Sunday, August 1, 2010


We were off course for a second time. I cussed -- a treat I allow myself on just these sorts of occassions. We had arrived at a T in the trail, with neither choice marked. We took the one more traveled. Wrong choice. The trail circled the small lake and brought us to within earshot of the aid station we had just left. They seemed as clueless as us. Intersections.

A week ago Tuesday I debated two distinct choices. I could run my final tempo workout alone, as usual, or I could enter a small 7-mile trail race in Kingsport TN. I chose the trail race. It felt like a good workout until shortly after the finish -- when I tried to jog for my warm down. My right hamstring had tightened and a dull but persistent pain emanated distinctly from the muscle belly. That isn't the sort of signal you want to get 10 days before a bid for the 100 mile trail national championship.

The trip, unlike my physical condition, was set. We had reservations at campgrounds from Ironton to Sandusky Ohio. My 8 and 10-year-old children were absolutely counting on big days at Cedar Point amusement park. We were going, and I was going to run, regardless of any signals I was getting from my right leg.

I took 3 days completely off, and then came back slowly. By last Thursday, I was able to run 8 minute miles pain free for an hour. I hoped for hot weather on Saturday even though I don't run especially well in heat. In steamy conditions we would all have to run slower, and that would have put less stress on the hamstring.

As it turned out, Saturday was as cool as any this summer. The Burning River 100 course begins with 10 miles on relatively flat roads, and then proceeds onto a mix of wide trail, towpath, and paved recreation trails. I responded to the conditions, and 20 miles in I found myself plucking along with 100K road specialist Todd Braje.

The hamstring kept me informed of its distaste for my selected activity. As Braje and I began to separate from the other front runners, the pain became more insistent, and I wondered if I would be able to run another 80 miles. But we hit some trails that slowed our pace somewhat and the pain subsided. And we got off course. That slowed us for about 4 minutes while we found our way back. We kept our heads and returned to our established pace while we caught up to the lead group that included Mark Godale. The Cuyahoga Valley and the Buckeye Trail in particular are Mark's training grounds, and he has won twice here on his home course. Given that he is also just downright friendly, I determined that I was going to hang around and run with him until I felt like I could follow the course on my own.

Only gradually did Todd and I ease back into the lead. The course markings had tightened up, and we continued to have (relatively) cool and overcast conditions. I was able to eat and drink everything that I needed, and I felt fluid and efficient. About 4 hours in, though, and things inevitably start to wratchet down. My stride shortened as my muscles began to query my brain about the wisdom of continuing indefinitely on my present course. Todd must have had the same internal conversation because we both slowed simultaneously to about 9 minute per mile pace. Even so, my hamstring raised its voice again, enough that I was convinced to try the compression sleeve I had been wearing during runs since the original strain.

I pulled on the thigh sleeve at mile 40, and chased after Todd who had just donned an ice vest. Although the trail was mildly technical, we may have picked up the pace slightly. I wasn't hot, but I would guess that by cooling his core temperature, even slightly, Todd may have been convinced (subconsciously) that he could run a little faster with no additional burden. This is a topic for another post, but there is some interesting research that suggests pacing is regulated by our apprehension of the potential to overheat. In any case, within 10 minutes the pain in my hamstring intensified. I was concerned that the compression sleeve was making things worse so I pulled it to my ankle and continued running. Almost immediately the hamstring seized, making it impossible to run. I walked, took the ibuprofen I was carrying, and hoped the pain was a spasm that would pass. I ended up walking 3+ miles to the next aid station. I tried several things, but it was clear that I had injured the muscle beyond what it would tolerate. The only way I could cover the next 55 miles was walking, and, well, that's not what I came for.

I withdrew from the race and met my family at the Boston Store aid station, a central location the runners pass at mile 49 and again at mile 55. We hung around, visiting with other runners' crews and helping cheer folks through. I enjoyed getting the perspective of a full swath of participants, from those toward the front for whom seconds are precious, to those toward the back who took the time to enjoy the people who had come to support them. Although I had my own very attentive group around me, I was struck by the level of committment shown by family members, coaches, volunteers, and friends that gathered around runners as they came through the aid station. These folks care!

A young boy, maybe 5 years old, with dark hair and fair skin, approached me. His eyebrows furrowed with concern as he asked, tenderly but plainly, if it made me sad that I had to drop from the run. We had a nice exchange. I tried to reassure him -- I had done many races, and a lot of them turned out very well. The image of him, his dark eyes peering up to meet mine, has stayed with me. I think it must have been the sort of unjaded compassion that children have that prompted him to talk to me. I am disappointed. The conditions were good, the competition was good, and in many ways I was fit to run. Just not in every way.

So I'll soak it up. Wait to let the next moves take shape. Given my immediate goals, I made a wrong turn at the intersection. Now I'm in a different place, though, and a different set of things may be possible. Pity for others may be a helpful emotion -- as the runners tended at Boston Store will attest -- but self-pity is not. We can usefully reflect on lessons learned, and move forward, without wallowing in weighty disappointment. I do feel ready to move -- to where I'm not sure. I'll keep you posted.