So it has been over a month since I last posted, and besides the fact that a lot was going on in my life besides running, the main reason was that I was learning how to handle my first real running injury (one I couldn't push through) and my first DNF. If you follow my journey, you know that I was in training for the Big Cottonwood Marathon in Utah and it was going to be my last chance at a BQ for 2017. My training went well and I felt strong, but two weeks out from race day, my IT band came alive turning a 16 miler into a 10 and putting my race in jeopardy. So here is my story and review of (what I finished) of the Big Cottonwood Marathon, and how I have been working back from the injury.
My issues actually started about 3 weeks before the race where I finished a 22 miler at 18 miles because I felt tightness in my left knee and thought it was my form breaking down in the heat and humidity. I took most of the week off, only doing a 4 miler and feeling fine. Then I tried my 16 miler on Saturday and once I was 6.5 miles in and met my run club, my knee was really locked up. I pushed out 3.5 more to get to 10 and I was in pain, so I called it. I was sure it was my IT band which had never given me issues at the knee before (I have had it at the hip, but that is manageable). I talked with my club and running partner/coach and decided to take the next 2 weeks off and then run the race. They all agreed that 10 days is generally enough to reset the IT band. I was most worried about mentally running a marathon with 14 days of rest, but I knew it would give me fresh legs.
After 14 days off, I arrived in Utah a couple days before the race. I was amazed by the stunning views of the mountains and colorful valleys as the trees started to change. On Friday I headed to the expo and got taped up for the race. There I ran into several instagram runner friends (Catey, Kim, Peter, Aaron, and Jessica) and we discussed the race and our goals. Kim, Aaron, and Catey had done the race before and shared their tips with me, reminding me not to fear the uphill at 3 after 3 miles of all downhill. We wished each other luck and headed out. I drove the marathon route up the canyon to get a feel for how high we would be and the locations of any uphills or flat portions. Back at the resort, I cooked my pasta, continued to hydrate (especially because of the altitude), and got my outfit together. It was going to be a chilly 33 at the start up in the mountains and wouldn't warm up until around 18 miles when we came out of the canyon. With everything ready, I went to bed, hoping the knee would hold up for the race.
Around 4 in the morning I got to the bus drop off where we would be shuttled to the top of the mountain, over 9000 ft up. I made sure to grab a front seat on the bus because I didn't want to get sick on the drive up. I chatted with the runners around me as we started the ascent, which was somewhat terrifying on a school bus. On our way up, we passed several runners and learned that they were running the Wasatch 100, a hundred miler which runs up one side of the mountain and down the other! When we finally made it to the top it was a sea of silver as all the runners were sitting on the ground wrapped in their silver blankets. I joined them and put on the gloves that the race provides to all runners. Time passed quickly and before I knew it, I was last minute trying to get to the bathroom, drop my bag, and get into the corrals. I ended up having to jump into a random spot in the corral with 30 seconds to spare.
As we took off, I wished the race directors had enforced paces a little better, because it is one thing to have to dodge slower runners who started too far up on a flat course, but it is a whole other to try to dodge them on a downhill course. I struggled to hold back behind slower runners and was dodging people for the first half mile. Mostly I was happy because my body felt great and I was effortlessly running a 7 minute first mile because of the downhill. I forced myself to back down to 7:40s for the next two miles, which flew by because we were quickly at the 5k mark. I tried to take in the scenery the whole way because the views were unlike anything I had ever seen before.
Shortly after the 5k came my first issue. We headed up a huge hill, which would normally have been fine, except we just did 3 downhill miles and were climbing a hill at 8000+ feet of elevation. My Ohio lungs were not prepared for that and I started gasping for air once I was at the top. I probably would have been okay but I hyperventilated a little because of the unfamiliar feeling, and that made me have to stop and walk to catch my breath. I talked myself through it and warned myself to be careful on any future hills and took off again. I caught back up to the 8:00/mile pacer and knew I was right where I needed to be to BQ. I felt fantastic and the miles were flying by. I took in the scenery and was having an awesome time and I couldn't believe I was at mile 10 that quickly.
Everything went out the window at 10.5 miles. I felt my knee start to seize up at 10.5 and I backed off the pace a little, but it continued to worsen. I dropped into the 9 minute mile range and by 11 miles I was limping. At 11.5 had to walk and at that point I took out my phone and called my running partner/coach. I asked him what to do and explained all the issues I was having. He refused to tell me what to do but he did say "how long do you want to be out for? A few weeks if you stop now, or a few months if you try to finish?" He also told me the story of one of his DNFs where he decided to quit, and another club runner pushed on, and the runner who pushed on never ran another full marathon again. The combination of all of his advice and the 4:00 pacer passing me sealed my decision. I would drop at the half.
I crossed the half marathon mark at 1:54 (still 15 minutes better than my first half) and I found the medic. I joined a group of 4 other runners who were having knee issues (down hill race ;) ) and we waited for our ride down the mountain. The medic was the best I have seen at a race. He did everything he could for us, even giving me his coat to keep me warm, grabbing us water and snacks, and checking on us constantly. When the ATV finally showed up, we piled on and shot down the mountain. The driver lifted our spirits, asking us questions and chatting about the race. The only sad part was where we rolled up to the finish line and knew we wouldn't be finishing today.
At the finish, the driver gave me his shoulder and helped me hobble to the medical tent to be treated. They gave me ice and had me wait for a while. I was violently shaking at that point because of the adrenaline pumping to the injury and due to everything else going on. I was given a half marathon medal at that point because I did finish a half marathon. After finishing up in the medical tent, I met my Instagram runner friends and congratulated all of them on PRs, BQs, and awesome finishes. It helped to celebrate their accomplishments at that point.
I hobbled around the next day and a half enjoying the rest of my vacation. I saw the site of the 2002 Olympics, rode horses through the mountain, and ate awesome food. I felt a little regret, but ultimately handled the DNF better than I expected. I received amazing support from all of my runner friends both in my club and on Instagram, and was told constantly what a smart decision I made. My favorite quote was from a runner in my club who had a similar experience several years ago and told me "We didn't DNF, we just adjusted our goals."
What I have learned from my injury
This injury has taught me a lot, and in a weird way, it has kind of been a blessing. That sounds crazy and unthinkable, but bear with me as I explain.
Post injury, I took two weeks off and after that I was dying to run. I went out and did an easy 3 miler with my only goal being to have no pain, tightness or soreness. I hit that goal and felt awesome to have done the run. Each day that I go out and finish a run without pain is a good run. I usually decide on the distance while I'm out there and I run based on feel (i.e. the Kenyan way). And believe it or not, running that way has actually produced some of the fastest times I have seen in a while. My love for running is back and I don't ever want to lose it like that again.
Do I have a race on my schedule? Yes. Do I have a goal time for that race? Yes. But am I going to let that control my runs? No. That is how I trained for Rock n' Roll Arizona and that is still one of the best races I have every had.
When I run, I analyze my gait. Am I straining? Am I overcompensating? I kicked my ankle one day this week. That means something was tired and I was overcompensating for it. So I took the next day off and I stopped kicking. A day off won't kill you and neither will a week. Honestly, I never felt better running than I did in the first 10 miles of the marathon after having 2 weeks off.
An injury can be a blessing in disguise. Ideally, you would hope to learn these lessons before being sidelined, but sometimes it takes reaching that low point and having to start over to help you learn and grow.