21 December 2016

Team Sports

In my less-frequent blogging cadence of late, I’ve had more time than usual to ponder episode titles. This is primarily because I’ve needed more time than usual to find something compelling enough to garner ten minutes of your attention. I was settling around the theme of “Damage Control” until it became clear that it’s a bit overused, considering my history. Instead, the question became, why so much damage this time?

Ten years ago I had the joy of having a hernia repaired. To this day I still wonder if I really needed the work. Yeah, there was a small lump, but it caused no discomfort. A decade later, the repair still aches from time to time (though oddly, it hurts less after more intense races and workouts, go figure), but I do tell people that I feel cooler in the summer, since I have a screen installed.

A week after that internal incursion, I asked the doctor when I could resume running. His answer, which I’ve repeated so many times that you’ve likely heard this story, was a classic. Well, said he, basketball and sex, I don’t advise those, because you’re playing as a team, and you won’t want to stop. But running, and, uh, the other kind of sex, heck, you’re on your own, so if it hurts, you’re going to stop, so go for it. He was right, but he was also wrong, because he forgot about the fact that running is often a team sport. Which gets us back to our latest saga…

The problem with injuries is that they beget injuries. Second only to coat hangers, which we all know breed in dark closets, an injury has the power to create more woe as we compensate and work to recover. I’m no stranger to these secondary wounds; I fully expect that while coming back from one issue, I’m likely to overstress something else weakened in my training lapse. The trick is to make these follow-ons of lighter and lighter intensity until finally you break out of the cycle into a state of relative health, meaning that only a few things hurt only a little bit on a typical day.

Thus I wasn’t the least bit surprised that after taking four weeks off through November to once again offer the knee more time to heal, something else would go bump in the night on my return. Jumping into a Thanksgiving Day turkey trot race, having logged a mere three miles the day before as a shakedown, was not exactly easing back into it. But knowing that I wasn’t capable of racing hard softened the risk profile considerably. Besides, this was a family outing with Dearest Spouse and Dearest Daughter the Younger, who’d run even less than I, not a real race. Right?

Still, after that ho-hum outing at the Stow Gobbler where yes, I exceeded my exceedingly lame goal of not falling more than a minute per mile off last year’s pace, I had indeed racked up some hit points. This time it was the right calf, strained and a bit sore. Yawn. So I pulled a muscle on a comeback? Whatever. Show me some real news.

Unfortunately, by Monday, said calf was still complaining on a six mile ramble, which itself wasn’t too concerning since that left six days till this year’s edition of the Mill Cities Relay. Ah, you say, I see where this is going. You said relay. Team sport. Like sex. Well, not really, but you get it.

More unfortunately, a once-in-more-than-a-decade event was set to roll in Monday evening. Three words that Dearest Spouse and I were both eagerly looking forward to and simultaneously dreading: Whole. House. Carpeting.

What’s the big deal? So you have to move a few things? Well, for any of you who have done this, you know that ambivalence here is bunk. Days of packing, thanks mostly to DS, softened the blow, but still the amount of stuff to be hauled out of the blast zone made for quite the stair workout on a still sore knee enhanced by a complaining calf. And then came the furniture…oh, the furniture. Half the house from Side One to Side Two. The next night, the whole house from Side Two to Side One. And the third night, half again from Side One to Side Two, then sort out the wreckage and rebuild our lives. All that pushing stresses – you guessed it – your calves.

I wasn’t foolish enough to stack running on top of those daily leg strength workouts, but the day after the dust settled I hit the roads for a test drive on the calf, and…? Oh. My. It started sort of bad, and it got very bad, and I even took a walk break. Oh. My. And only three days left to heal.

Now, Mill Cities, which I run with my ‘alternate’ club, the Squannacook River Runners, is not, at least for us, a terribly competitive event. The Squannies are fun but not terribly competitive group. But it does carry an element of pride, and coming out in force enhances not only that pride but also the team’s overall score, so it’s all hands on deck. I’d committed, and, having cancelled on them once before, was determined not to let them down again. Oh, and did I mention that while they’re not a terribly competitive group, despite having warned them of my reduced racing ability of late, I once again landed on the Fire Eatin’ Fish, their semi-competitive men’s masters team. So while they weren’t expecting amazing things, I wasn’t about to serve them up a rambling amble.

Sunday morning came, and despite three days, Mr. Calf wasn’t happy, but a bit of Vitamin I, a lighter warm-up than usual to reduce the day’s total distance, and a reasonable pace akin to the Gobbler, alias far slower than last year, seemed a recipe for survival with team-satisfying results.

I should have seen the omen when, after a brief warm-up, I got down on the pavement to do my odd crab-leg hip extensor and quad stretch, a pre-race favorite, and managed to cramp up badly, in of all places, my shoulder blade. A moment of levity ensued where what could only be described as a notably attractive lady, who was in fact a trained nurse, came to my rescue with just the right touch to relieve the agony. (A moment of greater levity ensued an hour later when I learned that my teammate had captured the moment in a true blackmail-qualifying image…) But really, pulling out your shoulder, of all things, before a race?

Oblivious to the warning lights a’flashin’ down in quality control, I set off on a nearly perfect sunny and cold morning, which would have been entirely perfect but for the unexpected headwind making the effort tougher. Keeping the pace under control, hopefully protecting that weak leg link, I’d scoped a landmark at mile one knowing the course was notoriously unmarked, and was pleased to find myself on precisely the reasonable pace I’d targeted. Pleased for about four more seconds.

One of my favorite movie moments is near the end of the Blues Brothers, when after their epic chase of a hundred and six miles to Chicago, with a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, and of course, wearing sunglasses, the Bluesmobile instantaneously disintegrates on the plaza in front of the Cook County Collector of Taxes. I’ve often envisioned something similar happening to me. What happened about four seconds past the mile mark wasn’t quite that, as it only involved one part, but it pretty much instantaneously disintegrated. There was a moment, not really a pop, but sudden, and obvious. The calf was butchered into veal. Badly. Ouch.

In a relay like Mill Cities, you start your leg at some random moment based on the performance of your teammates and the random mixture that makes up every other team. There’s really no logic to how fast the people you encounter will be going. You blow by slowbies and get eclipsed by eagles. You tend to keep score of your ‘net kills’, how many you pass compared to how many pass you. Having the fifth and final leg, said randomness was only magnified, and by then, the field was sparse, but there was one in my sights. I caught him three quarters of a mile in. Score that as Plus One. Then it was veal cutlet time.

Short of walk breaks during the Death March stages of some of my less enjoyable marathons, I don’t recall being reduced to a hobble in a race. Now, a mile into a mere four-and-three-quarter mile leg, I was indeed hobbled. How slow, I do not know. Plus One returned the favor; back to Net Zero. I figured now was about the time my team would come by in the van, just to enhance the joy.

Saving a bit of face, by the time my teammates came by at mile two, I’d effectively beaten the cutlet with a meat tenderizer enough to stretch it out and stabilize my stride. On what they call a hill at mile three, not really a hill by my standards, I managed to regain a bit more dignity and use the grade to re-take my first kill and add a few more. The calf was screaming but working and I did, after all, have a team waiting at the finish. The final long, lonely final stretch to the finish, an almost eerie strip along the longest deserted mill in the world, entirely devoid of people, no spectators, no competitors, made for an odd challenge; maintaining what little intensity I had just for the sake of the team and my wounded pride.

Basketball and sex. You’re with a team, you won’t want to stop. Running? You’re with a team, you won’t want to stop. But hey, race done, pace below expectations, but Squannies happy, beer flowing, tables overflowing with pasta, merriment all around. A good day. But crap, the leg hurt. And crap, this meant more time off.

If that were the end of it, it’d be bad enough. But by late in the week, with no improvement and in fact worsening pain, I’d discovered my foot had turned all shades of a nasty rainbow. This was no simple strain but must have been a real live muscle tear – and a bleeding one at that – meaning weeks to heal. Worse, my head went into overdrive, fearing a recurrence of those post-op blood clots from three years ago. Dearest Spouse was about to have me committed over my near frantic worrying. But how can you not worry about something that, should it happen, can kill you? The chances of that outcome seemed so slim as to be unworthy of the big medical bills for a fishing expedition, but if you’re wrong…?

Two weeks hence, the rainbow has faded, the pain lingers though lessened, and I so miss the roads. It’ll be another long haul to come back yet again, this time with that pesky knee every haunting, but Boston is only four months away, so let the healing accelerate.

Damn team sports.

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