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.



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