Run Over? Part 2
Looking back on my incredible twelve month period of running successes from November 2009-October 2010, I realize now that the high point was the mid-point – my first Boston Marathon in April 2010. This came at the end of a devoted winter running schedule, based around a series of Saturday morning long runs with fellow distance runners around the Catskill mountain roads in frequently freezing temperatures. Lengthy though our distances (20 miles being not unusual), these Saturday runs were taken at (what we consider) a leisurely pace; there was no real aggression involved. Plus, I could only wear the Vibrams in temperatures of around 25F and up; on colder days I resorted to my old-fashioned ASICS with gels. You might think that the back and forth from slanted, cushioned running shoes to minimal rubber toe-gloves would play havoc on the muscles, but in my case, it served to even everything out. Likewise, doing the first of two 10-mile loops in Yorkshire a few weeks prior to Boston, I didn’t feel right in the Vibrams for some reason – so I switched out to ASICS and ran that much better on the second go round. I was, at this point, listening to my body.
In addition, Boston’s early appearance in the spring calendar meant that I only ran one race in the 16 weeks leading up to it – a half-marathon that I wisely took closer to the (comparably) more gentle marathon pace. All in all, then, I entered Boston at full strength and yet relatively relaxed, with lots of long runs behind me, yet very little short sharp aggressive racing. I was ideally primed to run my 26.2 miles at a consistent 8-minute mile pace, achieving my goal of finishing under 3hrs 30 and qualifying for the 2011 Boston in the process.
I was not the only person to run Boston in Vibrams, so you can’t single me out for lunacy. But I could probably have run it at that speed in any pair of shoes. (Indeed, I had qualified for Boston a year earlier, at Burlington in Vermont, in a pair of ASICS.) As it was, I enjoyed the experience of completing a marathon in my VFF KSOs so very much that I allowed myself a false sense of invincibility. Only three weeks after this greatest running experience of my life, I dared wear the Vibrams on a 5k trail race on much sharper terrain than I had anticipated. I fell and cut myself quite badly – yet I refused to blame my footwear on the understandable premise that a number of other runners wearing more conventional shoes had also slipped and fallen and had similar bloodstains for souvenirs. And then, just three weeks after that, I went out on an all-day 30-mile run on the Hudson River Art Trail and, though I had by now purchased the Inov-8s for the trails, I wore the Vibrams for the longer part of the day, including an excruciatingly painful mile on a pebbled path that can’t have done my metatarsals any good at all.
The Escarpment Run now beckoned, and as I took on more and more trail running in preparation, I did at least get out of the Vibrams and fall deeper in love with my super-flat Inov-8s. Along the way I noticed that, especially when going up hill, I had a habit of letting only the front part of my left foot hit the ground, whereas my right foot seemed to naturally include the heel as part of each stride. Though conscious that this was “bad form,” I did not determine to put an end to it any more than I registered the additional stress this might be putting on those left metatarsals.
Smarter souls than myself might have suggested that it was time to calm down, not to ratchet it up. But on I went. Following the successful Escarpment race, I entered two local trail races during our summer camping vacation in Vermont, feeling especially proud that my Inov-8s kept me upright at the highly “technical” Bramble Scramble 15k, given that two locals, who knew the course but ran in more protective footwear, rolled (i.e. twisted) their ankles and knocked themselves off their circuit for the coming weeks and months. But then I went and undid all that good protective work, on the same holiday, by wearing my Vibrams on a fast run up the causeway north of Burlington and back, despite being warned of the sharp surface. By the time we got home from the trip, my feet were starting to yell at me.
Yet during September, I put in more mileage than any previous calendar month of my life. And rather than the long but leisurely Saturday morning winter runs that had preceded Boston, I committed to a number of consecutive daily ‘tempo runs’ in my Vibrams. Three weeks prior to the Mohawk-Hudson, I ran a the Dutchess County Classic half-marathon – where I seared two minutes off my previous PR, finishing in just 1 hour, 32 minutes. The blisters I acquired in the process seemed like a minor inconvenience, even though they were, on reflection, likely a product of over-striding – i.e., more bad form.
Naturally, I credited my speed in that half-marathon to my Vibram KSOs. My new Vibram KSOs, the original pair having been finally ripped open from exposure to too many trails and creeks. And this was where, in retrospect, I made a truly major mistake: when I found my local stockist (Kenco on Route 28 near Woodstock) to be out of my size, a European 43, I purchased a size 44 instead. My big toe had always been wedged in tight to my KSOs, I recalled (even though my other toes had ample room in their own assigned spaces); I didn’t think it would make that much of a difference.
But it did. All of a sudden, everything but those big toes had far too much space to move around. To compensate, I strapped myself into the Vibrams ever tighter, using the Velcro strap that runs right over the bridge of the foot, exactly where I now started experiencing the “top of the foot” pain that is frequently associated with an adjustment to minimalist running.
It was with that noticeable twinge in my left foot that I woke up on the morning of October 10, 2010. I had enough trepidation that I brought my Inov-8s up to Schenectady for the start of the Mohawk Hudson Marathon race just in case – but I left them in the car all the same. The Vibrams had got me through every other road race this past year and a half, including one marathon already; surely, they could get me through these 26.2 miles and home again. I strapped them on – tightening the Velcro strap as much as I could – and set off on a warm-up jog. I felt the twinge immediately. I ignored it. Most runners find it surprisingly easy to run through low-grade pain – and often enough, a sore muscle seems to appreciate being warmed up and challenged. Even Jason Robillard, on his Barefoot Running University site, states that “Some degree of mild, dull soreness is common as feet adapt to barefoot or minimalist running.” I would be fine, I figured.
For the first thirteen miles or more I certainly was. Conditions were absolutely perfect: a cool autumnal morning with no wind and plenty of sunshine. I ran suitably and comfortably fast – and given that much of the marathon is on bike trails, I even ran on the grass verges to give my sore feet as much rest as possible. Chatting cheerfully with other runners en route, I made it to the halfway mark in 1 hr, 40 minutes, 37 seconds. I only needed to run the second half 15 seconds faster and I’d break my goal of 3 hours, 20 minutes, a time I had needed to run as my Boston qualifier back when I was in my early 40s, a time I had never been able to attain. I picked up my pace accordingly. I knocked off that 15 seconds in question in the very next mile.
I was now running the fastest I’d ever run in a marathon, coming off my longest mileage ever in a calendar month, and with a twinge in my left foot. I was asking for it, and “it” happened during the Marathon’s one very steep descent, around the 18th mile. As we set off down the hill, it felt as if my left foot had stepped on something sharp, just below the ball of the foot, exactly where I always seem to feel such objects. It’s quite possible that I did step on something sharp – road marathons are not immune from pebbles, glass, trash and other objects that cushioned shoe wearers can more or less ignore. But something might just as easily have snapped. Either way, the twinge that had been but a minor inconvenience was all of a sudden a major issue. At the bottom of the hill was a water stop, where I’d planned to have my first Gu of the day. I took the best part of a minute over the refueling process to see if the sudden pain would dissipate with brief rest. It did not. Setting back off on what I knew from 2005 to be a particularly grueling few miles, running along the side of a main road, against the traffic, the pain was such that I felt myself limping as I ran.
-This doesn’t look good, I remember thinking to myself.
“You look great,” shouted passers-by.
Maybe I did. Then again, what did they know? They were wrapped up in clothes and clogs, walking their lovers and their dogs. How would any of them identify championship form from a pronounced limp?
It did occur to me that this is where the professionals distinguish themselves from the amateurs. Think of Paula Radcliffe at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. After injuring her foot only weeks before, painkillers had messed with her digestive system and there came a point in the race her body was a mess and she instinctively knew she had no chance of a medal. So she stopped dead, preserving her energy and stamina for another day. Despite the tears – her own as well as her supporters – it turned out to be the right move. The following year, she won both Marathons she entered, London and the World Championships.
But that’s a professional. Me, as I reached mile 20, it seemed easier to finish the race than not and despite the fact that (or maybe because) my pace had slowed from 7:35 to 7:55, I felt like I had run through the worst of the pain. If I could just hold on to this pace through the last 10k, I’d still make that 3:20 time I’d set myself.
I didn’t quite manage it. But I did break my PR, by over five minutes, finishing in 3:23:32. I’d run not only my fastest first half of a marathon, but my fastest second half too. And I’d had the joy of seeing my entire family – including my mother, who had arrived only three days earlier – cheering me on just ten yards from the finish line. I crossed the mat at the Albany waterfront with a big fat smile on my face. Emotionally, I felt fantastic. Physically, I felt great too. Thanks to the balmy weather, I was barely sweating. I could talk. I could smile. I wasn’t desperately hungry or thirsty. I felt ready to tackle the day ahead – which was fortunate, given that I would be playing a gig with my covers band the Catskills 45 gig in just five hours time.
There was only one problem. I couldn’t walk. I was okay at first, sitting up on the hill above the finish line, overlooking the Hudson, eating, drinking, stretching – I even had a full-blown conversation with one of the race directors. But when it was time to return to the family car, parked all of 300 yards from the finish line, I could barely do it. I found myself dragging my left foot behind me like it was broken. That’s almost certainly because it was.
Continue to Part 3