Back On The Bus: Treadmill Survival 101

Yesterday morning , Sunday, I woke up at 5:30am in a mild state of panic. I made coffee, apparently so that I could ratchet up the panic a few notches with a 300-mg bolt of fresh-brewed caffeine.

Why the duress? Because I’d planned to do a 14-mile long run and I knew-because of my lingering IT-band problems, I had to do it on a treadmill. The duress was two-layered: One, because I was afraid the injury would resurface and I wouldn’t make it through 14 miles, and two, because I knew if the injury didn’t resurface I would be facing the trauma of two hours on a treadmill.

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Fact is, I’ve been doing a lot of running on a treadmill the last two weeks because it’s the only way I’ve been able to run. So while I’m immensely grateful that my therapeutic measures have made this possible, I must report that being stuck on a treadmill at either LA Fitness (near the office) or Powerhouse Gym (near home) is not my cup of tea. Particularly when the weather in San Diego has been especially inviting-it’s been sunny but a bit cooler than in July, absolutely perfect.

On the treadmill at LA Fitness in Mira Mesa there are countless televisions each playing one of three things: ESPN, CNN and a channel that shows either soap operas or Dr. Phil. Obviously this has a lot to do with the time of day I can run at LA Fitness, but that’s what’s on the screen. The stream of disaster reporting and bad news from CNN does not mix well for me at all while on the treadmill. It just makes me want to give up on a grand scale; not just the run but on everything. They just come at you so hard and from so many angles of hopelessness. So I avert my eyes. As far as soap operas, it’s fascinating that every other scene seems to take place in a hospital. This is the sum total I recall noticing about the soaps. And then there’s daytime ESPN, which is two guys taking different sides on every possible issue you could come up with from the sports scene and yelling at each other about it. I’ve noticed Brett Favre is often a flashpoint. When the TV can’t hold my attention for more than 10 seconds, which is just about always, I look around the people working out on the weight machines. I kid you not, I’ve seen some weird stuff. There’s one gal that, while between sets, pulled out a cell phone and does some texting. Perhaps she’s Twittering on the quality of the recent set. This, however, was nothing compared to a middle-aged guy who lugged with him, from machine to machine, a portable DVD player. He was watching a movie not just between sets, but while he half-heartedly pulled and pushed at the weights.

Not exactly inspiring imagery.

Yesterday I did the long run at Powerhouse. I started off by wrapping my knee with a brace and using a foam roller to stretch out the IT band. I then climbed aboard the machine and started punching buttons. One good thing about the first few miles: I could tell that my knee and my right leg were holding up. No pain and no limp, a victory onto itself. Then I played the great imaginary game played by all runners at one time or another, the one where you pretend that the entire future of the universe consists of the next 10 minutes. Beyond that there is nothing more; just a great black void awaiting you off the edge of a flat Earth. You squeeze your brain into buying this and then deal with this distinct segment of time and distance. When you polish off the 10 minutes you allow yourself a brief instant of relief, but then immediately repeat the process. You don’t want to enjoy it too much or the reality of another 10 miles to go will come crashing down and you’ll be forced to wallow through the muck of despair.

And so it goes, chunk by chunk, eventually clawing your way into the last 30 minutes. I did this for two hours, but I know other runners who have done the likes of three or more hours on a treadmill. One, ultra-triathlete Chris Sustala of New York City, LOVES  running 24-plus-mile runs on a treadmill. Sustala turns the whole thing into a meditation. In the 1990s I was lucky enough to do some running with the great ultra-runner, Gary Hilliard. At the time Gary was making his living as a steelworker, so to get in his 160-mile-per-week volume he bought a treadmill so he could add to his morning 16-miles (or so) of running by getting in miles at night (weekends is where he really let it rip. One Sunday I met with him after he’d run 12 miles, ran 24 with him in the Golden Gate Headlands, and then watched as he refilled his water bottles for the 12 miles he needed to run home. I drove to breakfast).

In other words, I don’t have much to brag about when it comes to surviving 14 miles on a treadmill. I’m so thrilled to be able to run at all that I can easily see playing it safe and doing my next long run on the mill. And perhaps the next. Maybe it’s time to plug in earphones so I can follow along with the soap operas. Maybe that will help.

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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