Boston or Bust
The life of an endurance athlete is filled with brief moments of exhilarating highs spaced by long periods of tedium, self doubt, misery and a never ending quest to find enough sleep. Throw in regular doses of life with work, kids, and house maintenance and it’s enough to make even the most seasoned athlete a mental mess. Yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The highs have been beyond belief. Yet, I have discovered more about myself stumbling through my bedroom in the darkness of the early winter morning hours then hobbling across the finish line of the greatest races. The journey never begins at the start line of a race watching the countdown of the digital race clock. It begins months before staring at the digital alarm clock bargaining for five more minutes of sleep.
Six months prior to the start of the Boston Marathon, I was at the start of the Naperville Half Marathon. It was my last race prior to a welcomed respite before I started the long off season of run training to get me to Boston. It had been a long race season of extended training with my “A” race being Ironman Mont Tremblant early in August. I was plagued by little nagging injuries that made training less than ideal. Yet, I got through it by stubbornly toughing it out. With a period of rest between the Ironman race and the Naperville Half, I had all the confidence in the world I could handle a stand-alone run race. Running was always my greatest strength. I often used my ability to run to make up for my short comings in biking and swimming. Running a half marathon was a perfect distance for me; right in my wheelhouse. Two miles into the Naperville race, I was walking gingerly grabbing my right hammy. I was trying to rub out the pain that was shooting down from the hip. I can work this out. Don’t be a wimp. Just get through this one and you’ll have a break for the holidays. These were the things I was telling myself as I limped along. By mile 3, I was done. I hobbled back to the start to get my warm clothes. I was a mental wreck feeling all the emotions of disbelief, sadness, anger, and embarrassment. I was awash with the feeling of helplessness – why was my body letting me down…repeatedly? I had no answers. This was challenging to accept as I usually could rely upon my intellect and medical background to coax the answer to most of the maladies I suffered as an endurance athlete. This time, even the cracks in the asphalt I stared at on the walk back had as much of a solution as I could fathom in my mind. Something had to change or else I was going to fulfill the definition of insanity.
A little over six months prior to Boston, it began with a lamentation-filled call to Coach Joe LoPresto. How can I possibly be ready for Boston? I’ve got to be ready. It’s my “A” race. I may never get another chance. Fortunately, Coach Joe was able to talk me off the ledge – it was not his first foray in dealing with a stressed out athlete. His calm voice offered assurance against my first concern, we had time. Next, he reminded me, we could get through this as a team. First order of business was recovery. It had been a long season and I hadn’t taken any time to decompress going from one event to another. It was probably why I was more easily stressed and frustrated with my reoccurring injury. It was a month of nothing. Doing nothing! That’s an endurance event all unto itself. During recovery, we began trouble shooting the injury. The nagging and lingering effects of chronic pain defined our approach to problem solving. The repeatable nature of the sore hamstring suggested it was time to bring all of Experience Triathlon resources to bear. As hard as it was to let go of control and ask for help, I trusted Coach Joe was going to put me in the right hands to not only find the root cause of my problems but to also assist me in resolving it.
My first visit was to the doctor to make sure it was not a structural issue causing pain. A few rads and a thorough exam didn’t reveal any serious orthopedic issue. This suggested that my pain was likely soft tissue or neurogenic. He referred me to a physical therapist with a good reputation for trouble shooting and correcting root causes of nagging sports injuries. This is what I was hoping for. I didn’t just want to make the pain go away, but instead, I was seeking a way to prevent this type of injury from reoccurring. He was very thorough in his exam, was able to define my issues and treated me as an intellectual peer with his explanations and treatment plans. The right hamstring muscle was not damaged. The pain was neurogenic, stemming from compressive forces on the sciatic nerve. The nerve was constantly being irritated and sending pain stimuli prematurely to stop the load being put on the hamstring muscle. All of this was a result of compensation for weakness in my opposite leg and my core. It seemed so strange to me. How could I be weak? I ran fast! It turned out that I wasn’t running with the greatest form due to my weak core. Compensation for weakness in my core put repetitive strain on the strongest muscle I had – the right hamstring – with he end result being chronic pain.
The solution was a multi-prong approach that centered around building strength in my core and increasing my flexibility. I didn’t even begin to run until late December – four months before Boston. Was this going to be possible? The therapist and Coach Joe seemed to think we had a good shot. I put my faith in them. I had to put some faith in myself as well. And so began the journey with many visits to PT for him to work me over as he tested my strength, my flexibility and my tolerance for pain week in and week out. Coach Joe, once given the green light by PT, began to ease me back into the run by building up my base five minutes at a time. Coach Joe also reviewed my running form using slow motion Dartfish technology. He showed me how my technique compared to efficient, elite runners and described methods I could practice to adjust my form. Core workouts by the PT were much different than what I traditionally did in the past. Embarrassingly, I was one of those athletes that thought strength came from doing the main disciplines of triathlon. To get stronger on the bike, one simply had to bike more. Same for the other triathlon legs. Not so, according to the therapist. I needed a disciplined strength training program that focused on strengthening my core and developing symmetry of strength between my left and right side. This would allow me to bear a greater load on the leg muscles and increase the tolerance for this load on the nerves that wanted to send pain stimuli to the brain. Early on, I wasn’t sure I was seeing the results of my efforts. I had to continue to trust the process the PT and Coach Joe were guiding me through. I also had to do the work prescribed. It would have been easy to blow off the work or get discouraged by the slowness of improvements. I couldn’t abandon the process – putting my toe on the start line in Boston was at stake. As the weeks, went by, I was finally seeing the results of my efforts. The hammy didn’t hurt nearly as much, getting more tolerant even as the run distance increased. I incorporated massage therapy with Experience Massage therapist, Sarah Farsalas, to help break down some of knots I had in legs and lower back. Thank you, Sarah. A month and a half before Boston, Jim said he was done with regular visits for me. He gave me handouts with exercises and stretches I needed to do and put me fully into Coach Joe’s hands. The miles poured on and I found that I was not only tolerating the distance, but my recovery after a long or hard run was much easier and shorter. After my final long run before the taper, I felt like I was ready. Not only physically, but mentally and emotionally, I knew I could do this. I had my confidence back! The team approach working with the available resources of ET worked! I was going to Boston!
Now after all that said, my description of the race itself may seem brief, but that’s the point. The race itself is an incredible but brief part of the overall journey that started long before the race and continues long after. Oh, but what a memory maker this race was! As much as I was prepared to run an amazing emotional race, I was surprised by what Mother Nature had in store for me and my fellow 30,000 runners on this day. Never mind that the course is an endless series of rolling hills punctuated by several steeper portions with names like “Heartbreak Hill.” Throw in a cold day, 15-20mph head winds and a steady rain the entire race and then one could say it was a bit challenging. It wasn’t going to be a PR day. Yet, I wasn’t running for a record even in ideal conditions. I was running to prove the past few months of rehabbing and retooling meant something. It did. The hills didn’t stop me. I had the strength to endure the wind, cold, rain and the fifteen pounds of extra water weight. I was able to enjoy being a part of a community of runners who all had their own tales to tell of their journey to Boston. The finish line was spectacular and emotional. When I stepped across the blue and yellow line, it made the past six months worth it. High fives and wet hugs were aplenty. I was given a thermal sheet and my medal both of which I wore proudly the rest of the day – one out of necessity against the cold and the other as a mile marker on this amazing journey of life.
After a good night’s sleep, I awoke peering out the window to sunny day wondering where the journey is going to take me now. Don’t know where, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to be on one and sharing it with the people who matter the most to me. A big thanks to the love of my life, Maxine, who not only shared this part of the journey with me, but also surpassed an amazing milestone in finishing the Boston Marathon as well. Thank you to my physical therapist for sorting me out so that I could run with confidence again. Last, but not least, Coach Joe – thank you for helping me believe in myself again and to avoid getting too manic or too depressed about challenges laid at our feet. You guided me through another adventure on this journey. Here’s to more adventures in the future.