May 26, 2011

A Different Kind of Heartbreak Hill

Sports psychologists and physiologists have long known about and published papers on the positive impact of regular physical exercise on self-esteem, stress and anxiety levels and quality of life. As Dr Tim Noakes explains in Lore of Running,  "The relative sanity of runners as a group is shown by the finding that runners exhibit increased emotional stability and score low on neuroticism (people close to me might debate I'm the exception to this) and anxiety." [p 553]

We all have our ups and downs, but as a whole, the runners I know are some of the most positive and physically & mentally healthy people in my life. We run to feel alive, get in touch with our inner spirit and physical bodies and  free our minds of daily stressors, be it a quick 20-minute jog to pick up some milk at the local convenience store or your last LSD before trying to BQ at your next marathon.

Late last week, someone very close to me endured an unexpected tragic loss. And when someone close to you is hurting, it's only natural to share in their grief. I powered through conducting a Magic Mile clinic for our Galloway group members on Saturday. I had planned on running around the track a few times that morning, but with the mindset I was in and the fact that I seemed to be more effective from the sidelines, I did not run on Saturday for the first time this year. Stranger still - I didn't care that I hadn't run. My job that day was to help others. Shifting my focus to other people was a good escape from my personal issues, even if it was only for a couple of hours.

I spent a good part of Saturday in a daze. I want to be with my loved one but they do not live near me so the best I can do is send positive energy and loving thoughts. I had a 29-mile run planned for Sunday that I needed to focus on. No matter what, I was not going to let anything interfere with this last big LSD before the taper began. I had an out-and-back route at the beach mapped out. I knew how much fluid and fuel I was going to carry with me.  The whole plan....laid out...ready to go. We get hit with stressful news about another personal situation Saturday late afternoon and then again in the evening. I hear a voice yelling "Twenty nine miles VERA" in my head but it's like a number I can't even comprehend anymore. Things will be better in the morning, I tell myself. Just get some sleep, get out on the road and your troubles will melt away, even if for "only" 29 miles.

The 4am alarm goes off on Sunday and I've barely slept 4 hours. Worse - I feel like I've had no sleep for days. I'm instantly in my head with thoughts of empathy, grief, loss and anxiety. I can't even envision myself on the road. Swinging my feet off the side of the bed feels like that's about the extent to which I was capable of exerting myself. Was I hit by a freight train yesterday? WT#!! is going on with me?

I start bargaining with myself (at 4am and no coffee):
ME: How about 26 miles? You just did that a few weeks ago with no problem; you can definitely get through that.
BRAIN: Seriously? You can hardly walk to the bathroom without feeling exhausted this morning.
ME: No? How about 20? Do I hear 20?
BRAIN: No freakin' way.
ME: You're not stopping me from running. I'm going to find a way to get this LSD in today if it kills me.

Then I remembered something I recently read in Jeff Galloway's book on mental training for runners. Your brain is constantly monitoring your body. It knows EVERYTHING - including your physical and emotional soft spots. In short, when you are under stress, your reflex brain (subconscious) reduces blood flow to these weak spots. A decrease in blood flow reduces oxygen and nutrient delivery and will increase aches and pains  in your more vulnerable areas. For me, this translates into a risk of developing ITBS - a condition I am prone to, especially in peak training months. It was in this moment I raised the white flag and surrendered to common sense.
My emotional state (and focus) was not centered on running. They weren't even in the same galaxy. Under what I would consider to be normal stressful situations, I run to move through stressors (work, personal, real or imagined!, etc), not to run away from them. Maybe this is something I couldn't (or wasn't ready to) run through yet. I felt emotionally blocked from running. And because of this, I understood the real risk here was causing both physical injury and emotional/mental distress. I knew the amount of energy I needed to deal with my emotional stress/pain was better spent on my addressing my emotions (which far outweighed any amount of mental or physical work required for a 29 mile run). I don't run to torture or injure myself despite what I may write in my training log occasionally! And that's exactly what I would have been doing to myself on the road.

Somewhere around 10am, I'm still not feelin' it. Oh look - Guilt has arrived! The perfect storm continues to brew. I'm not waiting to come around on this lack of energy/poor me/I can't run BS anymore. I changed my clothes and my shoes, grabbed some water and fuel for the TM and pressed Start. Four minutes later, I could barely keep up with the belt speed set at 6.1mph. My legs felt like 75-lb packs of potatoes. I might as well have been trying to run up a 20% grade into 80 mph headwinds. That probably would have felt easier. My Emotional Heartbreak Hill was smacking me in the face - right in my own living room! I swallowed my pride, tucked my tail between my legs and stepped off the belt. What in the hell am I doing to myself? I started to get down on myself for not at least going a mile before giving up, but quickly realized that not running for a couple of days would not erase 5 1/2 months of hard work.

I am so incredibly fortunate to have a strong support system around me.  I was able to get right back on the horse Monday morning for a great 7-miler and the week has continued to get better and better.

I had room in my schedule to move my final LSD to Monday (Memorial Day here in the U.S.) and still have enough time for a proper taper.  I'm going to keep it down to 26 miles.  Mentally, 26 is do-able. I'm not afraid of that number anymore.  29 is something else - something that will have to wait until I'm feeling strong enough to take it on. I'm seeking quality miles not quantity! Visualizing and practicing success are so key when preparing for a race. I am determined to have a fabulous 2nd "Vera's Mary" on Monday at the beach so I can go into this taper feeling stronger and more confident than ever that I'll be crossing the finish line in 4:30.

Relax, power, glide......

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