Racing to recovery

When I ran Chicago last year I was warned it was going to hurt. In my naivety I thought this merely meant I was going to get tired, exhausted and running through the suffering was going to “hurt” in the exaggerated, metaphorical sense. I was wrong. They really meant it was going to H-U-R-T, hurt. Towards the end of the race when I had run out of glycogen my body plumbed the depths of my muscles searching for precious energy and when it came up starving, it began eating my muscles, so with each consecutive mile I could feel the gnawing and chewing, deeper and deeper into my calves and quads. When your body eats itself alive, like a self-cannibalizing zombie, it’s obviously going to hurt.

Although I didn’t understand what to “hurt” during the race meant, it was no fault of mine that when I crossed the line and stopped, that I wasn’t prepared for the pain that was to come next, through the finish chute, walking down stairs, to the restaurant, on the car ride home, the next day and then even more shockingly, TWO DAYS LATER! No one ever warned me about this part of marathon racing. Somehow, with all the attention I pay to running culture, I never came across a description of this pain either. No one told me I’d have to hold onto the walls at work just to get around the building. No one told me I wouldn’t be able to lift my leg over my bike seat. No one told me stepping off a curb had me thinking I might collapse under my weight and not be able to get back up. It was THAT bad. I apparently tapped into muscle stores I didn’t know I even had, but which my body’s empty tank sure did.

I came to understand very directly why people take such a long time off after running a marathon, instead of feeling powerful and rejuvenated then picking up training where they left off before their taper. I childishly thought I could just keep going, which is why I prematurely started in on long runs, gearing up for one last trail race leading into a trail marathon less than 2 months later. I did this despite my destroyed quads, despite my destroyed calves and despite my injured groin. This was, if you can’t tell, a bad idea.

I really don’t know if I did any lasting damage by getting over anxious with resuming training, but I do feel I slowed down my ability to start focusing on a base phase and pointed marathon training. And maybe, just maybe, if I didn’t run with my injured groin, I might not have thrown off my biomechanics and could have avoided the leg imbalance that  had me not running for almost 3 months when just prior I was on the top of my game. I don’t know, but it’s a strong possibility.

So this year, after this latest marathon, I’m really hesitant to start running again, which is odd because I. Feel. Great. Actually, it’s not odd that I’m hesitant. It’s odd that I feel great. Granted, I ran 2 1/2 minutes slower than I did last year, but that isn’t THAT much in a marathon and I was completely dehydrated this year, so it wasn’t like I didn’t tax my system. I also felt that end of the race leg pain as my energy-hungry body scraped apart my muscles looking for morsels of glycogen. So when I crossed that finish line and started walking through the chute, one of the first things I noticed was the ease at which I did so. I wasn’t walking with concentration, observing each step as if I was avoiding crushing tiny caterpillars. I was having jovial conversations with other runners who seemed to be doing as such, but I was fine. Even walking down stairs, although I could then feel those over-exerted muscles, I didn’t even have to grab on to the handrails. I was a little confused and wondered if I just didn’t run hard at all.

I didn’t forget about those hours and days that followed last years race though, so I paid close attention to my legs on the drive home, but was relieved to see I didn’t have to physically lift my leg onto the gas pedal like I did last year. I felt tightness when we got out to fill up for gas, yes, but it was nothing like I remembered. I saw other runners at the gas stations doing the marathon shuffle, which is always quite humorous I must admit, but if I wasn’t wearing my new race shirt, I might have passed as a simple traveler I was walking so well.

Still, I paid attention to my legs the next day and then the dreaded second day when I had to head back to work….but I was fine! Everyone at work who saw me last year made comments the same, for I wasn’t holding onto the lockers to sweep the hallways. Heck, by the end of the day I was bounding up stairs! And when I got to the top I found myself a little taken back, having to remind myself what I just did a couple days before.

So what does this mean? Honestly, I don’t know. On one hand I hear people talk about the benefits of veganism and their ability to recover quicker than they ever have, but I was vegan last year and didn’t have such a good time with it. I’ve also heard seasoned marathoners talk about how their first was their worst and the races that followed got better and better, but I’m not sure what might influence that either. The most logical conclusion I can come up with is that I’m a stronger runner this time around. This past year, despite so many setbacks, was the first year I not only ran with a focused marathon goal, but also did so many little things to help me along to that goal, such as strength exercises, extra difficult runs and, maybe most importantly, proper recovery runs. I have to think this time around I’m actually a stronger person and was able to handle the marathon stresses better than I ever have. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking and I actually didn’t run the race as hard as I might have if the weather was better. But really, would that minor 2 1/2 minutes really made that much of a difference?

Regardless, this is where we are. Four running-less days after the marathon and I feel frickin great. My legs have mild soreness, but more from a couple of incredibly strenuous days I’ve been having at work doing lots of heavy lifting and being on my feet all day. Even with all that, I certainly could have started running again without consequence…I think. I’m still hesitant. Not overly hesitant though, because on my coach’s suggestion, I’m going to do some light jogging….starting tomorrow. Initially, I thought I’d be looking at about 2 weeks off AT LEAST before I regained training, but it looks like we might be able to pick up right where we left off if I’m not suffering from any deep-seated muscle damage that needs more time to heal. We’ll know in the next couple of days that’s for sure.

For now, it feels great to be able to potentially pick right back up, instead of wasting more time rebuilding lost fitness during the recovery phase. This is what fast running always comes down to….recovering well and recovering quickly, allowing one to put in hard, hard efforts again and again. This is why athletes take EPO’s, not because they build muscle, but because they enable significantly sped up recovery, allowing them to exert themselves harder and harder without consequence. This is what we all do….but naturally.

We don’t have time to lose. I’m itching to prove my marathon fitness again for my next attempt at the Trials and although I haven’t done a lot of consideration on where the next attempt might be, my coach and his experience has. He gave me the options the other day, being a marathon on January in Houston, where the Trials will actually be run in 2012, or waiting a little bit more for something in the Spring, which usually means Boston or Grandma’s in June or something else entirely. It’s hard to say, but I believe we are looking strongly at Houston in January, dependent on where I’m at recovery-wise. If I’m able to pick up where I left off, then we have a huge base already behind us and a significant enough time to prepare for a race in almost guaranteed great weather conditions. That is probably ideal, but we’ll know more about a final decision in the next week or so.

Regardless, it feels great to feel great. It feels great to be able to recover so quickly and I have to think that is a testament to my preparation this last year, my refined diet based more on home-cooked, whole foods, and the strength I’ve built through more informed training.

So here we go again….onward!

4 responses to “Racing to recovery

  1. I really do think one’s body “gets used to” this sort of race. After my first marathon I was very torn up, the rest haven’t been insignificant, but not bad either. That said, my first was my PR and the others have been slower since.

    However, tomorrow– we shall try to be fast! Indianapolis Marathon @ Ft Ben on Saturday!

    Sometime could you write, or perhaps reference a previous post, about your pre-marathon meals the morning of the race. I have a bowl of cereal or oatmeal about three hours before the race and I think that’s the right thing to do but I always wonder if I should eat more.


  2. Hey Greg,

    I’ve heard the “getting used to it” theory from a couple people now, of which I’ve never heard before. I think that’s pretty fascinating and want to look into it more.

    Good luck at the Marathon…awesome for you! Watch out for that big hill in the woods. Grind up it and keep going! Update me on how your race went.

    And yes, I’ll try to work something up about pre-race fueling.

  3. I believe your favorable recovery this time is a sign of your training schedule and high mileage. I am confident in saying that this Chicago Marathon was a long tempo run for you (considering your fitness and of course the unpleasant conditions which prevented a full effort). I definitely not implying that you didn’t run hard, yet I believe that is how your body is responding to that race.

    It is good to hear that you will get back to the training sooner. It is either your next marathon or one in the near future that will be your qualifier. With your current base fitness, you will only get faster. I am sure of it!

    • Chris, I totally agree, and I feel like the marathon was a strong effort at first and then it was forced into a slower tempo run, so I wasn’t completely broken down as if I continued on at the initial pace.

      Regardless, thanks for the encouragement, and I also feel that if I stay injury free, I’ll be able to get in the training to either qualify this next time or, as much as I’d like to avoid it, another run at Chicago.

      Take care and run fast!

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