Runlikely: Triumph and Despair

The first bad sign of the long run was that the pond I’d been planning on refilling my water at was dry. Last week it had been full and flowing from the snowmelt, but clearly the once-in-a-millennia heat wave had done it in.

The second bad omen was that, in order to reach more water, my options were to turn around miles ahead of schedule, or to add an additional 1,000 feet of loss and gain to my day in order to reach a stream and pond that I could see on my map.

The third bad sign—always in threes, you know—was that, as I started down the “fun” part of my day, the part where I get to cruise downhill for miles and miles, my knee started to ache. And ache. And ache.

As of the last post, I’d just had two back-to-back low mileage weeks, and had managed to get my training plan back on track. It was going well. In that bravado, I looked at my training plan and decided that Saturday (July 3rd), I wanted to try to get to 23 miles, just so I knew what my legs would feel like.

In a further demonstration of blind confidence, I wanted to run a local 19.5-mile race the following weekend (July 10), so I knew what the mental and physical experience of being a slow runner in a race would feel like. Did I start shit-talking myself? Were there other slow runners? Did the aid stations close up before I ever arrived?

So Saturday, July 3rd, I head to my usual course and start out. It was going fine. I got up the mountain the fastest I’d ever gone up it, even though I wasn’t pushing super hard. If any parts of my body were bothering me, I don’t remember it. I do remember that it was warm-ish, and that I found myself thinking, “Huh, I should probably eat something” and then very quickly, “Nah, I’m not hungry yet.”

As I mentioned in the intro, the pond I’d been expecting to refill my water at was bone-dry. I ask a couple of hikers if they’ve seen any water on their route and they say no. I have half a bottle of water left, so I’m not in an emergency situation, and even still, I could have made it back to my car without water—uncomfortable but doable.

My options are to go back down the mountain a few miles to where there was a mossy spring dribbling off the mountain, which would have put my planned 23-mile day at 16 or so miles, or to follow a route down to a pond I can see on the map. I opt for the pond. It’ll be an adventure, it’ll get me to the right mileage, and what’s an extra 1,000 feet of elevation? No biggie.

Just descend and ascend 1,000 feet in the sun, it’ll be fine.

The trail is clearly less traveled than where I’d just been, and I don’t see any other hikers. I do see a lot of bear poop. I’m not a bear poop expert, but it strikes me as being at least a few hours old, which is less comforting than you’d hope. I pull out my earbuds and play my podcast out loud instead, and every few minutes yell out “Hey bear!” You know, just in case.

I find the turnoff trail for the pond but it is steep and narrow and unmaintained, and it looks like an ankle twist waiting to happen, so instead I keep going further down the initial trail because my map suggests I’ll cross a stream. Luckily, there is a stream—not where the map says it would be, and the trail the map suggests is beyond the stream is completely overgrown, but I’m able to refill my water. I spend the whole time convinced I’m being watched by a forest animal, so I start talking loudly.

“I’m tough!” I yell out.

“You don’t want to mess with me!” I say, filling my water filter from the stream.

“I’ll be leaving in just a second!” Hunched over my water bottles, screwing their lids back on.

“Please don’t eat me.” I say, buckling my backpack as I start walking back up the trail.

The hike back up is fully exposed and it’s warm and I’m glad there was water down there. Once I get back into the shaded trail, I see a frog hop into the debris on the side of the trail and stop for a video.

Despite having an iced latte at breakfast and drinking all of my water, I realize I haven’t peed all day. I step off the trail in one of the few flat sections and pee, though it’s not much. Huh, I wonder if I’m dehydrated, I think.

I reach the downhill section and start to jog. It’s going OK, but there’s a weird ache in my knee, and I can feel a blister forming on my foot. Or, more likely, it’s already there. I keep going, and the ache is persistent in my knee. Then on one step, it feels like my knee cap is stuck. Another step feels like my knee cap is sliding weirdly across my knee. Another step and there’s a kind of click of tendons in the back of my knee.

What. the. heck.

It’s not a sharp pain and I’ve still got at least seven miles to get back to the car, so there’s no much to do but keep going. I jog in bursts and walk in bursts and realize I won’t be adding an additional mile at the bottom to reach my 23 mile goal as I’d thought. I haven’t eaten much. Am I bonking, is that why I feel like shit? I start working my way through the snacks in my bag, salty and sweet and fruity. I drink my electrolyte drink. But my legs are losing power, aching, refusing to do anything more than hike.

I get to the spring and refill my water again. I somehow, eventually, reach the Iron Horse. I try to jog it, since it’s a super mild downhill, but my legs downright refuse. I feel like an idiot. I feel defeated. I get back to my car. It took me nearly eight hours to run 21.7 miles. It’s the longest that distance has taken me so far, and it’s the most beat up I’ve felt after a run. I don’t even bother to stretch. I get in my car and think: there is no way I’m going to finish this 50k.

Still, the next day I’d made plans with a friend to go on an 8-mile, 2,500-foot gain hike. I’ve definitely got a blister on my foot, and my knee hurst a little, but mostly my legs feel fine. It’s beautiful, the prettiest hike I’ve done all years, with views of Glacier Peak and Mount Index and several other mountains I don’t know the name of. Another hiker tell us there was a bear ahead but it’s a lot less scary with other people. We don’t see the bear. I eat leftover pizza at the top. My knee and my blister ache on the downhill but I’m going slow and have trekking poles and how bad can anything really be.

Remember hiking? Hiking is nice.

Monday I take the day off.

Tuesday I’m supposed to run 8 miles but when I get to Carkeek, my knee and blister are aching again. Better a little undertrained than a little injured. I go home after two miles. The story I’m constructing in my head is that my knee hurts because the blister is messing up my gait—if I can just make my blister feel better, I’ll be all good.

I pop the blister and let it heal overnight. I try to run again Wednesday, and within two miles my knee and foot are both hurting. With all the hiking I’ve done, popping the blister usually works. I go home. I really hope I can figure this out by Saturday, when I’m supposed to run 19.5 miles. I just spent $60 on the race. I’m going to feel like an idiot if I just wasted that money.

I take Thursday off. Friday, I buy some special blister bandaids and try to run again. At first, it’s going OK. My blister seems to be protected by the bandaid, my knee doesn’t seem annoyed. But then, just as I get over two miles, my knee starts to feel hot, and the blister starts to sting.

So my Saturday 19.5-mile race clearly isn’t going to happen. There are no refunds available, but you can reschedule—there’s another 19.5-mile race on the same course in late October. I reschedule. Who knows if I’ll be in any kind of running shape by then, but at least it doesn’t feel like such an immediate loss.

But it’s Sunday now, and though I woke up without any knee pain, my knee started to ache as I drove during errands. It’s the inner part of the knee. There’s nothing sharp or particularly triggering, there’s no bruising or swelling, and I seem to have full range of motion. It kind of reminds me of a day-old burn—left alone, you wouldn’t know there was a problem. But if you slap it or brush it against something or put it under hot water, the sting comes back. It’s not healed yet.

So I’m hoping that means it will be a relatively quick recovery period—that a few more days of rest and I might be able to continue training. But I am concerned that this many low-mileage weeks could be the final nail in the coffin for the 50k. I’m supposed to start tapering this week, but what is tapering amid a (hopefully minor) injury and several low-mileage weeks? I’m not sure.

And the thing is, when things don’t go well, it’s hard to keep motivation. I’m not getting the emotional top-up from sticking to my schedule, and so my mind starts to wander. What if I just don’t do this 50k? What if I buy a bike? What if I just hang out for a while—remember what it was like to have leisurely Saturdays? My brain really doesn’t like the in-between spaces where I don’t know what my goal is. I like to be working on something, and waiting and resting and hoping my knee will recoup does not have the same level of satisfaction. It wants something to be working toward, even if it’s another goal entirely.

Add to that, on Tuesday I head to Maui with Mark. It would have been hard enough to stick to any kind of training schedule on vacation if training were going well, but it’ll be interesting to see which ends up being a bigger problem: my knee or my motivation.

I do have the option of canceling my hotel room near the race until just a few days ahead of time. If my knee is still busted, that will be the clear choice—I’m slow enough without nagging pain. But it would be a real bummer to have spent so many months preparing for this race to just… not even get to the starting line.

But it wouldn’t be the first time I’d tried really hard and failed. There’s always next year (this mortal hopes), there’s always longer, slower training blocks, there’s always other dreams and other hobbies and other fun to have.

In the meantime, if I have to snorkel and surf and eat shaved ice as cross-training… well, that’s a burden I’m willing to carry.

July 4 Weekly Goal: 45 miles
Actual: 48 miles (8 purely hiking)
Elevation gain: 10,000 feet

July 11 Weekly Goal: 32.5 miles
Actual: 7 miles
Elevation gain: not even worth counting

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