Last we heard, you’d been able to start running on a limited basis. How’s that going? How’s the knee?
Thanks for asking. I’m making slow, steady progress. I’ve been running 2-3 times a week, but only an average of 8 miles a week. That’s not much, but my leg is getting stronger. I’m start to feel a little bit like my old self.
Most days I feel a twinge when starting out–on the inside of my knee, under the kneecap, where the microfracture surgery was performed. But after a few minutes, it goes away, once the blood gets pumping, I guess. During my runs it doesn’t hurt, but it does afterwards and the day after. It hurts most when I walk up steps one at a time. If I take them two at a time, there’s no pain. That’s probably a valuable clue about the nature of the pain, but I can’t decipher it.
So, as you run, the knee is not a concern?
I wish! Like I said, it doesn’t hurt and when I run I concentrate on form—landing on the right spots on my feet, getting them back up off the ground as quickly as possible, swinging my arms properly to make sure I don’t over-stride—all to minimize impact and prevent injury. So in a lot of ways I’m not thinking about my knee. But in other ways I’m always thinking about it, partly expecting it to go on me, for the pain to come shooting back through. Like I said, there’s no sign of this once I get going, but the pain I’ve felt over the past year, the pessimism of my doctor, the failed attempts of others to come back from microfracture, all this is swirling around in my mind and when I run I’m thinking every step could be my last.
Your last step? That’s a little dramatic, don’t you think?
You’re prone to the dramatic in your blog. Is that how live your life as well?
No, I’m pretty even-keeled, as they say. Like a duck, you know? I let things roll off of me. I can’t remember the exact quote. But when I’m writing about running, I just think about running and maybe exaggerate a bit.
So if I may amend that statement: I don’t mean it’ll be my last step ever, but if the microfracture fails, not matter what I do to fix it, I doubt I’d be able to really run again, training and racing. So maybe I mean “my last step as a runner,” which I’m lucky enough to consider myself again, even though I’m only running 8 miles a week.
So do you have plans to increase your mileage?
A little bit. I’ve always been a big believer in mileage, teaching the body to run when it’s tired. In the past I’d get in as many miles as possible, with long warmups, two workouts a day, long runs, whatever it took. Now I want to run again, and even get in shape to race, but I want to do it with as few miles as possible. I’m operating under the assumption that my knee has a limited lifespan so I’m being careful, taking as few steps as necessary, and making sure every one counts. Still, 8 miles a week is not enough. I hope to bump it up to 12 or 15 over the next couple months. Right now I won’t let myself run unless my knee is pretty much pain free the whole day before, which limits me, because running and all the other things I do to strengthen the knee seem to require at least 2 days recovery.
Still doing all your running workouts on the track? All speedwork?
Mostly, but I’ve added some 30 minute steady runs to build endurance. I ran a 2-mile race a couple weeks ago and the second half of it was a real struggle because I’ve got no endurance.
What, you ran a race! I’m surprised you didn’t write about that. How did it go?
Pretty well, thanks for asking. It was tough, but it was probably the perfect race to come back in because it was a prediction run—everyone predicted their time and the 25 closest won a turkey. So it didn’t feel real competitive, everyone just aiming for their goal times.
Oh, you want details?
Well, based on my workouts, I thought I could run between 12:30 and 12:40. And my son, who you know had his cross-country season cut short by mono, was feeling good enough to run too, though he hadn’t done any real training for about 5 weeks, so I predicted 12:40 for the both of us, figuring it might be fun for us to run together—both in our first race back.
The dynamic duo, huh?
Hardly. But we did all right. We ended up finishing in 3rd and 4th place.
No, but like I said, it was just a small, friendly race in the park.
So tell me about it.
Well, first of all, I’d decided to use this race as an opportunity to show him how to do a proper warm up. I’ve explained it to him many times over the years, but I also know he’s warmed up either too much, too little, or in the wrong way many times. His cross country team, for example, does way too much stretching. The key to a good warmup is to build a sweat, get a little tired even, and then catch your breath before the start. Starting off cold means the body will go into a sort of shock after a minute or two of hard running and it’s almost impossible to recover from that. I’ve learned that through trial and error.
Anyway, after we got our race numbers pinned on, I figured we had just enough time for an 8 minute jog, then some strides and we’d be ready to roll. We found a nice trail through the woods for our easy jog, and as we ran, I told him to focus on good form and breathing. If you’re going to train for a race, I said, you owe it to yourself to do a good warmup and give yourself a chance for a good performance. He was nodding his head in agreement and everything was working out perfectly. But when we got out of the woods, ready for our strides, we could see down the roadway that everyone was already lined up for the race and it was about to start! We had to sprint the 200 yards to the starting line, where we tore off our sweatpants, got in line, and then less than 30 seconds later, were underway.
Poor time management, huh?
One of my biggest flaws. And do you see the irony in the fact that I spent so much time explaining to him the value of a proper warm up that we didn’t have time to do one?
Indeed. Funny stuff, I suppose. So how did the race itself go?
Well, obviously I was wishing I’d had a better warmup, but as we started, I felt okay. My form and breathing were holding up. It was an out-and-back course and my son and I were running side by side. I had no real sense of how fast were going, I’ve kind of lost my sense of pace. At the turnaround we passed a young girl, she was less than five feet tall, which made me think we weren’t going that fast. On the other hand, we weren’t that far behind the first place guy, who I knew was aiming for 11 minutes, so I thought maybe we were moving at a decent speed. Anyway, right after the turnaround, my son picked it up a bit. I could see he was feeling good and that he was looking up to the guy in 2nd place, who had a gap of about15 seconds. A good lead, but if he faltered a bit, he was catchable. For my son, that is. I had no thoughts of chasing him and was in survival mode already. My body was getting tired and heavy, moreso with every step I took, but I just dug in and tried to maintain my form, concentrated on staying on top of my breathing. With every minute back to the finish, it got a little harder, a little harder, and then a little harder, but I held on all the way. I mean, I probably slowed down, my stride was surely shortening up as I fatigued, but I maintained my rhythm and form.
Was this the first time your son beat you in a race?
It was, and I was so happy! He’d been running well in cross county but we didn’t know how he’d do after his mono. But he looked good. It was honestly the only time I’ve been happy to have someone pull away from me in a race. He finished in 12:10 and I ran 12:25. And like I said, it took my best effort. I even kind of sprinted the final 200 because that young girl we passed at halfway was not that far behind me and I heard her mom shouting to her just after I’d gone by her, “You can catch that guy!” I knew she must’ve been close so I really put the hammer down on that final stretch.
So, in your comeback race, you “put the hammer down” to beat a little girl?
I know it’s not quite Rocky Balboa coming back against Clubber Lang or anything, but she did run under 12:30 for 2 miles, which is not bad. After the race I congratulated her and she told me she was in 8th grade. I told her she was going to make some high school cross-country coach very happy next year.
And you were happy with your time?
Sure, I hope to run faster, but considering everything, I’ll take it. And I even won a turkey, but just barely, so it’s a good thing I didn’t go much faster. My son, of course, ran too fast for the turkey. And my lovely, perfect wife ran 16 minutes off nothing but a little swimming and she’d predicted herself to be over a minute slower than that.
She’s lovely and perfect, huh?
And not a bad runner. What can I say? I’m a lucky man.
Any more races on the schedule?
No, I’m just going to try to build up my miles and endurance, keep cross-training, strengthen my leg, and think about it again in the spring.
What’s your best cross-training workout?
Still swimming, I guess. It’s get everything inside of me, my heart and lungs, really working. But I really want to do more with my legs, make them stronger, but as I said, I can’t do a lot of back-to-back workouts yet or my knee complains. Eventually though, I want to lift more weights with my lower body, do some jumping exercise, and some harder biking. Of course, the weather’s not good for that, but I’ve got a trainer I can use. And now I can stand up on my pedals—something I couldn’t do much at all last summer. I expect that to help a lot as it’ll replicate some of the running motion with none of the pounding.
And what are your goals if your training is able to proceed as you hope?
Long races are out of the question. Too bad, because my friend John keeps inviting me to run marathons with him . Maybe someday. But next summer I hope to do some good triathlons and run some fast 5K’s,under 18 minutes would be nice. And I’d still like to break 5 minutes for the mile again. That would be tough, but I can do it if things go well.
What’s the key to making that happen?
Being consistent. Running harder workouts. Fine tuning my training plan, I guess. Building up my body. Enjoying it all, of course, is the main thing. I like to run and I like the process of training. In some ways it’s even more interesting now that my running is limited. And I do think that trying to run again when I’m not really in shape for it helps makes it clear what’s holding me back. The main thing I need to do is get my breathing back, be able to maintain a high HR. I mean, just about every race over 30 seconds is an endurance race to some extent, it’s a matter or maintaining a certain speed, and running is the best way to get that back, for me at least. But I can definitely feel other deficiencies in my body when I’m trying to maintain a hard effort. For example, last week I was doing strides and I could feel, as if for the first time, how crucial the hip muscles are to running fast. That is, I was trying to go faster, but couldn’t do it, and I could feel it was because my hips weren’t strong enough, they couldn’t swing my legs through fast enough. Ah, it’s all in the hips, I thought. I just need to really get strong hips and I’ll be flying. Flying! And this is something I’d never really thought about before.
So you consider this an epiphany, a breakthrough, an “a ha” moment?
I did, but it didn’t last, because it’s not that simple. You see, that very night I went to my son’s cross country banquet and as they called the kids up to get their letter and awards, I could see that the fastest among the kids were small and thin and surely had no power in their hips. Two girls from the team had made it to State, a freshman and a sophomore. They were both slim as can be, and though neither had real muscle definition, the faster of the two had less. Yet, she can race 2 and half miles at 6 minute pace! How can this be? Of course, I know most of the guys I see in the weight room are stronger than me, but couldn’t run a mile with me, even in my weakened state. So of course it’s not as simple as improving hip strength. Hip strength probably is important, and I’ve probably lost some of that from not running, but getting faster is not as simple as improving any one thing.
And every runner is different, right?
Definitely. Of course, with repetition the body figures out how to be most efficient, so running a lot and running fast is the best way to train for all runners, but I can’t do that now. So I’m always asking myself, what should I do? What’s the best use of my time and energy? What it is that will help me get faster? I think I’m on the right track, but sometimes the more I think about it, the more mysterious running is to me. I mean, not only what makes us faster, but why do we do it? Why do we even do it in the first place? It’s completely unnecessary, but–
I can see you are getting a little worked up, and a little philosophical, so perhaps it’s time for us to reach for the end of this interview.
No problem. I’m hoping to get a workout in before the Packer game starts.
That’s your team? How are they doing this year?
Decimated by injuries. Hopefully they’ll get everyone back soon and make a run to the playoffs. Of course, you know what Nietzsche said: “That which does not destroy us, only makes us stronger.” I’ve been relying on that to get me through both my injury and this Packer season.
Well, best of luck to you both, but before I let you go, I have one last set of questions, about your blog. It’s getting pretty popular. I see that you sometimes get over 30 readers per post.
Amazing, isn’t it! Who would’ve guessed? 30 readers! And I know for a fact that some of those people aren’t even runners.
Then why are they reading?
I have no idea. Another mystery, I suppose. People are fascinating.
Well, it must be hard to keep those readers satisfied post after post after post. Do you think you’ll resort to any sort of gimmicks or format change to hold their attention, spice things up a bit?
No, I think my readers appreciate the honest, straightforward approach I’ve been using. I don’t need gimmicks and I don’t think my readers want them. I definitely don’t want to play around with the format. It is what it is. I’m just going to keep spilling things right from the gut, right from the heart, and see what comes out. I’ll leave the gimmicks for the writers who don’t have enough to say to let their words stand on their own.
Well said, stillrunner. Thanks again for your time and your candor, and good luck with everything.
Everything, indeed. Why not aim high, right? And thank you. It’s been my pleasure.