The heart of a runner

Today was my annual physical. It’s not my favorite thing to do, but it’s a necessary evil. Every three years my doctor orders an EKG as part of my labs. Today was one of those years.

I always show up well before my appointment time in order to knock out my labs first. That way, once I see my doctor, I’m done. So as I was sitting in the waiting room between my labs and the actual visit with the doctor, I received a call from the technician who had done my EKG. She needed to see me.

I knew exactly what this was going to be about. She had already shown my doctor the results of my EKG. They were concerned about my low heart rate. It was 40 beats per minute. She relayed the message that my doctor wanted me to see a cardiologist for further testing. “I’m a runner,” I informed the technician. “I run half-marathons. My ‘at rest’ heart rate is always in the 40’s.” (Sometimes it’s even lower.) She told me to just talk to the doctor about it. In the meantime, she handed me a lab order I was to give the cardiologist when I made my appointment.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened to me. The last time I got an EKG, the lab technician doing the test was a little concerned about my heart rate. It was something like 48 that time. Once when I went to the local walk-in clinic, I set off their low heart rate alarm when they were taking my blood pressure and pulse. So this is something I’m always prepared for.

At any rate, after sitting in the waiting room watching a small army of pharmaceutical reps take priority over the patients, I finally got in to see my doctor. I asked him about the EKG. I reminded him that I am a runner and that a heart rate of 40 is perfectly normal for me. “You know what,” he admitted, “I forgot that you’re a runner. I actually had you confused with another one of my patients who is overweight and doesn’t exercise at all.” He listened to my heart and lungs as part of the examination. “Slow and steady,” he remarked. “Don’t worry about that lab order. I’m not concerned.”

Make that two half-marathons in 2017

Several years ago, in November, 2012, to be exact, my wife & I attended our son’s high school cross-county banquet. We were seated with another couple and I got to talking to the dad about running. At the time, I was just a casual runner. My longest run up to then was something like 7 miles. He asked me if I had ever considered running a half-marathon. I told him something like, “That’s crazy. I could never run a half-marathon.”

I have since run 4 half-marathons (five if you count the one I did in practice).

After that brief exchange, I began to ponder the idea. How did I know I could never run a half-marathon? I had never trained for one, never even tried. Thus began an obsession. I set as a goal the St. Jude half-marathon in Memphis the following year (December, 2013). That would give me 13 months to prepare for my first half-marathon. I trained like crazy, and even ran a half-marathon in practice 12 days before the scheduled event. (I remember it as the Monday before Thanksgiving, 2013.)

And then the race was canceled due to an impending ice storm.

I transferred my registration to what was then the Country Music Marathon in Nashville the last Saturday in April, 2014. That became my first half-marathon. I’ve done every one since, a total of 4 now.

Since the half-marathon-that-wasn’t four years ago, I’ve wanted to run the Memphis course. I just never have followed through. After last year’s race in Nashville, I wanted no part of half-marathons for a while. For whatever reason, that race (2016) was harder on me than any of the others, and I was a bit emotional after it was over.

A few months ago, I went ahead and made a hotel reservation in downtown Memphis for the night of December 1, just in case. Sign-ups for the St. Jude race opened this morning at 10 a.m., and it will also fill up before the day is out, so I jumped on it right when registration opened.

If last year’s half-marathon was difficult, this year’s was nearly impossible. It happened to take place on what would end up being the hottest April day in Nashville’s history. My time was 22 minutes slower than last year’s, so if there were ever a time to be turned off half-marathons, it should have been this year. Instead, I found myself psyched over the idea of running the Memphis race on December 2, and so I resolved to do it. It might be a case of wanting redemption after Nashville’s sweat-fest. It might be age. I’ll be 48 by the time the Memphis race rolls around. I don’t know how many more years I’ll be able to run like this. Hopefully, I’ve got a few more half-marathons left in me. But as long as I am physically able, I might as well capitalize.

So, Lord willing, four years after what would have been my first time running the St. Jude half-marathon in Memphis, I’m finally going to do it.

The half-marathon training plan I will use from now on

A few days ago, I posted on the modified half-marathon training plan I had adopted this year in light of the fact that I was overcoming an injury and trying not to reaggravate it but also prepare myself to run a half-marathon. March and April have always been my primary training months, given that the half-marathon I run is always the last Saturday in April. Heretofore, my strategy has always been to run as much as I can as often as I can, average 20-22 miles a week for 8 weeks, and get in at least one run of 11+ miles leading up to race day.

Last year, I ran 189 miles in March and April, including the half-marathon. This year, that figure dropped to 115.3, a decrease of nearly 40%. I successfully ran a half-marathon three days ago after using this plan. It’s simple. My strategy was to run two or three 5K’s a week, plus a long run that increases each week until achieving at least one run of 11+ miles. Also, I was determined to avoid running back-to-back days. (I only violated this once.) So my plan was a lot more structured than before, and I stuck to it reasonably close. Here’s how it actually played out. (Distances are all in miles.)

March 4: 3.14
March 6: 3.14
March 8: 3.13
March 10: 3.12
March 13: 5.01
March 16: 3.15
March 19: 3.16
March 21: 6.22
March 23: 3.18
March 27: 7.07
March 29: 3.13
March 31: 8.02
April 6: 3.13
April 8: 3.12
April 10: 3.13
April 12: 11.02
April 14: 3.13
April 16: 3.13
April 18: 3.12
April 19: 3.15
April 21: 8.16
April 24: 3.13
April 26: 3.10
April 29: half-marathon
Total mileage: 115.3

And this is how I’m going to do it from here on out, at least for as long as it works. It’s far less strenuous (less injury risk) but also leaves me fully prepared to run a half-marathon.

Hottest run ever

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

Today, I ran my 4th Nashville half-marathon in as many years. As expected, it was much warmer than is conducive for a long run. I’m talking off-the-charts warm, about 25 degrees warmer than I prefer. When I arrived at Nissan Stadium a little after 5 a.m., my car thermometer showed 77 degrees. When I left around 5 hours later, it was 84. The promised breeze never really materialized. The morning clouds did not stay around for very long. Mother Nature conspired to make the weather as un-runner-friendly as possible.

I’m not complaining. There was nothing I could do about the weather, and all the other runners were running in the same weather I was. In fact, I never heard a single other runner complain about the weather the entire time I was there. No one makes us show up to run half-marathons/marathons. It’s strictly voluntary. So I’m not complaining about any of this.

My previous three half-marathons, I’ve been able to run the entire distance without taking walking breaks. Sometimes it has been dicey, but I’ve always managed to keep running until the finish line. I knew going into this year’s run I was going to have to let go of that as a goal. I’ve never attempted a long run in weather anywhere near this warm, and I had to embrace walking breaks as a reality.

I was hoping to make it halfway through before resorting to walking. I took my first walking break at the 10K marker — almost halfway — and still managed to do more running than walking for about the next 4 miles. Everything changed after I passed the 10-mile marker, maybe 10.5 miles. I stopped sweating. I had been sweating profusely — I always do — and drank everything they offered at each water station (about every 1.5 miles). At one point, and I don’t remember exactly where I was, I reached up to run my hand across my head — I just got a haircut yesterday — and realized my forehead was dry.

Also at that point (between 10 and 11 miles), I started to grow concerned about the possibility of heat stress/exhaustion. I didn’t actually feel any of those symptoms, mind you, but while I was trying to prevent overheating that might lead to sickness (very embarrassing when that happens), I also trying to be mindful about other negative consequences.

So for the final 2.5 miles or so, I actually did more walking than running. I was not alone. The entire pack of runners I was in was forced to alternate walking/jogging at that point. We were all laboring, just trying to finish the race at all cost at that point.

My finishing time was 2:38:18, which was a little more than 22 minutes slower than last year’s time. Honestly, it’s about what I expected. I knew I wasn’t setting any sort of personal record today. It would have been foolish even to try.

Overall, I figure I ran maybe 10 miles out of the 13.1. I’m thankful I finished, because there was a long stretch of the run when I wondered, “How on earth am I ever going to finish?” Even though my time was off by a considerable amount, this one was special to me. Everything about today’s half-marathon was hard, going back to an injury I sustained 3 months ago, to the recovery, to the difficulty of today’s run.

I have to say that the race planners did everything they could to keep us cool. There were several “amenities” I’ve never seen before: water hoses spraying mist at every water station, cold, wet sponges around the 15K marker, and icy wet cloths after the finish line. Every little thing they did for helped in some way. It takes a lot of volunteers to be able to have a race of this magnitude, and the ones who clean up after us are the most awesome. There are literally tens of thousands of paper cups that have to be picked up, all those sponges, and it takes hours to stand there and pass out water/Gatorade to all the runners.

I honestly don’t know how anyone could run a marathon on a day like today. I say that about marathoners every year, because it is extremely difficult to run the “double half-marathon” even during ideal circumstances. The marathoners run with the half-marathoners for the first 11+ miles, and then the marathoners split off to take their own course. At the split, even though there were fewer marathoners than usual — I’m sure many of them switched to the half-marathon given the heat — the few I saw were walking/jogging just like us. I don’t know how a person can keep that up for so long because they still had 15 miles to go at that point.

I know it seems like self-inflicted punishment to run half-marathons. It has always been difficult for me, because 13.1 miles is right there at the edge of my limit. I’ve never been able to go farther. Yes, they are difficult, but I’ve never found myself wondering, “Why exactly am I doing this?” I do them because I really do love running, running 13.1 miles all at once is hard for me, and a person gets a true sense of accomplishment from doing things that are hard.

The morning of…

It is 5:19 a.m. I just made it to Nissan Stadium and the crowd is already enormous, so all the other runners appear to be saying, “Screw it, I’m running today.” It is 77 degrees (on the way to 90) with no rain anywhere. So it’s basically a summer morning in April. I’m even wearing a tank top. I only have one that is dri-fit. I rarely wear a tank top. But today I’m putting appearances aside in the full interest of comfort. I love being down here on race day and somehow this is going to be a fun experience. I’ve never attempted a long run in weather anywhere near this warm. I know I’ll have to take walking breaks, which I’ve never had to do before. The only question is how far can I go before I have to start taking walking breaks? Anyway, I’m signing off now. I’ll do a post-race write-up later today after I’ve regained my senses.

Two parts excitement, one part fear

The days leading up to a half-marathon are always incredibly exciting for me. I can’t really describe it for you, other than to say I’m excited at the prospect of standing on Broadway Avenue in Nashville Saturday morning with about 24,000 other runners and beginning what will be, Lord willing, my 4th half-marathon in as many years.

But there’s always an element of fear that never goes away. It’s not that I’m afraid of anything, per se, because I’ve done this three times before and I’ve successfully completed my training for this one. My injury from three months ago has fully healed. But still, there’s always the fear that for some reason or another, something will happen and I won’t be able to finish the half-marathon. Even the idea is unconscionable. Yet there is always risk involved with these, and so the little bit of fear I experience never goes away.

Suffice it to say, I won’t be aiming for a “PR” (personal record) Saturday. The weather is going to be much warmer than I prefer for a long run. It will probably be in the 70’s for the bulk of my run. There will be a good breeze, so that will help. If the clouds can stay around from whatever overnight rain we get, that will also help. The race begins at 6:45. Because of staggered starts, my group won’t hit the starting line until about 7:15. If my time happens to be the same as all my other half-marathons, I’ll finish about 9:30 a.m. But I’m not counting on this. My time this year may be several minutes slower than usual because of the warmth.

I’ve promised myself I won’t be so hard on me this time. My goal heretofore has always been to not only finish the half-marathon, but to run the entire distance without walking any of it. I’ve always accomplished this, but it may not be the case this year due to the heat. So if I absolutely have to take a break and walk some during the last part of the race, I’ll do it in the interest of finishing the 13.1 mile course at all cost. I’ve always seen walking as a sign of weakness. Maybe this is unfair. It may simply be reality this time. And there’s nothing wrong with this.

The way I see it, I can’t do anything about the weather, and all the other runners are going to be running in the same weather I am. So no one’s getting an advantage. The fact that I am even running tomorrow is an accomplishment. I suffered a torn calf muscle near the end of January that sidelined me for over a month and put the half-marathon in jeopardy. I eased back into running during the next few weeks, bought a compression sleeve (that I will likely be wearing long-term), and started running 5K’s again in early March. I consider my training a success when I am able to execute a run of at least 11 miles, and I accomplished this 16 days ago. I’ve always gotten in a run of 11+ miles during half-marathon training, and I’ve always completed the half-marathon. So I’m confident in my preparation.

I always enjoy running the Nashville half-marathon. Yes, the last few miles are always a grind. This is the “mind-over-matter” part of the run. I’m just thankful that tomorrow I’ll be there, because it was just a few weeks ago that I seriously doubted my ability to recover from injury and prepare for the 13.1-mile run. So I’m promising myself that I’ll enjoy the morning, enjoy the experience, do the very best I can, and that it’s acceptable to take a few walking breaks if I absolutely need to. There is no shame in this.

Tomorrow, I won’t have my iPhone with me. I won’t be snapping photos or tweeting from the course. In other words, I won’t be trying to capture the moment. I’ll instead be busy living the moment. I’ll be using my Apple Watch to track my run, hence the lack of need for the iPhone. Honestly, I won’t miss carrying an iPhone at all. It’s more pleasurable to run with your hands empty. I also won’t be running with earbuds. I always run while listening to music (usually Rush), but I don’t listen to music while running the half-marathon. There’s too much going on around me that I would miss if I were plugged in. I feed off the energy of the other runners and don’t want to tune any of that out. It’s the only time I find listening to music to be counterproductive. So no iPhone and no ear buds.

As always, I’ll do a post-run write up later tomorrow, or Sunday at the latest.

9 days and counting…

My 4th half-marathon is 9 days away. I have one more long run planned and maybe three 5K’s. I’m starting to look ahead at the weather forecast, and right now it looks like it’s going to be warmer than I like it, but also breezy. I’m not letting myself get flustered over the weather. There’s nothing I can do about it. I’ll have to run in the same weather everyone else runs in. If I can successfully complete the half-marathon — and my confidence is rising — I will permanently change the way I train for half-marathons, since I was forced to alter my strategy after injuring myself three months ago. I’ll do a write-up on my new training plan after next Saturday.

Injury update

Yesterday morning, I ran my first 10K since tearing my right calf muscle two months ago. It was slow and difficult, but it helped me meet a goal. My time was 58 minutes. My usual 10K time is 54-56 minutes. But I’m not disappointed. I deliberately slowed my pace in order to get the miles. And I was quite pleased with the miles.

I am running in the Rock-and-Roll Marathon in Nashville on April 29 (participating in the half-marathon). I am nowhere close to being in half-marathon shape. Recovering from an injury is tough. It doesn’t take long to get out of shape. I’ve been back to running for about 2 1/2 weeks now. It’s just now starting to come back to me. I’m going to run the half-marathon knowing I won’t be fully prepared. I’ll be mostly prepared, but probably not fully.

I am limiting my number of weekly miles this training season. It may seem counter-productive, but I cannot afford to re-injure myself at this point. So I’m taking precautions and trying to find a balance. I’m running two or three 5K’s a week, plus one “long run.” The long run will (Lord willing) increase a little very week. Last week’s long run was 5 miles. This week’s was 10K. Next week I’m aiming for 7 miles, and so on. I’d love to get in one training run of 11 miles. I’d feel a great deal better going into the half-marathon with an 11-miler under my belt.

So far, my injury hasn’t bothered me. I’m running with a compression sleeve (and will be long-term), avoiding running back-to-back days, and keeping my weekly miles under 20, since I believe I did myself in by running too many miles in too short a period (nearly 25 miles in a 7-day period when the injury originally occurred). At any rate, that’s where I am. I’ve got 5 1/2 weeks to prepare for my 4th half-marathon. It’s always a challenge, but more so this year.

Injured

I’ve been blessed as a runner. I’ve been running for many years, more so during the last 4 years or so than ever before as I’ve been running half-marathons. Although I’ve had to fight through various occasional ailments (soreness, cramps, tendinitis), I’ve never actually injured myself…until now.

The Friday before last, I went for a typical 5-mile run and noticed some soreness in my right calf. It seemed like no big deal at the time. I’ve had soreness in various places before. Two days later — nine days ago — I went for another run. It was going to be my last run for a few days. I was trying to make the most of a prolonged warm spell and getting in as many miles as I could. My goal was 6.55 miles — half of a half-marathon — in under an hour. Sometime after reaching five miles, the soreness returned and became progressively worse until the pain sharpened and forced me to stop at 6.35 miles. I was planning on taking a few days off, anyway, so I figured the cramp would fix itself during the time off.

It didn’t. The cramp, as it turned out wasn’t a cramp. Yesterday was my first run in 8 days. It started off well, but once I passed the two mile mark, the nagging discomfort came back until I was forced to stop at 3.75 miles. I was quite a ways from home and had to literally limp back. That’s when I realized I had probably partially torn my right calf muscle — the same one I tore 9 years ago playing basketball.

When it happened before, it felt as though I had been shot in the back of the leg. The pain was sudden. This time it came on gradually, and it certainly isn’t as serious as before. Later my wife felt around and confirmed that it felt like a muscle tear. It sure feels the same.

So now I can’t run. It’s the first time I’ve been sidelined like this since becoming a half-marathoner. Again, at 47 years of age, I’ve been lucky. I’ve watched two co-workers, also runners, go down with injuries the last couple of years. It’s frustrating, but it was bound to happen sooner or later. Each of the last two years I’ve logged in excess of 800 miles. The year before that, I exceeded 700 miles, so that’s 2,300+ miles in 3 years, and six pairs of running shoes.

The last time this happened, as I recall, it took me about six weeks to recover. Although the muscle tear isn’t as serious, I am 9 years older, so I’m going to start taking walks in maybe 1-2 weeks once I can do it without a limp. Hopefully by mid-March I can start running again and be in half-marathon shape by the end of April. Normally, I begin training on March 1, so I’ll have less time to prepare than usual. And there is a chance I won’t be able to do the half-marathon at all if my recovery takes longer this time (or I reinjure it).

I’m sure the temptation will be there to start running before mid-March. I’m going to do my best to not give in so I can give it proper time to heal. If it doesn’t happen for me, then there’s not much I can do about it. There’s nothing you can really do for a torn calf muscle other than let it heal on its own. If the Nashville half-marathon proves impossible, there’s always the Memphis half-marathon in December. I’ve been wanting to do that one, anyway.

Trails & treadmills

I keep seeing an advertisement on TV for an expensive-looking treadmill with a video screen that lets you choose your “scenery.”

No thanks.

I used to run on a treadmill. I did so for years, so I’m not putting down treadmills or treadmill runners. Running on a treadmill is far better than not exercising at all.

We owned a treadmill for years, and when I got tired of maintaining it, I drove to the gym and ran on a treadmill there. But at some point I began asking myself why I was paying for a gym membership when I could literally step out my front door and start running outside.

Why not give it a try? It was August, 2012. The idea of running a half-marathon had not yet been hatched. The one sticking point had been what to do in winter. What if I can’t run outside in cold weather?

My first few runs in the summer heat outside were disappointing compared to the miles I was getting on a treadmill. I literally had to get in shape all over again.

It turns out my concern over running in the cold was much ado about nothing. My ideal running temperature is 40-45 degrees, as long as there’s no wind. I can even run in short sleeves at 45 degrees if it’s sunny and windless.

I don’t write these things in order to impress anyone. It’s just that running on a treadmill doesn’t do it for me any longer. I’ve run on a treadmill exactly once since I gave up the gym membership. It was in a hotel while we were traveling. I ran a 5K and it was so boring it was insufferable. You can show me scenery on a screen, but it’s just scenery on a screen.

Give me the scenery of the out-of-doors, the trails, the pavement, houses and families and people outside. Give me the clouds and the sun and the rain and the wind.

Running during the heat of summer is the hardest. During summer I do primarily 5K’s. I can rarely do more. The heat and humidity just wear me down. My shirt will be so soaked with sweat that I have to wring it out in the bathtub so it won’t drip on the floor when I drape it over the shower rod. But I still get my miles in even during the hottest part of summer.

Likewise, twice this past winter I ran when there was snow on the ground. I had to wear gloves and a toboggan, running pants and two layers of Under Armour. But even during the coldest part of winter I get my miles. Winter means fewer runs, but more miles per run than during summer, so at least my miles remain amazingly consistent throughout the year.

The elements often provide difficulty, but the out-of-doors are also quite pleasant during the autumn and spring. Likewise, the pavement can be very unforgiving. Running in Middle Tennessee means running on hills. It sometimes means getting caught in a shower. It means the wind is sometimes in your face and sometimes at your back. It means alternating shade and sunshine. It means wet streets and puddles. It means meeting other runners and walkers, too. It means constantly moving scenery. It means going ever wherever you will yourself to go. It means autonomy, because you are your own engine. It means that you have to get yourself back home when you wander off.

I have run three half-marathons to date. There’s no way I could have prepared for a half-marathon running on a treadmill. The half-marathon is run outside, on pavement, with hills, rain or shine, and the only way to prepare your body and your mind is to run outside, on pavement, with hills, rain or shine.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.