The Ecstasy and the Agony

When it comes to feats of athleticism, a guy pushing 60 shouldn’t try to compete against a guy in his early ‘20s. Even if it is just against himself.

For each of the past two years, I have trained for and successfully completed a half-marathon.  My time in the 2013 Towpath Trilogy half was about 1:56, more than respectable. I didn’t do quite as well in April 2014 on a different course, but — still — at about 2:04, it was a very good showing.

Both times I trained fairly well.  I had the benefit of a terrific partner in Michael Murray in 2013.  Mike’s now gone on to training and running in marathons.

john half cropped

Kerezy running a half marathon in 2013

Both times, I devoted time and put in the necessary miles running prior to the event. Both times, I alternated between “performance” runs and off days in the training regime. Sure I had minor aches and pains in the process, but that comes with chronological age.

Then this year, somehow I got a crazy notion that perhaps I could do as well in a half marathon as I had when I ran my first such race. That was back in 1978.  Jimmy Carter was president. Gas was 65 cents a gallon, and three loaves of bread cost one dollar. We hadn’t heard of Three Mile Island or Iranian hostages yet.  Saturday Night Live’s line-up featured Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtain and Gilda Radner.

One big benefit I had going for me this year was knowledge.  I had picked up a tremendously helpful book, Be a Better Runner, by Sally Edwards, Carl Foster and Roy Wallack. The three authors are perhaps the most knowledgeable people around about every conceivable aspect of running training. In fact, this trio has competed in dozens of marathons, triathlons, and ultra-marathon events. I read the book and followed their recommendations as best I could.

I put in the miles.  My log indicates that I either ran or (on some off days) did elliptical training that totaled 178 miles between August 16 and October 8, my last “good run” day before the October 11 half-marathon.  I exceeded 10 miles twice in the training and had about eight more runs of 7 to 9 miles.

I ate better than I have in many years. Following the advice in the book, more vegetables and fruits found their way into my diet. Monounsaturated fats became a favorite, as did fish. I didn’t get rid of the unhealthy foods as much as I’d liked though.

My lovely wife Kathy warned me not to overdo it. When I confided with her that I was aiming for a time of around 1:50 to 1:55, she tempered my enthusiasm. But she supported me with better food and a lot of prayers and well wishes.

So, at 8 a.m. on October 11, there I was at the starting line at Brandywine Ski Resort.  Bib No. 2136 adorned my shorts.  Ready to rumble!

There is some chess involved in running races nowadays, due to the huge number of competitors.  There were only about 300 runners when I did my first event, a Crawfordsville (IN) Jaycees Half Marathon, in 1978.  There were about 2,000 half marathon competitors on the trail that day – and the Towpath Trail is a lot more narrow than the county roads around Ladoga that I ran on back in the ‘70s.  I chose to not go full speed for the first 1.5 to 2 miles, letting the crowd space out, and then to settle into a good stride after then. My first mile time was 9:30, and I completed the second mile at 18:15. I was feeling better as the race progressed, and I gradually picked up the pace.

I got comfortable as miles 4 and 5 went by, finding a steady running rhythm that matched my training runs. Music helped a lot. There were no Sony Walkman or Apple iPod devices back in 1978! I was also on a “home” course – the same Towpath Trail I had used for longer runs in my training, and nearly the same course I ran in 2013.

When I hit the halfway point in the run, the stopwatch read 57:05.  That was faster than my time at the halfway point in 2013! The hard work and preparation prior to the race seemed to be paying off. Thoughts of a 1:55 or better finish entered in my head.

That stopwatch time bolstered my confidence as the other runners and I passed an orange cone which marked the turnaround. I swung counterclockwise around the marker, feeling strong and sure that I had a good physical and mental state for the finish.

But with minutes of the turnaround, all was lost. Shortly after the turn, I began feeling a steady shooting pain, emanating from my upper right leg and penetrating into my lower back. It was powerful. It was non-stop. It was far worse than anything I had encountered in the nine weeks of running leading up to the half marathon. The pain was even worse than anything I’d ever felt before in running. It was agony.

I slowed down, but the pain persisted.  I stopped and walked. The pain got worse.  I trotted slowly.  The pain lessened (or so it seemed) but it was still there, still searing down my back and upper right leg with each and every step. I stopped and stretched the leg. I poured some water down my leg and back. I tried resuming the race. The pain just got progressively worse.

In my life, I’ve probably run 50-plus road races of varying distances. I’ve raced in Alaska and Indiana. I ran a 5K and a 10K race in Washington DC and Northern Virginia. I’ve run the Revco 10K (that was its name before it became the Cleveland Marathon/Half Marathon etc.) the Bees 5K, and more short- distance races than I can remember.

I never dropped out of a race … until October 11. There was no way I could finish. I left the course near Station Road in Brecksville. I was a little less than five miles from the finish line, but the checkered flag might as well have been on the moon. Only with great help from the race’s support team, employees of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, was I able to get to the paramedics at the race, and then to my car for the most disappointing ride home in years.

Today, more than two weeks later, I’m still hobbling around. The diagnosis – sciatica, more precisely, inflammation of the sciatic nerve. It is NOT a simple-to-treat condition.

NEXT:  Lessons learned

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