24 September 2010

the loneliness of the long distance runner

You might think this statement, borrowed from the title of a 1962 film, is a complaint. It's not. I enjoy the isolation of running alone and the self discovery it brings. On short runs I wear only a thin layer of Lycra, running shoes and a watch. There was a time when I regarded ten kilometres as an impossible dream but now that classes as a short run. For me ten kilometres now is fifty-eight minutes to unwind; to settle into a rhythm of stride pattern and breathing; to shake off angst and frustration.

Now I regularly run up to thirty kilometres. On the road for two to three hours at a time, I find controlled breathing and stride length becomes hypnotic. Setting off under the stars at 5:30am I can drift into a twilight world, only dimly aware of the passage of time and the rolling by of roads, houses, fields, woods and miles. Early in the run I chew over problems, decisions, anxieties until those thoughts begin to fade. After an hour or so my mind is almost empty. Even as dawn breaks only my footfall connects me to the planet. That's the point at which I really begin to absorb the fifty-song playlist poured into my ears by my iPod. Tracks that span the length of my life beat in my head. Each new cross fade brings a new decade and different fragments of memory...

Two years ago I ran my first half-marathon. When you enter the realm of long distance running you discover your body's natural limits. If you are not blessed with the physiology of an "elite" athlete you will need to drink during runs longer than one hour. Much beyond that and you will need to eat too. Standard issue muscles can store enough glycogen to power them for maybe ninety minutes to two hours before you slow to a crawl then stop completely. The first time I experienced exhaustion, headache and nausea after two hours of running I thought I was simply unwell. Cold and shivering, I walked the remaining mile home with barely the energy to drop into a hot bath. I took that lesson only once.

This year I developed the tentative idea of entering a full marathon. 26.2 miles is a special distance, well beyond reach without months of punishing training, building muscle and stamina, forcing your body to adapt to burning fat as well as glycogen to drive muscles. I had been running throughout our uncommonly mild winter (minus ten is mild by Maritime Canada standards!), covering fifteen or twenty miles a week so had maintained last year's conditioning. Michelle bought me the "Non-Runner's Marathon Guide" and after devouring it I calculated I could move seamlessly from my current weekly mileage into the sixteen week recommended training programme by the first week of July. I hadn't bargained on injury.

From a combination of over-training in April and a new pair of running shoes I damaged the arch of my left foot. Such was the pain, I couldn't run at all in May and June. I nervously watched the arrival of July and decided I would test the foot despite residual pain. I had lost some cardio-vascular fitness despite visiting the gym pretty much every day to use the "eliptical cross trainer" and it took me several weeks and yet more new running shoes to recover my stamina - but I did. The chart above shows the mileage I have run in the past three months - four runs a week, including one long run on Sunday morning. On long runs you need to take some of your world with you. I wear my iPod; a belt to carry my drinks bottle, energy gels, lip-balm, Vaseline and mobile phone.

For the past six weeks I have run a half marathon or further every Sunday with a longest run of nineteen miles. This has taken a toll on my ankles. Swelling has made the interior ankle bones red and sore. For the first time I missed a scheduled run this week and know I won't be able to cover the recommended miles before October 17th. I ran ten kilometres last night in my fastest time ever but my ankles are tender this morning. I plan to begin the taper early and reduce my mileage to one long run and one medium run for the next three weeks in the hope of reaching marathon day in decent enough shape to finish the race.

So, health permitting, I may be ready to tackle those 26.2 miles (42km) and it might take me around four and a half hours, a time frame for running that would have shocked me until recent years. Through sheer determination and hours spent ignoring the heat, the cold, the wind, the rain and the snow, I discovered that you can train yourself to do almost anything - even to run for hours and hours on end. I am on the brink. Only physical collapse can stop me. I know I can meet the mental challenge. I am comfortable with my own company and voyages deep inside my head while outside the hours are passing and the world is turning.

There is a start, there is a finish and in between you just run. That bit in between is where the loneliness resides. No one can do it for you, you are on your own.


C.J. Duffy said...

Remarkable how well you have done. I cannot conceive of attempting such a thing myself but your heroic efforts make me think twice.

The pain will no doubt be an important factor but I am confident your determination coupled with your incredible level of fitness will win the day.

Good luck.

Perfect Virgo said...

Thanks CJ! I'm certainly no Olympian but I have proved to myself that even an unwilling body can be trained to run preposterous distances.

I think I'm as ready as I'll ever be and you're right, it'll be determination that just might get me through. Watch this space!