Monday, September 17, 2012

Long run ordeals

Sometimes long runs can be empowering therapeutic sessions that can sustain you through the next few days, weeks, or even the month. I have had long runs where I receive surprising mental clarity and peace of mind. After these runs I rest well, sleep hard, and wake up refreshed and motivated for days to come. I have not had a long run like this in a long time.

Yesterday I was supposed to get in my last 20 miler before my trail marathon in 3 weeks. This run was really important because I've been forced to skimp on some long runs lately. Last weekend we ran in Indian Peaks, but different factors forced us to turn back early cutting our run down to 11 miles. The weekend before I was supposed to do 19 miles in Fort Collins where my race is going to be, but again I had to turn back early because I started experiencing heat exhaustion (not a shred of shade on Devil's Backbone or the Blue Sky Trail to take refuge in). Obviously I had high expectations for my long run this past weekend.

Things started out fine. The weather was sunny but cool and Cory and I got an early enough start. I brought extra food and water because I was determined that nothing would make me turn back. I ran familiar trails at Bear Creek Lake Park. Nothing could go wrong, right? About 6 miles in I started noticing red signs with arrows and started hypothesizing that some sort of race was in progress. I didn't see anyone around so I kept trying to make myself believe that some crew had just come through to set up markers for an event in the future. The markers followed my predetermined route for the next 2.5 miles and I came across an unmanned aid station but still no racers. Finally I came upon a crowd of spectators and asked what was going on: an off-road triathlon.

Right as I got my response a mountain biker whizzed by and headed on to the trail I was about to run. Determined not to be discouraged, I plunged in after him and got quite a few dirty looks from the spectators who obviously thought the trails should be shut down to the public. In ordinary circumstances I would agree with them. I already felt sick to my stomach from the run (mostly because I had eaten pizza the night before despite my lactose-intolerance), but knowing that I had mountain bikers behind me made it even worse. I could blend in with runners but I knew the mountain bikers would be annoyed with me and possibly aggressive. Which they were. I soon fell in to a routine of looking over my shoulder every thirty seconds, twisting my ankle, getting yelled at by a biker and stumbling off the single-track trail.

By mile 10 I was discouraged. I had only been followed up by the mountain bikers for 1.5 miles but the constant stepping on and off the trail made it take forever and it was impossible for me to get into a rhythm. If I continued on my route, the bikers would  behind me for 7 of the last 10 miles. Abort mission. For me running is much more a mental game than a physical one. When I get discouraged and angry, embarrassing tears start to sting my eyes, my legs become lead, and my throat starts to close off. When competing in the Kentucky Derby Marathon this last April, sciatic back pain made every step after mile 17 excruciatingly painful. Soon I felt overwhelmed and had to quite because of my stupid tears.

Well I was determined to make sure that I didn't let myself induce an asthma attack on this run. I changed my route to avoid the bikers as best as possible. It meant that I would only be able to squeeze in 17 miles, 1 more mile with bikers and 6 miles without. As I started back around I felt fear creeping in. I started to worry that not getting in 20 miles meant that I wouldn't be able to finish my race in October. I haven't had a single good long run this training cycle. I started beating myself up and telling myself how I'm a failure. I see other people finish marathons like it's no big deal. This past year I watched my sister-in-law post a 3:24 marathon debut on little training. I met a co-worker and friend who runs 3-4 road marathons a year without injury. I met a 65-year-old man hiking Pikes Peak with his family even though he had just run the marathon the day before. I watched numerous people less fit than I pass me crying on the side of the road when I dropped out of the Derby Marathon.

I'm not a quitter. But lately it seems that I keep falling short of my goals. I'm not sure what the solution is. Should I make easier goals for myself? How do we determine what is realistic and what is not? This past weekend was the Run Rabbit Run 100 mile race in Steamboat Springs. Before the race I was reading's preview and it mentioned that "Despite his experience, Karl [Meltzer] ain’t gonna add this year’s Run Rabbit Run to his list of 30+ 100 mile victories." I read that and agreed. Karl is getting older and there were a lot of stellar young runners competing in the event. Guess who won the race? So I guess I gleaned from that lesson that you can't even let other people tell you what you are capable of.

Maybe this is why I'm so drawn to distance-running. It's unpredictable. It's one of the few sports where you can surprise other people and you can even surprise yourself. I didn't get my 20 miler in but I've been through a lot of suffering this race cycle. I can guarantee that I'm going to endure a lot of suffering during my trail marathon. Maybe I've gotten everything I needed out of my training. Physically I know I can go the distance and getting in an easy breezy long run wouldn't have helped. Instead I faced heat exhaustion, dehydration, GI issues, unexpected route failures, foot and back pain, "woman pains", and other obstacles. If I've been able to endure all this then I'm going to be able to endure what ever race day dishes out.

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