I was about 3 miles into the Litchfield Hills Road Race when I came to the conclusion that I really had no business at all being there. It was 86F in the burning sun, I had just twisted my ankle, and I was running so slow that people walking the course were passing me. This was not how I envisioned my race would go. Not at all. And I still had 4 miles to go. As I staggered my way through the doppled shade on Bissell Rd., trying to motor from one shady spot to the next without my internal engine overheating for good, I thought about how I, a 57-year-old non-runner, got myself into this lousy mess in the first place.
It all started this time a year ago, as my wife and I set up our chairs on the Litchfield green, waiting for our youngest daughter to run the race. We had been going to the LHRR as observers, for years, as our children grew, first running the 100-yard dash down West Street (all the kids' bib numbers were "1"), then the half-race, and then the full race. I had always enjoyed the atmosphere, the generous support everyone provided for all of the runners, that moment that everyone in a small town lives for, when the community forgets its internal squabbles and gets together for what amounts to a gargantuan, multi-day block party.
As we got settled that day, I looked around at all of the runners. And it occurred to me that nobody I was looking at was overweight, which was of some import to me, as I had been struggling to lose some weight that had accrued as I began to pass to the back side of my middle years. I have always been physically active -- for 15 years, I trained in the martial art of Aikido, I am a cyclist who rides, rather than drives most places, and I have trained on free weights intermittently since I was 18 -- but despite all that, the years were beginning to show.
On race day 2014, as I looked around at all of the trim runners, I thought I found a way to punch through the years. My logic was simple: Runners aren't fat. Ergo, if I become a runner, I will end up losing weight and become thin. So, a few weeks later, I started to run.
Unfortunately, I didn't get too far into my training program when my left knee started to give out on me. The pain rapidly escalated from during the run to after the run to all-the-damn-time. I stopped running, but the pain continued to progress until I was unable to walk without a cane.
As it turned out, the problem was metabolic and nutritional, rather than mechanical (more on that in a future blog post), but I couldn't effect a full recovery until January of this year. I ran 2 miles on a treadmill to prove to myself the stability of my knee's health, then did approximately nothing for the next several months, except to add more weight as I tried desperately to lose it.
The added weight was definitely on my mind, as I turned the corner off Bissell onto the long gravel road leading to the White Memorial museum. It slopes up into a grade that is not terribly steep, but is at least persistent. Surprisingly, I had found during my 3-week training period, that I can hold my own going uphill. I attribute this to my thigh muscles trained through years of cycling up and down the Litchfield hills. The different gait eased the ankle pain. Actually, by the top of the grade, my ankle was rather miraculously in little pain. I had gone from agony to numbness. I looked down and realized that my whole foot was so ridiculously swollen in my shoe that it was probably cutting off some nerves. Whatever. I still had a bunch of miles to go.
My desire to start running was re-ignited over Memorial Day weekend. I spent the weekend in western New York, at a festival/annual meeting/campout with my fellow travellers in Ár nDraíocht Féin. One of those days I spent in the Warrior Games, a friendly and distinctly old-school competition whose events include the spear toss, rock throwing and tug-of-war on balancing boards. And, oh yes, a footrace.
I spent the day getting beat like a circus monkey. I came in dead last in every single event except, surprisingly, the foot race in which I beat two other men -- granted, one of them was wearing blue jeans and work boots, but I still beat him. In my defense, most of my competition was half my age, but I still should have put up a better showing.
I returned home somewhat deflated, and decided that to pull myself out of the doldrums, I had to give myself a win. A difficult but achievable goal. I thought about it as I ran 2 miles, then 2.5 miles a few days later. Heck, I thought to myself, what's the difference between 2.5 miles and 7.1 miles? Hardly any! So, without giving myself any chance to logically think about it, I got online and signed up for the Litchfield Hills Road Race. It wasn't until after I had registered that I realized I only had three weeks to train. At that point, I realized that I quite possibly had bitten off more than I could chew.
I barely noticed crossing Chickadee Bridge, as the dirt footpath was much gentler on my beleaguered ankle. Unfortunately, it didn't last long, as I soon emerged from the woods and turned left onto White's Woods Rd. I was on the home stretch, but with the sun pounding down full strength, I wasn't expecting an easy run back home. At least I would be back on familiar territory.
Having now registered -- and worse yet, publicly announced it -- I set about assessing my strengths and weaknesses. My cardiovascular system was the least of my worries. I have the heart of a 30-year-old. My blood pressure rarely goes above 120/80, my resting pulse when training is somewhere around 50, my recovery time is quick, and I have a maximum heart rate that has been known to set off emergency stops on gym equipment. The last time I put my real age into a Stairmaster and had it track my heart rate, the damn thing shut down because it thought I was having a heart attack. I wasn't. I was just training hard.
On the flip side were my muscles. After years of cycling, my leg muscles were masters of the interval, but not prepared for the sustained, even energy load of running. There was also too much muscle, especially up top. The chest and shoulders I had spent years developing were worthless, and even my legs had too much thigh, seasoned by years of pumping against high gears.
Also working against me was my age. When I was in my 40s and still training in Aikido, I asked one of my dojo mates who had a decade on me, what it was like being his age. He just looked at me and said, "After 50, if you wake up in the morning and something doesn't hurt, you're dead."
I laughed then, but I later found that he was right. Inflammation was going to be a big problem for me. It was what had stopped me from running before, and I knew that my joints would be ill-prepared to suddenly take on the pounding of long runs.
Last, and certainly not least, was my weight. In 3 weeks time, I clearly was not going to be one of the trim runners that I had admired the previous year. But perhaps with consistent, stringent aerobic exercise, I would be able to shed a few pounds before dragging them around the course.
I set up a nutritional program which was designed to help fuel the muscles, combat rampant inflammation and provide proper caloric intake. And then I started running.
The first week of my three-week training period was almost gone, so I immediately jumped my distance up from 2.5 miles to 4, and then to 5 and 5.5. I extended my runs by looping further and further out the road race course, always ending my training with a run up the dreaded Gallows Lane.
You see, I had decided to shoot for three goals. First, obviously, was to finish the race. Second was to run the entire length. And the third goal, though I left it unspoken, was just, for the sake of all that is holy, not be the last one to cross the finish line. And the hill on Gallows Lane was where all three goals could go into the ditch. So I made sure that every run ended with a trip up its short, but daunting, grade.
When I mapped my training schedule out, it came down to the fact that I really only had one week available for hard training. I had already spent the first week scaling up, and I would have to back down for much of the third week. That left one week to put the hammer down. I drank my energy drink and hoped it was enough.
As I shoved myself forward down the long, level road, I came to the conclusion that it hadn't been enough. Even here, on the flats, I couldn't summon the energy to boost my speed to anything barely above a brisk walk. I had "bonked" -- my muscles had run out of glycogen. That normally doesn't happen to distance runners until much higher mileages than I was at, and the last time I had bonked on my bicycle, I was 90 miles into a 100-mile ride. But here it was. I'd hit the wall, and I was still several miles and one steep hill before reaching my goals. I forced myself out of my pain- and fatigue-induced myopia to look around. There was still a band playing, and a bit further up the road, I could see a water station. That would help. I kept limping forward in the hope that a little hydration would give me a few more miles.
My training schedule hit a big snag at the end of the second week. One that would have been less significant, had my time been less compressed. My problem was that I had been running in sandals; "barefoot" running, as it is called, helped me to avoid damage to my knees. In the running world, the whole barefoot running debate achieves the same levels of religious zealotry and online vitriol which cyclists reserve for discussing helmet use.
The biomechanics of shod vs. unshod running are fascinating, and while I've read a lot of the research behind the debate, it's not my intent to advocate for barefoot running here. It works for me, except for the fact that under my accelerated training schedule, my feet had not had a chance to harden up properly, and the straps on my sandals had begun wearing a hole in my ankle. By chance, however, I found a pair of zero-drop running shoes, and swapped them in.
In fact, I broke them in by running 5.5 miles in them, without socks. That proved to be a bit of a mistake. About 3 miles in, I felt the left shoe begin to pinch at the heel, and when I went to take them off, I discovered blood pouring out of a crater that had been excavated on my achilles tendon. There was no way to use the shoes again. I put them aside, and put on an old pair of trainers and continued my runs in them. Unfortunately, my feet, legs, and knees were unhappy with the switch. Whatever. At that point, I still had a bunch of miles to run before I even got to the race.
The water helped, though at that point it was clear that nothing would improve my speed. So I just put my head down and trundled along. The crowds had thinned considerably. Santana and Michelle Branch were playing in my headphones. I put my head down, looked at the ground, and ran. Nobody was passing me anymore. I hoped that there was still someone behind me.
The flats passed in a haze, and then I was at the turnoff for Gallows Lane. I didn't bother to throttle back before heading up the hill. Instead, I opened the throttle wide. It did no good. The tank was empty.
The hill at Gallows Lane is all in the mind, I had kept telling myself when I was training. I had certainly been up it enough times on my bicycle, but running it on foot gave me the chance to study it in more detail. What makes Gallows so difficult is that it ramps up quickly to a fairly steep grade, holds it, and then as you near the top, it tacks on another percent. Some maps call it an 8% grade near the top, others call it closer to 9%. Then, when you're halfway through that hump, you realize that the grade only tapers off a little and the hill keeps on going a bit further. That's the mind-killer. That's when the hill says "Gotcha!" as you sink into the abyss of despair.
Actually, this entire enterprise was an exercise of mind over matter. There was no way, in the time allotted, that my body could adapt to the new stresses sufficiently. Looking back on it now, I'm relatively convinced that I ran that race with little more physical capacity than I had when I started training. The only true difference was that I had begun to train my mind to work with the miles in a different way and to manage the joint pain. I also failed to lose any weight; in fact I gained three pounds while running.
During the last week, I began to suffer from mission creep. Relatively certain that I could complete the entire course, I began to worry about how fast I would finish and whether I could keep up with other runners my age. I had to forcefully remind myself that those weren't my goals. I wanted to run the whole course from beginning to end. That was all. Time and competition were immaterial.
I basically staggered up Gallows Lane, or at least it felt like that to me. I would fall out of a running gait into a walk, back to running, up the hill. I must have not looked too well put together at that point, because one of the race marshals approached me and asked me if I was ok. I gave him a big smile and told him I was feeling great! and walked for about 50 feet. Then the grade started to level out, and I switched back into a running gait, though I think that slowed me down. Nobody was passing me at any rate, though for all I knew at that point, I was the last guy on the road. I put my head back down, and trucked slowly up South St. I was in a daze, and moving on little more than instinct. As I reached the corner, I heard the familiar voice of Daughter #2 yelling "Way to go, Daddy!" I turned the corner, vaguely saw my wife with camera in hand, waved, and a few seconds later, entered the chute at the finish line. Daughter #1 grabbed me, guided me to the water and brought me fruit. I sat down. I had finished.
Our lives progress from moment to moment, each step taking us down the path of what eventually becomes our histories. Most of our steps follow along a singular course, governed by our momentum in that direction and frequently independent of our intention to move along a different route. But in each life, there are watershed moments, in which our headlong rush is stalled and that course is altered, for better or for worse.
Often, what makes these transformations possible is an extreme physical or emotional experience that, in erasing some of our current baggage, clears the way for changes. Japanese martial artists do something called misogi, in which they practice some extreme exercises followed by ritual bathing to cleanse their bodies and spirits.
This was my misogi. For most of the runners that day, it was just another run, a good challenge, a nice twist on the hill at the end. For me, it ended up being much more than that. It was proof that I could still push my body, not just beyond my comfort zone, but into that rare space that lies beyond, where perceptions alter and nothing exists except the here and now. It was a demonstration to myself that, as I near 60, I am not entirely mistaken when I look into the mirror expecting to see the face of a 30-year-old. He is still there and I am still him.
My deepest thanks to the many volunteers that day who held out water and hope, and to my family, for putting up with me.