Monday, January 28, 2013

On running tired

All week I felt like I was on the verge of getting sick, although I could never be sure. On Wednesday I set out on what has to be my worst run since I took up running. I went to Rancho park for my favorite ten-kilometer loop, ran the first mile feeling winded at normal speed, and started to seriously lose steam in the second mile. By the end of mile two my whole body ached and my stomach was lurching, so I took a five-minute break laying on a bench overlooking the valley. It felt so nice to lie down but too chilly to stay there. I decided to cut my run short and take the easiest route back to the ranch in case my stomach really started to rebel. But I was so nauseated and dizzy that I could only run for short intervals, and when I walked it must have been slowly because I finished my shortened run a full 90 minutes after I started, with less than five miles distance. I felt wrecked.

"I'm getting sick," I told Beat, but then on Thursday I woke up and felt not any worse. So I proceeded with my plans for a evening mountain bike ride with Leah. Again I battled low energy and muscle aches, but not the extent I had on Wednesday. Still, I was certain some virus was settling in for a long stay. I admitted to Leah that Beat and I had signed up for a 50K trail race on Sunday. She shook her head and said, "No racing on Sunday," to which I whole-heartedly agreed. But then I woke up on Friday and felt not any worse, and had a relatively successful run on at Rancho on Saturday, so Sunday morning I set out to run the Steep Ravine 50K.

The phantom sickness stayed in the shadows. But like they have on every occasion I've run here, the steep trails of Mount Tam thoroughly kicked my butt. I put in what felt like a valiant effort in the first half, knowing that if it went bad (and I partially hoped it would) I could just quit after the first 25-kilometer loop. My legs couldn't produce much power, but I didn't feel nauseated, so I tried to combat my low energy by stuffing down as many Clif Shot blocks as I could stomach. They did nothing for me, absolutely nothing. Beat passed me several times on the out-and-backs, and when he asked me how I felt, I said, "bonky." I felt as though I had low blood sugar, even with a dozen Shot Blocks churning in my gut like rocks in a cement mixer.

I went out for the second 25K lap anyway and soon slipped into an endurance fog, a hazy yet happy place that is something of a guilty pleasure for me. When I'm not injured or hurting, just dog tired, the fog settles in and fills my often overdriven thoughts with sparkling lagoons and white clouds — a meditative emptiness that I can't readily achieve under normal circumstances, but comes automatically when my body feels spent. And because of the natural buildup of endurance training, I rarely experience this state during "short" efforts like 50Ks anymore. It's like any drug that one builds up a resistance to — I need more miles, and then more, and then more, until some future cracking point when I hit my endocrine system's limit, and then I will check myself into rehab and that will be that.

Okay, that last paragraph was partially in jest. This question has been on my mind recently ... the question of limits ... the question "Is there enough?" There has been a lot of chatter in the endurance community about adrenal fatigue and other longterm physical maladies caused by overtraining. Participants in the conversation include people I know well, so I've followed along with a mixture of concern, personal interest, and natural skepticism. Endurance athletes comprise such a tiny percentage of humanity that few scientific studies have been conducted on their behalf, so much of the evidence linking chronic fatigue and overexercising is anecdotal. I don't dispute the evidence, but I will say that I'm skeptical of how closely these two are really linked versus a multitude of other factors that contribute to shifts in physical health and motivation. I've read quite a few books about unintentional endurance — prisoners who walked across Siberia, polar explorers who were stranded in ice and fought for their survival for months and years, people in labor camps during the Holocaust. People who weren't trained, who weren't prepared, who weren't even willing participants, but who did amazing things anyway. People who, if they came out today and said "I did this" without any proof, would immediately be discredited. Because in the modern world, we've erected so many boundaries that it's become impossible to see beyond them.

I lean toward the belief that modern humans haven't even come close to exceeding the potential of human endurance. But the route to discovering our limits certainly isn't a direct one. It's difficult to reconcile the wishes of the mind with the needs of the body, and no rational person wants to take unknown risks with their own health. Acute overuse injuries are a concern for everyone, and I've had my share. But in my case these injuries were a result of misuse and mistakes, not much different than if I crashed my bike and injured myself in the fall. I've experienced weeks and even months of low energy and malaise after hard endurance efforts, but I've also experienced very similar symptoms after personal crises that had nothing to do with physical effort. I can't help but wonder if any physical limit I've perceived is more about a tired or fearful mind than a weakened body.

But yes, back to running the Steep Ravine 50K with a phantom illness. I was tired and began making mistakes. Less than three miles from the finish, I picked up speed on the steep descent down the Dipsea Trail. My leg muscles ached, I thought I had a blister from my new shoes, and I was ready to be done. Just as I started running at what felt like my fastest pace all day, I caught my right foot on a root, threw my left foot down too fast and at a bad angle, and in the process launched myself into the air. As I flew toward a landing that I knew was going to end horizontally several feet down the trail, I tucked in my arms and legs and made myself into a little ball, so that when I hit, I bounced. It actually worked. I slammed into the dirt with my shoulder and the side of my knee, but then rolled over to settle on my back, rather than skid into lots of bruises and trail-rash. It was still a hard hit and it took me several minutes to compose myself and pick up jogging again, but it was perhaps the most graceful fall I have ever taken. I am learning, I am.

I'm learning every day. I don't know what my personal limit will be. I hope I never find it, but if I do, I want to look back on the long adventurous process and think, "well, that was worth it." Or, maybe I will look deeper inside my own over-analytic mind and say, "Now now, you're just feeling scared."

Steep Ravine 50K: 31.2 miles, 7,088 feet of climbing, in 6:56. I've run slight variations of this butt-kicker of a course four times but this was the fastest. Maybe the phantom illness really was a figment of my imagination.