I love the National 12 Stage. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it is one of my favourite events of the running year. I enjoy the drama of the race and the story lines that evolve over the course of four hours of racing. I enjoy taking over from a team mate and charging down the incline from the start line that takes runners to the start of the famed Sutton Park hill. I enjoy trying desperately to hang on to anyone who passes me and I love the feeling of chasing other athletes down and passing them. In a strange way, I enjoy the agony of turning the corner before the finish and sprinting uphill past the crowds of spectators, trying to get every last second out of my race-worn legs.
I had been looking forward to this year’s edition for weeks. It took place this weekend on a sun-drenched day in Sutton Park and was every bit as exciting as it has been in previous years. But I wasn’t taking part.
Unfortunately I started feeling tightness in my left calf on Wednesday morning after a heavy track session the night before. It was no better on Thursday when I tried to run a couple of fast miles in Cannon Hill Park; I couldn’t get the full range of motion out of it and it felt like it was going to get damaged if I ran any faster. Just like it did before I tore it in October. At the National Road Relays.
After spending several hours wrestling with the part of my brain that was telling me it was just ghost pain that would disappear with a good old fashioned bit of hard road running, I decided to call Dave, my coach and team manager, to tell him I wouldn’t be able to run. Better safe than sorry.
With an unexpected Saturday afternoon ahead of me and ’12 Stage’ now removed from my calendar, what was I going to do with this free time? Put a camera in my bag and go and watch, of course…
Monday: 14km easy (14)
Tuesday: AM 10km easy / PM hurdle drills, track session 1000,10*200,1000 off 200 jog – 2:52,31,31,30,30,30,30,31,30,30,30,2:53 (25)
This week was the first proper week of training after tearing my calf at the National 6 Stage four weeks ago. Since starting with some light jogging last week I have gradually built up the volume, whilst adding slightly more intensity towards the end of the week.
My calf is fine. I know this, not just because I managed to run 127km this week, something I am told is not possible with a calf tear, but because the scan last week showed that what once resembled a large hole was now a smooth meaty chunk of well formed muscle tissue. However, this doesn’t stop me worrying that it is suddenly going to go again. I find this amusing. As runners we train ourselves to be able to ignore pain; it is an incovenience that needs to be overcome at all costs, a sign of weakness and I’m not weak, thank you very much. But when you return from injury the opposite happens. You become aware of every little tightness or sensation of discomfort, convinced that it is a sign that the injury is returning. The kind of small niggle that would barely raise an eyebrow under normal circumstances now becomes a clear indication that the injury is back again, and probably worse than it was before.
This may well be down to the fact that in order to succeed in this sport you need to be all-or-nothing with it. You will not manage to put in all the hard, difficult training if you aren’t convinced that what you are doing is the most important thing in the world. Sadly the flipside of this belief in the importance of what you are doing is the sense of loss when you cannot do it. The fear of this triggers irrational reactions to pain and a heightened feeling of worry.
I was flying. After, to borrow a phrase from my old team manager Richard, ‘treating the first hill with some respect’ I was moving nicely through the field on leg one of the National 6 Stage. One by one I picked my opponents off, running alongside before lining up my next target and chasing it down. Everything was going perfectly. Until it wasn’t.
I got a small clip from behind from another athlete as we headed out on the out-and-back section of the course. As I stumbled and tried to regain my balance my right foot struck my left calf. Although the initial feeling was one of discomfort it wasn’t hurting and wasn’t stopping me move through the field. This all changed, though, when we started descending. The extra load suddenly caused a cramping in the calf which reduced my fluid stride to a hobble. Unable to stop as this was a relay, I limped the final mile, getting passed by all but four other runners. The finish line couldn’t come quickly enough and when it did I promptly collapsed over it, my left calf in agony.
Today it is sore and it remains to be seen how bad the injury is, but this was a timely reminder that it only takes one small incident to turn you from a fully fit athlete to someone struggling to walk down stairs. Injury can happen to anyone at any time. Hopefully I will be back on two feet again soon.
Monday: 16km easy, drills and hurdles (16)
Tuesday: AM 10km easy / PM 3:00 on grass, 6*(400,300,200) on track off 60,45,30, 3:00 on grass (25)
Wednesday: 16km easy (16)
Thursday: AM 8km easy / PM 10km moderate (18)
Friday: rest (0)
Saturday: AM 8km easy / PM National 6 Stage, 80th on leg 1 in 20:18 (18)
I think it’s fair to say I’ve recovered from my injury.
After a couple of months almost completely off and another couple spent building the volume back up very slowly, I’ve now managed 7 weeks of what I would call normal training. When you initially start training again, it is a real shock to realise how unfit you are. Paces and distances that would normally be no problem leave you gasping for breath and in pain for days. Recovery takes much longer; your body takes a while to adapt to the demands once again being placed upon it. When I was at this stage, Tim said to me “don’t worry – when I was injured it only took 3 weeks to get to 95%” and this has proven to be the case.
After two weeks I raced again and after 3 I was managing Tuesday track sessions without feeling like I was about to die on Wednesday morning. After 4 I almost broke 16 minutes again at the parkrun. Tim was right. The 95% rule seemed to be working a treat. What he never told me, though, was how long the last 5% would take. Clearly this is not an exact science but there is an element of truth to it. You improve very quickly when returning from injury, just as one does when taking up running for the first time, but the difficult bit is when you start to approach your physical peak again. Like climbing a mountain, the summit always looks closer than it is. As you keep climbing, however, you realise how much further there is to go.
Yesterday was a day when I was hoping to notice some improvements. I’d had a light week, tapering down for the race after a very good week of training prior to that, and was confident I could have a decent attempt at breaking the top 30 or even top 25 in Birmingham League Division 1. Sadly it wasn’t my day. Feeling confident, I went off quickly but within a few hundred metres my legs felt sore, heavy and sluggish. To add to my misery, the wind had picked up and seemed to be in our faces the whole way. I say ‘our faces,’ but what I really mean is ‘my face,’ as I managed to get myself stranded after half a lap and ran the vast majority of the race completely on my own. I dragged myself round the second lap of three and as I crossed the line to start the final lap the rain began to pour, cold on my wind-battered skin. I managed to work my way past two people but did not get any shelter from them as they didn’t respond and went straight out the back door.
I held my position for the remainder of the lap and limped over the finish line feeling freezing cold and sorry for myself. One mild attack of hypothermia and one hot chocolate later we were on our way back to Birmingham. It was the kind of race and conditions that make you if you’re in good shape and break you if you’re not. Yesterday I learned that I am the latter.
The last 5% clearly takes some time. I don’t know how long yet but I’m going to keep working hard until I find out.
I’ve started having these strange feelings recently. It all started a couple of weeks ago when I fell asleep on the sofa before 9pm. This wasn’t the only time it happened either. On a couple of occasions in the last few weeks I’ve found myself nodding off during quiet periods at work. My appetite has shot up, my body craving fuel and water like a car on a long journey.
There’s nothing wrong. I’m not getting ill, I’m not getting old, and I’m certainly not concerned. I’ve started training again, and am now trying to get used to a feeling that was once normal. Feeling exhausted is usually the norm for me, mere background noise to my daily routine. I get used to it. When I got injured I suddenly found myself feeling awake during the day time, able to get out of a chair without groaning like an old man, eating what most people would consider to be normal amounts. I was pretty close to being a fully functional human being with training not sapping me of all my energy. It felt good.
That has all changed now my foot has healed. The other day I had an X-ray which showed no signs of damage and the sports injury specialist at the QE Hospital told me to crank the training up to full volume, an act akin to telling an alcoholic to stock up on vodka. I duly obliged.
I was reflecting on this in the pub the other evening with two runner friends (before I went home to sleep, of course) and they could identify with my experiences. Rob was amused by the fact that ‘normal’ people tell us we must be so fit when they hear how much running we do. It’s hard to feel fit, though, when you can’t walk up stairs at work without discomfort, when you say no to a game of football because of your sore legs, and when going out to see live music becomes an act of endurance because of how long you have to stand up for. As a good friend once remarked “it takes a lot of commitment to appear as antisocial as we do.”
People seem envious of what they deem to be incredible discipline and work ethic, of your slim build and strong heart. I think if people knew what it was really like they wouldn’t be so jealous.
I can see why so many people quit running. They get fed up of feeling worn out all the time, fed up of the amount of training required to get to and stay at a decent level. It’s a huge effort to put in and it would be much easier to just be ‘normal.’ Not just yet though.