Endless Mile 24 Hour – October 20, 2018 (Alabaster, AL)

This turned out to be my real comeback race. After the debacle at Southern Discomfort in July, where I was fearful of pushing too hard because of my continuing battle with stress fractures, I was uncertain whether I could handle even a marathon distance. I was determined to try for a 50k, even if it took me all 24 hours.

Weather in central Alabama is unpredictable. Two years ago I had expected mild autumn temperatures and was blindsided by freezing cold. Last year – when I did the 48 hour – I came prepared for the cold but instead enjoyed mild summer like temps during the day and cool clear but not frigid nights. On both occasions I was plagued by blisters on the balls of my feet. Between weather and foot problems, I never stayed on the course the entire time and left early before the race officially ended.

Well, I had the same experience this year. The weather on Saturday morning was rainy and overcast and then warmed up to 65 under cloudy skies. Since persistent rain was predicted for the entire morning, I felt relieved when the wet weather failed to show up. Instead we had just brief intermittent showers until early afternoon. By 6 pm, however, the wind picked up and the cold began in earnest. This time I was ready and began layering on my jackets (6 of them), scarf, cowl, hat, and mittens. For most of Saturday evening and the early hours on Sunday I was fine.

However, while I didn’t suffer from blisters this year, I did feel pain in my feet. Ever fearful of the threat of stress fractures recurring, I wanted to take frequent rest breaks, but I held off on my first chance to sit down until I had reached 24 miles. Around 4 pm Darcy brought me some coffee (at my request – I needed the caffeine to keep me going all night long) and that gave me a chance to change into long pants for the evening and rest my aching legs and feet.

I can’t remember exactly what time it was when I got to 32 laps but once I reached that goal, I was relieved. At that point, my plan was to push on until I just couldn’t go any further. I wasn’t sleepy at all and knew I could make it to the end of the race at 9 am on Sunday if everything continued as it was. However, that was not to be. Soon, my feet began to hurt and I very much wanted the chance to put my legs up and rest. The only problem was that the music from the aid station was extremely loud and I found it impossible to lie still with the pounding from the constant noise. At one point, I found a pavilion at the opposite end of the course where it was relatively quiet and I lay down on the extremely narrow bench, with my legs on the picnic table. Uncomfortable? Definitely! But it did give me a chance to rest a little in peace.

I also experienced some digestive problems, probably due to a lack of real food. There was no pizza for the 6, 12, and 24 hour options and that was a disappointment. I tried some soup, grilled cheese, and peanut butter sandwiches, but nothing seemed to help. Next time, I will ask Darcy to provide me a burger or egg sandwich from McDonald’s or Dunkin.

By 3 am, the wind picked up and began to chill me, right through my multiple layers. Specks of something (dirt? grass?) were blowing into my eyes, despite my glasses. I waited until 4:30 before I gave up and decided to call Darcy to come get me. Once again, I just couldn’t last at Endless Mile, but at least this time I did 57 miles, one more than my other 24 hour venture here. Just being able to do that 50k was a major accomplishment so I was pleased.

My previous posts about this race give detailed information about the course and the race choices so I won’t repeat that stuff here. Suffice it to say that the course is paved, easy to follow, partially shaded, and has only 2 inclines. The timing system was a little different this year and – for the most part – worked well. We stayed at a new Holiday Inn right in Alabaster (in previous years, we had stayed at a so-so Hampton Inn in neighboring Calera). The Holiday Inn was clean, quiet, and closer to the race site. It was also surrounded by restaurants like Olive Garden, convenience stores like Target and Walmart, and groceries like Publix.

My advice to walkers who want to try this race would be to come prepared for all kinds of weather, bring any essential food and drink, set up your personal aid station far away from the timing mat/aid station (if loud music is not your thing), and enjoy the people and the atmosphere.

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Bluebird 5K – Labor Day, September 3, 2018 (Tallahassee, FL)

I know, I know, it’s only a 5k, but it was the first race after my poor showing at Southern Discomfort in July, and I was eager to do a race no matter how short the distance. On Labor Day weekend I was supposed to be in Manchester, TN, for A Race for the Ages, a race I had signed up for almost a year ago. I was devastated about missing that race, but I knew that – given my recent stress fractures –there was no way I could do a 71 hour race successfully. That left an empty weekend – and I correctly figured that a 5k was better than watching reruns on television.

This race, along with an accompanying 1 miler, is a fundraiser for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). It was begun several years ago to commemorate Brookie B., a young woman who died by suicide. The cause was special to us since our son Ben also died by suicide when he was 25. Since this is a community event designed to raise suicide awareness and prevention, it was possible to do the races with or without chip timing, depending on preference.

My whole family decided to race – my husband Darcy did the 1 mile race (and finished first in his age group!), and my son and our dog Shadow who did the 5k with me. Shadow is a black lab mix and very friendly. While we waited for the races to start, she made a lot of friends, especially with young children. The one mile event began at 8 am and Darcy took off. At 8:30, we lined up for the longer race, with David, Shadow, and myself at the rear. We had all opted for chip timing and I was eager to see if I had regained any of my ‘speed’ after being sedentary for so long.

The courses were trail so I was already at a disadvantage but the 5k was mostly grass, akin to cross-country, with only a few areas of rocks and roots. Still, in those areas, I had to slow down and pick my way carefully over the tree roots and stumbling blocks. David took off running with Shadow and I figured they would be waiting for me at the finish line. Imagine my surprise when – around the halfway point – I came upon them. David was standing patiently while Shadow stretched out comfortably on the dirt, taking what was a well-deserved break. It was only a half mile to the next aid station where we all drank our fill. That rest break and some water gave Shadow renewed energy and she took off eagerly, with David in tow. I followed closely behind and the 3 of us finished within minutes of each other. My time was 49:33, a personal worst for a 5k, but not so bad if I took into consideration attention paid to the trail and the dog.

All in all, it was a good race for a great cause and will probably be on my calendar for next year.

 

Interim Report: Warning – This is Depressing

I fully expected a clean bill of health when I returned to the doctor last Monday for a follow-up on my quartet of stress fractures. The pain had subsided, I was walking several miles every morning, and I felt ready to return to the racing circuit. I knew I’d be admonished to listen to my body, stop when pain reached a level of 3, and walk slowly to lesson impact on my osteopenic bones. Okay, I could do all that.

Imagine my surprise and consternation when the MRI taken that morning showed an actual break in my big toe plus 3 new stress fractures in different locations than the original ones. It seems I just can’t win! Even with rest, physical therapy, a healthy diet, and additional calcium and vitamin D, broken bones and stress fractures seem to be my destiny. It’s an understatement to say I was depressed.

The doctor was worried about the effect osteopenia would have on my racing and vice versa so he hesitated to give me any advice about drugs to strengthen bone or how to deal with the ramifications of postmenopausal osteoporosis. It was outside his area of expertise (which was sports medicine) so my planned visit next week to an endocrinologist seems timely. He did caution me to avoid high impact activities like running (walking was okay), to wear double rocker shoes like Hokas to minimize pressure on my forefoot, and to seek that ‘sweet spot’ of mileage that would feel ‘just right.’ That might mean walking every day or every other day or even every 3rd day, while I use the off days to lift weights or cross-train. All good advice but not what I wanted to hear. I want to do ultras, not a couple of miles every few days. I want to test my ability to see how many miles I can accomplish in a set time period, and not be satisfied with a measly 2 or 3 miles every day or so.

But reality has interceded. Against medical advice and dire warnings from my husband, I decided to try the 24 hour Southern Discomfort race this past weekend. I told myself I would stop at a pain level of 3. I reassured myself that I would be okay with cheering on runners while I rested and sat on the sidelines – even if I had to stop after 3 or 4 miles. I lied. I cannot watch others take part in a race that I want to do so much. It’s like watching people dance. I also cannot put only 75% into a race when my gut wants to go full throttle at 110%. At Southern Discomfort I should have stopped at 10 laps (about 12 miles) when my pain reached a 3 but I persisted for another 10 laps. Full disclosure – my pain level at that point approached a 6. Had I not spent the last 4 months with my left foot encased in a boot, I would have pushed on for the full 24 hours. Only 9 more laps and I would have achieved a 50k. Fortunately, the thought of ending up in a boot again scared me and I stopped at 20 laps, only 9 hours into the race.

I know that I made the right decision to stop at that point (although I should really have stopped earlier – yes, I know that, really I do). This morning both my feet are slightly painful (in the interest of full disclosure, my right foot often hurt but not as badly as my left, so I don’t know if I have stress fractures in that foot as well). I don’t think I did any irreparable damage, but I have decided to take a break (no pun intended) from ultras for a while. Instead, I am considering doing 5k events that have generous finishing time allowances so I can walk at a slower pace for a shorter distance. It’s also probably time to try medication to build up my bones, an idea I’ve resisted so far, but if it helps, I may be able to do ultras once again.

I’ve learned that it is essential for me to walk at least 30 to 60 minutes every day if I am to retain my sanity. It’s probably healthier too, and when I return to ultrawalking I will limit myself to 3 to 6 races a year instead of the 25 or more I’ve been doing over the past decade. I will certainly include Southern Discomfort on that future calendar. The heat and humidity of Georgia in July didn’t bother me in the least and this year it didn’t rain, at least during the hours I was on the course. Physically I felt fine, with no pain or fatigue at all, except for those nasty stress fractures. John and Kelli, the race directors, are a husband and wife team who do a tremendous job and the organization is superb. The course is a paved 1.1 mile loop, partially shaded and mostly level. Goodies include a soft cotton tee shirt, cap, bag (new this year), and finishers get a hand-painted emu egg with stand and a pint glass (for those who meet certain distance requirements). We stayed at a remodeled Hampton Inn near the Albany Mall and were pleased with the accommodations. There are lots of popular eating establishments nearby (we ate at Applebee’s and Olive Garden). The race, with 6, 12, 24, and 30 hour options, is definitely a keeper!

 

Relentless Forward Progress – with a Few Backward Steps

Last Wednesday was a busy but fruitful day; I had an MRI in the morning and a ten-week checkup with my physician in the afternoon. Results were mixed. The good news is that two of my stress fractures are completely healed while the remaining two show major improvement. I am now on a plan to wean me off The Boot and allow me a way to begin training again. Until next Monday I can be bootless while in my house but must wear it when I go outside. I can walk on my entire foot instead of having to limp on my heel and doing so without pain feels great.

On Monday I can walk outside (hooray! hooray!) but only for 10 minutes to start. If I do okay and don’t experience any pain, I can lengthen this time to 30 minutes, no more, until my next visit to the doctor in July.

Now for the bad news – the MRI also showed some nerve inflammation with my foot muscles. This can be caused by one of four things: diabetic neuropathy, bone infection, extreme exertion immediately before the MRI, or nerve entrapment. We were able to easily discount the first three. I don’t have diabetes, there was no sign of bone infection, and there was no way I could do anything resembling exertion before the MRI. That left nerve entrapment, and the only way to decisively diagnosis a disconnect between nerve and muscles is an electromyography (EMG) exam. This includes a nerve conduction study along with a needle EMG. This sounds very uncomfortable and painful to me (anything with needles is meets that description) but I was reassured that it is not too bad, and if it helps figure out my problem, I am willing to go for it. Whether a cure is possible depends on where the muscle-nerve disconnect is and what is causing it. I will have to be patient and wait until the middle of June for this test.

I was also referred for a physical therapy evaluation and to set up a treatment program so I can eventually return to racing. I am so excited about the prospect of getting back to my passion! I am focusing on the good news and trying to be positive about the confounding elements. And while I am nervous about having a relapse of these dreaded stress fractures, I am beside myself with joy at the thought of even a ten-minute walk outside!

Stress Fracture Update

I have been completely out of the racing world since the middle of January when I managed 53 miles at the FastTrack 24 hour race despite excruciating pain. I am trying desperately to recover from 4 metatarsal stress fractures in my left foot, but the ‘cure’ for stress fractures is to completely rest the fractured appendage. This means that, during all my waking hours, I must wear a knee-high boot that completely stabilizes my foot and makes any kind of aerobic activity impossible.

My only foray into racing has been to live vicariously through race reports from my friends and – to be frank – reading about their exploits often leaves me envious and depressed. I want to be ‘out there’ moving and, at least for the present, I cannot. I’ve been absent from Facebook because I get so saddened when learning about new races I must miss or reading about ones I’ve signed up for but had to DNS. Walking is my preferred way of dealing with stress, anxiety, and frustration, and that avenue has been frustrated for the last four months.

Yesterday I went to my sports medicine doctor at the University of Florida for a 10-week checkup. To say I was anxious is to minimize the duress I’ve been feeling during this entire recuperative period. I moaned and groaned during the entire trip to Gainesville and for days before the actual journey.

I wish I could say now that I no longer must wear the dreaded boot (dubbed Frankie, after the frenzied wife and mother in the television show The Middle). The news I received at this checkup was decidedly mixed. While it seems that there has been some healing, I still have pain on the anterior part of my foot. I am scheduled for an MRI next week, followed by a meeting with my doctor the same day to discuss the results and plan a strategy for healing and for weaning me off the boot. The very next day I will have a DEXA scan to examine my bone density and make sure my existing osteopenia has not devolved into osteoporosis.

So for the upcoming week it is back to the boot and complete rest for my sore foot. This enforced recovery period is the longest time I have ever been so sedentary and that includes complete bedrest during my complicated pregnancies. I’ve studied the medical literature as well as popular articles, both print and online, on running injuries and stress fractures to see if there are ways I can speed up recovery. As a result, I learned to avoid NSAIDS (they are supposed to retard healing), increase my intake of vitamin D and calcium (to improve bone density), and eat 4 to 6 prunes a day (the potassium has been shown to encourage bone health). Three times a week I lift weights and do abdominal exercises as well as physical therapy stretches to keep my shoulder and piriformis muscles strong (those weaknesses were due to previous injuries). As an adolescent, I used to enjoy hula-hooping so I bought a weighted hula hoop from a company based in Oregon and now spend some time each day with my hoop while watching television. But to be honest, these are all very poor substitutes for racing.

How do I spend all this down time? I knit and crochet various items, especially hats, shawls, and stoles. Some of these I keep, especially the ones made from wool that must be hand-washed and blocked, but most of the others I donate. My recent favorite charity is the Comfort Shawl Project coordinated by the School of Nursing at the University of Florida. So far, I’ve donated 10 shawls to the project, which gives the shawls to patients in the Palliative Care Unit at Shands Hospital. I have several more on my needles (knitting parlance for ‘in the works’). I also make hats for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.

In addition to knitting and crocheting, I also read and sew and quilt and I have become quite adept at doing most of these activities (not the reading though) while binge watching Netflix, Hulu, and BritBox. I also eat, partly out of boredom, but also to improve my diet by increasing my protein intake. Since I rarely eat meat and can usually subsist on fruit, nuts, cheese, and bread (and wine and beer in moderation), I often run a protein deficit, so now I make a point of including fish and the occasional steak or chicken in my meals. I normally avoid juice, preferring real fruit, but these days I take my vitamin D pills with a half glass of calcium and vitamin D-fortified orange juice. For my sweet tooth, I choose ice cream with a topping of nuts or granola, so I can get that added boost of calcium. Yes, I can rationalize that ice cream and frozen yogurt is a health food, though I try not to eat the entire container at one sitting. The downside of this relatively healthy (for me) diet – plus all this inactivity – is that I have gained 6 pounds! That is very depressing. But the bottom line is that I would rather weight 112 pounds instead of 106 if that means I am healthier and can get back out on the road walking again.

I can now understand why stress fractures are considered the runner’s worst nightmare. Once a stress fracture occurs, it becomes more likely it will happen again and to the same bone. That means that it will be crucial, once I get the green light to race again, to keep my training in check and stop at the first sign of foot pain. I will never again be able to do 35 marathons and ultras in a year and I am okay with that if I can still do at least one long race a month, taking breaks as needed.

There are so many great races I want to register for, but I am (not so patiently) waiting until my physician gives me the go-ahead. Until then, I am trying to keep busy, eat right, and stay positive.

 

“Poor Decisions Make for Better Stories” – Grumble, Grumble, Grumble

The quote is from the Dahlonega Ultra-Marathon Association; the grumbling is all mine. During the 11 years of my racing career I have been fortunate to suffer only a few injuries and mishaps. Back in 2013, I broke my wrist on a trail race and had to cancel a trip to Israel for the Jerusalem Marathon; the surgery resulted in a titanium plate and screws but otherwise did not handicap me. A year later I experienced a bothersome bout with a piriformis problem that was resolved with exercise and physical therapy. In both cases, I still pushed through with my existing race schedule; the race in Jerusalem was my only DNS.

Even my two foot surgeries in 2016 did not keep me from racing after a 6 week recovery period. I believed I was invincible; I may have slowed down quite a bit but I was a fast healer and felt I could push on through almost anything as long as I gritted my teeth and kept moving.

Well, it turns out I was wrong. Very wrong. I am not invincible. I’m also older and slower. But I am also stubborn. After my most recent foot surgery the day before Thanksgiving last year, I was determined to continue with my planned racing schedule. After all, I would have 2 full weeks to recuperate and the surgery involved just one toe. I was sure I could do it. I also had the blessing of my podiatrist, who understood my fervor and my persistence but nevertheless cautioned me to go slowly and STOP if I hurt. I did not heed his advice and I am now paying the price.

Two weeks after surgery I did the Tallahassee Ultradistance Classic 50k. I hurt the entire time but did not have sense enough to stop. Then, two weeks later, I did Lucky 13, the 13 marathon/13 day challenge in Ocala. I pushed through despite unceasing pain in my sore foot. After that series I rested for 3 weeks, skipping a planned half marathon double weekend so I could concentrate on an upcoming 24 hour race, FastTrack in Palatka. An hour into the 24 hour race, I knew I was in trouble but did I stop? Of course not. I persisted for another 20 hours and racked up 53 miles.

But resting after the 24 hour race did not diminish the pain. A follow-up visit to my podiatrist resulted in a stern warning to do no weight bearing at all for 10 days. I obeyed but still the pain persisted. I realized it was time to consult with a specialist, so I made an appointment at the University of Florida’s sports medicine clinic. The result? I was diagnosed with four stress fractures in my left foot (my little toe was the only intact appendage), my foot was encased in a special boot, and I was warned that it might take 6 to 12 weeks for the fractures to heal. Since I am post-menopausal with osteopenia, that period might well take the entire 12 weeks. No weight bearing activity for that period at all. Grumble, grumble, grumble!!

I realize now, with the enlightening benefit of hindsight, that I should never have attempted that 50k so soon after surgery. But even if I had insisted on trying to do that race, I should have realized that the pain was a warning signal to quit. I always hate to give up mid-race and so I convinced myself I could soldier through. But that was foolish – I realize that now – and I am paying the price. I have learned my lesson.

Now I am trying to be a model patient. I am working on strengthening my upper body with weights and doing lots of reading, knitting, and puzzles. I am taking vitamin D and eating prunes every day (a professor at Florida State University has studied the effect of eating a daily serving of prunes to increase bone density in post-menopausal women and found a positive result). Despite my grumbling I am trying to send positive thoughts to the metatarsal bones in my foot. Even so, my grumbling continues. Pity Darcy, my poor husband, who must listen (or pretend to listen) to my venting and complaining. One of my pastimes is searching for races I can add to my schedule once I am back on track. For the sake of family and friends, as well as myself, I hope that recovery comes quickly and completely.

 

 

FastTrack 24 Hour (Palatka, FL) – January 20, 2018

For me, this race should have been labeled ‘slowtrack’ – it was one of my most difficult races ever and not because of anything inherent in the race itself. Since it is held on a track (just under 400 feet per loop), it takes at least 5 laps to make a mile and that in itself is enough to drive me bonkers but I knew that going in. What was more problematic was whether I had fully recovered from my pre-Thanksgiving foot surgery, followed by the Tallahassee 50k just two weeks after the surgery, and 13 marathons over the Christmas holidays. I may have been setting myself up for failure. At least I made the wise decision to skip the two half marathons I had planned to do on January 13 and 14; my foot was still very sore and I knew I needed the extra rest time.

I thought everything would be fine for FastTrack. My gait had improved as I assiduously tried NOT to limp and NOT to drag my sore foot. I was even walking several miles up and down the hills in my neighborhood with only minor pain. Thus it came as a major surprise when, after just a few laps around the Palatka High School track at the start of FastTrack, I began to feel excruciating pain once again in my left foot. That was definitely not a good sign, especially at the beginning of a 24 hour race!

The logistics for this race were straightforward. Palatka is a relatively medium-sized rural Florida town southeast of Gainesville. We stayed at a new modern Hampton Inn, where we had a small but clean and pleasant river-view room up on the fourth floor. Although there were several restaurants within walking distance, we opted for Beef O’Brady’s and had a decent meal before returning to our room for the night.

The race site at the high school was only 15 minutes away, so on Saturday we left the hotel at 6:30 and drove to the site to claim a spot in the infield where I could set up my chairs and drop bags and pick up my bib and ankle chip. There was a pre-race briefing at 7:30 and we then milled around until the 8 am start. I had time to check out the real bathrooms; there were two of them inside the building closest to the race site and those were designated for racers only. A building further off the track had more bathrooms and was to be used by everyone else. I was a bit concerned that two bathrooms might not be sufficient for over 60 runners, but I never really had a problem during the race.

Although this was the first year for FastTrack, it seems to have attracted a large number of elite racers, including Connie Gardner, Megan Alvarado, Harvey Lewis, Sally Libonati, and Joe and Kelly Fejes. While it was amazing and inspiring to watch these speedy runners blaze around the course practically nonstop, it was also disheartening when compared to my tortoise-like plodding. Usually in a 24 hour race, the midnight hours find almost every runner and walker slowing down to a zombie-like trance. Not here!

There was one small table that functioned as an aid station and it had a variety of snacks and drinks, including sausage McMuffins in the morning and pizza during the night. I can’t really attest to the food offered, since Darcy kept me supplied with an egg and bacon bagel from Dunkin Donuts and pizza from Little Caesars, so I was content. I also had my seltzer and – despite the cooler weather – I developed quite a thirst and worked my way through several bottles.

The weather was fine, cold on race morning, cloudy but in the low 60’s during the day, and in the 40’s at night. I layered up and down as necessary and never needed my heaviest jacket or sweat pants, although I did wear a thick scarf and knit cap and my heavy mittens during the evening hours. I even slept for about 20 minutes around midnight, bundled up under several jackets, when I needed to rest my legs and my mind.

Because my foot hurt so much, I had to keep changing shoes and socks. I had packed 5 extra pairs of shoes in one of my drop bags and I wore all of them. That meant I was changing shoes about every 5 hours. Normally, I only need to change once, sometimes twice, so that was unusual for me. I found, however, that putting on a different pair helped moderate the pain, at least for a while. I kept my favorite most broken-in pair for the very end of the race because those old standbys were the most comfortable.

It seemed to take forever for the miles to add up, and even though we changed direction every 4 hours, I sometimes felt myself getting dizzy and a little queasy. The timing was provided by Mike Melton and his co-timer Bill from MCM Timing and their system is remarkable. There are big screens with large easy-to-read print with more information than anyone could want, so every time I stepped over the timing mat I could instantly see my name, mile, kilometer, lap speed, and more. The system works great but it just takes SO long to accumulate those miles on a track! I quickly realized that this was going to be a very long 24 hours for me. By the time I reached the 50k mark, it had taken me over 10 hours (the Tallahassee Ultra a month ago took me just under 9 hours) so I could tell I was really suffering. I wondered if I would be able to last the entire race.

As the hours ticked by, I began to wonder if it was even worth staying if I couldn’t do my very best. When I reached the 40 mile mark, I decided to go for 50 miles and then make up my mind. After all, one of my 2018 goals was to complete 8 timed races with at least 50 miles in each, so at 50 miles I could check off FastTrack as one step towards that goal. Around 4 am, I reached 50 miles, texted Darcy that I was done, and continued to move around the track until he arrived. I managed to finish with 53.64 miles, turned in my chip to Mike, packed up my gear, and called it a day (and night).

The volunteers, official photographer, and race supporters (including David Christy who was crewing for one of the amazingly speedy runners) were terrific. They cheered for everyone, including me, and were very supportive. It did help a lot to hear them tell me I was looking great and doing well – especially when I felt like toast!

Overall, it was a good experience but it should have been better. I probably should have waited a few more weeks before attempting another race. I am now paying the price, facing a longer recovery time with my sore foot. I also discovered that competing in a race with so many elite athletes can be a mixed bag, impressive to be surrounded by greatness but demoralizing and humbling as well. The race has 6 and 12 hour options as well as the 24, and for walkers who want to try a timed race, it is a decent choice.