Life’s Lessons: Marathon Training and Doing What’s Right

I’ve done everything humanly possible to do this right. Yet it doesn’t seem to be working. Today, or tomorrow, or in the coming few days, I might have to make a very difficult decision that will leave me frustrated, to say the least. But it won’t be the end of the world.

I’ve said this now many times: I find running particularly challenging. I’ve engaged in many types of physical activity in the past few years. I go to the gym and workout. I hike. I cycle. I dive. I’ve climbed tall mountains and cycled across a continent. I’ve had to train very hard to do both. I’ve had to endure pain, cold, wet, mud, heat and disappointment in my activities as well. But for some reason, at least in my head, none of that compares to the challenge of running and trying to be good at it.

It is specifically because I find running so difficult that I decided to challenge myself and train to run a marathon. I started running about six years ago. So I’m not exactly a beginner runner. I incorporated running into my general training regime to keep fit and healthy.

But I only started trying to become a stronger runner about three years ago. My husband encouraged me to sign up for a 10km race. I had never done anything of the sort. I wasn’t sure I could even run that far. With some training, I did. Then I ran another. And another. They were all very challenging. I almost gave up on my second 10km race. I was the third or fourth from last to cross the finish line in that race. I could have given up then. Instead, I decided that I needed to figure out how to become a better and faster runner.

So over the past three years I’ve been gradually pushing myself just a little bit harder to become a little bit better. I’ve partaken in the weekly 5km Parkrun in my city in the UK. Every week I try to get a slightly better time than the week before. I did a couple more 10km races. And now I’ve done two half marathons.

None of that has been easy. It’s been bloody difficult! And I’ve hated it. I’ve never truly learned to enjoy running. Perhaps because I’m not convinced with my level of running and rarely run “enjoyable” runs. I almost always run so that my heart is actually beating hard.

When I decided to train for a marathon, I was in peak condition. I had just cycled across Europe. I was fit. I joined a running club to learn more about running and how to improve my form from more experienced runners. I trained with them regularly for two months. And then my body started to break down. I was exhausted. My calf muscles were cramping and I was suffering from tremendous pain. When I ran, it felt like my legs were two logs. I could barely lift them. At the time, I was still going to the gym to attend three classes a week. Classes that I was so used to that I barely broke a sweat while doing, suddenly became almost impossible for me to do. I had hit the proverbial wall that I had so often heard of but never experienced.

I stopped everything and gave myself two weeks of rest. I went to a physiotherapist and visited her many times after to figure out why my calf muscles in particular suffered so much. I was taught how to properly stretch. I was given exercises to do before any run. I was told which parts of my body required strengthening. I began to work with a personal trainer to focus on those parts and strengthen them. I bought calf guards to help my calf muscles recover. I stopped running with the running club and began to focus only on my own training schedule. I stopped going to my gym classes save for one hour a week when I worked with my personal trainer. And things started going very well.

The cramps in my calves completely disappeared. I was able to stick to my training schedule. I was running the distances and the paces. I hated it. I hated going out in really cold, sometimes rainy weather. I hated running through puddles and mud. But I did it. And it was all going to plan.

I ran my second half marathon at the end of January. I was very surprised to manage to run it in the exact goal time I had been training for. I didn’t really think I could. My goal time – and my training – had been designed based on my current realistic abilities. The day after my half marathon my legs were a bit achy and tired. But there was nothing out of the ordinary. Two days after and I was feeling almost back to normal. Going up and down stairs wasn’t painful as it had been the day before. I went out on a short, slow recovery run on the third day after the half marathon…and nothing has been well since.

A pain developed in my left shin at a site where I’ve had minor tenderness throughout the whole process. Although the site was always tender, I never felt pain in it while running. My physiotherapist told me that as long as there was no pain while running, I could continue running. She believed that the tenderness was due to a healed injury. Scar tissue had formed and it was still being absorbed. Massaging the area always seemed to help decrease the tenderness. So I became very good at self-massage.

But this time things were different. After that recovery run, walking had become painful. Something was not right. I stopped running for a few days and visited the physiotherapist again. She examined my leg, massaged it, ultrasounded it, and told me that she didn’t think I had a problem to worry about. If I could continue running and only felt minor pain, then it should be all right.

I ran my last proper run some 17 days ago. It was a 28 km long run. It went generally fine until the last two kilometers. I limped home in the last stretch of that run. I tried a recovery run three days later but it was too painful. So I decided that I needed a full two weeks of no running for whatever injury I had to heal. In place of my runs I swam and used the elliptical for the same amount of time I would have been out running according to my training schedule. Last Sunday, I spent a full three hours and 45 minutes on the elliptical, making sure to keep my heart rate up the whole time as high as it would have been if I was running. As long as I wasn’t doing any impact training, my leg was fine. The pain gradually dissipated.

Yesterday I tested my leg after two weeks of rest in a slow and short 5km run. My left leg felt tight. There was some discomfort but not proper pain. I came home, stretched it and immediately iced it just in case. It felt fine for several hours. But gradually it became more and more tender. By dawn this morning, it became tender to the slightest touch. I don’t feel pain while walking on it. But something is wrong.

I woke up this morning feeling that I might soon have to decide to stop my training completely. I might have to decide to give up on running the Barcelona marathon on March 15. I am willing to run through pain as long as I know it will not permanently injure my leg. It is not the pain I am worried about. I need to make sure that I maintain healthy legs so that I can continue to enjoy an active lifestyle for as long as possible. If that means giving up on this particular marathon, then so be it.

I have an appointment with the physiotherapist tomorrow. I need to make an informed decision. I need to understand what is wrong with my leg. Is it just scar tissue? If it’s a bit painful and I run on it, will everything still be all right? Or is my leg inflamed? I have been very frustrated that I cannot go to a doctor here in the UK for a proper diagnosis. At least this has been my experience. Every time I have gone to my GPs for other problems, they have guessed at what my condition might be and given me medicines to try out for a couple of months. Or they have told me that I’m fine and to come back in two weeks if I still have a problem – after having waited two weeks with a problem to begin with before visiting them. When I’ve asked for referrals to specialists, I’ve been told to keep trying with their suggestions and if nothing happens they would refer me. I go back when nothing happens, and instead of referring me to a specialist they guess again and try another medicine. Because of all these negative experiences (I have a medical degree so I have a pretty good idea what acceptable treatment is), I have completely given up on visiting my GP about my leg. I know they will not diagnose me or refer me and will simply tell me to stop running. That is not an acceptable answer. An acceptable answer would be to tell me what it is I have, why I have it, what I need to do about it, and how I can prevent it from happening again. I don’t want guesses. I don’t want a doctor who doesn’t even bother to examine me, but rather listens to my description and gives me a guess based on what I’ve said. I want a specialist who listens, examines, does whatever tests are necessary, and comes up with a proper diagnosis.

Today I’m icing my leg. Tomorrow I’ll go to the physiotherapist. Based on the information I’m given, I’ll try to make an informed decision on what the best thing to do might be.

This is how my options look so far:

  • All I have is scar tissue that pulls on my muscles when I run causing me pain. There is no inflammation. I can run on my leg and endure the pain if I want, knowing that it will not cause further damage.
  • I have a minor inflammation and my leg needs a bit more rest. I rest it for another week, continuing my alternative training on the elliptical and the pool in the meantime, and see how my leg feels after.
  • I’ve had too many breaks from running and no alternative training can prepare me for a marathon. I have to abort my plans to run this particular marathon.
  • I stop running and rest my leg until the day of the marathon. I’ve done lots of training and kept fit in the meantime. I run the marathon and hope all will be well. If I feel pain during the marathon, I stop running.

I’m very very frustrated, mainly because I’m finding it difficult to make an informed decision. I don’t have enough information. I hope I get it tomorrow at the physiotherapist.

At the same time, I know this is not the end of the world. Either I manage to run this marathon at a measly pace or I have to decide not to do it. And once my leg is better I begin training from scratch for a different marathon if that’s what I feel I want to do.

I don’t feel like a failure at all. I’m actually quite proud of myself. I’ve trained hard. I’ve followed a schedule. I’ve spoken with and had advice from professionals. I’ve rested whenever I was told to or when I felt I had to. I’ve done everything humanly possible to do this right. It is not uncommon for the best athletes in the world to have to pull out of an event or a race just days or hours beforehand. It happens. If that is what it comes to, that is what I’ll do. My priority is to stay fit. And if that means pulling out of a race I’ve been training for for months, then so be it. And then I’ll just have to pick myself up and decide what my next challenge will be.

I lie. I already have a small challenge set up for the end of May. Nothing as challenging or as grand as a marathon, but something new and different and challenging for me.

This is a lesson I continue to learn and have been faced with now many times: It’s all about the process. It’s about keeping fit. It’s about challenging oneself but within safe and healthy limits. It’s great to have hefty goals and to aim for them. Some of those goals I will achieve. Others I will not. But at least I’ve dreamed. At least I’ve tried. At least I’ve stayed smart about it all throughout.

I might be frustrated. I might be a bit down. I might be a bit confused due to lack of information that could help me make the right decision. But I’ll get there. I’ll figure it out. I’ll do what’s right. And I can continue to be very proud of what I’ve already achieved.

I am dedicating my training and marathon to raise vital medical expenses for a dear friend who was recently diagnosed with myelofibrosis, a cancer of the bone marrow. No matter what happens with me and this marathon, I will continue to work for this cause. It’s very very important. Please visit http://www.gofundme.com/runningforlife and donate whatever you can. You could be saving my friend’s life.

 

 

 

 

3 comments

  1. I feel for you and admire your determination. I developed a hip problem from running once, could not sort it out and, eventually stopped running. I later learned that if I gotten the right treatment I would still be running today.
    I was a natural runner. Sounds like you may not be. You keep saying you hate it. Well, it may not be your sport. Life is way too short to persevere at something you dislike so much. You are obviously a strong cyclist. Why not put more of your energy there?

    1. Only just saw this now, somehow. I will definitely be cycling more. Unfortunately, cycling for me is a seasonal sport. It is not possible to do it throughout the year here in the UK. Also, I like to diversify. I need the variety. I don’t like focusing on one activity. And although I hate running, I want to learn to be good at it. I hate running. I love a challenge. This has been a huge challenge. We’ll see where I go from here.

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