Sunday, April 24, 2011

One More than Ten

“We’re all here… to see what is possible.”
Angelika Castaneda, ultra-legend, winner 1999 Badwater Ultramarathon

The word 'athletics' comes from a Greek word meaning a competition or contest. The idea of the contest was to run a distance faster, jump higher over something or throw something farther than the other competitors did, in which case you were the winner. Thus the modern Olympic motto: swifter, higher, stronger.

There are a lot of very competitive and talented athletes who are out there trying to beat someone – anyone - even if it isn’t the front runner. There are prizes for placing in all age groups and genders, as well as spots in prestigious world championships for those who are among the fastest in their races. The need to compete defines a good part of the culture of any racing event.

What about me then; someone who has no discernible athletic talent and no competitive gene at all? How am I an athlete?

I will never come close to winning an athletic competition. Much as an opera singer needs at least the physical reality of a voice and some musical talent in order to perform, a competitive athlete needs certain physical attributes and a front-running spirit in order to compete. I have few of these attributes and could no more be athletically competitive than Usain Bolt could sing Handel’s Messiah.

Obviously the 27,000 runners in the Boston Marathon last Monday did not all think they were going to win. In fact about 26,950 of them probably had no chance of coming close to winning. So why did they do it? Who were they trying to beat?

But as running coach Bill Bowerman’s character pointed out in the movie Without Limits, the Olympic motto doesn’t say you have to be swifter, higher or stronger than anyone else. It just says Swifter. Higher. Stronger. The object of the comparative is left up to us.

The goal therefore of many an athlete could be not to beat the guy next to him, but rather to run faster than he himself did the last time. After most races you will hear more talk of personal bests achieved than of who beat whom and by how much. Although the distance to be run is necessarily standard, can the success factors be defined by those who set their own goals?

This then for me is the essence of being an athlete:

It is a desire to go somewhere I haven’t been before in order to see what is possible. It is the idea of moving forward rather than standing still, of striving to be better rather than accepting the status quo. Of reaching the top of the scale and then reaching a bit more.

My training strategy this spring has been to push myself just a little harder than I think I can manage; just out of my comfort zone. If I get comfortable, I push harder; not a lot, just a little. My goal this week is to be farther along the road than I was last week. If the number ten on my amplifier was the best I could achieve last week, this week I want to try to reach eleven. It is my own personal eleven and it will most likely not win the race, but it helps me believe that I too am living up to the three-word motto.

My goal is to be swifter than I was the last time, by being stronger and reaching higher than the last time.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Citius, Altius, Footius

“The feet! What did you did to the feet?”
Ruth Cole in A Widow for One Year
John Irving

As I shift my training focus from cycling to running for my planned marathon in May, I am ever mindful that my success in the endeavour rests on the health of my two feet. Solely on them, you might say. Two years ago I had to drop out of a goal race because the Morton’s Neuroma (pinched nerve) in my right foot got so painful that I could barely walk, let alone run. About a month later - obviously charging back into training too quickly - I gave myself an epic case of plantar fasciitis in the other foot which hobbled me for nearly a year.

(Apparently it is not called plantar fasciitis any more, it is plantar fasciosis now. The former referred to an inflammation of the fascia whereas we are told that the new term describes a degeneration. Delightful. I take ibuprofen for inflammation. What do I do for degeneration, join a Fundamentalist church?)

Morton’s Neuroma – often aggravated by tight shoes - is possibly hereditary. My father had it - so badly in fact that eventually he could hardly walk home from work. So he simply had the offending nerve removed. Since he was a physician, presumably he just got one of his colleagues to yank it out during their morning coffee break. I do not really have this option, so I am trying to make do with watchful waiting plus a toe box on my shoe that is the size of a small garage.

It is a lot we ask of our feet. Whether we are lightly sprinting a 400-metre dash or lumbering down the Pacific Highway in The Biggest Loser Marathon, we are pounding the few square centimeters of flesh, sinew and bone that support us into the pavement over and over again. Maybe as many as 20,000 times per foot over a marathon distance. Is it any wonder the poor underappreciated feet sometimes break down?

And feet don’t operate in a vacuum. As the song says, the foot bone’s connected to the leg bone, and successful running biomechanics will be a synergistic function of all of our 2000 body parts. I believe this is the key: treat the whole engine with respect and the components are more likely to look after themselves.

In The Lore of Running, Dr. Tim Noakes reminds us that previous injury is a main indicator for subsequent problems. Age is another one, as is a sudden increase in training volume. Since I can’t do anything about my age or my running history, I am paying special attention to the intensity and volume of my runs this spring. I am trying – as much as is possible in marathon training – to ramp up my distance sanely and to keep my plans reasonable and attainable. If this means modifying my original time goals, then that is what I will do. My mantra will be:
He who runs a little way,
Survives to run another day.

Anyway, today I had my first outdoor run of any length, a 20k long-slow-distance. It was a great workout. I was happy that I managed to keep an even pace the whole way, and this was enough for me. My quads reacted as expected to the shock of running on concrete as opposed to the nice bouncy treadmill they've been enjoying lately. My lower half is currently squeezed into compression socks and tights in an effort to mollify these effects. I feel like a half-used tube of toothpaste.

But so far my feet show few signs of the threatened degeneration. As I move into my longer weekly runs over the next month, the challenge will be to keep all of my 2000 parts cooperative and functional and my feet happy.