27 November 2009

Unexpected Gifts

My family, like millions of others, gathered around obscene piles of calories yesterday to pay note to, but not truly appreciate, the overabundance that surrounds us. I, like millions of other runners, knew that meant but one thing: I’d better get out there the next morning and burn it off. And with that came the best kind of gift, the unexpected one.

We love to complain about things, we rarely take note of that which falls into our laps in the positive column. And we are poorer for that lacking.

Last week my family participated in the annual Thanksgiving interfaith service held in an area church. We were there mostly because both my church band (we call ourselves the CME, or “Contemporary Music Ensemble”) and one of my daughters’ choirs (this one, made up of CME kids who help us out setting up and tearing down each week and are therefore known as the “CME Roadies”) were performing. One of the pastors who spoke brought up a study where, to over simplify, it was found that people who say thank you are happier than those that don’t. They, in short, appreciate the gifts that come their way. And they are richer for it.

Gifts don’t have to be big to be important. Sometimes the small ones have a big impact.

The weather forecast for this morning was horrible. Cold rain, probably windy, ugly and uncomfortable. With a mere 7 hours till morning, the radar map showed a large patch of unpleasantness that simply wasn’t moving and wasn’t predicted to do so. Setting the clock to rise ahead of the rest of the houseful to venture forth into that expectation wasn’t a highlight of my evening. Listening to the rain spatter off the windows as I drifted off emphasized the gumption that I’d need into the morning to avoid rolling over for another hour.

But this morning I awoke to silence (other than that pesky clock). No wind. No rain. And it looked bright outside. Twenty minutes later I was outside in brilliant dawn sunshine. Blue skies. Entirely calm. Cold, but pleasantly so. In short, a complete surprise. An unexpected gift.

I headed north from sis’s house into the hills I’d seen on the maps but had never run (or driven) before. While mayhem ruled at the malls far away on Black Friday, I labored up Veterans Hill, chalking up some serious elevation gain over the course of a few miles, not a car to be seen. Just perfect solitude on a perfect morning, with the valley below filled with fog banks and stillness.

A turn onto a tiny dirt road I’d seen on the map and again, delightful solitude. A few rustlings in the woods that sounded big enough to be deer reminded me that it was a good idea to be wearing my day-glow jacket. I was thinking traffic and dusk when I packed it, I’d forgotten about hunters. But I had it, all good. The only other sound, a flock of turkeys flushed from a field fled airborne across the road ahead. All good. No, all perfect.

Over four miles without a single car. On a perfect morning.

By the end of the eight miler, my legs were rubberizing, victims of yesterday’s turkey day race and the nearly three week break leading up to it due to that nasty tendon injury, which I have decided was indeed a tendon injury, which – with another check in the gift column – seems to be healed and a thing of the past. A last push up the hill back to sis’s house.

The day started right with a perfect morning, an unexpected gift. Notice these, and be happy.

22 November 2009

Is it or Isn’t It?

Dr. Cattarin reporting, here. I gave in and went to a real doctor, and the outcome was exactly as I expected: inconclusive. So now I ponder, is it or isn’t it busted, and how, and how long till it’s fixed? Remember “What About Bob?” It’s time for baby steps, baby steps…

Not being able to stand the suspense, I booked a slot with my favorite orthopedist. He’s a favorite because he runs, and therefore he gets it. The first time I saw him several years back after my first marathon, we did the runner chat thing, and I recall his comment about the ultra he’d done many years prior: “I think that one did some real damage.” Pretty amusing coming from an orthopedist. On this visit Dr. Ortho reported he’s shifted to triathlons. Not just the garden variety, but the whole hog, the Ironman strain. The guy’s got drive.

Of course my ulterior motive in stopping in to see him now and then is to get him to join our club. To date, I’ve failed in this quest, but why quit? Nothing would beat having his expertise as close as a Saturday morning rail trail run away. Perhaps that’s cheating, or perhaps that’s health care reform and cost containment?

Anyway, Dr. Ortho poked, prodded, palpated, massaged, and manipulated. He snapped a shot of my leg, which of course showed nothing, since a stress fracture won’t usually show up, but it’s a good idea just in case, it’s a ticket to convince the insurance company if we want to move on to a bone scan, and it did show a heck of a cambium layer on my tibia, which, with a little translation, is a good thing and says, in short, that I run. I found it reassuring that all this effort does produce something medically noticeable besides wounds.

And in the end? Well, hate to say I told you so, but, he couldn’t say any better than I. He agreed that the characteristics pointed toward a tendon issue, though there was plenty of room for doubt. Having found no sharp pain spots, the chances of a stress fracture diminished – welcome news – but, well, we just don’t know. The prescription? Take another week off, pop the Vitamin I, give it a go, and report back to headquarters. Aye aye, Cap’n.

And so about a week later (yeah, not exactly a week, but this isn’t an exact science, either) I trod the neighborhood for a couple of miles. And it felt OK. So the next day, I cranked it up to three and a half. And it felt OK. I think. Maybe there was a twinge? Maybe I’m paranoid? Today, four and a half. Same inconclusiveness. Popping extra meds for recent dental work clouds the picture even more. Life doesn’t happen standing still, and things don’t happen one at a time; there is no control group for comparison.

And so I’m really not much further along than I have been. I still don’t know what the problem really is, whether it’s healed or not, and if not, how long it would take. My stated goal is not to worry about running next week, but worry about being able to run ten years from now. Having just turned the corner on my post-surgery recovery after many months of work, the prospect of letting my fitness level slip due to another long break makes it really tough to focus on that long view. Just keep telling yourself, don’t be a fool…

11 November 2009

Calling Dr. Cattarin!

I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. (If you don’t get that reference, you’re not a masters division runner.) But here we go again, back on the injury train, and back in that agonizing mode of deciding whether to play doctor or use a real one.

Some things are complex, others are simple. Some are simple but have complex bits. Others are complex but have simple bits. No question the human body is complex, but there are bits that are simpler than others. If your computer fails, it might be hard to figure out why. But if the failure is because the table it sat on collapsed, well, that’s pretty simple.

At what point is something simple enough that a reasonably educated and knowledgeable person can figure it out?

The facts are simple: two weeks ago, about five miles into my run, I had a sudden sharp pain near the bottom of my right shin. I didn’t scream or collapse or anything like that, but it wasn’t subtle. It faded within a tenth of a mile or so, but over the next few days it came back on every run, getting worse as the week wore on. So by week’s end, I decided to give it a rest.

After five days off, I jogged a mile. Not bad. So the next day, I jogged two miles. Not bad, either, just a little discomfort. One more day of rest, then Monday I went for a ‘real run’. A few miles out, it started in spades. And of course, by then, I was a few miles out. By the time I got back, well, crap, it hurt a lot. And it continued to do so for the rest of the day. And a lot the next day. So there’s clearly something going on. But what?

Now, here’s where it gets perplexing. Brains are complex. Hearts are complex. Feet are complex – and boy, don’t I know that from last year’s adventure. Joints and muscles are complex. But try to think of the simpler parts of your body, and the lower half of your shin, just a few inches above your foot, will be near, if not at the top of your simpleton index.

Fact is, there’s not much going on there. A pair of bones and a few tendons skirting by, and that’s about all (neglecting, of course, blood vessels, nerves, and subway lines). If you were in the tougher neighborhood around back, you’d be in Achilles territory, a trouble spot if ever there was one (which, thankfully, has not been an issue for me). If you were somewhat further north up the leg, you’re in shin splint zone. But down bottom around front? Really, it’s pretty dull. Not much action. Nobody writes academic studies about that locale.

So if it hurts there, you’ve basically got three options: the bones, the tendons, or something totally weird. At least so I think. Remember, I’m not a doctor. But remember, I’ve had a little experience dealing with the anatomy of the lower appendages after last fall and winter’s adventures.

Assuming that nothing from the alien category is going on, the question boils down to, is this a tendon or a bone problem? Tendon problems supposedly come on slowly with increasing irritation. So they say. But I of course know better, having had one suddenly snap last fall. Then again, that one had been irritated for months, and it did come on slowly. This case came on suddenly. That rules out a mis-located shin splint, too (or Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome, to be precise), and besides, I know them, this isn’t them. Yet the pain feels, well, tendon-y. Or does it?

The bone? Well, it’s not sticking out the side of my leg, so it would have to be something more subtle. Stress fractures do supposedly come on suddenly. Really, I read it on the Internet, it must be true. Sounds like we’ve got an ID, detective. But not so fast. Niece Kristin (of the Boilermaker fame), who’s about 90% of the way to being a physical therapist, which means she’s actively studying this stuff and probably knows it better than those just practicing it, notes that theory is quite debatable. So too, she reports, is the theory that they can be ferreted out with a tuning fork, which I tried last night with no results whatsoever (conveniently, since I play in the church band and hang out with musical types, said device was easily available). Yet, the pain feels, well, stress fracture-y. Or does it?

To be a doctor, or not to be? That is the question.

If I choose not to be the doctor, we play the game. Wait to see the real doctor, who will likely order a bone scan or MRI. Argue with the insurance company about paying for the test. Schedule, then wait for the test. Wait to see the doctor to discuss the results, which will be – guess what? tendon or bone. By which time, it’ll be halfway healed, and I’ll be out a lot of time, hassle, and some coin.

The kicker, of course, is that the recipe for either ailment is pretty much the same: rest, ice, ibuprofen, the usual suspects. Perhaps double down on the calcium supplements if it’s the bone (I already added some vitamin D to the mix just in case, it helps the absorption of the calcium). There’s no magic dust here. All that diagnosis, and it doesn’t change the outcome a whit. Heck, I coulda’ told you that.

I can be the doctor and life will be a lot easier.

But, what if I’m wrong? What if there is something weird going on here? A bit of anatomy I’ve neglected? A rare but terrible syndrome? After all, I’m no stranger to weird medical issues. And what if there is some definite action to be taken, without which it will never heal, I’ll slowly grow fat, lose my sanity, and live out my life watching the Home Shopping Network?

If I only knew…

06 November 2009

Quiet Week After the XC Big Finale

It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon. Sadly, my mileage total for the week is a virtually non-existent one mile. And I admit, I didn’t even measure that, so it might have been short. And I didn’t even pen a blog posting. But a down week now and then isn’t a bad thing, a cool down, since it came after a big one.

The week prior was in all truth, pretty exciting. The kids' team I coach at my daughter’s middle school capped off their season with two meets in a week. In their first meet of the week, a dual against a local charter school, well, they lost again. In fact, they’d lost every meet before then as well this year. In fact, if I were an NFL coach, I’d have been canned after the first week or two. But the reality is, I was more proud of them that Monday than ever. They came up short on the team score, but every single one of them came up on the winning side of their personal performances. In a season that lasted a mere five weeks – and that included practices, where we could only meet a couple times a week at most, it’s hard to really make a difference in their fitness levels. But it worked. They all got faster. Some by a bit, some by a lot. They all got the lesson that this is a life sport, and can be a ticket to good health forever. At least I think they did.

A few days later we trundled all the way to far off Worcester for the Central Massachusetts Catholic Conference Championship meet. Remember, these are middle school kids, and we do this on zero budget, so to get them to a real live invitational style meet was, well, as we say here in New England, wicked cool for them. Two hundred kids from eight Catholic schools. And an absolutely perfect fall day. Cool, sunny, brilliant colors along side Lake Quinsigamond, simply perfect.

And they loved it. They truly had a good time, when they weren’t inflicting pain on themselves during the race. These kids have really shown heart, and that day was no exception. On the starting line, we noticed that one of the boys had written himself a note on his hand earlier in the day. Next thing you know, half the team was writing inspirations to themselves on their hands like “Don’t stop!” and,“Left, Right!” – reminiscent of the famous blonde joke where they take away her MP3 player and, lacking the continuous mantra of, “Breathe in, breathe out,” she passes out.

And then a really cool thing happened.

They didn’t lose. For the first time this season, they didn’t come in last.

No, they didn’t win, not as a team (don’t be silly). But they came in sixth of the eight teams. They beat two teams. I guess Coach gets to keep his highly paid job (note to humorless IRS agents: that’s a joke). I’ve said all year that it’s not about winning, it’s about fun and fitness. But not coming in last was a sweet cap to the season, on top of the sweet cap of three individual medalists.

Our top boy, who’s won everything he’s looked at since the second race of the season (and really only didn’t win that first race because, in my view, he didn’t know he was supposed to) ran away from a hundred other boys to win the whole thing. Powerfully. With four tenths to go, as he passed me, I warned him that Number Two was closing slightly. The burst he put on up the final hill would bring tears to any coach. Psychological devastation. Number Two knew he was beat. And Nick cruised home to gold.

Perhaps even more pleasing was Meaghan’s second place age group medal, both because her upward trend through the season made it completely deserved, and because we weren’t expecting it. When they passed through the 6th, 5th, 4th places in her group, we figured she hadn’t medaled. Then the announcement of second place. Shock and awe. Justice served.

And tops on the pleasing scale? Without question, Ethan’s age group medal. He’s just in 5th grade, but this kid easily had the biggest heart on the team. Kids like him are why people like me enjoy this job so much.

All of the kids on the team gave me great joy to have the chance to work with them an influence their lifelong view on fitness just a little bit. I say thanks to all of them.

So, what about that one mile week for me? Well, it was good to have last week’s happiness to carry me over, because I’ve been rather bummed personally. Early last week I yanked a tendon just north of my right ankle. How? Dunno, just one of those things. Running along with a surprisingly and pleasantly fast co-worker, bang, funny pain, a couple dozen strides, it was gone. But over the next couple days, it was clear I’d done something. I tried to run through it for a few days, but by the weekend realized it wasn’t going to heal with continued training. So I’ve been on forced furlough for a few days. This morning I hit the roads to see how it was doing, and it wasn’t doing all that well, so after one lonely mile, I’m back on the couch for a couple more days. Not debilitating, mind you, but with no big races looming (that upcoming Thanksgiving 5K is not what you’d call high pressure), there’s no point in forcing the issue. Let it rest. Have a quiet week.
And that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where it’s been quiet this week.

Shout Out to That Pesky Butterfly: Check out the comment on my last posting where Sean, from the Police Chase 5K back in September, checked in from – where? – Columbia. No, not the town in Maryland, the country. Thanks for the note, Sean! The calf is fine these days, replaced by the ankle, as noted. Aw, it’s always something… With your posting I can now claim readership on three continents! Drop me a direct line at secondlap@comcast.net so I can send you that spreadsheet.