Friday, October 25, 2013

Race Report: Ironw00t Nike Women's Marathon Edition

We did it for that Tiffany's box
In the lead-up to June’s SF Marathon, I developed tendonitis on my right foot, which physically and mentally benched me for the race. My entry into the Nike Women’s Marathon gave me a 2nd chance to show myself “I. Can. Do. This.” In July, I started training in earnest and my number one goal was to get to the start line uninjured. If you want to make the marathon gods laugh, tell them that’s your plan…

The first 12 weeks of training were amazing. I had learned a lot of lessons from my first marathon attempt: I made sure to incorporate pilates, strength training, and yoga to keep the kinetic chain limber, balanced, and strong; I bought new shoes and adjusted my stride accordingly; I developed a great fuel plan for my long runs; and I ran my training plan religiously. By late September, I felt well-positioned to have a solid, fun first marathon.

Then, disaster struck. During what was supposed to be my penultimate long run (18 miles), I injured myself. The prevailing theory is that I ran for too long on uneven surfaces and caused a ligament strain in my left foot. Despite aggressive chiropractor appointments and a dramatic taper, I was still feeling some tightness the week of the race. “The ligament isn’t fully healed, but you can still run on Sunday” was the pronouncement at my last pre-race appointment. Not an inspiring diagnosis, but not a bench sentence either.

Arriving at the start line with my foot taped up, and with 4 instead of 2 weeks of taper, the only thing I could do was to run my race, whatever that might look like. Spoiler alert: It was not pretty. At first, I could only feel that ever persistent strain along the outside and bottom of my left foot, but it wasn’t painful as much as it was just uncomfortable. I thought: “As long as it’s just that, I can manage.”  I could almost hear the marathon gods chuckling to themselves.

The calm before the storm
The first nine miles felt great. A huge benefit of this being a local race for me is that I had run 90% of the course multiple times during my training. It felt like any other long weekend run, except for the 29,999 other runners surrounding me (in the first half of the race, the line of women stretched as far as you could see). As I approached the 10 mile mark, running down the Great Highway from Cliff House, a new pain introduced itself. Tight achilles. Painfully tight achilles.

I wanted to just make it to the halfway point, but turning into the park (mile 11), the tendon grew more insistent. I stopped. I walked. I stretched. I limped. I ran. I stopped. I walked. A bathroom break at mile 12 gave me time to assess. I had 14 miles left, and just a little under 4 hours left to do it in. In a word: BLARG. I will attribute my decision to continue to a genetic defect called stubbornness (sometimes more flatteringly described as tenacity).

Mile 13 to mile 21 was a tough mental race on top of a painful physical one. I would start to jog and request of my body to “do just five minutes… see if you can run for five minutes… run to the end of this podcast, run to that stoplight, run till the aids station.” I bargained with my body: “if you run for six minutes, you can walk an extra minute after.” That strategy got me through the race… the game of mini-milestones made the pain manageable.
Ibuprofen now please.
At mile 18, Andrew finally found me. I explained my dilemma (my achilles is exploding!) and he gave me drugs. DRUGS! Why hadn’t I thought of that! 600 mg of Ibuprofen! I was ecstatic… I only had 8 miles left! I continued my run, limp, walk, stretch strategy until the dosage kicked in at mile 21, and I could sustain a run for more than 5 minutes. With only 5 more miles to go and my legs finally cooperating, I knew I could cross the finish line with 30 minutes to spare before they closed the course.

The Ibuprofen was so effective that I looked down at my Garmin and was clocking faster miles than in the beginning of the race! About half a mile from the finish, someone shouted from the sidelines: “Just two more stoplights and then you’re done!” During my training, I never thought I would get emotional at the end. As I worked my long training runs up from 5 miles to 18 miles, the finish line seemed inevitable. If I could do 18 miles and still feel great, I didn’t doubt that I could run for another 1.5 hours and finish. But I didn’t anticipate my injury and the subsequent struggle to get to the end. When that finish line appeared in view, and I approached the gauntlet of spectators I literally got choked up. Having almost limped along 14 miles, it just felt overwhelmingly triumphant. Whatever I spent the last 6 hours battling, I had won. Maybe that was what the marathon gods planned all along.
I'd like to dedicate this race to Ira Glass
The Aftermath

When I got home after the race, I could finally assess the damage. My left achilles was swollen and bruised. The next day, my entire left foot was distended. The doctor’s assessment: my body compensated for the ligament strain by changing my stride and using different muscles, causing a domino effect of pain up and down my legs. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this crazy world of endurance sports is that one small thing can have a butterfly effect in your whole system. My glutes, IT band, knees, hip flexors, hamstrings, and calves are all bearing the brunt of this one tiny stretched out ligament. Everything up that chain is overwrought and in desperate need of recovery and rehab. I can run again, but only once everything is fully healed.

So What’s Next?

Two weeks off of high impact sports… easing back into my usual regimen of yoga and pilates, and then getting on my bike to train for AIDS Lifecycle 2014 (another item on the bucket list). But also, a few weeks before the race, I knew I would be disappointed to not be able to run my best. So… how does one deal with that? Well one way to do it is to sign yourself up for another race (it is a vicious cycle). I bought myself an entry to Avenue of the Giants Marathon next spring, a course I've always wanted to do. Hopefully, with my lessons learned from training for the SF Marathon and NWM, coupled with some great cycling cross-training, I can have the solid, fun second marathon experience I always wanted. If it pleases the marathon gods. :)

Sidenote

My sister-in-law, Kara Valko, ran her first half marathon with an amazing time of 2:11! Unlike my race - hers was smooth and fast! :) Watch out for her, she’s got the half-marathon bug. :P
team ironw00t represents at NWM