Hoping for Steam at Steamtown

Scranton, PA

Source: post-gazette.com

It’s that time again.

My legs are heavy, I feel fat, and I just finished a run that should have felt easy but didn’t.

This is not good. Not good at all.

 A week from today, M. and I will be heading to Scranton, Pennsylvania… not to pay homage to the Dunder Mifflin gang from The Office, but for the Steamtown Marathon. It will be my 18th marathon, and I feel just as nervous as though it were my first. I’m entering the final week of my taper, and all I can think is:

I am not ready.

My training cycle for Steamtown didn’t quite go as I had planned. In spite of my vow never again to train for a marathon in the oppressive heat and humidity of Matamoros, Mexico, I somehow found myself completing several runs at heat indexes well above 100 degrees. While it seems that my mind had somehow gotten used to training in those conditions, my body began to revolt in subtle, yet inconvenient ways.

Following one particularly tough long run at the end of June, my right knee (my good knee) inexplicably swelled up to the point of immobility. A local orthopedic surgeon seemed to think I had a meniscal tear. Following an anti-inflammatory injection and a few days of rest, my knee felt completely fine. An MRI showed no signs of injury.

About a month later, following most runs, I began to feel excruciating, shooting pain in my left leg: through my iliotibial band, the side and back of my knee, and to my toes each time I tried to bend my leg. Driving from Mexico to Washington during our home leave did nothing to improve the feeling. I continued to run for a couple of weeks, because ironically, that was the only time when my leg didn’t hurt. I couldn’t tell for sure, though, whether running was making it worse or not, so I finally took two weeks off to see if it would improve. In the meantime, I saw a chiropractor who thought that I could have a pinched nerve in my lower back, resulting in sciatica down the left side of my leg. It made sense, though I had no back pain. A chiropractic treatment and a deep tissue massage later (ouch!), my leg felt better temporarily, but the shooting pain always returned.

Scranton, PA: Home to both "The Office" and the Steamtown Marathon. source: post-gazette.com

Scranton, PA: Home to both “The Office” and the Steamtown Marathon. source: post-gazette.com

By the time we finally reached Washington, DC and the end of our month-long home leave, I was leaning toward withdrawing my entry from the Steamtown Marathon. The thought of shuffling through 26 miles – in pain – was not at all appealing to me. It was something I would have done in my 20s, but not now. Marathons have become precious occasions. I’m not sure how many I have left in me, as I am learning that my body can no longer handle the high mileage on which it once seemed to thrive. But then something strange happened: the pain disappeared.

I had made an appointment with the orthopedic surgeon who operated on my left knee seven years ago. He took some X-rays, did a physical exam, and concluded, like the chiropractor, that my sciatic nerve was inflamed due to a potentially pinched nerve in my back. He said that sometimes such things resolve on their own, and recommended I come back to see him if it gets worse or if I experience back pain. I left his office with an otherwise clean bill of health, ready to resume my training plan.

By this time, I had already missed nearly a month of prime training, but tried to pick up again as best I could. The leg pain still comes and goes, as does my ever-chronic knee pain, but I have found that I can keep both under control with regular strengthening, stretching, self-massage, and rolling my legs on the foam roller. I finished out my training cycle with long runs of 16, 19, and 20.5 miles, as well as last weekend’s back-to-back 5K and 10K races held an hour apart, with easy running before, in between, and after, to make for a final long run of 14 miles. Still, I feel unprepared.

As a runner, it’s difficult not to make comparisons with other runners. For years, I placed a lot of value in myself as a runner based not so much on how fast, but more so on how far I ran, compared to other runners. It was a natural thing to do as a high school and college athlete, and has proven a hard habit to break in adulthood. In fact, I have to make a conscious effort not to compare my mileage with others. It’s a tall order when I peak at 50 miles per week during a typical marathon training cycle and some of my friends are regularly running 75. Self-defeating thoughts begin to crowd my mind:

 I’d probably be a lot faster if I ran 75 miles a week. 

I didn’t run enough this week.

So-and-so has already run 35 miles this week and it’s only Tuesday.

If I run 3 more miles every evening, in addition to my morning run, I can catch up.

And so on. Never mind all the research that shows that adding “junk miles” to my training would likely do little more than leave me feeling tired and overtrained.

Recently, the biggest thought that pops in my head is: How is it possible for some people to run so many miles and never get injured? I wonder, Why can’t I do that? I love to run… why won’t my body let me run that far?

The thing is, when I run, I am better. I feel better, I think more clearly, and I am more pleasant to be around. Why wouldn’t my body be on board with all of that?

I have learned during these last years that people are just built… differently. Just as some people can handle stress better than others, some runners can handle high mileage better than others. Some runners have more strength. Some have longer legs. Some have better biomechanics, or more natural talent. And some high-mileage runners may simply have started running later in life and have not yet put all of the pounding on their bodies that I’ve put on mine.

While my feelings on running distance may once have been driven by competition, they no longer are. Rather, this is my internal struggle to be grateful for what my body allows me to do and to accept what it doesn’t. What I am slowly learning (and reluctantly accepting) is this: Running high mileage leaves me injured.

Turning 35 last month put me in a new age category. It gave me five extra minutes to quality for the Boston Marathon. It also gave me pause to think about what I want to get out of running during the next decades. While a single Boston Marathon run – even simply qualifying – would be a dream come true, what I really want is to be able to continue running into my 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond. I’d hoped that Steamtown’s net downhill course in cool October temperatures might give me an honest shot at my dream, and maybe it still will. I’m trying to go into this race with a clear mind, a positive attitude, and knowing that no matter what happens, I’ll put my best feet forward and hopefully not run out of steam at Steamtown.

Thank you for reading!

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