“Without a shadow of a doubt, I can be better than I’ve ever been tomorrow. When I am fit and on the field, that is the day I can be the best I’ve ever been. I can picture that in my head, I can see it happening.” –England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson
That’s a quote that I would ready to myself every day whenever I was on a stretch of rehabbing my back, and I now find myself with license to repeat this mantra. 5 days before the biggest marathon in the world, the last place I wanted to be was on a physical therapist’s padded table, receiving a diagnosis that could make sense of my bum knee. But, that’s where I found myself tonight. Sometimes you’re the pigeon, and sometimes you’re the statue.
And being injured doesn’t just really, really suck — it almost feels unfair. Allow me to explain:
For me, one of the draws of distance running is the straightforward nature of the sport. You’re going to get out of it almost exactly what you put into it. Yes, the elite runners were born with a certain innate running “talent” that gives them the predisposition to run as fast as they do, but they still train their butts off. And the elite runners who don’t train their butts off… well, pretty soon they stop being elite. More than any other sport, success in distance running is most closely correlated with training techniques and physical fitness.
I’ve run some great races (well, great races for me, anyway) because of the work I put in while I was training for that race. I’ve also run some awful, dumpster-fire-esque marathons, and the common denominator among those races that went horribly was that I generally trained like a dumbass leading up to them. Successful running comes from successful training. It’s tough to fake your way through a marathon. If you put in the work, you’ll reap the rewards. If you don’t, you won’t.
I’d argue that it’s a lot easier to compensate for a lack of fitness in other sports, because there is a strategic/skill aspect to other sports where being in peak physical condition doesn’t count for everything. For example, recently-retired Tottenham Hotspur central defender Ledley King was the owner of such bad knees that he couldn’t train or practice during the week, but he excelled when he played in competitive league matches because of his positional awareness and tactical excellence. Ledley would swim laps during the week to maintain his fitness, and then he’d step out onto the soccer pitch and dominate some of the best in the world for a full 90 minutes because he was just that good at soccer.
Do you know how you become that good at running?
You run. A lot.
This long preamble is really just a drawn-out way of saying that in a sport where there are no shortcuts, you get used to being in control of your own destiny. Whether you’re competing against others or just running against yourself, you always hold the keys to your own self-improvement. It’s empowering. And if something that’s out of your control pops up and messes with that feeling, it can be pretty damn deflating. You feel… in a word, you feel robbed.
In my case, that ‘something’ that’s come in and rocked my running world is a nagging knee injury, one that I can’t outrun. My right knee started aching halfway into a 7-mile tempo run about 2-1/2 weeks ago, and over the course of the following days, the ache wouldn’t go away. In fact, it got worse, and then it got worse some more, and then a little worse again, until finally it reached the point where I couldn’t run more than a few hundred feet at a stretch. I could list all my symptoms, but I’ll spare you the details — just know that right now, my shoulders slump a little whenever I see a set of stairs that I must ascend/descend, and my running has become virtually nonexistent.
Oh, and I’m supposed to be running a major marathon in 5 days. More like 108 hours, really.
As it stands, I’ve been diagnosed with an entirely treatable patella problem by a (presumably) credible physical therapist, and I’m seeing another physio at a different location tomorrow for a second opinion. The gist of my injury is that an extremely tight right IT band, in combination with relatively tight hamstrings and relatively weak glutes, has conspired to pull my right kneecap toward the outside of my leg and a bit out of alignment. This wouldn’t be a problem by itself (though it would have eventually manifested itself in an injury more commonly associated with IT band tightness), but when coupled with the fact that I had knee surgery in high school that removed about half of the meniscus in my right knee, all of a sudden that patella is touching things when I exercise that it shouldn’t be touching. Thus, pain.
The irony here is that in the final month or two leading up to the Chicago Marathon, I stopped doing a lot of my lower body strength exercises because I wanted to have my legs as fresh as possible for the rigors of my increased weekly mileage. That lack of focused attention to my lower body is likely what allowed my hamstrings/glutes to weaken to the point where my IT band could override them. THIS WAS EXTREMELY DUMB AND SHOULD NOT BE REPEATED BY ANYONE. CAPS-LOCK. The good news is that if my initial diagnosis is verified by a second opinion, the prescribed rehabilitation is wonderfully straightforward– a lot of new stretches, some isolated butt-strengthening exercises, and a fair bit of R-E-S-T.
Now, what does this mean for my stated goal of, “A mile and a beer, every day for a year”?
Firstly, I want to assure you that my drinking streak is not in jeopardy, it never has been, and it likely never will be (let’s all knock on wood together now, thanks). However, I refuse to run myself into the ground and risk long-term injury just for the sake of an arbitrary streak that offers me no source of fame or riches, so I’ve dialed back the running. A lot. While I’ve kept up my daily mile streak, it hasn’t been strictly through running without pause — my daily ledger has lately included a number of embarrassingly slow “runs” that consist almost entirely of brisk walking, with spurts of jogging thrown in to keep me honest.
Still, a mile is a mile is a mile…right?
Fortunately for my running streak purposes, the arbiters of streak running over at the United States Running Streak Association have assured me that this approach is kosher. So long as each daily mile attempt contains consecutive strides where “for an instant in each step all or both feet are off the ground,” then it counts, with the caveat that the running “cannot occur through the use of canes, crutches or banisters, or reliance on pools or aquatic devices to create artificial buoyancy.” In particular, the Association offers this parting bit of advice to those looking to start or maintain a streak: “Own your streak and your life on your own terms. You only have this one life to live. Be happy.” And so that’s what I’m going to do.
Thankfully, my fall race schedule is nearly over, and in another 2 weeks I can devote all of my focus and energy into rehabilitation. And as much as I’ve come to enjoy racing, this is the challenge that’s most important to win in the long run.