Running Stories: Head Games

Adapting to life in a pandemic can lead to a little paranoia. Now that winter is here, any little sniffle or scratchy feeling in my throat or a need to cough makes me think that I’m coming down with a full-blown case of Covid-19 coronavirus. I’m sure most of us have gone through that and realized that you are probably overreacting. So far for me, I have not turned a need to cough into a need to quarantine myself.

As a runner, I have noticed that when it gets close to race day I can become very sensitive to some of the most minor issues that runners often deal with.  A slight twinge can make you think that you are about to have a serious running injury that will derail your race. These little aches and pains can very easily become big issues, but I find that most of the time they are benign. You just have to know when they are serious and when they can be ignored. And I have learned to ignore most of them.

Case in point – take a look at this photo:

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This is one of my favorite race photos.  Notice anything about the shoes?  Yep, they are brand new.

In 2009 I ran the Rockford Marathon in Rockford, Illinois. I was just getting back into running marathons after taking several years off from it thanks to enjoying my growing responsibilities as a new dad. Running was going well even though I was just winging marathon training as usual. Then race weekend approached and I developed a discomfort in the top area of my foot where it bends. I had not experienced this type of issue before and it only occurred when I was running. So naturally, I started freaking out. I couldn’t wear my shoes without it bugging me. I would attempt a jog around the block and think my foot might fall off. I was obsessing over it and I thought that I had really messed it up. So on the Saturday before the race, I went to the local sporting goods store and bought a new pair of shoes. And even though my foot felt weird in them still, I had no other option.

Trying something new on race day is generally thought of as a bad idea, and running in a new pair of shoes definitely fits in that category. But as I got to the race after a two-hour drive in the car fretting over the issue, I toed the line and told myself to just forget about it. And guess what?  The pain never presented itself again. Maybe all of the circuses surrounding a marathon was distraction from it enough, but I think I was just obsessing over it. It seems that I was just hypersensitive to the way the shoes felt on my feet.

In another example, my teammates and I were all together in Louisville, Kentucky to participate in Ironman Louisville in 2017 when I heard Alex complaining to his dad Dave that his foot was killing him. He was convinced that he had developed a foot injury, probably plantar fasciitis, as it was bothering him just to walk around. I immediately thought of the marathon in Rockford and told him it was all in his head, that he was just hypersensitive to the sensation he was feeling in his foot.  I’m not sure if that made him feel any better or not.  Alex ran a 3:30 marathon on his way to a 10:14 Ironman and 5th in his age group finish. I didn’t hear him complain about his foot after that.

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Me (bib 2400) on my on my first of two loops cheering Alex (bib 513) on toward the finish of his second loop/race as he passed me.  My wife Kari just happened to be in the right place at the right time to grab this great shot.  I don’t think his foot was bothering him here.

I still tell my self to ignore most little twinges of discomfort.  I would be reluctant however, to tell someone that the pain they are experiencing is not real. But when it’s near race day, sometimes it’s just in your head.

Running Stories: I Have Discovered Trail Running

It’s winter here in Illinois, and although mostly mild this go around, we’ve had a little bit of snow added to our area and it’s just enough to cover the trail and make it icy after people start packing it down. This forces me off of my usual running route and onto the local side roads where there is better running traction and little traffic, but not as much scenery.

Don’t get me wrong, I am glad I have the option to still run outside when the ice-covered trails make them difficult to run on. I have my favorite route too, it’s hilly and has enough variety that it’s a much better option than running inside on the treadmill. But after a few runs on this route, I started thinking about branching out from it and try some off-the-beaten-path trails. I am still signed up to do a “last runner standing” style trail ultramarathon and getting some practice and familiarity with running on trails would be a good idea for me.

One of these trails is located in the Van Horne Woods portion of the Hickory Creek Preserve located off of Route 30 in Frankfort, IL. The path starts just as you enter the preserve. There used to be a sign there where the unpaved portion of the trail began that said it was for use by the “Environmental Learning Center ONLY,” but that sign is now gone, and when I Googled it it said that it was permanently closed. A Facebook page for the site says it was closed in 2017. Seeing that the trail is still pretty heavily used, on Wednesday I decided to explore the icy path for the first time.

Trail running, where have you been all my life?! I loved it! Although the trail was a mix of snow, ice, and a few clear portions, my trail running shoes handled them fairly easily. I slowed down where it was necessary, but otherwise it was runnable. There is a fairly steep ravine that had some great views and lots of twisty paths through the wooded area.

On Thursday, I decided to do it again, this time running it in reverse. Another awesome run, but there was a lot of rough running going on. I still had pretty good traction, but it wasn’t the best. Occasionally the tread of my shoes would nick my ankles and that is no fun. On Friday I stopped at the local hardware store and picked up some 1/2 inch sheet metal screws and screwed them into the bottom of my shoe. This is an old trick used by runners, but one I have never tried.

Saturday morning I woke up to a new coating of about an inch of snow and I was super excited to get out there and run through the woods again. The traction I now had with my modified shoes was unbelievable. I ran like there wasn’t any packed down icy snow at all. It was a game-changer. Even my pace picked up for the run from the previous days. This time I decided to explore some more of the off-trail segments and found myself following a set of fat bike tire tracks in the freshly fallen snow. I followed those tracks for almost three miles until I ran into those two bikers on the trail. I realized that these were the same two guys that always post pictures of their rides on the local biking Facebook page that I belong to. I got to get a fat bike someday. It looks like fun.

I ran until I realized that eight miles had passed and that I had three more to get to home, and without any water or gels to fuel me along, I decided to save some exploring for Sunday. I came home and told my wife that this was one of the best runs I have ever had.

A little bit of a warm-up occurred on Saturday afternoon, melting what had fallen that morning. But I woke up again to light snow on Sunday and decided that this was going to be another amazing run. This time, however, I drove to the forest preserve so not to waste energy running three miles to get there and have to save enough energy for the three miles to run back home. I’m glad I did, this run was an awesome repeat of Saturday, only more so! I explored further east along Hickory Creek until I got turned around and lost my bearings. I found the creek and knew what side I was supposed to be on, but I truly believed that I had crossed it somehow. It wasn’t until later when I reviewed the gps map that I realized how turned around I was. I ended up backtracking until I saw some familiar things that I thankfully took the time to study for just this reason. I had also drawn some arrows in the snow to make sure I knew where I should turn at a few of the adjoining trail spots.

I was getting a little tired and a little worried that I was overdoing it, so I decided to head back and save some more of the unexplored areas for another time.

In all, I ran 53.5 miles this week, which is very high for me, and all because this little off-the-beaten-path rekindled a passion for running that I hadn’t realized was missing. I certainly felt like a kid again. I will definitely be running more natural surface trails in the future.

Running Stories: Throwing Down The Gauntlet

As I approached the trail I was about to turn onto from the sidewalk I was running on, I could see a runner off to the right about 100-yards away, heading in the same direction that I was planning to run. As I hopped on the trail I kept my pace the same as it had been for the previous three miles and didn’t think much about the guy behind me. He ran behind me for about five minutes and then I started to hear footsteps. I was about to be overtaken. He was about to throw down the gauntlet.

In Medieval days, a gauntlet was a type of armored glove used to protect the hand, but if thrown down it was meant as a physical challenge to your opponent. I had a pretty good feeling that he was challenging me, as I have done this move before. Many times before. Too many times before. Enough times that I gave it that term – throwing down the gauntlet.

You can throw down the gauntlet in a race, but everybody is challenging each other throughout the race. You might have someone kick hard near the end and you either respond or don’t. But out on the trail during a simple training run, throwing down the gauntlet is a move to see what the other guy is made of.

Since he took his time coming up from behind and then sped past me fairly quickly, I figured he was making a tactical mistake. I know that mistake well. You run hard to catch the guy ahead of you and then struggle to keep up the increased pace once you pass him. I have often thrown down the gauntlet only to regret having to run much harder than I am capable of after the pass. You learn not to throw down the gauntlet if it means that you will run out of gas by doing so.

I picked up my pace to match his from about 15 yards behind him. It was a pace I could handle. I made some noise just to let him know I was still there. A quick glance over his shoulder told me all I needed to know. He was trying to outrun me and now realized that I had responded to his challenge.

As I ran behind him for about a mile I had no plans to throw down the gauntlet myself, I was already pushing it pretty hard just to keep up with him, plus my route was about to take me on a different direction and I had about four more miles to run. As I made a left turn onto the trail that heads back home and he continued straight, I think he now knows that throwing down the gauntlet might get you the challenge that you weren’t expecting. I know this because I have learned that lesson myself many times before.

Running Stories: Reaping the Rewards

This year was going to be a special year of racing for me. In addition to the local road running races and sprint triathlons that I would normally sign up for, I was also set to return to Kentucky for Ironman Louisville with my Gunner teammates/friends, and also take my first stab at doing an ultramarathon in Wisconsin at the Big Hill Bonk in Beloit. But alas, it was not meant to be.

But that doesn’t mean I sat around and did nothing. Even though the races were taken away from me I would never have not ran or biked, or even done the occasional swim just to do it. Running has always been the thing I have done, to the point that it’s just life for me. So regardless of whether there’s a race to run or an event to do, I’m still going to do it. And even with the pandemic going on, I still went out there and put in the running and biking efforts.

Since there was no goal race to shoot for, I decided to just have fun doing my thing while maintaining my running and biking fitness. Mostly I would alternate run and bike days, with Monday being an off-day to recover. There would be low-key group rides on the weekends that usually end up being solo rides anyway. And my weekly midday runs were always there for me after getting off work. And the pool was always waiting for me post run to cool down and put in a few laps of technique focused swimming.

Even though I didn’t have any distance goals or time goals, I focused on putting in miles without going too hard. There were plenty of friends doing “virtual” races, and I gave doing that kind of thing a brief consideration, but then opted against it. Instead I used the year as kind of a recovery year, not burning out, but “keeping it real” as my neighbor likes to say. And as December rolled around I realized that I had just surpassed 12oo running miles, which was a nice accomplishment. Getting over 1000 miles in a year is a pretty good achievement for any runner.

But as the temps dropped and I was seeing my pace come down for my typical running routes, I was interested in seeing just how racing fit I was.

First up was a sub-6 minute mile challenge that I was able to get under with a 5:44 minute mile. That was surprising to me, as I struggled through the summer to be under 6:30.

Last weekend, I decided to run a half-marathon on my own. I usually shoot to be under an hour and forty minutes when racing a half, so I set that as a goal. The hills on my route though were humbling, and I came in at 1:43 and change. Even so, I think that is pretty respectable, seeing that my run lacked the race environment that pushes me to an uncomfortable and challenging pace – fellow competitors, adrenaline, and the desire to push harder when challenged were all absent. I will take that do-it-myself 1:43 half-marathon and be proud of it.

Today I ran my normal 8-mile running route, which is also hilly, but the day seemed pretty good for another push for a good time. I turned in a time of 1:01:20, which is the fastest of the 8-milers that I have run this year. There’s a local 8-mile race that I usually do every November called “The Hot Cider Hustle” in which I can generally come in under 60 minutes. But I will take that 61 minute 20 second 8-mile run and be proud of it.

I had done some good work this year, even without having a goal to shoot for. I’m glad that the work I did produced a handful of good results for me. This year has taught me that reaping the rewards of good work doesn’t have to come from racing.

Time to dial it back a little now and get ready for 2021. Hopefully I can reap the rewards in more of a fashion I am used to. But regardless as to whether we race in 2021 or not, I’m going to put in the work. It’s rewarding.

Running Stories: The Look

On Thanksgiving Day I had very little desire to go for a run.  It was drab and cold outside.  I had been outside early in the morning with my dog and could feel the dampness chilling me and knew that on a day in which people love to get together and race Turkey Trots, I would probably opt out.  Seeing that Covid-19 was killing off most of the official Turkey Trots, the decision to opt out would be an easy one.

But as the morning progressed guilt got the better of me, and I decided that if others were out there I should be too.  Plus sitting inside watching football games that I had zero interest in probably wouldn’t make me feel any better about myself.  And I planned to feast on the fabulous meal my wife would be presenting later in the afternoon.  I needed to run to make me feel better.

I chose to run eight miles, my typical distance which follows my normal looped running route.  I can change my route up – shorten it, lengthen it, run it clockwise one day, counter-clockwise the next.  But I generally run my loop, and adding a little quarter-mile extension, it makes it an even eight miles.

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My 8-mile looped route. I know it like the back of my hand.

As I got to the looped portion of the trail a mile from home I noticed that I wasn’t alone out there on Thanksgiving Day.  Plenty of walkers and runners enjoying a moderately mild, fall day.  Families walking together, a few running together and most just doing what comes natural on Thanksgiving Day – getting together outside and being thankful for that opportunity.  About a mile and a half into my run I got the first of handful of greetings that I call “The Look.”

The look can be different things with different meanings, but for runners it generally is an acknowledgement that the looker sees you as a serious runner.  I see it a lot at races, runners eyeing each other up, giving a nod as if to say “I validate you and recognize you as my competition.”  I also see it out on the local running trail as well.

Maybe it was the Boston Marathon jacket I was wearing, or maybe it was my pace.  I’m not sure, but the kid running toward me gave me the look and a greeting that seemed to say “Nice job, old guy.”  I can assume this because he wasn’t dressed like a hobby jogger, and he looked like a high school or college cross country runner.  I have to admit that it kind of made my day.

Another mile or two into it and I came upon another runner who looked very fast.  This time it was me that gave the look of approval.  He was lean, focused and running pretty fast.  He didn’t even really make eye contact with me that I could tell.  I gave him a quick thumbs up and “nice job” and we were soon running away from each other as fast as we had been running toward each other.  I don’t think he even realized that I gave him the look.

As I kept moving toward mile six, I saw a couple up ahead walking toward me.  This time the look came from a tall, jeans wearing guy who was also wearing running shoes.  He seemed to take me in and give me the look, one that lingered, like he was acknowledging the Boston celebration jacket and knew what it took to earn that jacket.  I gave him the look as well – he looked like a guy who was a longtime runner, with a pedigree to boot.  He reminded me of the guys who used to run in the early 70’s – Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter, et. al.  He had that look of a tall and thin runner.  As I ran away from them I wondered what kind of running he may have done over the years.

As I was about to finish my loop and take the trail back home, who did I see coming at me but the kid who I thought hadn’t even noticed me 2.5 miles earlier.  This time he and I were chuckling at the fact that we were seeing each other again.  I now wondered if he had given me the look, seeing that he recognized me the second time around.

Two days later I went for another run.  I didn’t give anyone the look, nor did I receive any.  I did have someone say hello to me and call me by my name.  I have no idea who it was, as he was cycling and bundled up from head to toe.  Getting recognized by another runner or cyclist is almost as good as getting the look.

So the next time you are at a race, or just out running, keep an eye out for the look.  Another runner respects you.  You deserve it.