measure), I also tossed in some dark chocolate chips to the recipe. Mmmm…I was going to freeze half of it, but I confess I ate almost the entire loaf myself. Yikes.

So, six weeks later, I’ve stuck to all the advice that the Holistic Guru has offered. I have followed the training schedule that Mike has diligently and patiently written, altered, and written again (and again) depending on how I’m feeling on any given day. I’ve taken his words of encouragement to heart and kept that ever-important positive attitude. I have spent a lot of time icing my leg and getting to bed early, even when I wanted to do neither of those things.

I’ve done all that I can do. And I am happy to say that it has all worked. The shooting pains in my right leg are gone, my energy level is increasing. The normal marathon-training soreness persists and some days are better than others, but in two weeks when I’m at the starting line in Boston, I’ll find peace in knowing that, without a doubt, I did everything in my power to prepare.

And no matter what the outcome, I’m eternally grateful for the unyielding support along the way.