It started with New York. In a Spring volume of my running magazine there was an article about the famed NYC Marathon, with its spectacular crowds and perfect weather, and on a whim I entered the lottery. New York has a tiered and generally impassable lottery, which starts with elite athletes, moves on to members of the local Road Runners club, and eventually gets to everyone else. The results of the lottery would be announced in early April, and so I waited anxiously, not sure what I was hoping for. If I got in, I’d be looking at 4 months of a brutal and time-consuming training regime, in the sweltering summer heat—not to mention the prospect of another ridiculous injury and the subsequent, patience-depleting recovery. I’d had a vague notion that I would run another marathon, someday, but by all reasonable standards this was not the right year. I’d started a new job and was contemplating starting a private practice; I was chair of the Board of Directors for an organization that was expanding significantly, and had joined another Board in March. I was over-committed and ambivalent.
But when the lottery results were announced and I found out my number hadn’t come up, I immediately started looking for another race. Turned out the Savannah Marathon was the very same day as NYC, and 2 of my friends from high school indicated they’d be up for it. And so I signed up, click, and immediately began looking for a training plan.
Most runners use a plan when training for a significant distance, like a half or full marathon. Plans generally span a 16- or 20-week schedule and prescribe distances and types of runs (tempo, easy, long, speed work) to be done on each training day. I’d used a couple of plans for other long races but wanted something new, something that would push me beyond the slogging drudgery of the typical training regime. And then I remembered a story I’d read in the magazine several months before, written by a 41-year-old runner who’d set a marathon PR (personal record) by using this batshit-crazy training plan created by two brothers from Michigan. The Hanson Plan is characterized by extremely high weekly mileage (about 25% more than the average plan for regular runners) and brutal workouts (no “easy” runs on this plan). The sheer ambition of the plan intrigued me, as did the emphasis on total weekly mileage over the dreaded 20-, 22-, and 24-mile long runs that form the apex of most marathon plans (the Hanson plan tops out at several 16-mile long runs). The Hansons believe that the distance of the long run matters less than does the cumulative effect of intense and fatiguing training; in other words, in Hanson training you’re preparing yourself, both physically and psychologically, to run the final 16 miles of the race, not the first 16. Anyone who’s ever run a 26.2 will understand this distinction.
I’d read the article the first time, many months before, with fascination and fear; I’d looked at the training plan and my reaction was something along the lines of “fuck no.” But after I committed to Savannah and started seriously thinking about the training, thoughts shifted to questions of efficacy. Sure, it had a certain insane appeal, and the theory made sense, but did it work? The author of the article was a believer, after running his fastest marathon ever, at the age most runners are beginning their slow and insulting decline. I found forums online wherein scores of runners attested to the plan’s benefits (faster times, fewer injuries, increased confidence) and one night, after printing out the training plan and scouring it with a pencil, marking the dates and comparing my personal and work schedules, I realized that I had already committed myself; essentially, I’d gone from “fuck no” to “fuck it.”
And so I went about the business of serious training. First, I evaluated what had gone wrong in my previous marathon (weak hip flexors) and did some research into preventative techniques (stretching, stabilization exercises, massage). I vowed to approach my training more seriously than I had before, which meant some modifications to my everyday routine. (The heroin would have to go, obviously, but since I’d read that deprivation often leads to relapse I decided on one “cheat day” per week.) I have been a “serious” runner for a while now but I suddenly found myself rising before dawn most mornings, running 6, 8, 10, 18 miles along streetcar line, nodding companionably at the other, wiser runners in their reflective gear, or at the track at 5 a.m. on Saturday mornings, pounding out grueling speed workouts in the steamy darkness. My favorite speed workout, commonly referred to as a “ladder,” consists of fast intervals of increasing distance, starting at 1/4 mile segments and building to a full mile, then working back down (hence the name). The focused brutality of the workout really appeals to me, and on one muggy morning in early July, I ran the 1-mile segment of the workout in 6 minutes and 35 seconds, which is the fastest mile I’ve run since high school. That meant that not only could I run a fast mile, but I could run it while fatigued, which is the most critical aspect of marathon training. I was totally stoked.
4 hours later, a city tow-truck driver barreled through a red light at Poydras and Loyola, totaling our car, deploying our air bags, mangling Cade’s arm and crushing my chest and my right foot. In the ambulance, on the way to the ER, I said something to the EMT about how I was training for a marathon and he look at me with some sympathy and said “Not anymore, you’re not."
Guess what happens when people tell me I can’t do something?
I took 10 days off and jumped back in. My foot felt stiff but it didn’t seem to get worse with the training, so I continued. In August I placed first in my age group at a local 3-miler, even though I was dissatisfied with my time and knew I could do better. I switched my fast workouts from “Speed” to “Strength,” per the Hanson plan, which meant dropping the track workouts in favor of longer, even more grueling intervals. I stretched, went for a sports massage (which, along with Baskin Robbins’ Peanut Butter and Chocolate ice cream and the music video for Ok Go’s “All Is Not Lost,” ranks among my personal Best Things Ever), went to bed early, did my tempo runs (6, 8, 10 miles at goal pace) religiously, even as the temperatures soared. I got suckered into coaching Sydney's soccer team and when I realized that the date and time of the final game coincided with the date of the Savannah marathon, I quickly found another race--the Pensacola marathon--on the following weekend. I ran during vacations and tropical storms and illnesses, and in early October, I won the Crescent Connection Road Race, a killer 4-miler that traverses the Mississippi River bridge. I had two thoughts as I crossed the finish line:
1) How strong is this tape? (Do I have to lunge forward to break it, or will it just fall away?)
2) Holy shit. The plan works.
Four days later, I broke my tailbone. For the record, I would strongly advise anyone seriously considering breaking their tailbone to think twice before doing so; the pain is excruciating, unrelenting, nauseating, imposing. Sleep is impossible, as is sitting down, which makes clinical work absolutely ridiculous (imagine spilling your guts to shrink who's squirming like she has a full bladder, or is terribly bored with you). The morning after sustaining the injury I "woke up" (I'd spent the night standing up with my face buried in the side of the bed, weeping) and realized that I would not be able to run. I had four weeks until the marathon, had four months of serious, uncompromising training under my belt, and that was it. Over. The injury was monumental, impassable, like a giant boulder rolled into my path. There was no amount of chutzpah that would overcome this, it seemed. I could barely speak without needing to vomit. Sleep was out of the question. Running had become an absurdity.
So that was Friday. On Saturday, I laced up my running shoes and headed downstairs to the basement treadmill, where I sullenly walked and then wincingly jogged, finally stopping about a mile in to clear the floaters from my field of vision. That's it, I thought. At least I tried. Then Cade came downstairs and said something like "Well, you gave it your best shot" and of course the thought that sprang to mind was nuh-uh, not even close and so I got back on the treadmill and pounded out another 5 miles. But damn, it hurt. A lot.
And so, because I'm not always a complete and total idiot, I evaluated the situation and resigned myself to a period of rest--of inactivity. My friend M.A. dropped by, bearing wine and cookies, and assured me that yes, I will run another marathon--just not this marathon. I set about the business of getting my mind straight, putting things in perspective, focusing on positives, focusing on healing, etc etc etc etc etc.
In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, as I sat propped in the corner of the sofa downstairs, sobbing silently as not to wake the rest of the house, it occurred to me that if I was going to suffer pain, why not run? It hurt to sit down and to lay down and to sneeze and to laugh and to breathe anyway, so why not run? I hobbled upstairs, stepped into some running clothes, put on my shoes and headed out the door, before I could reconsider. The first 2 miles were pure agony, the next 4 slightly less so. Whatever. I chalked it up as a victory. The next morning I went out again, sleep-deprived and riddled with doubt, and ran another 7 miles. It wasn't pretty at all, but it wasn't making anything worse, so I soldiered on.
And it has gradually gotten better, the pain, although sleep is still hard to come by. This morning I got up at 4:30 and ran 10 miles, with minimal pain. Last week, I ran 20 miles in Liverpool, half of which into a headwind that left me feeling at various points like the Roadrunner--legs spinning, body standing still. But I finished feeling strong enough, though not entirely confident: I'd missed the portion of marathon training that experts point to as the most crucial--that monster week, that apex.
So here I am, 9 days from Pensacola, sleep-deprived and uncertain, resisting the urge to log a couple of punishing speed sessions just to prove to myself that I can. It's kind of stupid, right? I mean, it's just a race, after all, just a "recreational activity." But this Monster has taken a definite shape: I can feel its contours in the hours before dawn, hovering near my bed, ready to smother my ambition; I can feel it in the 6th mile of almost every run, when my legs start to feel heavy, and even after a successful run, it's there to negate my efforts, to call it a fluke, to call everything into question, whispering things like:
Why are you doing this? (Because I love it).
Why are you hurting yourself? (I'm not, not really...).
Wouldn't you rather sleep in? (Now you're just being cruel...)
Why is this so important? (...)
You do know that pain is the body's way of saying "stop," right?
(Really? I thought it was the body's way of saying "I double-dog dare you.").