Friday, March 7, 2014

Take me away from all this

..pavement and cement, that is.

If you read last week's post (in which I indulged in the worst kind of navel-gazing, allowing my dorkside to take over to the extent I even included a bloody spreadsheet! Yes, I have flagellated myself appropriately using a pair of sweaty running tights dotted with bits of snot and half-chewed Clif Bloks. Ok, just kidding - I haven't had a Blok in the house in years), I am both very sorry and fairly sure you've picked up on the idea that I'm trying to get a lot of running done.

Ok, a lot for me. My last weeks' totals have been 52.6km, 56.3km and 58.7km - I've got this week and next week left as build weeks before I taper for Around the Bay, and I'd like both of those to be over 60km. This shouldn't be a big deal - I've run up to about 65km/week in the past and survived, but lately it seems to be beating me up quite a bit.

Even when it's not freezing raining during a 26km run.

Psychologically, I'm sick and tired of winter. A report released last weekend indicated that February was even colder than January, and at an average of -11c/12f was the chilliest the second month of the year has been since 1979 - coincidentally, the year I was born. Add in the fact that at least 4 out of my 6 weekly runs are done after dark, and it becomes doubly difficult to kick my arse out the door day after day.

I swear I actually used to enjoy running.

While I'm pretty good at getting myself to do something to which my brain is strongly objecting, I'm still at the mercy of my physical weaknesses, and the conditions under which I'm having to run these days are certainly not being kind in that area.

Y'see, cement and pavement are two of the worst bloody surfaces you could possibly choose for running. They're unforgivingly hard, causing minute damage with every single impact; that is, each and every step you take. Every other time I've had a really long race to train for - assuming I actually did the work - I've tried to alternate long runs from week to week between the road (assuming it was a road race and I needed to toughen myself up to take the long-term pounding, like for Midsummer Night's 30k last year) and the softer surface of the local trails. We've got bunches of them, some of which are really beautiful, and all of which are easier on the body than running over 2 hours on substances designed for cars instead of people.

Definitely more inspiring than stoplights.

The problem is that the same weather that has just about broken my spirit has been threatening to snap my ankles if I were to venture out on the trails...or even on the sidewalks, in some cases. 

We've had a lot of snow, most of which has stuck around. Despite the blisteringly cold temperatures, though, the sun has done a lovely job of melting the snow on the sidewalks and trails into a gloopy mess while I'm at work. People walk through it, leaving footprints in the semi-liquid mass that then freeze in place by the time I get outdoors in the evenings. As a matter of fact, it tends to stay that way for days - if not weeks - on end, as more snow piles in on top of this ankle-destroying ice. It's exactly the sort of thing I dealt with for the three hours of Frosty Trail this year, which ended up with one wrenched ankle and some damage (which I've been unwilling to dignify with proper identification) to the junction of the ball of my right foot and my big toe. The same stuff that contrived to launch me into a snowbank on the side of the trail, simply because my foot landed partway into an icy footprint under the snow.

This crap.

Knowing that I'd be in for a horrible - and possibly dangerous, if I were to injure myself in a place not easily accessed while only dressed for running - time if I tried to run trail, I avoided them for some time. The sunset photo above was taken on the only trail run I've ventured since Frosty Trail; a mere 6km back on February 16th, made as terrifying as it was beautiful by the lumpy, packed ice and snow that threatened at every moment to throw me off my feet. I made it through, but it was enough to convince me that I shouldn't be out on the trails until the incessant ice and snow have dissipated. The damn things aren't even any good for cross-country skiing with the shape they're in, though we did get a nice snowshoe in on them one frosty night. 

Usually this would have a bright side - when running on pavement and cement, you're typically dealing with a uniform surface that doesn't carry many surprises for your feet. One of the best arguments for running trails is that road running does very little to strengthen the smaller supporting muscle groups that will shield your knees and ankles from injury - it's typically all in the boring old saggital plane, with very little instability or side-to-side movement. This has not proven the case this winter.

Smooth. Predictable. Sure.
The choppy, ankle-endangering ice has not been limited to the trails - nor has the snow. The above photo was taken on my street after it had been plowed. If the weather warmed up in the slightest (i.e.: above -10c/14f), the snow would turn into a substance best described as mashed potatoes. Each step forward is accompanied by a slip backward as your foot simply digs through the mess. If the weather stayed cold, the snow would be compacted by the passage of cars and feet into a rock-hard, lumpy mass that is almost as challenging to run on as the footprinted ice. Now, as the sun gets stronger during the day, I encounter sheets of ice in the evening so smooth and slick they'd make the most anal-retentive zamboni driver weep with joy - really, they just make me scramble around like a newborn fawn in an attempt to stay upright. While a decent dose of uncertain footing is good training, the constant struggle for equilibrium each and every day is just too damn much. It took a week after the last major melt-and-refreeze before I could actually venture onto the sidewalks again, instead having to dodge traffic as I ran on the roads themselves.

This actually led to a different kind of injury - one caused by the structure of the road itself. 


For the purposes of drainage, most roads are crowned to a greater or lesser extent - that is, the highest point of the surface is at the centre line, with a gentle slope down toward the curb on each side. Motorcyclists sometimes notice this as uneven wear on their tires, but most of us don't really give it a second thought; we just expect that rain and meltwater will flow off into the catch basins rather than pooling on the streets and impairing traction in wet conditions. However, if you do something weird like go run on the side of the road for a couple of hours, you're again giving a monstrous workout to some comparatively small supporting muscles that are subject to over-use.

For me, this manifested itself in the form of pain at the outside of my right foot after a 23km run, just in front of my ankle bone. I'd previously broken my 5th metatarsal on that side (doing something dumb while drunk as a teenager), and desperately hoped I wasn't experiencing a stress reaction or fracture. I hobbled a lot and refused to entertain the idea that I was really injured, especially since sometimes it would feel fine. Fortunately, it seems that I'd just managed to anger the dorsal calcaneocuboid ligament (say that 5 times fast!), and after rolling the sole of my foot quite rigorously with a golf ball I managed to get it resolved while still building mileage. I do, however, need to be a bit careful about how I plant my right foot when running on steeply crowned roads - they're not usually as dramatic as my graphic above would suggest, but there are a few sections I see regularly that are at least that bad.

That bugger, there.

While I could give myself a break by running on the opposite side of the road (or at least even up the damage), I really don't feel safe doing so unless there's a bike lane available - I run facing traffic, because even if drivers do see me, that's no guarantee they'll actually do anything to avoid hitting me. Hell, I actually had a lady in an SUV casually sip her Starbucks beverage as she steered her multi-ton box of steel and glass directly at me on the wide shoulder of the road toward the end of one of my recent long runs. I have no idea how bad your life has to be inside your head to make mowing down an innocent runner who is not impeding you in any way and attractive prospect. Not the sort of thing that inspires confidence in turning my back toward traffic, so the repetitive stress just keeps on repeating.

Even apart from actual quantifiable damage, I have noticed my legs feel heavier and take much longer to snap back after long runs on the road than on softer surfaces. I'm really just feeling beat up in ways that I never have before on this sort of (admittedly, quite high compared to usual) mileage. I miss my trails for so many reasons, and can't wait until I can be reunited with the ever-changing dappled gold of sunshine through the breeze-blown trees, the gurgle of the river running ever onward beside me, and the twitter and cheep of birds and woodland creatures drowning out the soft crunch of gravel or dirt beneath my feet. 

In the meantime, though, I'll keep plugging away on the roads and sidewalks, trying with all my might to build my strength and stay healthy until taper time. After all, the only thing worse than not being able to run trail is not being able to run at all.

Twenty three days left to Around the Bay - only 13 until the first official day of spring!

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