The fire still burns

Before any big event you never sleep well. Your body is a battlefield with the melatonin army being ambushed by the guerrilla forces of nervous adrenaline at every hand’s turn.

And so it was last Saturday night into Sunday morning. The ghostly wrestling of a sparse and fitful night’s sleep. The ceiling staring and heartbeat counting of the insomniac.

Last Sunday was one of the roundy birthdays, of the decimal sort, easily divisible by 10, 5 and 2. I’d decided before Christmas that after a few years of a broken body it was time to see if I’d broken my will.

The plan was to run 50km. And to try and maintain my dignity by not taking all weekend to do it. Easy, I hear you say. Only a short warm up in the world of long distance running you tell me. Long distances are run in your head, not with you legs. Set your head to the task and it’ll drag everything else with it. The question was, do I have the head for it?

The added twist was that, as I write, we’re all restricted to a 5km limit from our front doors as a result of the Covid-19 public health measures. This would mean that my birthday run would be limited to a simple loop run several times. Nothing as boring as the men and women who run around a 400m track for 24 hours (there’s always someone crazier than you) but still, not exactly the highlands of Scotland.

When I finally found some sleep it was the sort that you wake from and feel like you’ve had a 5 minute nap and could do with an awful lot more. At least I was in my own bed. In the past I’ve woken before a long run in a tent, in the back of a car, in another country, under a picture of the Virgin Mary. Each one less than helpful for the task in hand.

After a solitary breakfast of porridge and coffee I slipped out the door and into the darkness and the rain.

Over the next 5 hours or so the darkness gave away to a dull and heavy morning but the rain never let up. Within the first mile my feet were wet, after the first hour I wasn’t going to get any wetter. I consoled myself in the fact that it was the same for everyone else running 50km on their birthday today……………….

Looking back on the run, the first hour was the toughest. In the first hour your mind is struggling to let go of it’s normal moorings. The wind hasn’t caught your sail and it all seems so bewildering.

And then it happens. Time stops. There’s no past, no present, no future. The world is just a single ongoing moment. Time falls away like the raindrops on your face.

The last hour was no picnic either but that just because your body eventually has to have its say in affairs. I had my youngest child with me for the last hour – proving me with a musette service and a welcome distraction from the pain.

I managed to finish in a respectable time and only made a fool of myself twice (fully aware that the whole venture was foolish). Once around 30km into the run when I accidentally stopped my gps watch for a few kilometres and had to add the missing kilometres to get the final numbers on the watch to match up with 31 miles. So, probably a 52km run in the end. The second time was at about 48km and was much more public. In mid-stride I finally acted my age by stumbling over myself and falling spectacularly in front of a bunch of Sunday walkers. They made that slightly-repulsed-to-see-an-adult-fall-like-toddler look and then offered to help me. By then I was becoming obsessed with cracking 5 hours for the run so I was up and away before they could do the Good Samaritan bit.

The first mile took over 10 minutes while the last one was run in 7 minute 45 seconds.

The rest of the day was cake and beer and family. All good things on your birthday.

In the days since my birthday run I’ve been hoping that I could put the idea of more long runs on the shelf. But no, the fire still burns. And I’m happy.

Making memories

Stay hydrated

2020 was the year that didn’t read the script. The year that proved the old saying that when men plan, God laughs.

Apart from the small detail of not being able to run properly before August there wasn’t much to run for anyway. No destination, no races, no landmarks.

So I did what what any sensible man would do; i dreamt up an activity holiday as simple as I am stupid. I coerced my last remaining coercible child and sold my half baked plan to some others in my family circle.

We were going to go cycling for 2 weeks. The prospect of sore limbs and camping under the stars filled us with an excitement that blinded us to the holes in our colander shaped plan.

Some bikes were dragged from sheds, some tents and sleeping bags acquired and we were off on an adventure.

Balance

I could give you a long and detailed list of the daily distances, campsite quality, food choices, opinions on the optimum amount of beer and wine needed to stay hydrated and all our mechanical and physical challenges. But I won’t do that.

The 600km, the mozzie bites, the ice cream stops, the daily supermarket deliberations about how cheap is too cheap for a good campsite wine. These details are just that – details. They don’t tell you about the infinite well memories that a trip like this gives you.

Cycling fuel

So for 2021 I plan to make memories.

Now I only need to convince the rest of my family to make them with me.

Lazarus

There’s a book to be written on my rollercoaster of a year in 2020. But this post isn’t it.

Just after my last post in late January my good leg/hip decided that, like it’s Marxist brother, it was time to make sure my brain understood who owned the means of production in my little bourgeois universe.

It did this by refusing to work for at least 4 months. Rather than beat it into submission as I had done countless times before I decided to use the crazy covid times of Spring 2020 to pursue some oriental stretching exercises (yoga, keep up).

By June I could do things with my legs that younger men (and women) could only dream of. Alas, one of those things was not running.
the clicking and clacking of my rusty knees and ankles every morning was gone but my ability to run had not returned.

Over the summer I went on a cycling and camping holiday with the last of my compliant children. The older two have long since turned into teenagers and refuse to be bribed by promises of toasted marshmallows and late nights under the stars. At the end of our almost 3 weeks of adventuring (I promise to put up another post or two on this) I had a classic trucker’s tan, a few bags of dirty cycling and camping kit and lo and behold – no leg pain. No hip pain. No ass pain. No pain.

It turned out that sleeping on the hard ground for a few weeks had done more for me than many years and many euros spent on countless physio sessions, doctors visits and swapping running shoes.

The only problem with my new found cure was the tiny little problem of it being impractical to sleep in the garden all year long – however tempting it might seem to my wife (for me to do it, not her).

I did the next best thing and last August paid lots of money for the firmest mattress available in the local mattress store.

And since that point in late August I have been running like never before. Well, never before about 2014. Six years of wonky hip pain due to a worn out mattress and too much enthusiasm for pain. On the plus side over those six years I did run plenty of 50, 80 and 100km races.

Since then I’ve run for fun. With no stopwatch and on routes I know well. My miles are modest and have only broken 40 miles per week a handful of times.

Last Saturday I woke early after another spectacular night’s sleep and pulled on my running shoes and a gps watch and headed for the door and out into the early morning darkness (I was wearing clothes as well just in case you had any doubts). 26.2 satisfying miles later I arrived back home. Pleased that despite the slings and arrows of 2020 I’d managed to pick myself up off the floor and get back to doing what I love the most.

Getting lost in running.

Winter running

We don’t get a lot of very cold weather in Ireland. Our cold is more of a low level guerrilla sort of thing. Dampness in the bones, a draught across the ankles, cold fingertips, the wrong coat.

But running in the winter is a pleasure. Cold air so rich in oxygen you can chew it. No overheating. No snow.

And nature. Things you don’t see on the sofa.

Lisbon December

Work brings me here. Hotel. Sleep. Work. Repeat. Tiredness

But there’s always time for a run if you try.

Calcifer

A belated update.

The good news is I’m back running.

It’s been about 2 months since I finished a run and said, my leg is better. Up until that point it was shallow-end-with-arm-bands 1-2km runs.

That was 5 months without running. No easy; especially for my family……

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Since then I’ve worked on leg strength, hip flexibility and the killer – aerobic fitness. My offending left leg had lost a considerable amount of muscle mass over the 5 months. Nothing you’d be able to see without looking closely but enough for me to be able to feel the difference.

The root cause of the injury was a combination of stupidity, stupidity and stupidity. If you look at the specific types of stupidity you’ll see that  it was a combination of believing that I had the biomechanics of a Kenyan, was aging in the opposite direction and was ignoring my shoe choices.

My recovery has seen me ignore the snake oil salesmen of the shoe industry and go back to the make and model that allowed me to run injury free for 5 years; learn new ways to stretch my hips that could see me appear in a very niche segment of the adult movie industry and work on regaining my aerobic fitness.

The injury period wasn’t all bad; I rediscovered my love of swimming and had the opportunity to take one of my kids on a cycle trip along the Canal du Midi.

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Like Calcifer (see Howl’s Moving Castle), the flame within me to run was never fully extinguished during my forced absence.  I’m in no rush to re-injure myself so I’ll happily continue my recovery, build strength, stretch like Patanjali and start again on my quest to dissolve the ego and discover true meaning.

Recovery

Before I ran I swam.

I haven’t swam properly (for at least 1,000m) in almost 15 years.

Until this week.

In order to stretch out my spine/pelvis joint and so that my lungs remember what they’re supposed to do I’ve been swimming on holidays.

I brought a pair of goggles from 15 years ago with me. Apart from them being so opaque I could have been registered as blind they leaked. So I’ve invested in a new pair and have enjoyed a morning of swimming to exhaustion.

I’d forgotten how complicated a job it is to count laps of a pool. I presume in the intervening 15 years someone has invented an app to solve that for you.

Wonky

I have another post in the works about how people confuse a physical impairment with a mental one but I have to update it (just picture someone speaking slowly to me as I hold crutches in my hands).

Now that I’m off the crutches and the leg brace I need to change it a bit.

The injured side of my leg is now healed (the outside of the femur at the knee) thanks to the miracle cure for my stupidity (crutches and a leg brace).

And that where the good news ends.

Left one is jelly

4 weeks of no knee bending has turned my upper leg muscles into jelly. Me and my leg are like an old married couple at the moment. We know we need each other but the relationship has seen better days and we’re barely talking to each other. I’m walking like John Cleese from the Ministry of Silly Walks.

The muscle/jelly situation has resulted in the front inside of the knee being pretty sore and my impatient approach to recovery (ie waking everyday to the point beyond the pain) isn’t helping.

But there is some recovery. Slow and cautious and the timelines are longer than I’d like. last week I couldn’t walk up or down stairs and I’m fine with that now. But running and hours of kneeling are still off limits. So Jesus will have to trust me when I say I’m on my knees praying.

Still, small pleasures like walking the dog are a treasure.

Meditations from the breakdown lane

There are very few books that capture the essence of long distance running. Certainly none of them exist in the fitness section of your local book shop.

Photographs of shaved body models with their glowing skin crushing their runs while offering you advice/an inferiority complex on what you’re doing wrong are about as close to what long distance running is as those websites on the private browsing mode of you smart phone are to sex.

A long out of print book by James Shapiro from the very early 1980’s with the same title as this post  is the closest I’ve encountered in the written word. Murakami’s  What I talk about when I talk about running tries to express this but is often overshadowed by the biographical glimpses into the world of a famous writer (an understandable side effect if your name is Haruki Murakami)

It’s been a week since I was fitted with my leg brace and over 8 weeks since I last ran. My hiatus from wearing out my body has made me think once again about why I do it. I haven’t been staring into the dark abyss of long term injury since 2013 so I’ve taken my running for granted. And now that I have one leg twitching with nervous energy and the other one locked in a splint I’ve thought about it a bit more.

Strapping young man

I don’t run for fitness. Or for weight control. Dog walking, the odd 5k and cycling to work looks after one of those and the other one is looked after by keeping your mouth closed. And I’m able to do both of those without expensive running shoes.

I don’t run for the social interaction. Like Groucho Marx I’m not a member of any club (that would have me). And anytime I do hook up with people to run I end up over sharing. If you’ve ever had the mis/fortune to run along side me in the middle of an ultra marathon you’ll know what I mean.

And I don’t even think I run for the head space. I hear people comment on how running helps them unwind or how doctors prescribe running as a cure for mental health problems. I disagree.

If you lifted the bonnet on my head during a 10 mile run you’d be privy to all sorts of what the French call l’esprit de l’escalier conversations (those internal monologues where you replay social interactions but instead of your real life stumbling you’d be as witty as the love child of Oscar Wilde and Stephen Fry).

And anyway, if you want head space these days all you have to do is pop on a pair of headphones in public. It’s a lot less effort than 20 miles of sweating.

It’s not for external validation. Who hasn’t entered a race from the comfort of their sofa and glass of red only to end up standing at the starting line at dawn six months later dressed in a bin bag with the bowel control of a toddler? Only me? Well, it cures you of the need for peer approval.

I don’t have a bucket list of races or distances. I don’t have any desire to enter some high profile ultra event. You start to realise that, like social media, you’re the commodity in those races. And yes, the meta nature of that statement is not lost on me as I publish this blog post on a free site.

So why?

It’s in our nature.

Smarter than most species? Ask the elephants and whales.

Cooperating in social groups? anyone want an ant hill or some honey?

Adapting to different climates? Woof Woof said the dog.

Running all night and all day? Through the midday sun, sweating and burning fat? Up mountains and through deserts?

As Sinead O’Connor might have sung: Nothing compares to us.

It’s like the old joke: Why does a dog lick his balls? 

Because he can.

Breaking Point

I started drafting this post over 3 weeks ago when I hadn’t run for 5 weeks.  I hadn’t run because of the symphony of pain my left leg was experiencing; dull throbbing pain in the glutes, hamstrings and quads, crushing pain in the knee and calf cramps, shooting pains in the foot. The pain was like the Irish weather; if you didn’t like what you had at the moment just wait 15 minutes and it’ll change.

When I started drafting the post I was panicking that not running for 5 weeks was 4 weeks longer than my previous hiatus.

Plenty of non-running exercise (previous healing strategies) wasn’t working this time so for the first time in 6 years I was encouraged to accept that some outside help might not go astray.

The physio diagnosis was that my SI joint was once again not cooperating with my ambitions as a mediocre runner – this joint is the point where the spine and pelvis meet and helps with the articulation of your legs – your hip swing. If it gets tight you can experience pain down your legs. The stretching of this joint was something I generally neglect but some physio intervention usually did the trick.

But there was something else not right about the injury – the crushing pain in my knee. I think the pain adjective is exquisite.  

So, after an exploratory 2 mile run last Saturday followed by a day in bed double dosing painkillers I finally admitted that I might have a bigger problem.

I went to the Doctor on Monday; his main diagnosis was I was suffering from a combination of stupidity and going slowly mad from not running. By Wednesday I was in an MRI machine getting my hips and knee sliced and diced in the bad-techno music scanner.

And by Friday I had the results of the MRI scan.

I did have a problem with my SI joint but it sounded a lot like my old overuse injury. My hip joints were in generally good condition (a relief) but there was a problem with my left knee.

I nodded as the Doctor explained what was wrong with my knee. All the long term stuff was still in good condition – the stuff people complain about with old age; cartilage, ligaments, knee caps.

But I did have a stress fracture of the femur (your thigh bone). The femur bone has two knuckles (think of a jolly roger flag) called condyles where it meets the lower leg bones. The inside one is called the medial condyle and the outside one is the lateral condyle.  The lateral one has the fracture. This and a sprained tendon behind the knee (called the popliteal tendon) were the cause of my 8 weeks of pain.

Knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone………

And, surprisingly, the cure for this pain is not running, endless dog walking, kneeling to paint the front step, coaching soccer, kicking footballs or lifting heavy objects (these are just a subset of the therapeutic activities I’ve been doing for the last 2 months).

What next? I’ve made my peace with not running for a while and now that I have a diagnosis and a leg brace and crutches I think I can concentrate on recovery.

Netflix is more boring than I thought………..

And what caused this injury? take your pick – worn out shoes, running through the injury, not letting it heal – all complicated ways of saying stupidity.