Monday, September 8, 2014

Sticks and Stones (and Hills) WILL Hurt Me!!

"She went past me like I was sitting in my bathtub reading a book" - Anita Ortiz commenting on Darcy Africa passing her at 92k of the 100k Miwok Race

When I was a kid growing up in New Jersey about a hundred years ago, I used to wonder what it would be like to be all grown up. My last post dealt with the craziness of being active daily in those younger days and how I wonder if that helped shape the 67 year old body that I carry around now. Here I am, still wanting to get up early in the morning and shake it up with nature for a while. I feel like Sylvester Stallone or Robert DeNiro in "Grudge Match"...going through the same motions, but in slow motion.

I’m really struggling with my race-goal times these days (This is where we insert the Serenity Prayer, especially the part about “…the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.“) Ah, the wisdom part. It’s so damn intangible. Last Saturday, I ran another of the local Southeastern Trail Series Races. This one was the Ridge to Ridge race and consisted of 21+ miles of hilly, rooty, rocky, trail that gradually (from about a mile into it) eats you up. It has about 3100' of elevation, which if you're reading this in Colorado sounds like a flat single track. The worst part is the Yellow/White connector which is a trail that rises 600' over exactly a mile and has suitcase sized Lower-Appalachian-Trail-hardness rocks that don't give any when you trip into them. You do this loop twice and there is no doubt the second time is a real "let's get that heart rate up to maximum" test. As you know, I don't like to write race reports and I won't write one here. I have read some great race reports, but I just don't have the journalistic talent to make mine sound in any way interesting, at least to anyone but me.

But, the gist of this cloud over me is that I am 67 years old, which is not THAT old, but older than I've ever been. The age doesn't bother me, it's the daggum slowness that accompanies it on the road or trail. It's the declining balance that usually makes itself known as I'm trying to navigate a stream by stepping on the well-placed (for anybody else) rocks. Near the end of a long race, you know, that point where you're close enough to realize you might finish this god-forsaken test, but not close enough to say Yahoo yet...actually, I usually don't say yahoo until I'm directly under the finish banner...actually, there is no Yahoo, it's just a very slight pumping my fist into the air about the height of my chest, I feel like I'm nine million years old. I’m past-dead. A Coke will usually re-ignite the spark of life, but I am spent. A happy, proud spent, but spent none-the-less. And MUCH more spent than the runner in my head should be.

I’ve been running marathons since 1979 and Ultras since 1981 with a somewhat varying degree of self-competitive success this entire time. In the first 20 years or so, I put in some pretty good times, was competitive with the general group of runners around the same age, and hit some peaks that I'm rather proud of. Running was fun. Running faster and farther was funner. In my mind, the party was just starting. But dang, who’s the jerk that invited Father Time? In the early 2000's, I began to have some ankle pains that began to limit my performances. I realized that as I grew older, there was, of course, a birthday-candle-to-race-performance ratio that was not going in my favor, but this ankle thing was a wildcard that was dealt. I watched my times go off the Continental Shelf but I kept at it because I just didn't want to let go. I'm a PT, did my exercises, got orthotics, wore all kinds of supports, but when you pound down 3-4 times your body weight on your ankles EVERY step, it just doesn't give it a very good chance to improve if you keep trying to run long distances. So, I eased up for a couple of years, ran VERY slow and cut down the training mileage a heap. Gradually, very gradually, the ankles got better, not great, but better. They still stiffen up after sitting a while, stairs are a test in mental tenacity, and there is a loss of range of motion that doesn't allow me to jump higher than a cup or further than foot or two. If I see a snake on the trail, I can't jump out of the way, so I just scream like a little girl and hope the snake laughs itself to death. A few years ago, I re-entered the Ultra world and have been testing the the limits since.

Two things are incredibly different. First, any speed is non-existent. My morning "training runs" are like a caboose going uphill without an engine. If I try to drop my speed to faster than a trot, my ankles are shot the rest of the day, and a limping Physical Therapist doesn't lend itself to instilling much confidence in your patient that you're going to get them better. And secondly, my endurance has taken a huge tumble. Oh, I can run-trot-walk for several hours during a race (did it for 7 hours Saturday), but the little energy-producing mitochondria in my muscles are screaming the whole way. I can pump them with Gu's and Coke and electrolytes, but they are just a bunch of flat piss-poor inefficient energy producers. Every race, I finish last or pretty doggone close to it. So many candles on the running cake these days means it–or I–could blow up and/or fizzle out any moment now. When IS the ‘expiration date' on my running?

Here comes the intangible part: at what age do you go, “Yeah, I’m gettin’ kinda’ old… could I really meet my goals, or should I re-think them? Can I think more positively and self-talk my way into turning this around, or is the door closing?”. I mean, I don’t have "verygross" veins (well, ok, I do in ONE leg), I don’t have cataracts and I can still touch my knees! Of course, there is the morning show of getting out of bed and stiff leg it to the bathroom before you get dressed for your morning run. How many mornings have I said to myself "Oh yeah sure, you're gonna run for an hour and you can't even get your leg high enough to put your shorts on!".

After how many merry-go-rounds on this planet do you logically accept REAL slow race and training times? Is there a formula? Do you factor in ‘X’ number of sucky runs plus ‘Y’ number of missed goals plus a few bad falls and five or more niggling ouchies and divide it by 12 or something?

In the ultra world, we are hardwired to ignore any physical or mental glitches that might for a zillionth of a moment bring us down. Our culture emphasizes that we "suck-it-up-buttercup" (favorite quote of my buddy, Eric) and re-frame any bummer thought. We are trained to visualize any deterrent to our plans before they happen so we can deal with it. It’s mental leprosy to start allowing doubtful thoughts to crack one’s rock-solid confidence veneer. I train to perform at and to reach my genetic potential. You can’t get any better than that, correct? At some point, inevitably those DNA strands start unraveling and turning to slush. You can’t will or Pollyanna positive-think or train harder to outrun that process, literally. It sucks, but you’re just not going to run as well at 70 as you did at 50. I am guessing that it has something to do with cellular regeneration beginning to lag far behind cellular destruction, and probably a hormonal shift that makes your muscles shrivel. Or something like that. When your DNA starts to go haywire, it ends your heyday. Or maybe the running fairies go, “Time’s up little guy.”

This post went down a darker road than I wanted it to. I'm not moping around because of my run performances. Oh, I ain't happy about it either. But hey, give me the choice of speed on the roads or sluggishness on the trails, and I say bring on the dirt. I like to run long. I like to run on trails. I DON'T like to run extremely slow. I DON'T like to make race officials wait for me (though they never seem to give it a second thought). I'll keep setting goals, but those goals are less specific, like "Let's see if I can finish this run before my watch battery dies". I can still run and I am always thankful for that. I keep telling myself to run in the moment, not in the memories of the past. Much of the time it sinks in...sometimes, not so much. But, as always, I'll continue to see you on the roads and trails - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"