Sunday, September 12, 2010

When To Write It Off

You picked your event months ago. Booked the hotel, the airfare, put in for vacation days from your job. Invested in all the right equipment.

You've trained long hours. You took your event seriously. You might have even raised money through a charitable organization such as World Vision, gaining the support of friends, family and co-workers along the way.

You skipped the late night parties. Eschewed indulgent behaviour on vacation. Maybe you skipped the vacation altogether to focus on your training. You got up when everyone was asleep to get in your workouts.

You were the only one standing around a Saturday afternoon picnic having run more than a dozen miles that day. Every Saturday for the third month in a row.

You passed up the bacon, fried chicken and ice cream.

You dreamed of acceptable, achievable--and dared to hope for the loftiest goals possible. Every workout was a measuring stick against your goal.

And now, you are either forced with a difficult decision; or, quite possibly, it's being made for you. You can't--or shouldn't--show up at the starting line of your event.

For awhile, you might bargain with yourself. OK, well, let's skip Goal A and Goal B, and still be happy with a reasonably dialed down goal C.

As I write this, I struggle with that very decision. Chicago is four weeks from today.

A mere two months ago, diagnosed with a stress fracture, I was so very determined to overcome it for a great race in Chicago. I worked twice as hard, aqua-jogging, cycling, strength training. I put in more hours of training than I would have if I weren't injured. Miraculously, I healed very well and was back to running in five weeks ever hopeful to be there in Chicago. It was harder than I thought to stay fit during this time. Coming back gave me more muscle aches than I expected. It was grueling, but worth it, and I learned a lot about myself in the process. It even led me to my first Century.

I've put in the time. Skipped the parties. Gone to bed early. Prioritized my workouts despite a highly demanding schedule. I've sacrificed to be there on 10-10-10. I want it. I earned it.

My friends are going to be there. Some running buddies are going to be there. My coach, Vince, is even going to do his debut marathon.

My right leg (where I had the tibial stress fracture) is absolutely fine; I had a story-book recovery. But now, faced with an odd and painful tendonitis on the top of my left foot, I have to make a decision. At the very time I must be peaking in mileage and intensity. In one mere week, there is little I can do to improve my fitness.

My foot tells me not to run. But, oh, how important being in Chicago is to me! I'm perfectly OK with dialing down my goals--to a point. I toyed with the idea of starting anyway, and taking a DNF if I just couldn't do it. But after trying that on for a few hours as a fall-back strategy, I realized that I couldn't really live with the mental burden of not at least finishing a race.

Sadly, my foot looks fine. No swelling. No discoloration. No heat. In fact, many movements of stretching and flexing are completely pain free. Simply looking at my foot, you'd have no idea there was something amiss. How can something so ... apparently minor be causing me such problems?

In this self-exploration I also realized there were personal limits in my own mind where I wasn't OK even if I did finish. These limits are different for everyone; and for different reasons. But there were pretty hard set finishing times that were simply not going to be acceptable to me. I decided not to mention what mine were, because I don't want to offend anyone with how slow or fast my cut-off time might seem. The point is, we all have them. And to me, there are certain times that are simply not worth running, and that's a very personal benchmark for myself.

When do you decide not to run in that key event? After you've given everything? The problem for many of us who have been running seriously for a few years is that we actually can run through quite a bit of pain. The most obvious answer to this question is if running is going to seriously aggravate your injury to the point you will have an extended outage from running. Instead of weeks, you are out for months. In some cases (such as stress fractures), running through the pain can actually permanently damage you if the bone breaks all the way through (which can and does happen--see photo to the left--Ouch!).

Another key time not to run is when you find you've altered your gait in pain-avoidance. Running miles and miles like that invites yet another injury cycle to go through. If you find yourself doing this, it's time to consider throwing in the towel.

Sometimes you are willing to take on that risk because a single event is so important to you to complete. You'd take two months off just to be there and finish. And that's where I am right now. My foot says, "don't run." My soul say, "run, you must run." It's a watershed event for me for more reasons than one. I'm at the point if I thought I could finish at my personal minimum goal level, I'd be OK if I had to be carted off the finish line and not run for the rest of the year.

Within the next couple of days, I will be making that decision. I'm either going to run Chicago, or I'm not. Probably by the time you are reading this; it will have been made. But, I am avoiding it just yet. Hanging on to the most tenuous of threads of hope that somehow, by some miracle, my foot will settle down and I can be there in the marathon that I love and for which I have prepared so hard and sacrificed so much.


  1. Sneakersister, Thanks! I did manage my 11 miler pain-free today (after 13 yesterday), so I'm still hoping to make it. --Alex

  2. Alex,

    Tough decision, especially considering everything that you've been thru in the past few years.

    You are the toughest, most determined runner that I've read about in a long time, and I'm sure that you'll make the best decision for you even if it's not the one that you want to make.

    I am in a similar situation with the MCM on 10/31. I have developed a rapid onset cataract in my right eye, and have cataract surgery tomorrow (09/14). I'm only 51 so this was a shock. The only people that I've ever known who had cataracts were old people and really old dogs, and I'm neither.

    While the cataract surgery is minor outpatient surgery and everyone keeps telling me "it's no big deal", I still have to take a minimum of 7-10 days off from running, with less than 7 weeks before MCM.

    Add this to the Piriformis Syndrome that I've been dealing with over the past 4 weeks, and I've got a decision to make for MCM.

    I keep telling myself that there are other Marathons to run (Rocket City in December, ING Miami in late January, 2011)etc. and that I need to heal up and get my training back on schedule.

    Good luck with your decision for Chicago!

  3. Man, that is a tough one. Probably the toughest part is now actually knowing what is wrong with that foot and, therefore, coming up with some sort of solution. Or at the very least knowing that running the marathon in one month is simply not smart. At this point I'd take the rest of the week to decide since your base mileage is probably all there and you are on the threshold of taper time and dialing things back. And I'd ice that sucker five times per day!

    Whatever happens I hope you get healthy because, after all, that is the most important thing. With that being said, I hope also for a miraculous recovery in the next hour.


  4. Phil, That doesn't sound like an easy decision! I wish you the very best on the surgery tomorrow. Maybe with seven days off, your piriformis will settle down, and you can have a great six weeks leading to the marathon and enjoy it anyway. I think you still have a good shot at it. Keep me posted. And thanks for the very kind words! i will try and live up to them :) --Alex

  5. Vava, Thanks for the encouraging words. As I wrote this entry, I was sitting around Sunday morning... pouting and not running, and thinking I'd have to not run. I tested it out in vibrams for four miles, and everything felt fine (they seem to align my foot better). I then was able to put on my Brooks Adrenalines and get in the rest of the run on the roads without incident. My training isn't exactly where I want it, but barring any other unforeseen events, I still hope to be there (in Chi). Nothing is guaranteed at this point though, and it's an hourly "foot watch." --Alex

  6. do take care of yourself .. :)

    me believe whatever decision u made, it will be a well thought of one .. and your friends will always support you ..


  7. Jacky,

    Thanks so much for the support! Unfortunately, I had to make the very difficult decision to cancel Chicago due to this latest foot injury. It's not worth it to me to injure it further, and I will live to run another marathon :) I've already made plans, and am excited about my next venture! I will write about it soon! --Alex

  8. Sounds to me like the right call.

  9. Thanks, Joe. I am now at peace that I made the right decision, though I was filled with angst for awhile. Now that it's behind me, I can focus on getting my body right and rested for the next adventure and do well at it. --Alex

  10. the decision u made will do u good in the long run .. :)

    we cant wait to hear about your new adventures .. :)


  11. Alex,

    Tough decision to make, but I think that you made the right decision.

    My eye surgery went well last week, and I hope to be able to start back training tomorrow (which will be 7 days from surgery).

    I think that I will defer MCM til 2011. I am signed up to run the 13.1 Atlanta on Oct 3rd, and that will give me an idea of where I am fitness-wise 4 weeks from MCM. Will hold off making my decision til after 10/03.

    Take care, and look forward to reading about your next adventure!

  12. Just found your blog yesterday...actually your blog from your first stress fracture. I am so sorry about your situation. I am suffering from a TSF and was supposed to run Columbus...ran it last year and it was awesome. So, i feel your pain. This was supposed to be my huge PR, i was fitter than i had ever been, but i made a bunch of rookie mistakes and here i am, sidelined. ugg. It has been 4.8 weeks. I am feeling great, and don't have any pain or tenderness, but have not tried running. I have been aquajogging religiously, elliptical, yoga and strength training. I just made the same decision...gonna have to push Columbus to next year. I am just curious about your approach after resting for 5 weeks. Everything i am reading is telling me to gradually get back into running like i never ran before...walk run for a few weeks, add a mile here and there, etc. I have been running a marathon every six months since November 2008, so the thought is just killing me. Any advice??

    Good luck to you! Btw, love your blog. :)

  13. Phil, I was wondering about your eye surgery, thanks for the update! Did you run today? How did it go? Sounds like Atlanta is probably a great idea. Keep me posted! --Alex

  14. Katherine,

    I'm so glad you wrote! I know exactly what you are going through. I'd get a few 60-minute walk tests under your belt first. If you are doing those without pain, give running easy based on time next: e.g., day 1-10 minutes, day 2-15 minutes, day 3-20 minutes, day 4-off, day 5-30 minutes. After about a week of 30 minutes a day, you can start adding some miles.

    Feel free to write me an email if you'd like, fongrrl at gmail dot com. --Alex

  15. Alex,

    I ran yesterday & today. I only missed 7 days but felt like I've never run before. My piriformis is better, so maybe the time off helped.

    This will make you smile. I got a headlamp to run with in the morning, since it doesn't get light as early nowadays, til the time changes.

    I was running on the trails at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park (Civil War National Park) near my house this morning.

    Keep in mind that it was 6:30 a.m. and pitch dark back in the woods.

    I came around a corner to a field and my headlamp caught 3 sets of eyes staring back at me. I'm flipping out and thinking please let it be 3 deer, and not something worse!! They were deer.

    It was funny looking at my Garmin output from this morning's workout. A sudden unexplained (??) spike in my heart rate just happened to occur around the point that I passed the field!

  16. Hi Runner Girl, I am having pain on the top of my foot. What are you thinking the diagnosis is? You are tough I am impressed with your determination. It inspires me.

  17. Cami, Over which toe / metatarsal is the pain? From running, it's most likely one of two injuries. If over the first metatarsal (the big one), it's likely tendonitis from shoes that are too tight or otherwise ill-fitting. It is nearly impossible to stress fracture this metatarsal from running. If it's over one of your other metatarsals (two through five), it's likely a stress-fracture. Hope its not too serious! --Alex