Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Becoming a Distance Runner, Part 1: Story

Running sounds like a 4-letter word to many of my everyday acquaintances.  Some can't fathom the idea of enjoying pushing the body to breathlessness and sweatiness.  Some see it as a form of punishment and anything but a hobby or a sport.  For myself, running is something I've had to learn to love.  It did not happen to me overnight.  It is also not something that I forced upon myself.  But as I look back over the last several years of my life I can see it as something almost inevitable for me.

It has only been in the last 2 years that I have been picking up my running and actually enjoying it more as I do.  I never ran much in high school. In college I lived with a great cross-country runner and he motivated me at times to go out and run. During those years, though, I made meager accomplishments at best. I set my then fastest mile time around 6:20 but I never did anything with distances over 3 miles. In fact I can remember starting 40 minute runs with some of the XC guys and after 20 minutes giving up wondering how they kept going as they did.

In the years out of college, through seminary and now married and living a career I've been a very casual runner at best. I would look at running as a means to fitness that I would resort to when pounds needed to be lost or the legs conditioned for a hike, but nothing more. It actually had become a yearly ritual of mine to pickup around April with more running and cycling to condition for summer hiking.

In 2011 I started to finally dabble into distance again. With the help of my new friend Runkeeper I was able to track distance and pace easily.  I put together a month of 36 miles and a run that totaled 9 miles which was a new PR.  As I could see my progress grow I set my first real goal: I wanted to expand my distance PR from 9 miles to a half marathon at 13 miles.  It was basically one of those "I just want to see if I can do it" sort of things.

In 2012 I was set to expand upon this quickly growing running enjoyment. At first I figured reaching my goal would only be a matter of time and picking a day to do it.  In May I set a new monthly distance record of 50 miles and I was growing a love for this. I had high hopes of using the summer to build and achieve my half marathon goal.  Unfortunately my progress would be halted in mid-June with the onset of foot issues.

One Sunday evening after an afternoon soccer game and then an evening workout on our elliptical I noticed my feet were really hurting and I was getting swelling around my ankles. I couldn't figure it out. Over the next week the swelling seemed to spread up to my knees and I was in pain.  I pretty much ceased my running for a week thinking it the culprit.  Towards the end of June the problem still wasn't resolving itself so I saw an urgent care doctor.  He diagnosed me with ankle edema and gave me Naproxen for the swelling.

At that point I was only two weeks away from my big annual Colorado hiking trip which I wasn't about to jeopardize so I pretty much took July off from running. In August the swelling was gone but I would still have pains in my feet.  This was especially the case in the morning.  After some research on this I was beginning to convince myself it was plantar fascitis which meant I needed more time to rest and let the feet heal.

I'm not sure when I finally figured it out.  It may have been suspicions building up over time.  But I finally put it together that the real culprit was a couple of pairs of bad shoes that I had.  The soccer cleats I had been wearing were simply not supported on the bottoms at all and I would have sore feet after games.  I also had a pair of Keen hiking shoes which I received in Christmas 2011.  I noticed that after long days of wearing them my feet would feel a bit sore.  At first I chalked this up to breaking in the shoes.  It was a feeling that never fully disappeared.  When I basically stopped wearing both of those pairs of shoes and gave the feet some time to rest and heal I noticed the foot and ankle issues went away.

So 2012 ended up as a bust for me in terms of becoming a better distance runner.  I quickly learned, as so many runners do, that injuries are simply going to happen.  In January of 2013 things would finally change.  Two things happened for me.  First, my feet and my legs felt great.  And though it was the middle of winter and downright cold outside, I was physically ready for workouts.  The second thing gave me the motivation to workout: I stepped on the scales and found I was at the highest weight I'd ever seen for myself.  Though a bad thing at the time, it would be the beginning of my best year of workouts and weight loss ever.

Cautiously I started a workout routine there in mid January avoiding running on back to back days and mixing up my routines between running, walking, and elliptical work.  I built up my total running from 15 miles in January to 24 in February to 50 in March and I was feeling great every step of the way.  A part of me had the feeling that I was getting ready to shoot for my half marathon goal again, but my fears of repeating last year had me holding back.  In April I broke my monthly PR up to 54 miles and then in May I spiked to 73 miles.  I was gaining speed, and was having fun doing it.

My mileage in June and July was somewhat more modest because of travel.  After another wonderful Colorado hiking trip in July I was ready to move on to the next stage in my evolution as a distance runner.  Typically I end up taking several weeks, even months, off from serious workouts after the emotional highs of the trip, mostly because of lack of motivation.  This year I decided I needed to find something to break that downward trend.  Runkeeper provided the answer.  I decided to use their Half Marathon training plan and it has proved to be an awesome decision.

On August 7 I started the plan which had me doing between 4 and 5 runs a week.  The very first weekend it had me on a 9 mile run tying my old PR from 2011 and I felt surprisingly well on it.  The following Sunday I set a new PR with 10 miles and then the following week with 12 miles.  I was quickly settling into 30+ mile weeks and it felt good!  By the end of August I had accumulated 109 miles and it seemed as though all I'd had to do these years, to push this far, was to try it.

The weekend of Sept. 8 the training plan had me run 13 miles and so, of course, I did the full 13.1 and had my first half marathon under my belt at a very pleasing pace of 8:09.  Two weeks later I would set my current PR distance of 14 miles. September would also become my monthly PR at 121 miles.

With the onset of school and busy schedules and colder mornings my time ran out to follow the Runkeeper program completely.  And, after all, I'd run my half marathon goal.  Part of me was ready finally to hang up the shoes for winter and to scale back on everything for the winter.  And yet, I realized that this wasn't just about workouts and staying in shape anymore, I was really genuinely enjoying this and actively seeking out times to just run.  I also realized that trail-running near myself was a very exciting activity, but more on that another time.

So, I've decided to make one more goal to keep me going through winter.  Its time to see just how far I can push this running thing.  I've convinced myself to begin making plans to train for a marathon sometime in 2014.  I've done 14 of the 26.2 miles and I've also had a pair of friends recently run in marathons, convincing me, that I can do this as well.  This will also help me keep up running at least some decent distances over the winter until I start my marathon plan in earnest come January and February.

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