Don't Play Stupid Games

Pete Hitzeman

Managing Editor and Coach

CrossFit, Cycling, Endurance Sports, Running

Fitness, running, injury, biomechanics, competition training

 

Play stupid games, win stupid prizes. It’s something I say all the time, in reference to a news story, or a Darwin Award candidate. But since my last race weekend in May, I’ve been saying it about myself.

 

 

The sad story begins as far back as the fall of 2015, when I played a stupid game called “run a marathon with inadequate base training.” I had shattered my collarbone in June, and the ensuing surgery and recovery set my training clock back to zero. Undeterred, I hastily rewrote my training program to cram 24 weeks into 14, culminating in a single, ugly 18-miler, two weeks out from the race. The stupid prize I won was that I had a fantastic marathon for about 18 miles, then the wheels fell off in a big way, and I limped home the remaining eight.

 

I followed that with another stupid game, this one dubbed “come back way too fast after you destroy yourself.” I attempted a recovery run just three days after my marathon disaster, and got back to track work the week after that. When you finish a race healthy, that’s a fine plan, but that’s not where I was. Three weeks post-marathon, I thought I felt well enough, and raced a local 15k. The race went great, and I was very happy with my time, but I went straight to the airport afterward for a flight to Utah for work. By the time I disembarked in Salt Lake City, I could barely walk, the pain in my right knee had gotten so bad.

 

Getting Stupid

Of all people, I should know better, right? My wife (my first athlete and the most wonderful woman in the world) will tell you that I’d never let her do something like that. But sometimes advice is easier to dispense than take, and so I found myself sidelined at the end of 2015 for the better part of 10 weeks. Sobered by the experience, I vowed to make 2016 my year of running happy, and wrote a conservative training plan for the whole year. Purposeful runs, gradual mileage buildups, injury prevention work, and no unnecessary volume.

 

Oh, and daily doses of naproxen to keep my knee pain under control. Every time I cycled off the anti-inflammatory, the pain came back, and I couldn’t run (or squat) again. Visits to the ortho and an MRI showed that my meniscus damage from an ACL injury in 2009 had slightly worsened, and I was developing a little arthritis, but nothing that should stop me from running. So I didn’t stop running, and twice a day I opened the little white bottle to keep me going.

 

You can see where this game was getting a little stupid. The thing was, it was working. I was running strong and healthy, setting PRs everywhere, and having a great time doing it. I ran my first 100-mile month in May. I did a track meet in June, and set my best mile time ever. I ran relay races with my team in September and October, and had the time of my life doing it. For the first time in my (admittedly short) running career, I was feeling strong, fast, and bulletproof.

 

The fall of last year saw me crush my half marathon PR, then crush it again, and even return to that 15k that left me broken the year before. But by Thanksgiving, the anti-inflammatories were losing their magic, and my body was just tired from all the training and racing. No big deal, I thought. Just take a few weeks off over the holidays, and you’ll be good as new.

 

The Flying Pig

My opening headline event for the spring of this year was the Flying Pig Marathon’s 3-Way with Extra Cheese (no really, it’s a thing), an event that sees participants racing a mile, a 5k, a 10k, and a half marathon, all within about 36 hours. With the overall goal of getting into marathon race shape by the fall, the buildup to the Flying Pig would be just the thing to send me into summer with a great training base. I wrote a plan and started running again in mid-January, steadily building miles and trying to go easy when my knee said no mas.

 

I also knew that it was time to see if I could get off the naproxen. Sure enough, a few weeks after cycling off, my knee pain returned. I went to see a sports medicine specialist, and he recommended knee injections that became their own rolling disaster. Confusion and poor communication with the insurance company meant that the injections we agreed upon in January weren’t ready until mid-April. The Flying Pig races were the first weekend in May. See where this is going?

 

Every qualified professional was telling me that the pain in my knee didn’t necessarily mean I was causing further damage. In their defense, that is also exactly what I wanted to hear. While my training went well enough, I was subconsciously altering my running form to favor my cranky right knee. Just as I entered the taper for the Flying Pig, I developed a little ache on the inside of my right shin. No matter, I’d take it easy through the taper, race at the Pig, and then take a little time off to heal up and let the knee injections do their thing. Cue the foreboding music.

 

Ignoring the Ache

My shin was still achy as I warmed up for my mile on Friday night, but the pain seemed to subside after some time on the Compex and about a half mile of warm up drills. Gun went off, I ran my brains out, and knocked a few more seconds off my mile PR. Dinner, home, bed.

 

Saturday morning started with the 10k. I was up early, fueled, and started to warm up. The shin pain was marginally worse than the day before, but again seemed to subside once I got moving. Not all the way, but mostly. Gun went off, I felt great after the first mile, and banged out a big 10k PR. An hour later, it was time for the 5k, and I felt pretty smoked, but good enough to cruise through. My shin complained the whole race, but I reasoned that it was just a 5k, and all I had to do was survive.

 

But by that evening, I knew things were getting serious. The mile and a half walk from our hotel to dinner was a limping, teeth-gritted affair. But I wasn’t about to skip my last remaining race, the half marathon, and miss out on my medal for the weekend. I had my ankle taped, iced everything, and went to bed just hoping to survive the next day.

 

The best thing to happen to me on Sunday morning was that Jackson, my teammate, found me in the crowd just after the start. We ran together for the first half of the race, which took my mind off the pain, and helped me enjoy the experience. At the top of the climb to Mt. Adams, his hangover subsided and he picked up the pace, and I was left to gut out the last several miles by myself.

 

The finish at the Flying Pig half marathon is one of my favorite race experiences, anywhere. You fly downhill for the entire final 5km stretch, hook into downtown through throngs of cheering spectators, and cross an impressive finish line feeling like a total hero. That is, of course, unless you’re in excruciating pain with every step. I finished with a grimace, fully seven minutes off of my projected time. Instead of the exhilaration of completing such a challenging weekend, all I could think about was collecting my wife (who PR’d her own half marathon), and the daunting trudge back to the hotel.

 

Learning from Experience

Going into that race weekend, I was taking what I understood to be a calculated risk. I honestly believed my recovery from the weekend would take a few weeks, and then I would resume training for my full marathon in October without much trouble. But now, almost three months later, I’m still waiting for my leg to give me the green light to train again. The stupid prize for this misadventure? Now there isn’t time to be ready for a full marathon this year, which means putting off that goal for at least another season.

 

There are those who believe that there is no excuse for injury in an amateur athletic environment, and given my own experience, it’s hard to argue that point. But it is equally true that growth occurs through challenge, and you won’t learn a thing if you never approach your limits. The balance between those two concepts can be a difficult one to strike, particularly if you’re as ambitious and hard-headed as yours truly.

 

The overall lesson I’ll take from this season’s stupid game is that I need to pay closer attention to my biomechanics. I allowed one injury to drag me into another, and that has cost me a lot of time and several races. My time on the bench has allowed me to reprioritize a few of my training goals, and I will pay more attention to my prehab and self-care, moving forward.

 

As you’ve seen, this May wasn’t the first time I played a stupid game and won a stupid prize, and I won’t pretend that it’ll be the last. I am peculiarly drawn to events that have the potential to shatter my body and warp my mind, and I don’t see myself getting off that train any time soon. But I will continue my effort to never make the same mistake twice, and hopefully, a few of you can use my story to avoid mistakes of your own.

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