21 August 2016

The Silence of the Hams

Several lives ago I worked a summer in a big data center at Big Blue that was, for all practical purposes, underground – in the basement with no windows. This being the time before cell phones and online weather maps (we were high tech because we had email in the early 80’s), I had no inkling of the storm bearing down, so when the power went, it was both utter shock and the awe of hearing something I’d never imagined. One of my co-workers later remarked excitedly, “Did you HEAR it?” Yes, the sound of hundreds of washer-sized disk packs (we called them packs in those days, not drives), spinning down. ZZZzzz…until…Nothing! “It was beautiful!” he exclaimed!

So on that theme, I ask you, “Did you HEAR it?” And when you shake your head in puzzlement, I’ll quickly exclaim, “Nothing!” That’s right, nothing, nada, nyet, nischt, zippo from me for over two months. But it’s not beautiful. Why write about running when, for the most part, you’re not running? The legs have largely been still. The calves, quads, and yes, to close the loop on the title pun, the hamstrings, have been silent.

Thus the big question: Why would you want to read about not running? (I will ignore the obvious opposite question, assuming by nature of your being here that you’ve found some excuse for that scenario.) How can I make this at least somewhat compelling for you? It’s not an easy charge, so I’ll try to spice this up with some coping mechanisms interspersed with the physical processes.

Where last we left off, the crushing downhill of the Sugarloaf Marathon had been a rather crushing experience. I went in uncertain of my racing readiness, and though I came out victorious (for the old farts, at least), I also came out rather crushed. After a month of trying to beat the bruises the old-fashioned way – by running – reasonably, of course – through the grief, I had to face the music and take a break. Six weeks off wasn’t quite enough to heal, but it was plenty to knock me out of racing shape for months to come. Now as I begin yet another come-back (or so I hope), it’s a good time to meander through the maladies and madness of recent months.

It’s ironic that about two days after Sugarloaf, a giant fireball lit up the New England sky. I wasn’t fortunate to see it, but some who did managed to track the incoming rock and determine that its fragments landed in a swath in the forest a mere ten miles west of the Sugarloaf start (the start is circled in red, the rock-strewn landing in green). People often say they cratered in a race, but had the timing and aim been just a little different, we could have said it literally this time. What a fine metaphor for the damage left over when the dust settled!

For years I’ve endured non-runners exhorting me about how this sport will ruin my knees. For years I’ve pointed out that while we’re not immune to injury, research shows that running, in general, strengthens knees. But wear and tear are a reality with age, and a course like Sugarloaf, with that horrible stretch around mile ten which extracted curses on each jarring stride, can bring out the worst in anyone’s skeletal systems. And it did.

I’m no stranger to pain and injury, as anyone who’s burned bits of their life reading this column is aware. Along came another instance. One of these will in fact become the ‘career limiting blow’, but who’s to say which one, who’s to say said ‘end of career’ (or worse) wouldn’t have come much earlier without the strengthening effects of training, and who’s to say that ending that ‘career’ might not just mean slowing down and enjoying the ride with a notch less competitiveness?

Sugarloaf hurt. It hurt going in, it hurt during, it hurt like hell on that brutal downhill at ten, and it hurt afterward. The left knee – remember, the side where the quad felt weak going in – afterward seemed to be both swinging loosely in the wind and unwilling to straighten out after sitting a spell. Both of these being a bit on the frightening side, going easy was the only choice on the menu. For a month, the distances were moderate and the pace was leisurely. By the time we hit Mount Desert Island on our annual sojourn a month later, it finally seemed reasonable to turn the dial up a bit. Redemption in Maine seemed an appropriate recovery from the damage done in Maine. And the famed carriage roads beckoned irresistibly…

Maine Note One: Photo of the Year award for to my attempt to snap a shot of Dearest Daughter the Younger running the eleven-point-five mile Around the Mountain carriage road while I ran the opposite direction on a sixteen-point-five mile inside-out horseshoe extension of the same route. Though I nailed a few in-stride scenery shots, my ability to target her wasn’t quite so successful…

Maine Note Two: This sounds hokey, but it’s the little pleasures that make this endeavor so much fun. Skiers speak lovingly of that rare day they get to shush the virgin powder. I had that chance on an Acadian carriage road when I happened to be the first footsteps following behind a grooming tractor which had roughed up the road into a soft bed of freshly turned sandy what-not. And it even happened to be on a downhill. Shush, shush, baby.

Maine Note Three: Way back then in June I promised Ward and Marla, a couple we met on Sargent Mountain, that I’d pop the picture we shot of them on the blog for their retrieval, then promptly didn’t publish for nearly three months. On the rare chance you happen to check in, here it is, drop an email for the full res version…

A week of Acadian hiking seemed to glue things back together, but on return home, they quickly fell apart, worse than before. It was time to break the glass in case of emergency and turn off the spigot; the unthinkable, stop running for a while. As is always the case with these breaks, the question is, for how long? In an extended break, every day off is at least two days work to get back, and usually more. But if the break isn’t long enough, it’s rather useless. Start over again.

Keeping a base level of fitness is key. But in this case, one of the go-to interim routines proved problematic. As much as I despise the stationary bikes at the gym, they have their purpose. But this time, even that no-impact platform elicited an ominous click-click on each spin. When after the proverbial while things weren’t really getting any better, it was time to break the glass again, pull the medical lever, and blow a few bucks from the health savings account to get a good look inside. Doc confirmed my suspicions: the left quadriceps really had atrophied; my concerns going into Sugarloaf had been real. But why?

One MRI later, which under normal circumstances I’d share with you here, but in this case I really just can’t figure out what I’m looking at, I was at least assured that nothing was broken, torn, or seriously ugly. But inflamed and worn, well, I am older than I choose to act, so I guess it was a foregone conclusion. And apparently said inflammation had been going on long enough that I’d subconsciously been shutting down the left in favor of the right. I can buy that; it makes sense. So we’re now on a witch hunt to whack the inflammation with some physical therapy, stretching, strength work, and some generous doses of the usual meds.

Meanwhile, in that uncomfortable state of non-running, DDY conveniently provided a fitness and sanity outlet in the form of her Death Wish to complete her New Hampshire Four-Thousand Footers before she left for college. Yes, hiking isn’t terribly easy on the knees either, but the climbing did seem to strengthen things, as Acadia had proven. The scope of DDY’s quest, given her time remaining, meant this offered a fairly high-intensity keep-fit agenda. There are forty eight summits, and at the start of July, she had only twenty six nailed, with only seven weeks left. Damn the torpedoes, full speed uphill! Between sneaking in a day here and there and a six-day extravaganza with some epic adventures, as of this writing she now stands at forty-four (as do I on my “Second Tour”, having completed the circuit in ninety-five), having racked up eighteen summits that count and a dozen or so more that don’t. We’ve whittled her list down to one long day to knock off the final four, coming soon if the weather holds. Just in time for college. [Ed Note: By the time of publishing, yes, we knocked those off. More later on that…]

Having logged trail mileage that approached a significant percentage of my usual running mileage for the month of July, you might think that the running restart, which finally commenced a couple weeks ago, might be a little smoother and easier than had I started at ground zero. Of course you’d be wrong; it’s a slog, a struggle, a chore, and it’s all coming down in the hottest weeks of the year, and on top of that, stuff still hurts. So again I’m running that fine line between trying to heal by running lightly, taking the PT, and so on, and fall racing plans are in limbo. But at least I’m out there again. Let the hams sing.

Amusing Outburst Department: My training partners are well-acquainted with my standard warning bark, a sharp “YO” designed to pierce the soundproofed automotive cocoon of inattentive drivers. Generally, it works pretty well. Back at the Clinton Tribute, I had to activate the outburst when an equally inattentive cop proceeded to direct a motorist into my path. I could suggest that his decision might have been different had he actually turned around to see there was a runner coming, I mean, after all, he was there to marshal a race, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise. But I won’t harp, because in general I like the cops and I like them to like me. But a YO was in order, a YO was emitted, and a few strides later I had to do it again to ward off another automotive threat pulling out of a parking lot.

Just another day at the office. Except amusingly, this time it was caught on tape. The locals had set up cameras on the course and spliced the footage into a full race montage. It turns out they had a camera pointing at said cop and said parking lot, and though it’s a distant shot (and my already diminutive form appears even more so from that range) those barks are clearly audible. You might just think I’m crazy, but I found it kind of funny to hear. Hey, it’s a topic, right? Check out the video here; the fun is a mere forty-four seconds in, with the second outburst just a few seconds later (this was “Part 2”, near the finish; Part 1 can be seen here if you’re really into punishment).