If we had a boat, we would still have been bailing....
Saturday Training 12--20-08 "Cheryl Sez"

Speed Racer....and the cliff at the side of the trail.

This is a comment that is not based on any particular runner’s experiences, and is not directed at anyone.  It is a general lamentation based on some observations I have had over the past years and meant as a point of contemplation for all of us as we continue to meet the challenge of our ultra running ambitions.

   

There are some simple anatomical facts that many people do not seem to understand. The first is that muscle tissue is compliant. Muscles are relatively responsive to our demands and will grow, or shrink as need be over a matter of months.  They are ‘red’ tissue, which is highly nourished by rich blood supply. 

 

Tendons and Ligaments, and even Cartlidge are less responsive.  They are a ‘white’ tissue, which receives much less blood supply and they are very delayed in their response to increasing demands.  One of my professors of Physiology commented that tendons and ligament take as much as three to five times longer to respond to changing demands, and lag behind at increasing rates during rapid muscle growth.

   

Bones are not static but are indeed organic and responsive to physical demand.  Bones take even longer to respond to changed demand.  Increased demand will increase density and broaden attachment points for growing ligaments and tendons. Increased area for cartlidge is also possible.  Cartlidge is not regenerating but may, over the years, form broader firmer bases to support increased activity and stress. 

   

Now, with this in mind, picture your leg and its attempt to respond to the desire to be an Ultra runner.   You get out there and do ten and it hurts.  You go home and your muscles respond and get a bit bigger.  You go out again a few weeks later and you can do that 10 with far less muscle pain. You may even be able to go faster.  You tendons will just be registering a need to increase in size.  Your bones may be aware of a change in activity and demand.  

  

As you continue to work on your hill climbing and running your legs begin to change their form.  Standing in front of the mirror in Dionysian style you admire your progress and plan for ever longer challenges.  Your tendons are just awakening the need to grow and blood and nourishment begins its long slow journey into the white tendenous and ligament tissues.  You bone cells have registered the increasing impacts and slowly, very slowly, the cells begin to divide and grow.  Far off in the future you will have tendons, ligaments, cartridge, and bone density to match the needs of a ten-mile jaunt through the hills.

 

But you are absorbed in the size of your muscles, and the resiliency of your heart, and the sound of the air moving through your expanding lungs; all tissues that respond rapidly to need.   In months you are doing twenty and dreaming of your first Ultra.  You got it.  You can keep pace with those old gray haired long-winded guys who always seem to trudge along at the back of the pack.   You begin to run past them, to charge out and run with the rabbits.   It’s not so hard.  You have put in the work and you deserve to be running with the rapid deployment team.   The words of caution from the old gray-backs sound like sour grapes.   You don’t need to run with them any more, and you don’t need to listen to words of caution, you feel fine.

    

But in your body, the tendon growth is far outpaced by the muscle tissue growth. The ligaments are still those of a short distance runner.  Bone tissues and density are not that different from the first day you started moving up a trail.   You don’t realize it, but you have built yourself an overpowered racecar.  A giant motor mounted on a frail frame that can power over a course, but lacks the shocks to deal with the bumps, and the heavy frame to resist the impacts of hitting the wall.  

     

But luck is with you and you place well in shorter races.  People encourage you to continue.  Some tell you a fifty or a 100K or even a 100 miler is in your future.  But you don’t understand what they are saying.  You are still a Speed Racer, a short distance long distance runner; the kind who think 5K is cross-country.  Words of caution go unheard.  “If it hurts, stop doing it.” Sounds like capitulation.  It doesn’t matter that the guys saying that are the long lived, the veterans, the finishers of many 100s.   Like a Samoan Radio you know only two speeds; Off and Full On. 

      

As verification of your effort you feel your ability to climb hills increasing.  You can charge ahead of most of the people you first struggled to stay with.  Muscles continue to grow, now far out pacing your support tissues.    Finally muscles are pulling at tendons far beyond their capacity to respond, or you are hitting the downs so fast and hard that bones are feeling the impacts beyond their support capabilities.  

            

This precarious rise in ability reaches a crescendo as pain in tissues becomes ever more present.  Ibuprofen becomes a vitamin.  But the ‘Just do it’ motto, draws you in and you listen to some super asshole star with super human abilities, and discard the cautions your own body is sending you with increasing urgency.

          

Then it happens.  You are doing a down and ‘Phittttt’ goes a tendon in your leg.  You go from being a super star in your own mind to wondering how the hell you are going to manage to limp off the mountain.  Or you ignore what is tendon and ligament pain in your knees until the underpowered tissues slip and cartridge damage occurs in your joints.  Or you suddenly have severe leg pain that is finally diagnosed as micro fractures to bones in your foot or leg.   

         

You go from being an up and coming superstar of Ultra running to being ‘What’s his name that used to come out with us?”   You may limp back out, but now you are wrestling with a major injury and it just won’t go away.   If it backs off a bit you quickly charge down another hill and rip up weak tissue some more.   And those old boneheads are still out there, at the back of the pack, enjoying the sunsets and sunrises. Feeling the leaves wet with dew brush their faces as they saunter along doing a twenty every week.

      

You really want to excel.  You are willing to work at it but your body just won’t respond the way you want it to.  But wait.  You got this all wrong. You are looking into the wrong end of the telescope.  

  

The fact is that you are not responding to your own body that way you need to.   In your search to do  it all right now, you have forgotten that at 30, or 40, or 50 years of age the body takes a long long time to develop the infrastructure necessary to do long hard trail running.  How long.  Two, three, five years is not out of the question.  Vastly overpowered muscles can reap havoc on support tissues, and you can do damage to yourself even when you go at half throttle.  It takes time.  It takes lots of time; years and not months.  

 

Despite all the clowns claiming otherwise it is not a matter of getting through the pain, it is a matter of listening to the pain.  Because pain is your body telling you what a real asshole you are. Assholes are muscle tissues.   Boneheads are support tissues.  Bones, tendons, ligaments decide what you do over the long run.   Muscles just get overpowering and screw you around.  

      

How many of you young punks have to wreck your running careers with unnecessary ‘Fast Guy’ injuries before you begin to learn to listen to your own bodies.  There is enough going on out there on the trails to hurt and maim that you don’t need self inflicted wounding to occur.  I know trail fuzz often clouds my brain, but I’m really saddened by the number of ‘what’s his (or her) name’s?’  we see fall by the way side when it just is not necessary.   Stick around, slow down, relax and let the years help your body understand that Ultra running is a part of your life.  

      

Hope to see you on the trails....it will mean I'm still alive.  

   

Mikem, Ph.D., MS, BS, LMT, CNA (for those who are impressed by academic compulsiveness)      

 

Comments

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hoppy

You mean Hogsback Harald???? Mikem, i witnessed that same visually striking grizzled look and display as Haralds front end loader moved with purpose and not grace. It,s to be noted that he was churning over post race! carbo,s , a feat only an accomplshed ultra runner could perform. :0 Hoppy

Mikem

Harald,

You are not a newbie. You have beaten my ass on far too many occasions to call yourself that. Look in the mirror, you are not that naive sweet faced fellow you seem to think you still are. My last picture of you (Volcano 08) is of a grizzeled old bastid scarfing down a humongous plate of spagetti with a spoon the size of a front end loader...in true ultra runner form. aloha mikem

Mikem

Dan,

Yes, I too often wonder where the line is between catastrophic injury and constant aggravated pain. In fact in long races it is the tightrope I walk in getting to the end of the race. The question is always how far and hard to push, how much to endure, and always the desire to avoid nasty injury. But I am not looking outside to gain inspiration or direction. I am dealing in the hard reality of my own pain, and attempting interpret what this means in terms of my race progress. I may run, or jog, or become a member of the Department of Silly Walks. It usually depends on the pain or discomfort I feel and what I judge to be the source of that pain.

But as you have pointed out it is not a clear line. There have been points in my career where I have disregarded pain and moved on when I otherwise would have stopped because I WAS going to finish the race. The essential I think is that in the very long hours of training and running one begins to understand the difference between pain and injury and can better determine the risk of moving close to that horizon.

I think the most essential point I am making here is that the goal is to face oneself in a cooperative way and not an adversarial manner. We live in our bodies, but often are not one with them. Ultra running demands a meditative state of oneness, which is aware without being judgmental. If we try and be what we are not, then trouble is sure to arise. At the same time, we must strive to achieve what we are really capable of, within the context of our own existence. I will never achieve what David Goggins has, nor, I believe, will he ever achieve what I have. At least that is what I see in the goal of Competition. To strive successfully is to do so in union with the reality in which we find ourselves.

So when I write I am not advocating a march into IT band hell. I am just trying to relate where it was I found myself at that particularly extraordinary time after nearly seventy miles when Cat, Emma (?), and I were urging ourselves down that trail. My pain was not new. It was something I had endured as it built up during that race, and it was a condition I had known before. Experience had taught me that it was pain not injury I was dealing with, and I felt I knew its bounds. Was I certain? No. But I believe I had calculated the odds well.

Don’s Badwater experience was much the same. We were checking him every mile and I happened to be the one usually asking the questions about his pain. We both knew what it was he was doing. That is not to say that Don’s pain was any less severe than it appeared, but it was understood. Neither of us believed he was doing anything that would lead to permanent damage. It was not the first time Don had been through such a contracture, and he was familiar with how it played within him.

Again, it was calculated and informed risk taking.

And finally, my writing is meant as entertainment. Nothing like a bit of suffering and enduring to keep the reader interested. That is not to say it wasn’t the truth I wrote, just that it was not the mundane truth.

My lament is that there have been far too many trail companions that have been forced to quit the trails. Most never seem to understand the need for a slow meditative growth in ultra running ability, and they destroy their own aspirations. It’s sad.

Aloha, Mike

Harald

This is turning into an interesting thread...

Dan, you raise a very good point. Yes, many of us are probably guilty of repeating the RFM mantra a little too often and regardless of the experience and seniority of the audience. Ditto for tales (tall or not) of suffering and superhuman endurance that perhaps should trigger more shock than admiration. There is definitely a sizable gray area. But it seems to me that there are also extremes at either end of the spectrum that are fairly easy to assess. A colleague of mine at UH ran his first marathon yesterday. His longest run during training measured an epic 6 miles. Duh? He hit the wall pretty hard in Hawaii Kai. That's not the point though - his preparation would have been unreasonable even if he had held up much better and wasn't limping today. There is such a thing as common sense and the obligation to use one's brain as much as one's muscles. However, applying either (or even both) will not necessarily protect anyone from running into trouble, in training or during a race. It is as you said: somebody's decision to quit should be celebrated at least as much as the one to endure and continue. Unfortunately the ability to judge one's own capabilities, physical as well as mental, develops even more slowly than the tendons, ligaments, and bones that Mike pointed us to earlier. Listening to our ultrarunning elders is definitely good advice for all of us newbies - and when in doubt, remember the old adage: "do as they say, not as they do". Because somebody else finished a 100-miler on two broken legs does not mean we have to (try).

Dan Eldredge

Mike,

You are right on point with your "many people do not seem to understand" the simple anatomical facts and I appreciate your passing those on to me relatively early on in my introduction to the H.U.R.T. crowd. As a novice to the sport of ultrarunning I am not blind, though, to the larger messages the best of the sport pass down. From the mantra of "relentless forward motion" to the iconic images of Don carrying a large boulder in one hand so that he could run semi-vertical many hours into Badwater, to our hero Paul getting hospitalized after running 100 miles on trails and then attempting 160 on hard roads, to David Goggins saying in an inspirational video "when you think you are done, you are only 40 percent into what your body is capable of doing" to your descriptions of your own epic battles in previous posts, the message of "keep going" could not be more clear. You yourself have encouraged, in my opinion, pushing it in the face of looming injuries. An example is a quote from one of your posts: "Cat and I spent hours together as my IT band turned into twisted steel, and she battled the first timer’s nightmares. She never gave up. Often pulled me along, and always seemed to just be ready to go on and on. Just amazing. Steff was bothered by a right ankle problem that turned ugly. Joel had it wrapped when I saw it, but it was a massive red bruise around her entire ankle and a testament to her will to finish. Again such courage is hard to find, even in our group of achievers. " I can see how "young punks" may confuse pragmatism with "will to finish" and "courage" and knowing one from the other seems to me to be the key to a long running life. It appears to me that the human anatomy cannot distinguish between a race and training and that courage during a race (meaning in this sense running through severe pain or an injury) can result just as easily in a career ending injury as pushing too hard in training. My impression is that it's a whole lot more complicated than simple anatomy. Experienced veterans like Don know their bodies very well and are able to figure out what is causing permanent damange and what is not. Paul has obviously learned more things about his body and mind from surviving cancer and many ultramarathons than most of us ever will so he knows when to throw in the towel, no matter how difficult that decision is. You know when it is OK to ask an IT band transformed into twisted steel to keep going and Steff may have known when a massive red bruise surrounding her ankle was not going to result in a permanent injury if she kept going. You have obviously given advice to folks based on your experience that they have ignored to their detriment. Shame on them. I hope that you continue your educational efforts in order to help people distinguish between courage and stupidy. Perhaps a futile task, but keep mentoring the young punks and us older newbies. If we learn lessons the easy way and not the hard way, maybe in future ultras and training for them we'll know the difference between when our mind is holding us back for no good reason (time to dig even deeper) and when our bodies are holding us back for good reason (time to go have a beer). The anatomy is simple. Whether it's a mind or body issue is the hard part!

Cheers,

Dan

Bob Mc.

Excellent writing Mike. Sounds like a lot of truth to my non-medical mind.

On another topic, I am trying to resolve the DOUBLE COMMENT Posting with the blog hosting company. Yes, it is annoying!!

Devon Webb

I don't mind outing myself because I think I just had De'javu. Mike and I had this same disussion when we were toting the 20+ gallons of water up to Peacock prior to my last ultra. Should'vs, Wouldv's, and Couldv's. I SHOULD have listened to you on the mountain Mike. I WOULD still be out there enjoying the goshdarn scenery. I just wish I COULD have gone SLOWER and not been a young punk. Thanks for putting it into perspective. I really have NO EXCUSE. You are truly a really good friend and one hell of an ultrarunner. Thanks and Jah Bless.
Devon Webb
625-9692
371-2177
ultradevon@gmail.com

hoppy

By Quill and parchment - And the award goes to Mikum for his outstanding piece of candle literature on trail philosophy, B.S and biomechanics. Excellent work Sir!,most enjoyable read- keep it up!!. Hoppy-(who once took english literature in England yet had a hard time spelling the word].

Huffer

Mike,

Very well said....agreeing from my own experiences.

Huffer

Harald

Now _that_, Mike, was one for the ages, for the HURT Words-of-Wisdom Hall of Fame.

Thank you.

Harald (who's not an ultrarunner but wouldn't mind becoming one, eventually)

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