Columbus Marathon race report

Before I talk about my race, let me just say that the Columbus Marathon does an amazing job with this race. I’ve run bigger marathons, smaller marathons, destination marathons and even a Canadian marathon, but I’ve never run a better marathon than Columbus. Excellent pre-race communications, a nice expo, well organized corrals, fast, fun, interesting course and outstanding crowd support the whole way. If you haven’t run it, put it on your list, they do a first class job all around.

2013 Columbus Marathon

2013 Columbus Marathon

I went into this race with the goal of running a Boston qualifying time (3:25:00), but that didn’t happen today (3:39:26). Still, as we got into our car after the race, I told my wife, “This wasn’t my fastest race, but it is the one I am most proud of. In all of my marathons, I have never had to call on more grit and determination than I did today.”

The truth of the matter is that I just fell apart physically. The marathon will find any physical weaknesses and shove them the hell in your face. While laughing maniacally. And although I did everything in my power to remain positive in the lead-up to Columbus, I knew it would have to be a miraculous day for me to run a BQ. While still dealing with left hip issues caused by a spine problem, I found out late this summer that I also have a hernia that needs to be repaired. Maybe either one of those issues on its own would have been manageable, but asking the marathon to turn a blind eye to both is foolhardy.  I knew going in that I wasn’t as strong or as fit as I was when I ran Glass City last spring, but I wanted to try anyway.

The day started off great: no troubles at all getting to my corral.  While it was pretty chilly (mid 30s) during the wait, the time passed quickly and soon enough, the gun went off.  My wife, her mom, and our two sons came to the race to cheer me on, and I got to see them for the first time just after mile 2.  My wife told me the entire first two miles had thrown-away clothes strewn along the road as the runners shed the warm gear they needed for the corrals.  The miles ticked on through 6 and I did a decent job keeping the pace right where it should be:  8:04, 7:48, 7:31, 7:44, 7:36, 7:36.  I saw my crew again at mile 7, and still, nothing but smiles.  And, I was still feeling good the next time I heard them cheer, at 14.  Miles 7-13:  7:45, 7:42, 7:34, 7:44, 7:59, 8:07, 7:47.

Mile 20

Mile 20

I held onto BQ pace up through mile 19 (7:46, 7:46, 7:50, 7:57, 7:50, 7:51), just after running through Ohio State’s football stadium, known locally as the Horseshoe. After climbing a sharp incline as you exit the stadium, I started to get intense pains in my left hip. Very reminiscent of Houston earlier this year. After a while, it seemed to loosen up briefly, so I made an effort to catch back up to the 3:25 pace group. As the pain in my left hip started to come back, I started to try to compensate with my right leg, which promptly brought the pain train to the area where the hernia is (right groin, TMI).  Now I was one big compensatory mess.  As I continued on and watched the 3:25 pace group fade into the distance, the pain in my hip made its way to my hamstring, then eventually my knee.  I ended up having to stop a few times to try to get my left leg working again, but there was nothing to do but slow down.  The final 6 miles were nothing but gritting my teeth and trying to maintain some semblance of a pace.  But the pain never abated.  By the time I met up with everyone in the family reunion area, I had to have help just to stay standing.

So, while I won’t be heading to Boston as soon as I’d like, I know I can keep my head up about this race.  I earned every inch.  And that’s why it’s the race I’m most proud of.

The surgery to repair the hernia is already scheduled for the end of this month, so I will be forced to take some time away from running, which is for the best.  Even getting off that hip for a little bit may help.  I know that by the time Thanksgiving comes around, I will be back to hitting the roads again, doing what I love to do.  And for that, I am grateful, and very happy.

A tuneup race

Tomorrow morning, I’ll toe the line for the Air Force Half Marathon at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.  As has been my habit over the past couple of years, I am running a half marathon just about a month before the full marathon A-race for the year.  While I certainly enjoy training, it’s nice to put on a bib every now and then and see where my fitness is under race conditions.  The results of the race (assuming decent weather) allow me to adjust the final month of my training to work on any weaknesses I find.

Air Force Marathon

The Air Force Marathon and Half Marathon

My current PR in a half is 1:38:29, scored at last year’s Indianapolis Monumental,  and I think I can beat that this year.  My plan is to go out a little conservatively at 7:40s for the first two miles, then drop under 7:30s up through mile 10.  With a 5K left to run, I hope to be able to drop down to 7:20 or better, depending on how I’m feeling.

White socks, white shoes and the early bird special

Clearly, it’s been a while since I’ve written.  I have to admit, though, that I’m a bit shocked to see that it’s been since the beginning of May, and here it is midway through August.

In that last post, I excitedly reported that I was cleared to get back to running, as much or as little as I wanted.  I remember the huge feeling of relief that I would not be in any kind of catastrophic danger if I decided to get back out on the roads doing what I love to do.  I’m still thankful for that freedom.

Even with the go-ahead from the doctor, my summer did not go as planned.  My plan was to target a late summer marathon with the hopes of running a Boston-qualifying time so that I could line up in Hopkinton next April.  However, each time I tried to do any type of work at speeds faster than my 10K pace, my hip and/or hamstring would just sear with pain.  So the summer proceeded with multiple fits and starts until I just knew a summer marathon was not in the cards.  As July rolled around, I slowly built my milage back up to a solid base so that I could begin working in earnest toward the Columbus Marathon in October.  After finally being smart enough to take it slow for a while, I’m back to being able to do speed workouts without doubling over in pain.  Admittedly, I still feel hip soreness the day after hard, fast workouts, but it’s definitely manageable, and I am starting to see real progress in my fitness and pace.

I’ve been training with Jason Fitzgerald from StrengthRunning.com and have been loving it.  Highly recommended.

This just hasn’t been my year, medically.  After spending the first part of the year trying to figure out what was up with my hip, then finally discovering a long-undetected spine issue, the summer hasn’t been a whole lot better (though far less serious).  About a year ago, I finally grew tired of a spot of dermatofibroma on my chest that had been there for many years.  After starting to run in 2009, the area grew more and more irritated from repeated running shirt friction, so I decided to have it removed.  One very minor surgery later, it was gone.  However, this summer, it grew back.  It was a combination of scar tissue from the first one, along with regrowth of the fibroma, but it was getting more and more irritated, so back to the surgeon I went.  Again, a very minor surgery, but just a bit of a nuisance when all I wanted to do was get back to running consistently.   About a week after that surgery, I was out running again and got a quick, sharp pain in my … umhhh … lower abdomen.  Strange pains abound when you run a lot, so I thought nothing of it.  A few days later, while at work, I got up to leave my office for a meeting, and it was like I had been hit by lightning.   Not so good.  And then the swelling started. Hello again, doctor.  Damn it:  inguinal hernia.  Yep, I am falling apart and starting to get maladies of the far more aged than me.  The good news is that, once again, as long as I can put up with the pain, I can put off doing anything about this until after the marathon.

So, I’ve decided to quit running, buy some white pants, white shoes, move to Boca and start hitting the early bird special.

Early Bird Special

The Early Bird Special Awaits

Relief

All systems go

Relief

A little over a year ago, when I finished the Glass City Marathon in Toledo, I remember going through a bunch of emotions. Pride for having accomplished what I set out to do: run a sub 3:30 marathon, joy for having my family there with me, exhaustion from the effort, and yes, relief for being done.

Today I’m going through a bunch of emotions as well, but for a very different reason.  Today Michelle and I visited with a top neurosurgeon to get his input on what I should or shouldn’t do about my recently discovered spine problem.  After hearing different advice from different doctors along the way, it felt wonderful to finally feel like I was getting clear direction.

The conversation started with agreement with the previous doctors regarding both the diagnosis (spondylolisthesis) and the cause (pars defects from micro fractures when I was but a lad).

He disagreed with the orthopedic spine doctor who said that if I did have the surgery that I’d never run again. His clinic has as many patients who go back to running and are fine as they do patients who end up needing to come back for additional surgeries. Basically, every year after the surgery, if you stay active, the percentages go up by 4-5% that additional surgery will be needed. The recommendation to avoid surgery for now was partly based on not wanting to get that particular clock ticking.

We asked if I’d be putting myself at higher risk for something catastrophic to happen if I continue running (even running hard) and he said absolutely not. There’s nothing in the literature or in his experience that indicates that at all. He said I’m basically just going to slowly get worse, whether I run or not.  Running hard may exacerbate the pain, but it won’t lead to paralysis or anything else horrible.

Eventually I’m going to need to get this fused, but doing it now before it affects my everyday life would be a mistake. They have no way of predicting when I’ll get to that point, but he said it could be as many as twenty years or as few as a couple.

His suggestion was that we revisit this once a year to see how things are going. Since I had both an X-ray and an MRI, they now have a baseline and will be able to see if things are changing and we can decide what, if anything, we’re going to do.

In the mean time, as long as I can live with the pain, I don’t have any restrictions on what I’m allowed to do. So I’ve decided to take up BASE jumping and on weekends I’ll be wrestling in the WWF.

Kane_Backbreaker

Actually, after talking with Michele about it, I’ve decided to pick up where I left off and work toward a Boston qualification time.  I don’t know yet whether I’ll still aim at trying to get in to the 2014 race or not, but I’m not going to give up on the dream of running Boston.  If I get to the peak of training and the pain becomes unbearable, I’ll simply back off and accept what I can do.

So today’s emotions are:

  • Relief:  I can continue running and continue to pursue the Boston dream.
  • Excitement and fear:  I get to go back to training, which is great, but I’m a little afraid I’ve lost a step or two.
  • Gratitude: that I have a wife who sticks by me through all of the ups and downs of this life-long saga.

Bombings at the Boston Marathon

Big changes in just a few hours.

I love the Boston Marathon.  Since I started running a few years ago, I’ve watched the race every year as some of the most inspiring athletes in the world take on the course from Hopkinton to Boston.  This year was no different. Monday morning was spent watching the elites take the course, then closely followed by hammering away at my refresh button while I virtually “watched” a number of friends run the course.

And another.

Right after I saw a couple of my fastest friends finish up, I had to leave the office for a few hours to head to a meeting.  When I returned to the office late Monday afternoon, a colleague immediately asked if I’d heard.

“Did I hear what?”

“There’s been a bombing at the finish line of the marathon.”

My day immediately turned from looking up finish times to finding out if my friends and their families were all spared.  Thankfully, no one I know was injured in the blasts, despite a few friends being very close.  At the same time, I started getting phone calls, tweets and Facebook posts from friends and family concerned that I might have been there.  Even a tiny bit of humor mixed in with concern came from brother-in-law.

“I am glad you are too slow for the Boston Marathon!”

The aftermath of these bombings confirmed exactly what I’ve always thought about terrorists.

Terrorists, whether we’re talking about Al-Qaeda or Timothy McVey, fundamentally misunderstand concepts most human beings get intuitively.

A symbol is not the same thing as the concept it represents.

If you melt down a wedding ring, it does not mean the marriage is over.  If you burn a bible, faith and religion carry on. If you bomb a government building, the government survives.  Even if you drive a plane into a symbol of freedom and capitalism, liberty and financial freedom live on.

Setting bombs off at the worldwide symbol of endurance, perseverance and the height of athletic competition will not stop runners.  It will not stop the families of runners from supporting them through months of training.  It will not stop a young boy from greeting his mom or dad after a race with “I’m so proud of you.”

You, who attack symbols, will never win.  Endurance will not stop.  Wanting something greater for yourself will not stop. Hard work will not stop.  Not now, not ever.  

Boston Marathon

If, after a lot of hard work, I get the chance to run Boston, I will be there in a heartbeat.

At long last, a solid week

It’s been a while since I’ve had a decent, solid week of running.  Since the Houston Marathon in January, I’ve been spending too much time searching around for medical advice, then getting differing views on whether or not I should be running.  It’s really taken a toll on my early spring.  I’ve got one more opinion to get (a neurosurgeon on May 7), then I can really get a plan in place, so until then, I’ll take the 26 miles I’ve run this week and put them in the bank.

Since I’m supposed to keep my pace down, I’ve decided to use the time to focus on my running form a bit more.  At the moment, I’m working on two things:

  1. Getting my cadence up
  2. Keeping my shoulders and neck nice and relaxed

I plan to put in some hard work on core strength as well.  Hopefully the investments I’m putting in now while I can’t run with intensity will pay off down the road if I can get back to serious training.

Some tentative good news

After getting a downright depressing course of action from the orthopaedic doctor I had been seeing for my hip, I was referred to the spine specialist in the same sports medicine practice.  And there, I got some tentatively good news.

The orthopaedic spine guy agreed with his colleague’s diagnosis, but not with the ‘what to do.’  For the record, here’s the formal diagnosis in all of its hypermedical detail. This time I took notes:

Grade I-II spondylolisthesis at L5/S1

Bilateral foraminal stenosis at L4/L5

Bilateral severe foraminal stenosis at L5/S1

They believe the damage was caused by chronic pars defects which probably happened in my teen years.  This is pretty typical for athletes who participate in activities that require repeated, quick extension of the back.  Think of a defensive lineman in football who, as soon as the ball is snapped, immediately stands up.  Or better yet, think of a kid of who loved to play baseball and from the time he was eight years old until he graduated high school played 95% of his innings as a catcher.  That was me:  Stand up.  Crouch.  Stand up.  Crouch.  Rinse and repeat several bajillion times.

The tentative good news is that the spine specialist’s advice was to avoid surgery for the time being and that I could keep running, except slow down — the pain only really comes on strong when I run at higher paces.  He told me that if I have surgery now, it’ll guarantee that I’ll never run again.  And even if I don’t run, but I do stay active, I’ll just be back for additional surgeries later.  Fusing the disks will stabilize that area, but any force put on the back would just be transferred to the disks above and then they’d begin to deteriorate.  Also, he said that surgery today for someone at my fitness level would actually result in a tougher recovery than the average bear since much of the recovery involves repairing the muscle they’d need to cut to do the surgery.  When asked if surgery would be riskier sometime down the line (if necessary), and he said no, not in my case.  His explanation was that the typical increase in risk as people age is usually due to people’s poor health unrelated to the surgery, like obesity, high blood pressure, smoking …  none of which I have, thankfully.  My wife asked him if I’m putting myself at risk for anything catastrophic by continuing to run and he assured us that I am not.

So, for time being, I’m getting back to running a bit while I wait to get a second opinion from a neurosurgeon.  That should happen sometime in the next couple of weeks.  While I do hope that I get the same advice, I want to make sure I have all of the best thinking before I start training in earnest.

In the meant time I’m keeping the pace nice and leisurely.

I cheated on my doctor

Please don’t tell him, but after being told not to run at my last orthopedic appointment, I just couldn’t follow the advice.  I held out for a while, but when we went on vacation for a week, I just couldn’t not run.  I left Cincinnati on a grey, dreary, snowy morning and landed in the brilliant sunshine of The Bahamas.  How can I not run in that?  I did keep them short, and I also kept them very, very slow. I know I may have to face the possibility of stopping altogether, but until that is the final word on my running future, I know I am a better me when I do get to run, and I didn’t want to be a bad me while on vacation.  I head to the spine surgeon on Wednesday to get more insight as to what’s next.  Until, then, a few runs from Paradise (Island).

The Sounds of Silence

“No more running.” – Orthopedic Doctor

“For how long?” – Me

“No. More. Running.” - Orthopedic Doctor

Silence.  Shock.  After that he went on the give me the medical term for what you see below at my L5/S1 disk.  I have no recollection what he said, because I couldn’t get past those three words.

MRI of my lumbar spine

MRI of my lumbar spine

If you’ve read this blog recently, you know that I had been struggling with some hip/glute pain since last fall.  It all came to a head in the Houston Marathon in January.  So after I got back from Houston, I decided to get the hip healed up before I set off on my next training cycle.  But I didn’t know exactly what the problem was, so I decided to head to the sports medicine doctor and find out.  After an X-ray that didn’t show any particular issue, he decided it was very likely ITB syndrome and sent me home with anti-inflammatories and told me to take it easy on running.  The pain subsided after about two weeks, so I started to run again, but as soon as I got to any decent pace, the pain returned.  I decided to get some chiropractic attention too, and with that got a different diagnosis:  gluteus minimus.   With the pain continuing, I decided to stop running altogether and get my aerobic fix by cycling until I could run again.  After a few weeks of this and no difference in the pain, I decided to head back to the orthopedic guy and push for an MRI.  I know I’m not the most patient guy around, but I also hate not knowing what the real cause is.

After fighting to get them to prescribe the MRI (they wanted to do an ultrasound), I finally got it scheduled on March 9.  Three days later I was back to the doctor to see what they found.

“I’ve got good news and bad news.  The good news is that your hip looks great!  No problem there at all.  However, in this MRI we see a small bit of your lower spine and that L5/S1 disk doesn’t look right.  It should be white like this other one, but it’s all dark.  Because we weren’t aiming specifically at your spine, we need to get you back in to get a lumbar spine MRI.  The nerves from that area of your spine head right down into the hip area, so it’s not surprising at all that you’d feel the pain there.  If that disk is damaged it could be impinging the nerve.”

OK, no real worry yet, but I don’t like the sounds of this.  I was lucky to get the spine MRI scheduled for the next day, March 13, so there I was, trying to lie still once again.  It’s a good thing I’m not claustrophobic.

On March 18th, I saw the doctor again.  If you look at the picture above, you can follow along.

“If you look at L3, you can see what the spine and disk should look like. Smooth lines all around, everything lining up with one another, consistent coloration.

If you look at L4, you can see the beginnings of deterioration. Not too bad yet, but heading in the wrong direction.

If you look at L5/S1, you can see where the problem is. The padding in between is almost completely gone, and in a few places you’re already bone on bone.  Even where there is still cartilage, it’s pretty damaged. Also, you can notice that the spine bones on top and bottom are no longer in alignment. The one on the bottom (S1) is actually impinging on the column upward. That area is no longer stable because it’s out of alignment and the cartilage in not holding it in place.  That instability is a real issue.”

I need to see a spine surgeon to what can be done.  He said they may suggest getting the bones fused to help stabilize the area, but it’s not certain.  But then he repeated that I should be prepared to hear no more running.  Ever.

I still haven’t come to terms with this news.  Honestly, I’ve been struggling with it since that day.  I’ve gotten to a point where running is not just something I do, but it’s part of who I am.  And I like that.  I want that.  I’m not ready to give it up, so I’m going to push and push until someone gives me an answer that doesn’t include stopping completely.

The story is not over yet by a long shot.  But after brooding about it for a couple weeks, I had to get it out.  It is as much a part of the running journey as any race result is, so it deserves a post.

Last night, I laughed at a funny note a friend of mine sent me and my wife said, “That’s the first time I’ve seen you smile in weeks.”

Worrying in silence doesn’t help anyone, including me.  It’s time to move on.

Onward.