Thursday, October 27, 2011

The never ending season

Is it time for the off-season yet?
When I first started racing triathlons the US season kicked off with the St. Anthony’s triathlon in late April and concluded with the Hawaii Ironman in October. Then I started racing ITU, and the season started a little earlier and end a little later. Now, WTC, Rev3 and other series added races very early in the year. These new races beckon with Kona slots or mid-winter respites from the cold. Fall races offer a chance to milk a season of training and perhaps qualify for Kona almost a year in advance. Suddenly, one can race virtually all 12 months without leaving the Northern Hemisphere, something unheard of only a few years ago.

In the past, the shorter racing season lent itself to a natural off-season; a time to rest and restore, embark on other activities, rectify weaknesses, spend time with family, catch up at work. The winter was meant for base training, sitting on the couch, or snow sports. Without the lure of races in February, there was no need to get in shape quickly.

Once races started populating the schedule, though, the temptation for training and racing obsessed athletes was too great. People started signing up for races in what was once considered the off-season requiring a healthy dose of training early or late in the year (much of it, perhaps, indoors).

I am not saying I am opposed to the longer season. I am not. The multitude of racing options available are astounding and showcase the incredible growth of our beloved sport. I fear, however, that without careful planning, the risk of burnout, illness or injury is increased significantly. I am not just talking about seasonal afflictions. I am also referring to career ending setbacks. 

The continued cycle of racing almost year round will eventually take a mental and physical toll. With the next race on the horizon, there will be less time to take care of muscle imbalances and nagging pre-injuries. A year-round dose of extremely early mornings of training will eventually render an athlete weary and ready to toss out the alarm clock. 

This is where careful planning becomes important. If you are racing early in the season and have a key race late in the season, take some downtime in the middle of the season. This will keep you fresh and rejuvenated. And here is a key piece of wisdom. Get a pencil and paper and write this down: You cannot be in top fitness all year. Should I repeat that? You cannot be in top fitness all year. It’s true. The fitter you are, the harder it is to maintain that fitness. You must allow yourself, not only between seasons but within a season, a period of time to rest.

Likewise, it is unwise to race a long schedule year after year. Alternate a long racing season with a shorter racing season. This will allow you to race happy and healthy for a longer period of time.

Go ahead. Allow yourself some time to be lazy. You deserve it.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Diesel the Dog: Aspen weekend

Ever since I was little, car drives on windy roads make my stomach feel weird. Sometimes I start to feel so bad all of my food comes back up. You would think that Crazy Blonde and Deep Voice would stop taking me on their mountain adventures, but, no. They pack up the car, throw my bed in the back seat and make me go with them. 

This time they gave me a pill in a glop of peanut butter, but it did not help. We went over this really big mountain on this really curvy road. I was feeling terrible. Finally, we got out of the car and I thought we were done. They marveled at the view, took a picture, and made me get back in the car. 
Whoever took this picture is a crappy photographer.
We still had a long way to go. Deep Voice would open the window for me every few minutes and I would stick my nose out and take big breaths of air. I thought I was ok, but suddenly this mushy stuff came out of my mouth. It was yucky and stinky; I didn't even try to eat it. Crazy Blonde and Deep Voice stopped the car and cleaned it all up. I felt much better. That’ll teach them to take me on those types of roads.

Finally, we got to this place called Aspen where Crazy Blonde and Deep Voice had dinner and I napped in the car. It was dark so I could not really see too much. Then, we went to the place where we were staying, Aspen Boy’s house in a town called Snowmass Village. 

I was so happy when Muffin Top showed up with my good friend Riley. Riley and I like to wrestle. I like to bite Riley’s ears and Riley likes to bite my neck. It is so much fun. Usually we only get to play for a few hours, but this time we had two whole days. 
Riley and I like to play. We make a mess.
The next morning, Muffin Top and Crazy Blonde went for a run. I got to run just a little bit.
I'm kicking Crazy Blonde's ass
Deep Voice and Aspen Boy took me and Riley for a hike. There were lots of really big animals with people on their back. The big animals left hot biscuits on the trail which Riley really enjoyed. I tried one, but it was not my favorite flavor.
This is the trail that had the hot biscuits.
In the afternoon we went to a farmer’s market in Aspen. There were so many dogs there, I had lots of sniffing and hello’s to do. The dogs were big and little and fat and thin. I saw one dog with a very silly haircut; Crazy Blonde said it was a poodle. I don’t think that prissy dog can chase a ball!

We got back in the car and drove for a while until we got to this place with tall mountains and a big lake. I heard Crazy Blonde call it Maroon Bells. Crazy Blonde and Deep Voice were very impressed with the scenery. I really didn’t care as long as I could run around. I tried to get into the lake, but it was way too cold. 
I never knew water could be so cold!
We hiked on a trail. I was very excited by all the new smells. I got to bark at a few people, but I think I scared them because they kind of cowered. 
Check me out! I am the King of the Mountain.
 Everyone went for a run the next day, so Riley and I had lots of time to play. We also got to chase a ball up a very steep mountain that had these funny looking chairs hanging from the sky. 

I love being outside.
We went on one more hike and then I got another glop of peanut butter with the funny white thing in it: uh oh, back in the car. This time we didn’t go on the windy mountain road though. We went another way so I could see Uncle Don. What a pleasant surprise!

Wow. I had such a fun weekend. I guess driving in the car really isn’t that bad.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Cortisone Cowboy

Sometimes it takes reaching a low point to try a different tactic. The Twin Cities marathon was such a catalyst; not finishing the race due to ongoing rib pain and the continued pain in the days afterward spurred me into action. Last year I underwent a series of cortisone injections with minimal success. I decided, though, to visit my good friend the Cortisone Cowboy (the physical medicine doctor who administered the injections last year) and try another series of injections. I had nothing to lose and potentially a lot to gain.

The first order of business was to try and diagnose a particular area of swelling on top of and below my 12th rib that has been hanging around for 18 months. Due to the protruding nature of this malady and its unknown make-up, I affectionately call it “the alien”. The Cortisone Cowboy did a diagnostic ultrasound of the alien and while the ultrasound did not reveal anything conclusive, he deemed it a pocket of swelling and scar tissue.

The next order of business was to determine where the injections would be most beneficial. Last year the Cortisone Cowboy injected the intercostals at ribs 9 and 10, so this time he decided to inject the intercostals at ribs 11 and 12 as well as the most sensitive spot in the alien.

The injections are comprised of lidocaine, a numbing agent, and cortisone, an anti-inflammatory. The lidocaine is short acting, 8 hours max, while the cortisone is long acting and can work for weeks. If you inject the proper location, the relief from the lidocaine can be revolutionary, and for me, this was the case. I had a lidocaine buzz for the rest of the day -- the reduction in pain was a magnificent feeling that made me giddy. This also confirmed that the issue was stemming from these two ribs. It was huge bummer when the lidocaine wore off.

The cortisone has reduced some swelling allowing for more aggressive and much deeper soft tissue work. An entrapped nerve has been identified behind the 12th rib, presumably the root of all evil. It is hard work trying to free this nerve, but so far the results have been encouraging in terms of pain reduction, easier breathing, and feeling stronger on my right side.

In the meantime I have spoken with two surgeons who are not only familiar with this injury but have performed surgery to help correct some of the problems caused by the injury. Mainly, the ribs are shaved several inches so when they move they do not rub the nerve. The intrinsic problem, the hypermobility, is not actually repaired. Thus, there could still be potential soft tissue problems in the long run. I also had a conversation with a woman who recently underwent surgery for this injury. Her post-operative recovery has been incredibly slow and not without its pitfalls. She couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks and after six weeks she was just beginning to walk. Yes, she scared me a little.

I have decided to hold off on surgery for the time being. I want to allow time for the cortisone to kick in even further. As well, I want to address the soft tissue and nerve issues since they need to be resolved regardless of whether I have surgery. I have also stepped up my gym work from 3 days a week to 5 days a week in an effort to rebuild muscle that has atrophied from the nerve impingement.

That leaves me in a bit of a limbo. Will I be able to run another marathon? I am realistically optimistic. Only time will tell.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Twin Cities Marathon

Here is my 10 second race recap: On Sunday I “ran” the Twin Cities marathon. The gun went off at 8. I dropped out at 9:23, just beyond halfway. The pace felt easy. My ribs felt terrible. I cut my losses early to prevent further damage.

This was my 7th trip to Minneapolis with the previous six occurring in July for the Lifetime Fitness triathlon. What a difference a few months make. July: hot and steamy. October: crisp and beautiful. Fall in the mid-West is a colorful spectacle replete with cool mornings and warm, sunny afternoons -- perfect weather for running a marathon.

I was granted elite status for this race which was a huge coup. Twin Cities in Motion, the organizers of the marathon, really know how to treat their elite athletes; they provided airport transportation, hotel rooms, a fully stocked hospitality suite, massage, a race morning staging area, a beautiful course jammed with spectators and a general conviviality rarely seen in triathlon. I felt welcome, that my presence at the race was meaningful. I felt guilty about dropping out after their wonderful kindness and it unquestionably made me want to return next year to finish my unfinished business.

Most of the marathon athletes stayed at the host hotel. As a newbie to the running scene, this offered me the opportunity to take a peek into a world that is utterly unfamiliar. I felt like an interloper, although I found most people gracious. I even made a new friend.

The morning before the race, I set out for a run with Jim, an athlete I coach who was also running the race. Two African runners headed out with us. I figured they would pass us quickly and leave us in the dust. Nope. They stayed behind us, which was incredibly disconcerting. Was I running too fast? Surely they should have been in front of us. One of the guys turned back quickly, but the other stuck with us. I had a few pick-ups to do. I sped up, he sped up; I slowed down, he slowed down.  My new friend told me that he is from Ethiopia.

Upon arriving back at the hotel, New Friend asked if we were going to stretch. All three of us traipsed upstairs to the fitness room and went through our individual routines. When New Friend decided to weigh himself, Jim became very interested and asked me to take a peek. I felt uncomfortable, like a Peeping Tom. When New Friend had trouble working the ancient doctor’s office style scale, Jim readily helped him out. New Friend’s weight? A mere 126 pounds. In his sweats and shoes. Jim stepped on the scale for comparison and it topped out at 186 pounds. I pointed out that Jim was a half a person heavier than New Friend (and almost a foot taller)!  We have been laughing about it ever since. (New Friend, Berhanu Girma, ran 2:19.45).

So now what? I let myself mope about yesterday, but today I feel rejuvenated and ready to tackle this injury anew. I am starting a strength program from scratch to help rebuild the muscles that have atrophied due to the injury. I am going to continue to run, but back off the intensity for a short while. I have been in contact with a surgeon in Canada who is familiar with this injury and may be able to provide insight on how to progress.

My marathon future is somewhat uncertain, but I am going to everything I can to get to the start line of a race before the December 16th deadline for Olympic trials qualifying.