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.