Monday, January 16, 2017

Getting Better

Getting Better

The other day, Dad asked me "So, when are you going to start writing again."  Now, I can finally answer "Today Dad.  Today."

April 16th, 2015 marked the end of my 33rd year since I first started running.  Most years, I commemorate each new running anniversary with a run.  But on April 16, 2015, my anniversary passed without a run, or a celebration. Instead, it passed with prohibitive pain in my left foot which made even getting out of bed in the morning a formidable challenge.  The lack of acknowledgement of the day was not such a big disappointment, but the fact that I encountered this injury while rounding into the best shape in several years hurt a lot more than the foot itself.  As a result of this injury, my focus on Big Sur at the end of that month turned to forfeiture of the race for the second year in a row.

At the end of April, 2015, Kelli and I went back to Big Sur, my bucket list race, and I had to watch it from the sidelines for the second year in a row.  We flew out to San Francisco the Wednesday before the race, and started our sightseeing right away.  Day one of the trip was awful.   After flying in early that day, we walked over 9 miles all around the hills of San Francisco, and my feet both swelled up badly, and every step became more and more painful.  I crashed in bed that night wondering how I was going to get through the next day’s Yosemite hike.  But the next morning, something odd happened.  When I got out of bed, my feet did not hurt so badly, the swelling was down, and in fact, my feet felt better than they had in a few days.  Each day after, despite averaging 5 miles of walking a day, my legs and feet felt better.   

In fact, the day before the race, Kelli and I were even talking about “walking” the Big Sur 21-mile race we had registered for the next day, but after a day of debating it in our minds, logic won out.  But we did get up Sunday morning, and I went out and ran 3 miles.  It was my first run in over two weeks, and the foot seemed to do pretty well. All the pain and heaviness was absent for that run.  But it also ended up being the last miles I would run for over a year, as my condition soon after turned south and got progressively worse.

These foot issues had arisen before.  This was the second year in a row, at about the same time both years, where my feet, and sometimes my legs hurt with every step, and just walking created excruciating pain.  In my mind, it felt like a crippling pain, and running again became the furthest thing from my mind.  I saw a podiatrist about this the first year it occurred, and one of his theories was that I was suffering from Psoriatic Arthritis, a condition that affects about 10%-30% of people who suffer from Psoriasis.  But I have never been diagnosed with Psoriasis, so I didn't give it much of a thought.  He was just a foot doctor, anyway.

Even though I was not running, my symptoms got worse.  The pains and swelling that started in one toe  advanced over the next several months from my feet to my shins, to my knee, to my hip, and finally to my neck and shoulders, to the point that I could not even turn my head.  I was having to allow extra time in the morning just to get out of bed and shower before work.

Trips to my Primary Care Physician proved futile, and a referral specialists in Ortho and Neuro did not help.  A trip to an Urgent Care Center when the pain and inflammation in my feet was so bad I could hardly walk resulted in testing, and results of a false positive for Lyme Disease.  This misdiagnosis was accompanied by massive quantities of misappropriated antibiotics over a period of several months with no positive results.  Finally, near the very end of 2015, I saw a Rheumatologist, who confirmed the podiatrist's theory after a full year of battling the affliction, and finally got me on a medication therapy that worked for me, and slowly...very slowly, I started to get better.

This entire past year has been one of caution and distractions.  I did not even attempt a run of any duration until February 2th this past year, when I ran a full mile without stopping for the first time in nearly a year.  Over the next couple of months of sporadic training, I finally ran 3 miles again without stopping, But for the rest of the year, I never really got back in the swing, and only had one month all last year where I ran over 40 miles.  I didn't yet trust my body to hold up.

But now, in the final months to wrapping up my 35h year of running, I have started running a little more regularly, and with a little more confidence again, and though I am much slower than I could ever imagine, it feels as good as it ever has.  In fact, in some ways, it feels better.  To gain back something you though was lost forever adds a new level of appreciation you could not possibly achieve any other way.

In nearly 35 years, there is a lot of history to look back on, including many personal accomplishments which have provided a lifetime of memories. but before I go down memory lane, I have a confession to make for the first time ever.  I am actually not positive that April 16, 1982 was my very first run. But whenever it was, it was only a pathetic mile that beat me up, and it was my final attempt in a series encompassing several years before this time, when running finally stuck.  In previous writings, I have always referred to April 16th as the date I started running, but until I ran a few more times after that and it started weaving its way into my lifestyle, I had no idea that this day would be day one.  But I do believe it was pretty close to, if not the exact day I started running "for good."

I knew running was sticking when I signed up for, and ran, my first road race, which actually wasn’t my first road race.  I had run a 10K race a couple of times previously in the late 70’s, pretty much totally untrained, but it was a race my father’s company sponsored, so I basically jumped in.  But on June 26, 1982, I ran the Shelter Island 10K, and a week later, I ran the Firecracker 5K in Massapequa, and I was becoming a runner.  

Dad and me at the first race we ever ran together.  The Massapequa Firecracker 5K, July 3, 1982.  Note that I am wearing my T-shirt from my previous race, the Shelter Island 10K
One cool thing about running in the early days was that I got better, and I got better fast.  My first 5K was between 25 and 26 minutes, and my first 10K was over 58 minutes, but by the end of the year, my 5K was down to 20:30, and my 10K was under 44 minutes.  PR races were a possibility every time I raced and the memories of these first races are still as vivid as if I had run them yesterday.  And the night before every race, I tossed and turned due to the shear excitement and anticipation of the next morning’s race.  And there was a possibility that every race could be faster than the race before.  I was getting better, and had yet to realize my limits.

A funny thing about a PR is you never really know you have run one at the moment you run it.  All you know for sure is you have run a distance faster than you ever have previously.  The fact that you have run a PR does not really crystalize until years later, when the time still stands as first your performances, then your dreams of accomplishments, decline.  It takes a long time to let go of the dream that maybe you still have a faster time in you.

In September, 2005, Bob Cooper published an article in Runners World on-line called “The 25 Golden Rules of Running."  It had been published in the printed version of magazine several years earlier but even now, it still holds up pretty well.  Embedded right in the middle, standing at number 12 was one called “The Seven-year Rule” which basically states that no matter when you start running, you can expect seven years of improved performance.  This is true whether you start running at 25 or 55.  When I started running, I was 26, which meant I could in theory expect to get better until I was about 33.

Looking back, I think at this point, at age 61, I am confident that all my PRs are well behind me.  But when I look back at my accomplishments, my PR history spans many years.  My very first PR was at 5 miles in early November of 1982.  It was also one of my most unique accomplishments.  In a three week span, I ran 3 different 8K/5 mile races in under 34 minutes.  The fastest was my first, a strong 33:06.  Never since that three week stretch have I run another one in under 34 minutes.  In March of 1983, less than a year after I started running, I set my 5K PR at around 19:52.  It was an early goal of mine to break 20 minutes for a 5K, and in my entire history of running, this was the only time I ever did it.  Later that year, I set my 10K PR with a fairly solid 41:30 and it took many years of trying after to realize that this was as good as it gets for any of those distances.  

So where were my other 6 years of getting better?  They came in longer distances.  My 10 mile PR, perhaps my best race ever, came in 1984, at the Capital Trail 10 miler in Raleigh NC.  I believe I ran the 2nd 5 miles in under 34 minutes, and I felt great at the end. My finish time was 1:08:20.  My half marathon PR came a few years later at Kiawah Island.  My goal that race was a sub 1:34:00, and I made it with about 10 seconds to spare.  

But the marathon was one race that I never achieved a feeling of running the best I could.  I had run about 20 of them between my late 20’s and early mid 40’s, but none of them were quality races because I had never trained properly for one.  I broke 4 hours barely a couple of times, but whenever anyone would ask me what my marathon PR was, my answer was simply “I don’t know.  I haven’t run it yet.”

Finally, a day after my 49th birthday, 23 years after I started running, and with proper training, I ran the marathon I could call a PR, with a 3:53 at Twin Cities.  It was a special day in my running life, because it was the only time I stood at a starting line of a marathon knowing I was going to run a PR.  I regretted that I had not trained properly for a marathon when I was younger, as I probably could have run a 3:20, but I’ll never know.  But after this race, I think I knew that ALL my PRs were not in the past.  There was no longer a change to get better.  I had maxed out at every distance.

Getting better.  All this history leads me to the purpose of this essay and why I am writing it now.  The last few years, I have looked back and know I no longer have a change of getting better at any distance.  For a very long and real stretch of time, I was positive I would never even run again, and was consumed with nothing but thoughts of overall deteriorating health.      

Today, about a year after the initial correct diagnosis and treatment, I can once again run, but it has taken most of this past year to have the confidence that another relapse isn't looming in the near background.  I have dealt with this before, and it never gets easier.  In fact, every time running throws a setback in the form of injury or overall health, it takes longer and longer to trust your body again, and it is all too easy to just give up and find less challenging interests, (like drinking beer.) 

 But I have also come to a truth that I had to go through this journey to clearly see.  Getting better is not just about improving on minutes and seconds.  Getting better is not only for the young or for the healthy.  It does not mean just going faster or going longer.  In fact, getting better is the only thing I care about right now, and it is the only direction I can go.  My running will never be any faster than it has been in years gone by.  But I can get better each time that today represents an improvement over yesterday, and I have had that a lot lately.  I have a feeling that this is how I will be measuring PRs in the future, but in a way it feels just like it did nearly 35 years ago.  In this past year, I went from hardly being able to get out of bed, to a slow deliberate walk, to a slow jog, to a full return to running  In more ways than ever before, every day, in every way, I am getting better.

Me and Dad again, almost 35 years later, after his 90th birthday.  Still walking!