The last couple of months have been a struggle for me when it comes to running. I’ve been working through a chronic knee injury that has recently flared up in a bad way. I’ve been able to run very intermittently and at times, not at all. When I first felt the discomfort that has become all too familiar over the years, I immediately sought physical therapy in an effort to address the problem as soon as possible and still (hopefully) get myself in shape for a spring marathon. I also decided to shift my training from running to walking and using the elliptical machine and aiming for the same time or miles I would normally run. It’s a training approach that I’ve come to call “time on feet”. I’ve used it before with success when I’ve had to take a break from running or otherwise increase my training. It’s taken me years to figure out, but I’ve decided that it works and may just be the best thing I can do to prolong my love affair with running as I get older. This is important to me because when it comes to exercise, running is and always will be my one and only.
I learned very early on in life that sports aren’t really my thing. Unlike most of my peers, I never participated on a community soccer or basketball team, and I never really wanted to. I couldn’t catch a ball to save my life and the thought of crashing into another kid on a soccer field was the stuff of nightmares. I dreaded gym class for these reasons and also, mostly, for fear that someone would call me out on my athletic ineptitude. The thought of being on a sports team terrified me, both because I was afraid of the ball and because I was afraid of letting my teammates down with my clumsiness. I tried, once, in good faith to overcome my fear of sports, when I played a single season of softball when I was thirteen. My coordination was as bad as ever, and though I practiced this concept that people called “keeping your eye on the ball”, it was a bit of a lost cause. When I wasn’t striking out, I spent most of the season in right field, where I could technically still participate on the team, yet my chances of actually having to catch a ball out there were pretty slim.
I stuck out that season of softball, but the relief I felt at the end of it was immense, as I could go back to reading my books and playing my trumpet. Later that year, I entered high school and joined the marching band. Between the physical demands of marching on a field while playing music and the endless practice sessions with my fellow musicians, being in the marching band certainly felt like a team sport to me. In fact, our high school considered it such and awarded varsity letters to all of the participants. I’d found my sport, I’d thought, and with no ball to catch.
And then I discovered running.
Although I’d been introduced to running years earlier by my aunt and uncle who ran and coached a community track team, I didn’t really discover my love for running until the spring of my freshman year of high school. I had even tried swimming- another ball-free sport, and while I enjoyed it, nothing quite compared to being able to put on a pair of running shoes and just go. Whether on the road, in the woods, through a meadow, or on a track, something about running felt very freeing to me and unlike anything else I had ever known. I knew that spring that I had finally found not only my sport, but my lifestyle. I still loved my books and I still played in the band (I even finagled a way to run cross country in the fall during marching band season), but running was where it was at for me. I knew it the same way you know about a good avocado.
I spent the next ten years running as much as I could, whenever I could. I dabbled with a few road races in high school and ran cross country in college. I ran during the off-seasons and tested myself at longer distances. I discovered the marathon and ran several of them. I joined the Peace Corps and gained 35 pounds (please don’t ask) and then ran them off. I ran a couple more marathons and thought about one day maybe giving triathlon a try. I’d heard and read that cross training could help my running. I’d heard and read that swimming and cycling could give my body a break and work different muscles and help prevent injury. The problem was, I didn’t enjoy swimming and cycling the way I did running. They didn’t feel the same way, and running is just so… simple. And so, I kept at it, running through my 20s, wearing through shoe after shoe, pounding out mile after mile, honestly believing that if I just worked harder and longer at it that I would continue to improve.
And then the unthinkable happened. I got injured. It wasn’t a simple injury; I’d had a few of those over the years, nothing that a little rest and ice couldn’t cure. I’d always bounced back from those. No, this time was different. My body had started to rebel against all of the pounding. My left knee had begun to hurt, not sometimes, but all the time. I took some time off, saw doctor after doctor, did physical therapy, tried acupuncture… anything that would get me back into my running shoes. I even started swimming and cycling and finally gave triathlons a try. I enjoyed them, but my knee still hurt, and my heart began to ache, too. I worried that my days of running were coming to an end. It wasn’t until more than a year later that I found a doctor who was able to help me. My left kneecap wasn’t aligned properly, causing it to rub away at the underlying cartilage when I ran. It was a biomechanical issue, he’d said, and, considering all of the conservative measures I had already taken to address the problem, the only real shot I’d have at fixing it would be to have it surgically realigned. I had the surgery.
It took me nearly a year to recover fully from the surgery. During that time, I endured months of agonizing physical therapy, I swam, I walked, I rode my bike, and, when I was finally ready, I began to run again. I was committed to getting my fitness back, and also to being smart about it. I knew this meant that my days of only running would have to be over. I was going to have to cross train.
A little less than a year after my surgery, in September 2008, I registered for Ironman Wisconsin, to be held the following September. I don’t think I had even worked up to running ten miles by that point, but having such a huge goal- and one that required swimming 2.4 miles and cycling 112- would surely motivate me to get fit again and, above all, to cross train.
I spent the rest of 2008 working on my cardiovascular fitness and strength, as I had lost a lot of both following my surgery. Say what you will, but step aerobics played a big role in getting back in shape and strengthening my knee. By January of 2009, I was ready to start my Ironman training.
During the nine months that I trained for Ironman Wisconsin, I was teaching adult basic education in the afternoons and evenings at a nonprofit organization in Minneapolis. I trained for anywhere from one to three hours in the morning, usually with some form of a brick workout (swim/bike or bike/run), and then went to work, where I prepared for and taught my courses. I did this four days a week. I reserved the weekends for longer training efforts, working up to 2.5 miles of swimming, 100 miles of cycling, and 22 miles of running. I expected going into Ironman training that I would be tired a lot, and that I would need to rest as much as I could. However, I felt more tired than I thought I should given the training I was doing. I knew of athletes who put in twice as many hours in their training. I felt underprepared in not doing the same, yet I couldn’t imagine adding any more workouts. I was too tired. I finally realized that there was something else contributing to my exhaustion… something I hadn’t considered before… something I began to call “time on feet”.
In my teaching job, I was very active. I spent my classes jotting down notes on the whiteboard, circulating around the room to help my students during group activities, and running back and forth to the photocopier to get my materials ready. I was always moving. Indeed, for about six hours, four days a week, after my morning workouts, I was on my feet. Although I didn’t count this time as an official workout, I began to think of it in my mind as part of my training. This time, though not spent running, prepared me, physically and mentally, for what I knew would be a long day in Wisconsin. Time on feet.
I finished my Ironman that September, one mile at a time, very slowly, on what I consider to be one of the greatest days of my life. In addition to the purposeful training I did, I attribute my Ironman finish in large part to my classroom time on feet, which forced me to stay upright and push through my exhaustion during my long hours of teaching.
Last summer, when my left knee started flaring up again as I was preparing for the JFK 50 Mile Run, I started incorporating long walks into my training, again thinking of that time as time on feet. And again, that time helped me get to a finish line on another great day.
At the beginning of this year, I signed up for the Run the Edge Challenge, to cover 2,015 miles on foot this year. Ideally, the miles would be covered running, although according to the official Challenge rules, miles covered by walking and on the elliptical machine count toward the grand total. The most important guidelines of the Challenge are that the miles must be covered on foot and they must be purposeful miles. In other words, the Challenge encourages participants to get out and cover miles on foot for the sake of moving, in addition to the daily steps of normal life.
Although I would love to run all 2,015 miles, I am pretty sure my body won’t allow it, based on my past experiences with only running. At an average of 5.5 miles a day, it certainly seems feasible, but I know by now that that’s probably too much for my knee, sort of like how I know by now that I can’t run every day and expect to remain injury-free. The knowledge that elliptical and purposeful walking miles also count toward the Challenge removes any pressure to run every mile.
I started the Challenge with a bang in January. Having never regularly tracked my purposeful walking miles before, I was surprised at how quickly they added up, thanks to our very active dog, Frieda. About a week into February, my left leg started acting up again, and I had to take several weeks off of running completely as I worked through it with physical therapy. I again worried that my leg might finally be done with running, and that I would surely have to call off my spring marathon. Thinking again of time on feet I pushed forward with the Challenge, logging my miles on the elliptical trainer and by walking… all time on feet, even if my running mileage log was mostly empty.
When I was ready to run again, I felt even more fit than I did before. I was able to work up to the long slow distance run required of marathon training fairly quickly. Yesterday, I ran from Reston, Virginia to Washington, DC- 20.5 miles in total and I felt strong and healthy. My spring marathon- the Riga Marathon– awaits in just one month, and I feel excited in a way that I haven’t felt before. I am grateful to have found in running a level of peace and joy that has transcended the majority of my life; I am relieved to have found a way to manage the challenges that I sometimes find in running, especially as I get older; and I am at peace knowing that on the days when my body simply needs a break from running, I can stay fit and continue to prepare for my next running challenge with a little strategy I call time on feet.
Thank you for reading!