I have a love hate relationship with running. If we were a Facebook couple it would be “its complicated”. As you may know I’ve tried to compete at a relatively high level of racing without actually doing much training. This worked up to a point…right up until it didn’t. I tried to train for a half-marathon by doing moderate strength work between playing video games. Not unexpectedly it was a complete failure, but it spurred me into action and I learned some lessons. I realize there is an effective minimum dose of running that is required to keep my skill set where I want it.
The biggest problem was that I had lost the habit of running, which was a casualty of both massive over-training a few years ago and detaching my ego from the outcome of racing. The latter was a good thing, the former not so much. As my interests and attention drifted elsewhere, and my relationship with running became strained.
You may also know Mrs. Happy Philosopher is quite the semi-elite runner herself (although she would be horrified if she knew I was classifying her as such)*. She recently ran her first ultra-marathon and, like a heroin addict, has signed up for another one to get her fix. She and I have very different training methods, in that she actually trains. She is very regimented and seldom deviates from her prescribed regimen. The downside of this is she spends a lot of time running, but the upside is she has become a badass runner. It’s annoying and awesome all at the same time.
The other day she casually asked me if I was man enough to accompany her on a 9 mile power-walk/run with about 2000 feet of elevation gain. I’m not sure if that’s exactly how she phrased it, but the neurotoxin testosterone was coursing through my body and whatever she asked me was interpreted as a direct threat to my manhood if I said no.
“It will be fun,” she said.
“You’ll thank me,” she said.
You may ask why I thought this was good idea. After all, if I completely crashed and burned running a half marathon a couple of months earlier what made me think I could hang with her on this training run? It’s a fair question and it does have a logical answer.
Since the savage beat down my ego took on race day I rediscovered my commitment to fitness. I’ve actually been running a bit since my iliotibial band cooled down, albeit only about 3 miles or so at a time, and on flat roads and trails, but it’s something.
Not only that, I’ve developed a new mindset and commitment to strength and flexibility. I realized that with my video game strength training I was trying to cheat in the same way that I was with my running. I was not giving it the dedication it deserved and needed to be successful. I committed to doing either 50-100 push-ups or kettlebell swings per day, and both if I wasn’t too beat down. I did this religiously, and frankly it started working. Something changed. After a couple weeks 100 push-ups a day seemed like nothing. I did swings, and a few deadlifts and squats (kettlebell). I worked on my spine, hip and shoulder mobility daily and did the odd yoga video now and then for a little variety and to embarrass my kids. It was minimal time invested, but I was committed and the results were fantastic. I forgot how much better I feel when I have more strength and mobility, how much younger I feel. I realized how weak I had become. When we improve quickly like this we shine a strong light on our deficiencies.
Anyways, I was feeling good, and maybe a bit cocky. I needed to test my new weapons in the field…
It was a chilly day, but I was prepared for this. Wool underwear, running tights, long sleeve technical running shirt, lightweight shell, gloves and hat; everything I would need.
Our plan was to power walk the climb (about 4.5 miles) and run down. This presents a challenge, as you start off freezing and end up being too warm. There is no way around this, other than to dress in layers. Things started off great. Legs felt strong and by mile two I was feeling pretty cocky. A half mile later I was not…
“Alright, now are you ready to climb?” My running partner queried.
What were we doing those last two miles? In my mind we were climbing, but apparently this was just the warm up. At this point I also realized that whatever inadequate breakfast/brunch/lunch I just ate was clearly not up for the metabolic demand of this hike. Having not done any exercises this distance since the race I was not prepared. I think my pancreas was producing a tad too much insulin and my glucose deprived brain was not happy. I was also getting thirsty and realized I hadn’t had the foresight to bring any water with me. Nine miles is about my threshold for bringing water, but all I had had to drink for the day was a cup of coffee and I was probably a little dry going into the hike. This was a bummer, but mild dehydration is not a problem. I always race dehydrated and it turns out fine…although races have aid stations. Whatever, we press onward.
About three and a half miles into this debacle are where things got rough for me. I was fully bonking and it just kept getting steeper. My wife did not look the least bit stressed and in fact was smiling. I tried to smile back, but I think it came out more like a grimace of pain.
“Maybe you should stop here and I’ll meet you on my way back down.” She said looking mildly concerned.
I couldn’t tell if she was mocking me, as the parts of my brain that processed sarcasm were not getting enough blood flow.
“Nope, I’m doing this thing. I’m good.” I managed to blurt out.
“Just keep walking. One step at a time.” she said cheerfully.
She reminded me of that annoying fish from Finding Nemo. I cursed her and my stupid male ego under my breath.
Somehow I made it to the top, but the hypoglycemia combined with hypoxia must have destroyed some of my short term memory because I don’t remember much of the last mile. I somehow managed to snap this picture as I crawled my way to the summit.
When I woke up again and uncurled from the fetal position, I noticed that not only did Mrs. Happy Philosopher not break much of a sweat, but she also managed to match her shoes with her running jacket. How fucking mindful was that? I wore a garish fluorescent yellow shell I use for biking – the color chosen to make it easier for search and rescue to find my body if she ran me to death. My red shoes matched the color of my blood, which I was clearly not getting enough of to my brain right now.
When my blood pressure and heart rate finally came back to some semblance of safety I did manage to enjoy the beautiful view. Maybe it was worth it? Maybe?
That feeling lasted about a minute or two and then we started our descent. So do you want to know what’s even more fun than tired legs at the end of a grueling uphill climb? Several miles of muddy technically challenging downhill trails on trashed quads, that’s what! I felt like a three legged giraffe trying to catch an antelope**.
I felt a few twinges here and there on the steeper downhill and figured it was only a matter of time before my legs completely decompensated, but oddly it never happened. As we continued our descent I became more relaxed. The legs loosened up and I even began to enjoy myself. My body was now efficiently burning fuel and I felt at peace. I cranked up the pace a bit to see what I had in the tank and to be honest there was plenty there. My running form was good and I felt more stable, probably due to all the core strength work.
As we approached the end around mile nine I realized I could have gone another 4 miles with relative ease. Maybe the strength training regimen would have worked after all had I take it more seriously.
In any event I’m inspired to ramp up my running again. The beauty of working half-time is that I don’t have to try and squeeze it in early in the morning or after work when peak family time arrives. I can leisurely spend a couple hours running in the forest on a random Tuesday after lunch. I can run when I feel I’m at my peak, instead of always trying to fit life in the valleys. When I was going through burnout I just didn’t have the energy to do a big workout like this. Work consumed all my focus, and I was tired at the end of a day. And not tired in the good sort of way like after a good workout or working outside all day when you come in and feel your stress melt away. I was tired in the “my body has been in fight or flight mode too long” with a low level fatigue and anxiety in the background. It was like this annoying dog barking, or traffic noise in the background. With this there was only peaceful silence.
I feel re-calibrated in a strange sense. We need these wake-up calls every now and then. We need to re-learn what we have forgotten. I have a few new training experiments I’m planning this year. Stay tuned and happy running.
*My editor who also incidentally happens to be Mrs. Happy Philosopher objected to this classification of her running skills, calling them ‘alternative facts’. I decided to do some research. Her age graded race performance is in the 70-73% range which is lower end of ‘regional class’ whatever that means. My best race ever I scraped 70%, but was firmly in the 60’s for most distances which is ‘local class’, again an unscientific term. I will let the reader interpret this information and decide for herself.
**I realize that a giraffe with any number of legs would have no logical reason to chase an antelope, but it’s just what popped into my head.