On Saturday, Beat and I headed out to Santa Cruz for the San Lorenzo River 50K. Beat had been sick all week and nearly stayed home, but I was feeling better than I had in a while. My training runs were going well again after a few weeks of somewhat mystifying respiratory and nausea issues, and I was feeling particularly strong during bike rides. Confidence levels were still low, but I was getting there. At least I felt confident that I had the strength to bust out 31 miles.
But at mile 2.5, I went down. There was a brief distraction from a group of six or seven who were passing on a short climb, and before I even realized that I had hooked my foot on a rock, I was face down in the dirt. This happens to me a lot. Why? Because I don't lift my feet high enough, I guess. Beat calls it "slurring your feet." He tells me I need to work on my technique. I frequently focus on correcting bad habits, but fatigue and distraction seem to unravel any and all re-education efforts. It seems my natural (bad) inclinations will always overrule my better intentions.
A woman stopped to help me up and I took off at top speed up the trail as blood streamed from my right elbow and knee. It was a slow-moving crash, but it ended in a jumble of rocks that punched a number of impressive bruises into my body. And even though my right side slapped the rocks like a dead fish, my left knee was particularly painful. A large goose egg lump formed over the inside end of the femur, and swelling built around the knee cap. I could feel the joint stiffening up and knew if I stopped moving it would probably freeze entirely. I needed to at least wait for the initial impact fade before I let that happen, so I kept running.
The trail crossed the thigh-deep San Lorenzo river, and I took advantage of the crossing to wash the dirt and blood off my limbs. The cold water felt fantastic, but as soon as we started climbing out of the river, I could feel endorphins fading, replaced by blunt pain. It seemed to be simple soft-tissue bruising rather than something more serious, and I couldn't decide what to do. Call it an education in pain management and continue running? Walk out the first leg of the race and stop at 30 kilometers? Turn around right there, DNF another race, and risk a full-blown crisis of confidence? I suspected that my knee could handle this little setback just fine, but my morale was more fragile.
It's funny that I didn't want to face a DNF. I never wanted to one of those types of runners, gutting out a race with an injury just to say I finished the thing. Deep down, I didn't really care. But I also didn't believe I was seriously injured — at least not enough to convince myself that continuing would do more harm. I was already banged up, so what did it matter if I ran or stopped? One thing I knew, however, was that I was in a moderate amount of pain, and it was getting worse, not better.
Beat, nice guy that he is, decided to stick with me during another race in which I fell apart less than 10 percent of the way in, even though he wasn't feeling well himself. I thought that continuing to jog and walk gently would help "unfreeze" my joint, but the goose egg hardened and the joint became more stiff, until I could no longer bend it more than a few measly degrees. I marched in place at aid stations to stave off full rigor mortis. "This is really kind of dumb," I thought. "I'm just dragging my leg along for a limpy jog and I'm not even getting much of a workout." I begged Beat for painkillers but he would only give me one more pill (wisely, of course, as I'd already taken the maximum dosage for the amount of time I'd be out there. Luckily I'd forgotten my own stash of Advil, as I am prone to caving into temptation.) He did encourage me to bail if I thought I was damaging my knee, and also cautioned that running with a limp risked damaging something else. Still, I felt justified in this latest experiment. After all, I'm pretty damn clumsy. If I want to continue propelling myself over rugged mountains, I'm going to have to learn to cope with a few bruises.
Beat joked about making up a phrase for the act of stubbornly ignoring gravity-induced injuries — "Pulling a Homer." "To the uninitiated, most would think that means sitting on the couch and eating a donut," he said. "But those who know the Homer family know that it means replacing grace with toughness." Heh heh.
After mile twelve my knee still wasn't willing to bend, so I made up my mind to drop at 30K point, reasoning that "running" this out was kind of pointless. But once I'd limped into the start/finish, I'd developed renewed resolve to see this thing through. Beat grabbed a bandage to tightly wrap my knee, and the compression did help me feel more stable. He then took off to run the last 20K at his own pace. As I suspected, the brief stop locked up the joint almost completely. Any bending at all caused a shock of pain. I peg-legged it up the climb and felt like an idiot encountering those who were finishing up the 30K, marathon, and 50K distances, because I was clearly going the wrong direction for a runner who was visibly limping. One of the 30K runners actually stopped and told me he would go back to an aid station about a mile away to get help. "Oh, I'll be fine, no problem, heh heh."
Surely enough, motion did eventually loosen up my knee. But the pain never went away, not even for a minute. I distracted myself with iPod songs that I put on repeat just to block out the passage of time. One of them was this kitschy death metal song, "Army of the Damned" by LoneWolf, which has been my go-to angry song for Alaska winter racing: "We run straight into a frozen hell; defeated by snow, blizzard and ice." It's silly but comforting background noise when I want to feel sorry for myself but need to keep in check that this self-imposed ridiculousness is my decision, and my responsibility. "Trapped in this white and cold cemetery; I can still walk; God seems to like me."
Still, I was openly angry when I arrived at the finish after a painful downhill stretch. I got a bit snippy with a medic who offered to help clean up my elbow and retrieve an ice pack for my knee. She was very nice and I'm grateful she offered to help (which I finally did accept), but I was in once of those embarrassed "don't look at me" moods. They were already cleaning up because I came in with 8:20 on the clock and these races have a nine-hour cutoff.
It was a beautiful course. The redwood forests are peaceful, the sandy hills are challenging, and the San Lorenzo River crossings are a lot of fun. I can't say I enjoyed myself much. I'm still contemplating what I was trying to do out there. On some level, I think I was trying to prove to myself again that I'm more than my fragile and awkward body, that determination can get me through some tough hours, and that pain does eventually get better (it did, on some level. I was running better in the final five miles than I had since I fell. Until the last downhill mile, that is, which was actually quite painful.)
Still, this series of bad races has trampled my mojo. I'm all for unknown challenges, but I prefer to have a little more faith in my known abilities. Part of my continuation strategy on Saturday involved promises to myself that in 2014 I would skip the ultramarathon circuit entirely and go back to my bike touring roots. Perhaps I'll still do that. But I have a lot of 2013 to get through yet.
I'm slowly gaining mobility back in my knee. I've been working on my range of motion and the swelling is going down, but I probably have a few more days at least before I'll be able to run, ride a bike, or walk normally. Still, I remain convinced that this was probably going to be the case whether I stopped at mile three or mile 31. Even mild knee contusions can be quite painful despite relatively shallow damage. But, alas, crisis of confidence. I finished the race, and it crept in anyway.