Thursday, July 20, 2017

Race Recap: Covered Bridges Half Marathon 2017


The 26th Annual Covered Bridges Half Marathon in Vermont was as picturesque and community focused as races come. It was a well organized event on a perfect June day.

The Covered Bridges Half Marathon is always held on the first Sunday of June. Registration for 2017 took place online in early December 2016. To maintain the community atmosphere of the event, the race is first-come, first-served and capped at 2,300 runners. As is typical for CBHM, this year's race sold out in under fourteen minutes. I got in because I was waiting for the event to go live with my finger hovering over the trackpad of my laptop.

The event is organized by a completely volunteer staff under the non-profit CBHM, Inc. Each year, the race donates more than $50,000 do local non-profit groups focused on youth activities and youth sports in the Upper Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire.

Lead up to Race Day
At two weeks out from the race, I wasn't certain I'd be capable of running it. Recovery from injury was still very much a work in progress. I had gradually built myself up to an 8 mile long run, then a 10 mile long run. I squirmed in the physical therapist's office as I nervously asked the question I feared the answer to: Can I participate in the race? 

Kim said yes. She said yes? She said yes! Well, she did say yes, but with a warning of caution and a list of pre-race and post-race musts including stretching, proper warm up, and a heavy dose of ego check. Absolutely no racing allowed. Walk if necessary. Goal of this race was finishing without risking reinjury.

As race day loomed closer, I compulsively checked the weather forecast. The chilly evening temperatures and threat of storms had me feeling nonplussed about the Quechee State Park campground reservation I'd made. I stared at the pile of camping gear in my living room with my arms crossed.

I kind of hate camping. For years, I've been pretending to like it. Based on my demographic and social background, I totally should like it. The truth is, I don't think it's fun to unpack and repack a grimy, damp tent. I don't like tossing and turning and shivering on the hard floor. I don't like waking up to giant spiders in my hair or reeking of campfire.

In a quick fury, I opened my laptop and booked an AirBNB reservation in Norwich, Vermont in a farmhouse with a proper bed and a shower and flushing toilets and a kitchen. I triumphantly shoved all the camping gear back into the crawl space under the stairs.

The Day Before the Race
I borrowed a car from a friend and whisked Becca away for the two and a half hour drive north. We stopped along the way at a lovely farmer's market and ate soup and salads for lunch at King Arthur Flour in Norwich.


After navigating some backwoods roads, we arrived at the farm and met our hosts. Other guests at the house included several dogs, ducks, a rooster, and a runner named Sue who had completed the Covered Bridges Half Marathon many times. Sue went on to win the women's 55-59 age group in the race with a terrifyingly impressive 1:35:44. #GOALS.

Becca and I were pleased to learn that the farmhouse was sitting on the Appalachian Trail. We set off for a quick loop hike, which grew longer than planned when we took a few "maybe we shoulda brought a map" detours.


After our hike, we drove over to visit our braver friend Kelsey and her companions at the Quechee State Park campground I'd chickened out of camping at. We enjoyed good company and the fruits of someone else's campfire labor, then retreated to our comfy house when the bugs came out.


We took long hot showers, baked pizza, and drank five cups of tea. With a microwaved S'more in hand, I crawled into bed to watch the New England Revolution soccer match on my laptop while Becca read a book. We were tucked in by 10 pm.


Race Morning
At dawn, our kind hosts had coffee waiting. We ate breakfast, used the bathroom about twenty times each, and set off by car for Quechee Gorge Village. The parking area was ate the village in a big open field. We double checked our gear bags and made one more portapotty stop before joining the line for shuttle buses to Woodstock, where the race would start. We chatted nervously with those waiting with us and saw a barefoot man who is reportedly a running legend at the Covered Bridges Half marathon.

The bus ride took us the thirteen miles to Suicide Six ski area. There was "day of" bib pickup only for this race. For the neurotic runner who likes to go to the expo and get everything set ahead of time, this might be anxiety provoking. But rest assured, these folks have the logistics down to a science. Before I knew it, my bag was checked, bib pinned on, and Becca was applying a temporary Pride Day tattoo to my shoulder. We bumped into some fellow Slumbrew Happy Soles and my friend Kate.

The Course
CBHM is a point-to-point course, running west to east from Woodstock to Quechee. It loops through downtown Woodstock, crosses through a covered bridge, and ambles along the Ottauquechee river to end in Quechee village. The roads are totally closed to cars and a fair amount of the race was on packed dirt roads. Although this race takes place in the mountains, there is an overall net loss of 200 feet in elevation over the 13.1 miles and a gentle downgrade much of the time. There are two notable hills, a very small gradual hill at mile 5 and a short, steep hill at mile 8. It was beautifully scenic and well supported by aid stations every two miles and crowds from the local community.

Race Start
I jogged over to the start line for a quick warm up. It was cool and bright. There were pacers holding signs with expected finish times in five minute increments in the open, self seeded corral. I met a woman wearing a large baby blue pair of children's headphones with a cartoon image of Elsa from the movie "Frozen". I laughed when she explained that she'd forgotten her earbuds and her friend's daughter offered these as a replacement. There was no fanfare or announcement before the race, and the sound of the gun at 8:14 (a minute early!) jolted me forward.

Miles 1-3
I started the race on the fringe of the 1:35 pace group to settle into a steady rhythm. The group was quite large and runners jockeyed for position. Miles 1 and 2 passed uneventfully, but a little on the fast side. I began to worry that I was getting caught up in the nervous energy of the group. I knew it was unwise to get carried away by letting someone else dictate the pace, so I peeled to the side around mile 3 and allowed the pace group to drift. I was feeling rather uneasy and noticed my breathing had grown a little ragged. I had been so focused on the group, I really hadn't looked around me. It felt like forever since I'd run in a race! I jammed my headphones into my ears and took a deep breath. Tom Petty's "American Girl" soothed my nerves.

Miles 4-6
We looped around downtown Woodstock, where there was more crowd support and we were able to pass by other runners on either end of the loop. Just before mile 5, we ran through a covered bridge. I focused on running with control. I had been told there was a hill at mile 5, but it was so gentle I barely noticed it. I was feeling much more at ease and holding my promise not to look at my watch.

209319224


Miles 7-9
After leaving Woodstock, the course followed along the Ottuaquechee River. There was good shade on this part of the course. At mile 8, there was a short, steep hill. Volunteers handed out ice and cheered runners up the hill. I noticed a photographer waiting just after the crest of the hill. I was still trying to get my breathing back under control as I grimaced at him.

209304727


Miles 10-13.1
The backdrop of river and mountains over these miles was wonderful. As we pounded downhill, my hip and IT band began to send me polite reminders of their existence. I listened to what they had to say and slowed my pace. I found the middle of the road, running right down the yellow lines to prevent any lopsidedness from sneaking into my gait as I fatigued. I focused my mind on an even stride and light footfalls, calm and restrained running. The road changed over to packed gravel, which my recovering hip and IT band were grateful for. We reached the village of Quechee and approached the finish in Dewey Field. With about 400 meters to go, my field of vision began to tunnel. Oh boy. I breathed through my nose and reset my shoulders. Smiling and upright, I crossed the finish line and finally looked up at the clock and down at my watch. 1:35:15. Not bad for a restrained "I'm not racing" effort. Although, who am I kidding. I can't run a race and REALLY take it easy. I collected my medal and finisher tee shirt.


After collecting my wits, I heard my name being called and recognized Kelsey's husband, Luke, who still smelled delightfully of last night's campfire. We walked back along the finish chute to watch for our beloved. Becca came next, strong and graceful as ever.



Becca had spent much of the race running alongside a man who was a little older than her parents. She said the miles passed quickly as they shared easy conversation about his life growing up in Canada and his wife, who had run the race with him for many years, but had recently undergone treatment for cancer and was spending this year on the sideline. They stayed together through mile 12, when he insisted that she run ahead for a strong finish. 

Ever the obedient patient, I stretched my groaning IT band and hip on the side of the road.


We yelled and cheered as friends crossed the finish line. 



We walked over to the finish line party, which had live music, lots of food, an ice cream truck, and a beer tent sponsored by Harpoon. There were 3 quintessentially Vermont prizes in each age group: handmade pottery, maple syrup, and local cheese. Bag pickup was a cinch, with our bags waiting in alphabetical order on a hillside next to the after party. Friendly EMTs gave me an ice pack for my leg, which was feeling pretty angry. We snapped a photo with our amazing fellow Slumbrew Happy Soles before trotting back to our car. 


Becca and I crouched next to the car to flash passersby as we changed our clothes. A quick Wet Ones spongebath and a few swigs of a surprise grapefruit seltzer from the bottom of my cooler helped recharge our batteries. 

Bottom line: Covered Bridges Half Marathon was impeccably organized with a fast and beautiful course and strong community support. I can see why it sells out so quickly each year! June weather in Vermont can be quite unpredictable, but we really lucked out in 2017. I can't wait to run this race again at full strength!

Friday, June 2, 2017

Morphing.

Much of my inspiration to write comes when I'm out on a long run. Somewhere along the banks of the Charles River or amid the hills of Somerville, my body finds a rhythm and my brain slows down enough for thoughts to flow with far less judgment and self consciousness.

Which, perhaps, is part of the reason why nearly three months have passed since I've written a blog post. That little injury I picked up on an ill planned long run in January? It snowballed into a four months, and counting, string of rehabilitation exercises, MRIs, injections, adjustments, massages, scraping, dry needling, cupping, and wallowing. A nasty IT band injury reared its head along with the lumbar herniation and sciatica screaming down my leg. There have been ups and downs in the process of healing, but not a whole lot of running.

Instead of racing through the winter and spring as I planned, I gave up my race bibs and cheered from the sideline. The transition from participant to spectator proved to be both challenging and rewarding.

(That's Meb running the Boston Marathon)

BP crushing Boston Marathon


Steph finishing strong at Newburyport River Half Marathon
Three half marathoners
I've balked at doctors who recommended drugs to ease my pain. When a spine specialist confirmed via MRI that a herniated disc in my low back was responsible for the radiating throb, stabbing sensations, stinging, burning, and cramping down my left leg, I reluctantly agreed to an epidural steroid injection because I hoped it might allow me to sleep more than two hours per night. It did not work. It did confirm my opinion that a traditional medical approach of a belly full of pain pills and a body full of steroids is not for me. Instead, I've become rather adventurous when it comes to experimenting on my body with alternative treatment approaches.

Here's a sampling of the methods of rehabilitative torture I've dabbled in:

I've seen three physical therapists. The first was not a good personality match for me. He admitted to being an anti-runner. The second was a better fit, but our hours didn't line up and he prescribed the same clamshells and hip lifts I've been doing routinely for years. Then, my mother-in-law urged me to make a trip out to Hopkinton to see the physical therapist who'd helped treat her injuries. It was a long hike down the Mass Pike to get to her, but Kim gave me the Ah ha! I needed. "You're plenty strong," she explained, "but your hips, glutes and IT band are seriously tight." Strengthening to correct imbalance would be important, but she wanted me to first focus on targeted, sustained stretching after exercise to help things loosen up. So I stretched and stretched. Every day. Within a week, my poor, lopsided pelvis felt decidedly less crooked and the constant sensation of tightness was slowly easing.

Duncan supervises stretching time
A chiropractor has been scraping my low back, butt, and leg with a variety of metal spatulas using the Graston Technique, a self described "form of instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilization that enable clinicians to detect and effectively break down scar tissue and fascial restrictions". It's felt modestly effective and mildly medieval.

Image result for graston technique


Every three weeks or so, Liv, the amazing yoga teacher and orthopedic massage therapist has been using her magical hands to work out the tight junk and helping my body get more relaxed and evened out. In our most recent appointment, we gave cupping a try on my IT band. This therapy/experiment involved placing glass jars on the skin of my left upper leg. Using a handheld pump, Liv suctioned the air out of the jars to create a vacuum, drawing underlying tissue partway into the cup. The idea is that this works like the inverse of massage. Rather than putting pressure on the muscles to urge release, the suction pressure lifts the tissue upward, theoretically allowing for enhanced circulation in areas that are gummed up. It looked gnarly (warning, gross picture below) and left me with some epic leg hickeys. But it felt pretty good.



A physician specializing in Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation (PM&R) has been using trigger point dry needling on my wickedly tight glutes, outer hip, quad, and calf. Dry needling is a treatment for myofascial trigger points where fine needles are used to mechanically stimulate the trigger point, creating a local twitch response (LTR) within the muscle fiber. The idea is that the LTR sends a message to the spinal cord to let go of gripping and tightness in a muscle. Although evidence of efficacy in research is modest, this is the intervention to which my perception of relief and responsiveness has been the strongest. It is painful and intimidating at first, but when I feel the muscles twitch and fire there is a strong and real sensation of release. Dr. Bailey has been the most amazingly patient, thoughtful, and holistic physician I've ever worked with. If you're in the Cambridge area and are struggling with myofascial pain or a sports injury, Dr. Bailey may be able to help you too. I wish I had a picture, but I was distracted by my quivering calves and forgot.

Amid my parade in and out of the treatment rooms and medical offices, I've reluctantly decided to acknowledge that my body is asking (yelling) for some change in my approach to endurance training. So I signed up for swimming lessons.


And bought a new grown up bike. It feels fast!


I've had a lot more time to experiment with strength and endurance training mashups. In the early injury stage, I felt so lost without my runner's high that I sought out the highest intensity forms of cardio strength training I could find. This pseudo CrossFit approach to training certainly got my blood pumping and my muscles tired. Lifting heavy stuff while breathless is exhilarating, but I quickly learned that this approach should probably be delivered in modest doses if I want to prevent myself from even further injury and recover between workouts. So I'm balancing out with more traditional resistance training and lots of stabilizing exercises.




These days, I'm spending more time on prehab and rehab exercises than I am on any sort of competition specific training. It's hours of foam rolling and stretching and stabilization and strengthening and balance and postural alignment and ice and sometimes just plain resting. That's the hardest part. I'm learning to be patient.

I am striving to make peace with my body, not to try to force it or control it or cajole it. I recently listened to Tina Muir's podcast interview with Amelia Boone. Amelia is an obstacle racing phenom, but she also happens to be right around my age and lives a human woman's life with a full time job. She spoke about her experiences facing serious injury.

"It's not about getting back to yourself," she said...
"To try and return to a previous version of yourself is ludicrous, so I tell myself to give myself permission to morph into a new kind of athlete."

The inspiration to write this post came to me on my first 10 mile run since January. It was slow and it wasn't easy. I'm not the same runner I was before, and I give myself permission to morph into a new kind of athlete.

Stay Tuned.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Injury, Identity, Perspective


Forgive me. It's been a while. While winter in Boston has marched on, I've been busy wallowing in self-pity.

42 days with no running.

A lumbar herniation aggravated by a series of foolish decisions left me with agonizing sciatic pain in my left leg. I've grown pretty accustomed to my body doing what I tell it to do. Suddenly, it simply could not. I clung to the railing and winced my way up the stairs at work. I couldn't walk to the grocery store. I couldn't sit or sleep. I realized how completely I take good health for granted and began to imagine that constant pain was simply my new normal.

And the 42 days of no running.

Hyperbole and a Half

Running is my release. Running is a routine that grounds me. Running is a habit that gives me a sense of control when life feels turbulent. Apparently, Running is also a part of my identity to which my self-esteem is deeply tied.


In the first weeks after injury, I thought I was coping pretty well. In spite of feeling like a caged animal, I was trying hard to maintain a positive attitude. After all, this injury was not life-threatening and unlikely permanent. Just a small blip in the history of my active life.

I pedaled home from the grocery store on my bicycle one Wednesday evening in February with pain radiating up and down my spine and my left leg throbbing. My sister, husband, and friends were out together at a group run. I walked in my door, dropped my backpack and crumpled to the floor to find a position that provided some relief from pain. Before I knew what was happening, tears streamed down my cheeks. I gasped for air and wiped snot from my nose, feeling completely foolish and very much alone.

I found myself wishing for bad weather. If I couldn't run, I wanted everyone who could to feel miserable doing it. I sneered in contempt at carefree runners.


I felt guilty and embarrassed to admit that I was struggling. When I held up running next to the legitimate challenges so many people experience every day -- loss of a loved one, financial hardship, serious injury, homelessness, lack of access to healthcare or education, the list goes on -- my situation seemed trivial. But, trivial or not, I experienced this blow to my identity in a very real way.

On a Saturday morning when I typically would have gone for a cathartic long run outside, I instead hauled a water cooler, Gatorade, and snacks into the back of my sister's car on our way to set up a makeshift aid station along the Boston Marathon course. Carly works for Best Buddies, a nonprofit organization creating opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. On this morning, it was Best Buddies' turn to host aid stations for Boston Marathon charity runners on their long training run. Carly recruited me to join her in volunteering. I poorly masked my jealousy as we set our table up at the run turnaround point on Beacon Street.



Runners began to approach our station, stopping to chat as they snacked on pretzels and refilled their water bottles. Many expressed relief when I announced that this was the point where they could turn around and run home. All all expressed gratitude for our support. The perspective from this side of the water table was surprisingly satisfying, and it filled me with appreciation. I thought of the many folks who've given up their weekend mornings to hand me a cup of water, point me around a turn on a race course, or yell for me from the sidelines. It was the least I could do to return the favor this one time.

I went for my first post-injury run one week ago. I'm cautiously optimistic, but it's going to be a slow return. It will probably have setbacks. I am grateful for my body, for my good health, and for my ability to take care of myself. I am going to be fine.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...