Back On The Bus: Learning From My Mistakes

Here’s a bunch of terms you likely don’t know unless you get into distance running: illiotibial band, plantar fasciitis, piriformis sciatica, deep rotators, black toe, patella tendonitis. There are plenty more, but these are some that drift first into my mind, each with a sense memory for me to wince at. Unless you study or work in medicine or physical therapy, or weren’t an endurance athlete, how would you ever know you had an illiotibial band? But boy do you get to know it if you bang the pavement long enough, day after day, being too lazy to stretch and ice when necessary.

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As I mentioned in my last post, I had trained well for a period of years and had a nice string of performances and what (at the time) seemed to be the-sky’s-the-limit sequence of PRs. My first marathon, in 1989, was Big Sur. I used one of Jeff Galloway’s early books to coach myself to a 3:28 marathon. By 1991, using basically the same program, I broke 2:40. Then the wheels started coming off. For the next few years I would have a good season here or there but I learned the hard truth about distance running: if you’re motivated training is the easy part. It’s not getting injured that’s hard, and being injured is what drives you clinically bananas.

And of course, the only ones who understand why a runner can get so depressed about being injured are other runners. We’ve all been there, and we all know that the worst injury is one that comes after you’ve really worked your butt off for months with a big goal race in mind, only to have it melt into a nightmare where you can’t train (you take a day off and then test it out, limping through an 8-miler trying to convince yourself it’s better, and on and on until you get to race day where you’ve gone completely insane and hobble to the start line hoping for an act of God to set you right).

My best period of training, around about 1995, yielded not a single valuable result. I was getting two long runs a week—one was about 16 miles and the other 20 to 24—two other days were both 10-milers at a good pace (got down to under 6-minutes per mile for many of them) and the rest of the weekly schedule was loaded with recovery-pace runs. I sustained that basic plan for months, with a 10-mile race on the calendar to check to see where the load had got me. I had never been as fit—but as I’m telling you about this I know it’s like the fish that got away, right? Well, about a week before the event I noticed a change in ability to propel myself—something was askew within my left hamstring. Paces dropped through the trap door. By the time I got to the race I recall a large power loss. Of course I went into denial—I decided I was just fatigued from all the mileage and with a couple of days of tapering for the 10-mile event I would be clipping the heels of Pat Porter on my way to a killer PR that I would be bragging about until 2009.

Halfway through I realized I was just making things worse by trying to hold the pace, and by the end of the day I had shredded my hamstring. It felt like I’d drank a pot of coffee and tried to play a violin with a hack saw. Over the next couple of months I tried to rehab it and salvage the work that I’d done by it just wouldn’t get better. It didn’t get better until after I’d completely given up.

Does the mind ever play games with you in such times. And how low you can end up feeling, even though if you were to take a step back within the context of life, you know things could be much, much worse. But at the time it just kills you.

I remember not being able to do a Sunday long run because of it so I went to breakfast with my girlfriend at the time, her sister and her sister’s boyfriend. It was a lovely day in San Francisco, and we were at a lovely breakfast place in the Mission. I ordered my favorite, eggs Florentine, coffee and fresh squeezed juice. But I was so ridiculously miserable. I tried to keep my mind off it (as I recall) but eventually I started to try and explain to everyone at the table how bloody frustrating my injury was. Real tears came to my eyes from the madness and the desperation it had caused me. In the middle of my tale of woe I looked up from my plate and saw the eyes of three different people, all whom I knew well, looking at me like I just finished up getting shock treatment and was speaking my words backwards. Their look said, “Are you trying to tell us you’re depressed because you can’t go run for 20 miles?”

As I’m sure you guessed they weren’t runners, so, understandably, it was hard for them to commiserate. I’m healthy now with no visions of grandeur, and I’m setting out into a solid marathon program (and much smarter one in respect to my talents and liabilities) with a sense of optimism and enthusiasm, but I also go in knowing that there’s no such thing as risk-free distance training. So I hereby pledge to do whatever I can (stretching, resting, good food, cut back on the beer, take vitamins like my Mom always told me to, core work, ice bags, you name it, I’ll do it) to defuse as many explosives in the minefield as I can.

Follow former 2:38 marathoner, and current editor-in-chief of Inside Triahlon magazine, TJ Murphy as he trains for his return to the marathon at the 2009 ING New York City Marathon. TJ will be getting “back on the bus” of marathon training with the guidance of elite coach Terrence Mahon under the Asics Editor’s Run NYC Marathon program. Learn more about Terrence, his athletes and his programs at www.runmammoth.com.

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