Wow…..what a weekend. It was packed with a lot of things going on. On Saturday in the morning, I helped take a group of high schoolers from my church down to a soup kitchen to help them prepare lunch and greet the people. In the midst of this, they were participating in a 30 hour famine as a way to raise money to help feed the hungry, develop discipline and self-control over something we consider a life necessity, and gain a greater appreciation for the blessings that God has given them. As you can imagine, being around food only heightened their awareness of the fast. But in the midst of that, being able to serve people whose daily transience is built around finding the next soup kitchen or the next homeless shelter is a humbling thing. There is a severe shortage of a continuous awareness of how we can serve those most in need. There is not a gated community or security system in the world that should keep these images out of our consciousness. It’s not just about giving the guy on the corner $1 every time you see him; it’s an awareness that everything I own and everything I do is an instrument to do God’s good works.
Sunday, it was off to the Mt. Diablo 50 Mile Run. It didn’t start off too well; I was almost late to the start due to a gasoline fire in the East Bay which melted a couple of overpasses (yes, I did say melted). But I got there and to the start a couple minutes before the approximately 7 a.m. start. The nice thing about getting to a race early is the opportunity to relax, stretch fully, and ease into it. This time, it was just arrive, put the gear on, put the bib number on the chest, wait a couple minutes and just get going.
The first 8 mile climb to the summit was long and treacherous at points. I was using a softer trail shoe to compensate for the tendonitis in my knee, which also meant a softer base. A couple of sharp downhills on the narrow trails left me struggling to keep my outside foot on the hillside. It didn’t help that my back wasn’t yet fully stretched out from the hurried start. While this muscle tightness would go way, every once in awhile I would stop and pause to bend my back backwards to loosen up the muscles on the steep inclines of this beginning climb.
The next 6.5 miles was a long, winding road down into the canyons. Most of this was a breeze, cruising down at a sub-8:00 minute/mile pace overall. At times, the gravel and rock covered trail was too steep to run, especially in the shoes I had chosen. For me, the pivotal point in the race came a few miles later between miles 17 and 21. My right knee was starting to throb and even the smallest of downhills was becoming a grueling chore. For the briefest of moments, 21 miles into the race, I even sat down on an uphill beneath an oak tree just after a stream. I sat there with my leg outstretched trying to coax it into being less painful. My physical condition as well as, to a lesser extent, the toll it was taking on my overall time was killing me inside. The mental and spiritual desire to keep driving and keep moving was coming in direct conflict with what my body was allowing me to do.
More and more, in all manner of races, managing the intensity of the race is as important for me as managing my physical condition. The individual who can manage the mental and spiritual is often the one who can snap out of “the funk” that often accompanies the relative physical low-points of any race. I am naturally a very easy-going individual, so when my sense of humor starts to go, the intensity can build expotentially. Despite the fact that I watched a few people pass me by, it was the chance meeting with a fellow runner that helped me immensely. I had told him that my knee was killing me, to which he offered a couple of Aleve tablets. He even offered me a little bit of extra fluid from his water container to help keep me a float. While the Aleve was a first step in getting my body back into it, it was the simple gesture of giving that really picked me up. I would end up having a brief 7-10 minute conversation with him, which helped brighten my spirits in general. I needed to get beyond my general malaise and see that there was a bright future in this race. Sometimes, we forget that no matter what race we are running (i.e. 10k, half-marathon, marathon, ultramarathon), there will always be those relative down times. I don’t think there’s been a marathon or ultramarathon where the thought of not finishing has not crossed my mind, even for the briefest of moments. It was good for me, both personally and for my future races, to experience that again. It’s often how we deal with being in those physical, mental and spiritual valleys that will dictate the end results. It doesn’t hurt that God seems to sends angels in the least likely of moments when we need it most.
The pain relief kicked in a few long miles down the road. By that time, I was mentally much more alert and took the time to more fully hydrate myself at an aid station. The pain became more tolerable and I was more relaxed and refreshed. I had sped past the half-way point around 5:47, which was a little slower than the 5:30 needed for a 11 hour pace, but felt light years ahead of where I had been just an hour and a half earlier.
I also employed a new running technique. With my right knee still in relative discomfort, I was still determined to speed up on the downhills, which is where my time was being hurt the most. So, I started to let my left leg lead jumping off ledges and would extend my left leg further on downhills. Once the left leg hit the ground, I would hold the foot planted to allow it to absorb a great deal of the energy of the impact. This would allow me to shuffle the right leg just above the surface and plant quickly before moving my left leg into position again.
Now, let me caution anyone out there from doing this on a consistent basis. This is not ideal physically, as it puts an uneven amount of stress on particular joints. While I have seen some people adapt due to limb amputation, running asymmetrically or even partially “off-balance” as a regular practice can only lead to bigger injuries. All of your supporting joints, particularly your back, are designed to work best with a upright posture.
That being said, it ended up working well for me considering my situation. The biggest benefit was the increased speed on the downhills. While the overall soreness of the tendons in my knee still suppressed my speed, I was able to move more fluidly which limited the herky-jerky slowing down I had done earlier. Over the last 8 miles of crunching downhill and gravel from Mt. Diablo’s summit to the finish, I was able to average 10.5 minutes/mile again. I even let gravity take me and really opened my stride on the flats and moderate downhills. Not to say that it was all comfortable on my right knee, but the fact I was able to find that more fluid running motion helped immensely. Of course, it didn’t help that I got lost and ended up doing an extra 3.5 miles didn’t exactly help. I was not very happy about that, but hey, an extra few miles for Western States training works for me. Even though my “official” 53.5 mile time was 13:16, when my GPS watch hit 50 miles, I was at 12:25. 12:25 for 50 miles in that state park considering my various ailments was a good step in the right direction. It was an excellent training race with my body still in the recovery phase from the tendonitis. It definitely bodes well as is a good marker towards the sub-24 hour finish I desire at Western States. With over 13,000 ft. of both vertical climbing and bone crunching descent, it is harder time-wise than most 100k (62.1 mile) races.
Priority number one for me, at this stage, has to be getting my knee well. That will have the single biggest effect on my overall time/well-being during the Western States 100 and eventually Badwater. The goals of a sub-24 hour (silver buckle) at Western States and going sub-34 hours at Badwater (135 miles) remain the same, but my body needs to be able to effectively function for that to become a reality. I feel much better in my legs today, and will continue stretching and going to the sauna to continue training. What I’m hoping is to get my tendon/joint issues sufficiently dealt with in time for the Silver State 50 in Reno, NV on 5/19. That way, I can get a much fuller picture of how I’m doing and what I can do to improve in the last weeks. This is my second year running ultras, so I’m definitely gauging it in relation to that performance curve as well. Everyone’s always looking for that perfect race or the perfect indicator of performance. I’m not sure if that perfect race actually exists considering most of us will have more “bad races” than “good races”, whatever that means for each of us. However, there are always things that I can do both training-wise and health-wise to bring me one step closer. I’d rather be one step closer to perfection than one step further away. Perfection is a journey, not a destination.
Stay strong and keep movin’. God bless.