Friday, June 27, 2014

On My Endurance Obsession and the Resulting Brain Injuries

I joined the Springboro (Ohio) Junior High cross country team in the fall of 1987.  It was late in the season and as we lined up to take off at my first meet it began to snow.  I ran the entire race as flurries whirled around my scantily clad and skinny frame.  I was hooked.

I signed up again the fall of my freshman year at Springboro High School.  I ran a lot more that second year and eventually lettered through a fluke (I’ve written about extensively elsewhere).  When we moved back to Kentucky I signed up for track because Powell County didn’t have a cross country team then.  I hated track.  I was stuck running the mile and it just wasn’t my forte.
During that autumn of running I developed a mindset for fitness that would resurface continually throughout my life.  I had a fantastic coach who was able to convey running strategy to us in a way that stuck with me.  My team was amazing.  We were supportive and positive throughout the season, and I felt like I was a crucial member of the team even though my times weren’t in the ballpark of what the seniors were running that year.
In short, it was the single best athletic experience of my life.  Full stop.  My Leadville experiences built on all that I learned that year and in the ensuing years.  It was the culmination of decades of effort and knowledge.  The foundations came from my high school cross country team.
After dropping out of track in Kentucky I didn’t keep running for fun or exercise.  I became an urban cyclist my first year of college, and after dropping out of college I took up hiking as my primary activity of choice.  I was a long and fast hiker covering dozens of miles a week.  Very infrequently I would slip on some old beaten up shoes and go for a run at the track or on a trail.  I was inconsistent and random when it came to my fitness regime.
When I was basically unemployed and had a lot of free time I lived in Slade, near the Red River Gorge.  From time to time I would drive or bike out Tunnel Ridge Road or to the Whittleton Trailhead and trail run.  Typically I ran the trails when the weather was rainy or cold and I was feeling particularly feverish of the cabin persuasion.
I got married and we moved to campus at EKU.  Both of us ran at the track near married housing, but for me it was completely forced: a chore to stave off weight gain and lethargy.  I never felt like I enjoyed it during that year and the few years following.  I didn’t sign up for organized runs.  Every once in a while I would think about doing a 5k, but I never committed to it.
We moved to Colorado.  I evolved into a hardcore cyclist.  I rode and rode.  Thousands of miles over five years.  18,000 and change actually.  Running entered into the picture from time to time, and I began thinking that maybe I needed to get back to running.  I could see that my body didn’t respond to cycling the way it did to running.  I could ride a blue-jillion miles on the bike and still gain weight.  Running was/is a bit harder on me.  But as hard as it was, I knew if I mastered it running would do for me what nothing else seemed to be able to: get me fit.
As we turned tail and moved back to Kentucky I took interest in running once again.  Early last year I went in over my head on a trail run at Pilot Knob near Clay City and sprained the heck-far out of it.  That was a major setback.  I eased back into running, and eased even more slowly into running trails.
Trail running became my new interest.  A fellow Kentuckian attempted to thru-run the 307 mile Sheltowee Trace Trail in 2013.  Matt Hoyes put forth a grand effort but fell short of his goal.  I had been talking about a speed record for thru-hiking or thru-biking the Trace for some time.  And while I had never seriously considered becoming an ultra-runner Matt’s run attempt convinced me it would be possible, even for me.
That fall my wife and I trained hard for the Iron Horse Half Marathon in Midway, Kentucky.  All through our training runs I felt good.  I was improving my times.  I was gaining a base of miles to carry me farther and farther.  I struggled against shin splints, sore joints, and perpetual tiredness from running so much.  But I felt good about the race.  On the day of something broke down.  I ran, and knocked out a 2:14 for my first half marathon, but I didn’t feel good.  For the first time that summer I walked a considerable amount.  After the Iron Horse I didn’t run as often.  I started to put on weight.
Late winter of 2014 my body seemed to be rebelling against me.  My knees ached all the time.  Stiffness in the knees and hips slowed me down, robbed me of my youthful mobility.  At 40 I get around pretty well.  But at 40 and three months I felt like a crippled 60.
As the Mohican 100k (mountain bike race) approached I tried in futility to ramp up my training which included running.  Then something strange happened.  The chronic pain in my knees was gone one day.  I plowed through the Mohican with very little pain, and before and after I was running more regularly and back on the road.  The knee pain was minimal.  Manageable.
I signed up for the Rugged Red Trail Half Marathon in my home turf of the Red River Gorge.  And remembered the Sheltowee scheme I had come up with.
Currently I am thirty pounds heavier than I should be to be a seriously competitive runner (or cyclist).  But what I’m seeing in myself is the ability is there, underneath the doubt and stored up French fries, there is a long distance runner.
I love cycling.  I especially love long distance mountain biking.  I guess I love self-imposed suffering.  But running is simpler. And covering many miles on foot is more appealing to me that using a bike to go five times as far.  Simple.  Strong.
My long term scheam/dreme is to one day, perhaps next year, complete the Cloudsplitter 100 along Pine Mountain in Southeastern Kentucky.  This year is the inaugural year.  I wish I’d had the resolve to train for the 100 mile length as soon as I found out about it.  I only have about three months and 100 miles is so much farther than anything I’ve ever ran before.  Well, I did the Iron Horse:  13.1 miles.  Three months to go couch to 100 miles?  Sure, I’m that stupid.
This year I want to do the 25k or 50k distance.  Both seem reasonably attainable to me if I go from where I am now and train up to the distance.  This is a puzzle I know I can solve.  It will be hard.  It may be the hardest thing I’ll have ever done in my life.  The chasm has been crossed.  I’ve gone from “I could never do that” in reference to a 100 mile mountain bike ride to having complete faith that I can run 100 miles in a single effort. 

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