Saturday, August 17, 2013

Unplanned Breaks and Gestalt

So I broke my foot and lost my job at the same time. Two unscheduled, ersatz, coincidental breaks.

I have a "stress fracture involving the base of the left 4th metatarsal". I guess the "healing fracture in the distal phalanx of the right 1st toe" was lonely or my right foot was indignant about being the only broken one. Fie.

Skip the next two paragraphs if you don't want to read the extremely specific diagnostic criteria to explain why I broke my foot and how sad it made me :(

The fracture occurred exactly in the place on my shoe sole where I had worn through the sole, which itself I noticed literally days before the break. It is a wear pattern that is asymmetrical and oddly intensified compared to my other shoe - in other words, when I land on my right foot, I land with more "area" than my left, if that makes sense. This doesn't surprise me. After a couple of months of grueling calf strain earlier this year it is obvious now that I adopted a gait that put less strain on my calf and more on the sole of my foot - I was running more with the outside of my foot instead of pushing off more with the big toe (which puts more onus on the calf).

I was extremely, ridiculously depressed at missing the Squamish 50 miler, especially with only a week to go before the race. AGAIN. After running a preparatory 50-miler earlier this year. And training like a madman and reaching a peak of fitness unparalleled in my lifetime and feeling totally awesome. There is no emoticon to express how I feel. Except sideways italics sad face :(




Anyway, lessons learned:

1. The mental letdown of serious injury is not to be understated. Not only do I have to be more vigilant about gait, shoe wear, footwear, training grounds and strain (the soles of my feet felt generally sore for the week leading up to the break)...I have to be mentally prepared to adapt if I do get injured. Immediately think ahead, plan ahead, map out a fall/winter racing strategy to compensate, seek out alternate exercise/ endorphins, plan a rehabilitation strategy...and so on. Can't think of any other mental approaches I have adopted. Oh, my self-diagnostic skills remain steady. I have been able to figure out every injury before seeing a doctor about it. This one was obvious to me, and the rather dopey GP I saw was dubious - and wrong. Going straight to a walking boot, or following my instincts, should have me back running sooner. So it is good to listen to and trust my brain and body.

2. It was not over-training that broke my foot, it was training too much in the wrong places using the wrong shoes too often. As mentioned, I made it to the 100-mile mark in seven days of training, two or maybe even three times in the months prior to August. I was feeling focused, dialed, fast and strong. A 25km hill run was a walk in the park. But a ton of that mileage was on pure concrete. Sure, I went out on the beach three times a week up to UBC which is mostly dirt, gravel and stairs. But countless loops of False Creek, Stanley Park and sidewalks galore caught up to me. If and when I train on urban terrain, I need to wear better shoes.

3. Despite my educated opinion that minimalist shoes are better, my urban minimalist experiment is now over. I proved to myself that I could adapt to pure minimalist trainers, but I switched to slightly less minimalist (Minimus to Road Gloves) shoes because my feet were sore. I should have read up more. Most runners swap out to pure minimalist shoes every other or every third urban run. Those that don't do not put in the mileage or tempo that I do. Also, most ultrarunners my age (39) have 20 years or so of track, cross country and distance training and racing under their belts. I have like, three years of running behind me so far. And 30 years of cycling, which is proven to lessen bone density. Also, they aren't meant to be used for every run...and more specifically the human foot did not evolve to run purely on concrete and asphalt. DUH, in other words.

So while I like the idea of minimalist shoes I will be returning to a thick-soled shoe with 4mm or less drop. I do like a flat shoe, but I am never going to a thin-soled shoe again, except maybe a racing flat for a new marathon PR next year. I learned the lesson on the trails at Tenderfoot. Now I have learned my urban minimalist lesson. I may buy radically minimalist shoes again. I may also try bungee-jumping. Quantum physics illustrates the plausibility of lots of absurd and highly unlikely things happening.

4. I need to run more trails. I have said this again and again, but it has become a truism and it is time to jettison this stupid wish and make it a reality. A truism to me means something I know to be true but I don't really bother acting on. It is time to truly commit to new means of hitting the spectacular array of trails in the lower mainland. It's true: I can run the North Shore, up to Squamish/Whistler, "behind" the North Shore (Howe Sound Crest, Hanes Valley, etc.), Port Moody (albeit really, really hard to get to, even by car), Burnaby Mountain, Pacific Spirit Park, and beyond - Abbotsford, Matsqui, northwest Washington, Hope, Manning, Kamloops etc etc etc. BUT I DON'T. Not that often, anyway. Just before the break occurred I had solidified plans to pace a local runner in a Washington ultra, this very day. I need to hit the trails at least twice a week. I have weekends off so I don't see why this has been so hard for me. Sheer habit and inherent laziness.

At the very least, I need to implement local trails and seek out less pavement every day. This is a good way to dial back mileage but still put in the hours. A local pro once blinked at me when I asked what his mileage was on a recent run. He said, "I put in four hours. Who cares how far I went? I went hard, it was awesome and it hurt when I finished." Ah. That makes an amazing amount of sense to me, despite its apparent simplicity. It isn't simple at all. It is gestalt.

Consider the sum of its parts. Trail running is a completely different beast - almost a different species altogether. Combine distance and speed (which is all urban running really is, plus hills if you want) - with rocks, turns, loops, trees, mud, radically diverse elevation, less oxygen (once you get 1000 meters up or more) diverting planar slopes (i.e. trails that slope sideways as well as up or down), a spectacular array of microregions and microenvironments, flora, fauna, roots, branches, bush, food, fog, mist, streams, torrents, boulders, boulder fields, peat, ponds, ferns, shale, snow, slush and...a zillion trillion other cool awesome things and stuff.

I also think trail running contributes more to whole-body training. The combination of elevation + cardio (since trail or "sky-running" almost always involves tackling (a) mountain(s) or climbing up (a) ridge(s)). Add to this the radical asymmetry of terrain - no consistency in footfall, push off or landing. Just symmetry in form. The body is in constant, fluid but unpredictable motion (unless you are power-hiking or trotting up groomed switchbacks). Leaps, landings, sprints, trots, stops, clambers, swings, slips, falls, lunges and ladders are merely background noise as the brain and eyes (in a high state of focused, endorphin-enriched function) pick lines, maintain balance, maintain coolant reserves, tap energy/glycogen/fat reserves, all the while firing the more or less exactly correct sequence and complex array of neurons to activate the hundreds or thousands of muscle fibers necessary to perpetuate constant forward motion through unpredictable terrain.

So yeah. More trails.

5. ***FEELINGS ALERT*** Clearly I really miss running. I have dreamed I was better every night since the break occurred. I have no idea what the layoff entails. I have read and been told everything from four to eight weeks. I am simply going to go by pain. It still hurts. When it doesn't anymore I will hit the bike for a week. Then, with new shoes, I will try the treadmill. That's what I did with my toe, and it went well. I know a stress fracture is different, but I also think this would not have happened if I had recognized the warning signs a month or so before the break. I really hope I bounce back. I have a distant Grand Canyon attempt looming and it would suck harder than a vampire bat in a Red Cross fridge to miss it.


  1. Glad to hear that you finally have a solid diagnosis - 1st step in getting back in form asap.

    I came to the exact same conclusion as you when I got a repetitive stress injury a couple of years ago after running on roads. I realized that even elite marathoners run on trails for much of their training (eg. in East Africa), but after moving to trail running with its varying terrain as you pointed out, I feel like the worst that can happen now is a bad fall.

    Really sorry that you missed out on SQ50 after putting in all that hard work and you were definitely missed at Waldo, but I'm willing to bet you'll be ready to go for R2R2R with us in October.

    In the end, you've only been running seriously for a few years so maybe it's good to learn some of these lessons early in your career! Squamish will always be there next year..

    1. Thanks Jeff. Wise words and I appreciate the sentiment. Back in the gym already so R2R2R should be a great cap to an up and down year. Cheers.