The Year That Wasn’t: Three Lessons From a Bad Year of Running

The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.

-Ernest Hemingway


The plan this year, my ninth year of endurance running, was simple: maintain the progress I’d made in 2018.

The results I was hoping for? A third straight marathon PR. A third straight BQ. If all went well, a sub-3 hour marathon (I’m coming for you, Eliud!). Celebrate my acceptance into the 2020 Boston Marathon. It all felt possible.

Those plans essentially ended on March 19. Two days prior I had celebrated St. Patrick’s Day, not with green beer, but with a 15-mile hill run through the green trails of the Cleveland Metroparks. I had felt strong and ready for the second half of marathon training. But on the 19th as I finished my last speed interval I planted my foot and felt a searing pain travel up my left calf. Multiple injuries would follow during the year. I would beat one only to sustain another. In mid-July I gave up entirely and hung up my shoes for almost three months.

Failures, however, provide valuable learning opportunities. In a year when nothing went according to plan there were opportunities to learn. Here are the three most important lessons I am taking away from Year Nine.

1. Don’t Chase Pain

My first significant injury of the year was a calf strain. I have experienced pain before. This was something else. I could barely plant to pivot and change direction when I walked. Everything below my left knee tightened up.

My natural reaction was to fix the immediate problem. I foam rolled tight areas. I performed eccentric calf raises to strengthen the injured area. My mind was solely on preserving as much of my training base as I could. Slowly but surely my calf recovered and it felt better. Then a month later I felt a sharp pain on the front of my right shin, likely an anterior tibialis strain resulting from an imperceptibly altered gait when I had returned to running after my calf strain. I repeated the routine: roll the tight areas, strengthen the injured area, return to running when possible. By this point my strength program had morphed from a carefully choreographed routine of hip, glute, and core work to a mishmash of exercises I had adopted to try to fix the various ailments I was picking up. When I felt pain in my right groin in July I knew I was way out of balance and needed to take time off to get the bottom of why I kept getting hurt.

2. Don’t Ignore Faulty or Painful Movement Patterns

The root of this year’s problems likely originated during my training last year. Training for my spring race probably went as well as it could. I cannot remember any setbacks, major or minor, and I came away from training and from the race pain free. Training for my fall race in Columbus did not go quite as smoothly.

I am not sure when I first noticed that my pelvis had a slight rotation in it but it was something I noticed during the build up to Columbus. It was accompanied by some soreness in my low back, all the way out toward my right side. I dutifully used a lacrosse ball to mobilize the tissue and continued with my bodyweight strength training which included plenty of core work. I convinced myself the issue was minor: the pain was not too bad, the rotation could just be a weird defect of my body (this conveniently ignored that I had never noticed such a rotation before), I was continuing to strengthen my core and major muscles, and I was getting faster and stronger so could something really be wrong? No, I convinced myself, I was fine.

And I was fine, for awhile. I ran Columbus well, setting another PR and nabbing a BQ. Everything was a-ok! Here, right here, is where I should have sought help. I should have talked to my chiropractor about my concerns. I should have done some research on what could cause such a pelvic rotation. I could have headed off what this year would become. But I did not. I feared a lengthy layaway from training. I convinced myself that my improvement in speed and form showed I was fine.

The problem with many running injuries is that we cannot pinpoint their immediate cause. An acute injury like a sprained ankle comes with an easily identifiable cause. All the focus can go toward fixing the injured part. I have plenty of history with these sort of injuries from my soccer playing days. Many running injuries, however, are a result of pattern overload. A faulty movement pattern persists. Our body, brilliant in its design, has plenty of workarounds to make sure we can keep moving through those faulty movement patterns; one muscle weakness leaving us unable to move would have come with deadly consequences to our prehistoric caveman ancestors. Eventually though, the body cannot sustain these workarounds and an injury results.

What caused mine?

Well I’m not sure why my pelvis rotated. Likely an inconsistency or imbalance in the way I sit caused my left core muscles, including my psoas, a stabilizing muscle and hip flexor, to tighten up. That caused a chain reaction of events to occur, which included a less efficient firing pattern for my left gluteus maximus, the main driver of the hip extension pattern I perform thousands of times during any given run (running is essentially the constant repetition of hip extensions). In order to allow me to keep running syngergist muscles (helper muscles, in essence) had to take up the slack to continue this pattern of hip extension. The hamstrings and adductor magnus (a groin muscle) can perform those functions, though they are not supposed to be the main movers of hip extension. Guess what? Training in the spring often was accompanied by lower left hamstring and inner left leg soreness as those muscles took up the slack. My calves could also help power my stride during push off, an action they perform but, again, aren’t supposed to handle the bulk of. Sure enough, my left calf was often tight during training. When my left calf eventually gave out and strained in March, it was because a faulty pattern had been building for months, maybe even half a year, and if I had paid more attention to the signs, I could have seen it coming.

3. Run the Mile You’re In

After three months off I returned to running. I was ready. I was eager. I, well, I struggled daily to lace up my shoes. Sure, I was physically out of shape. I lost my wind barely a mile into an easy run. Five mile runs that used to be my standard easy run now were the furthest I could push myself. I remembered the runner I have been and I felt defeated.

I quickly realized remembering the runner I had been was part of my problem. Having had two years of solid training prior to this year gives me confidence that I can handle such training again when I am ready for it. I am not ready for it now though. That was the main contributor to my reluctance to run. Here I was, finally back to being able to do what I love, but so much of what I love about running is pushing myself to the absolute limits of my ability. Struggling through five miles is not the absolute limit of my ability when I am at my best. It is, though, the absolute limit of my ability now.

That distinction is key. In order to enjoy running again, to fight through the nagging voice in my head that was all too happy to find any excuse for my not running on any given day, I needed to find compassion for the runner I am right now. The runner I am right now cannot push for a Boston qualifying time. The runner I am right now cannot handle 50 miles a week. Where I am right now is back to square one, where being disciplined five days a week is a victory, where handling 25 miles a week is pushing it. When I can lump together enough of those weeks I will again be the runner who is ready to push to that edge I love to test.

What’s Next?

I have my sights set on the Pittsburgh Marathon next May. My last year coaching at Ravenna we took our pre-season trip to Pittsburgh. I really came to appreciate the city (not easy for a Clevelander) and I think a marathon there would be a gorgeous run.

I have a time in mind though I am keeping that to myself at the moment. It is a big goal that is pushing me forward but as I just explained, I need to be focused on where I am at now, pushing myself to run mid-20 mile weeks while building up strength. It is not yet time to fully commit to big goals.

I am, however, excited to see what this next year, my tenth as a runner, brings. My previous breakthroughs — breaking 1:30:00 in the half marathon and earning my first BQ — followed difficult, injury-riddled years where weaknesses forced me to adapt my training and rebuild from the ground up. I am once again rebuilding and this time next year we will see where this new foundation has taken me.



What Do We Make of 1:59:40?

In 2014 Runner’s World ran a story detailing what it would take to break two hours in a marathon. It listed the factors that would lend itself to such an endeavor and the qualities the runner attempting it would possess. The race would be run on a cold day (check), on a “mind-numbingly boring” course (check), with pacemakers forming a human wall (check). The runner would be 5’6″ and 120 pounds soaking wet (check), possess towering self-confidence (check), and “have access to things we can’t imagine” (big old check – more on this later). The author predicted the barrier would be broken. In 2075.

What the author, sports science writer Alex Hutchinson, did not envision, and probably could not envision at the time, was the clock-like consistency of Eliud Kipchoge. Hutchinson envisioned that the runner who would break two hours would be in his early twenties. Kipchoge broke the barrier at age 34. But the world then had not seen a runner like Kipchoge. At the time Hutchinson wrote the article, Kipchoge was on his way to finishing his fourth marathon, winning three (his one marathon loss was a second-place finish in the 2013 Berlin Marathon, won by Wilson Kipsang in then-world record time). But he was in his late twenties at that time, a peak age for distance runners who quickly stare down the inevitable decline. That he would still be winning marathons, in fact winning every marathon he’s entered since, and getting faster at the same time, would not have been easy to predict.

Now that two hours has been broken, what do we make of it? When I woke up last Saturday to the news, I was not surprised to see my running friends celebrating the accomplishment. But even friends who are not hardcore runners were aware of the accomplishment and celebrating. Much as the four-minute mile captured public attention in the 1950’s, so too was the draw and aura of running 26.2 miles in under an even two hours a cause even those who barely pay attention to running could understand and wonder at.

The press was less effusive in its praise. In his Morning Shakeout newsletter Mario Fraioli described the attempt as “engaging, inspiring, and a genuinely good show” but noted, correctly, that the level of engineering that went into the attempt made it an experiment rather than a race. Hutchinson, now writing for Outside Magazine, noted how unsurprising it felt, a compliment to Kipchoge and his consistency given that just five years ago Hutchinson was speculating that such an attempt was decades away. The Atlantic’s headline was succinct: The Greatest, Fakest World Record.

There is perhaps something lost when crossing the mythical two-hour threshold was accomplished for the first time in engineered conditions. Just as Hutchinson predicted five years ago, a wall of pacers formed a sort of reverse flying V to block the wind. A car maintained the pace and projected a laser grid that Kipchoge and his band of pacers could follow, alleviating the mental energy needed to maintain the barrier-breaking pace. The course was a flat, straight stretch of road that eliminated the concern over losing seconds to tangents. The absence of competition meant that any late drama would be confined to whether or not Kipchoge could maintain his pace during the last several miles.

There would have been a heightened sense of excitement had the barrier been broken in a race. Say Kipchoge had returned to defend his title in Berlin just a few weeks prior, he may have been naturally pushed to two hours by Kenenisa Bekele whose winning time in the race was a mere two seconds off the world record Kipchoge set there last year. But then racing is not always conducive to chasing a particular time. The hard charge down the finishing chute between Kipchoge and Bekele may never have materialized as both, and certainly Kipchoge, would have been inclined to throw in surges to break each other, a tactic that is good for racing but not necessarily good for maintaining the even pacing needed to chase a time goal.

Then there’s the shoes, the latest edition of Nike’s Vaporflys, in which Kipchoge broke the barrier (and, to add fuel to the fire, Brigid Kosgei used to break Paula Radcliffe’s 16-year-old women’s marathon record the next day). If there has been a consistent discussion point following Kipchoge’s run, it has been what role shoe technology plays in the sport and where the line should be drawn on how much innovation is too much innovation. Des Linden quote tweeted herself noting the lack of discussion about carbon plates in shoes. Ryan Hall added his own criticism of Kipchoge’s shoes later in the week (that he later clarified so as to not seem to knock Kipchoge’s accomplishment while maintaining his criticism of the shoes). Steve Magness wrote an interesting thread on what Vaporflys and carbon plate technology do to decrease marathon times. The attention to the shoes is needed. Linden is right: a sustained discussion about the role of carbon plates in shoes has not been had since they first hit the mainstream when Nike developed the first Vaporflys for Kipchoge’s first attempt at a sub-2 hour marathon three years ago, which they then successfully mass produced to everyday runners. That said, Nike was neither the first, nor the last to utilize the technology. Their innovation was built off of an attempt first made by Adidas. In response to Nike’s successful production, Hoka, Saucony, and Brooks all produced experimental shoes with carbon plates in them. Linden won Boston in Brooks’s prototype.

The consternation about carbon plates in shoes has several different threads. First, non-Nike athletes were reasonably concerned when only Nike athletes had access to the technology, especially technology that has been shown to save up to 4% of the effort needed to run. Were they losing to these runners because they were better or because they were wearing a certain shoe? Second, new iterations of Nike’s Vaporflys are rumored to have added more carbon plates inside an even thicker sole, leading to questions about how springy the shoes are and if they provide even more of an advantage than the first Vaporflys. Calls to ban the shoes have begun.

It is hard to imagine banning the shoe precisely because, as Linden pointed out, a conversation about carbon plates has not occurred. Banning the technology entirely would be a multi-billion dollar decision, at least if the ban extended beyond what elite runners can wear in competition. In addition, what makes this technology the line we decide to take a stand on? Have times decreased with those who are wearing Vaporflys? Yes, but then such improvements are hardly new within sports. Rubber tracks changed track and field. Fiberglass poles changed pole vaulting. Fiberglass shells changed rowing. Today we have better understanding of nutrition, recovery, strength training, all through scientific research and innovation, and competition has improved as a result. Rounding back to Alex Hutchinson, in an article he wrote for Outside Magazine in August in which he broke down newly released data from Nike on Vaporflys, noting:

If it does turn out that the Vaporfly is unusually good at protecting your legs, then it adds a twist to the debate about banning them. A key argument in favor of permitting ever-advancing sports technology is that the benefits eventually accrue to society at large: we get lighter tennis rackets and safer helmets and so on. That’s not always true: when high-tech swimsuits were banned in 2010, one reason I didn’t shed any tears was that it didn’t seem like a great loss. Squeezing into a single-use rubber corset is only worthwhile if you’re trying to win races by a fraction of second. But if the Vaporfly, in addition to boosting efficiency, helps more people run farther in greater comfort, what then?

The unambiguous solution would be to limit sole height which would likely limit the amount of curve of carbon plates in shoes and limit how many of them could be put into one shoe. Will that happen? Nike has a lot of money riding on that question and when money is involved, who knows how regulations will be handled. We may simply be entering a new era of technology in running.

So then how to do view Kipchoge’s 1:59:40? If the engineered nature of the event takes away some of the aura for you, I can understand that. There is a reason we reserve world records for competition. Competition is what brings people to the sport. I love to see the hotly-contested race, one man stretching just a little further to break the tape first, the woman who stares down the pressure and completes her final, and furthest jump to snatch the medal back from the opponent who had just out-jumped her. Yet I still appreciate what Eliud Kipchoge has done, the consistency he has brought to his marathoning. It feels, in some way, like a capstone to an impressive career, that if anyone was going to push us closer to a barrier that felt so far off only a few years ago, it would be him. It also leaves me hoping that someday soon we will get to witness that late-race drama between two men thundering down that final straightaway, chasing that first true racing attempt at breaking two hours.