Foot Injury

I haven’t said too much about my athletics on here yet, and this seems like as good a place as any to start, even if it is on a somewhat sad note.

For the most part, I’ve had two major activities driving my athletics– cycling and running.  Cycling is my “bread and butter” event.  I’m better at it and I like it more.  It’s also been a very practical activity, in that I can bike to get where I’m going and I get a workout, too.  In fact, most of my training has come in the form of commuting.  But, as my cardiovascular endurance grew, I took up running as a secondary activity.  I wouldn’t say that I’m a great runner, but I’ve done pretty good with it for what’s ultimately been a “back-burner activity.”  Going out and getting a good 6 miles on foot, seeing an area from that point of view…well, it’s just fun.  It’s great to run up the hills of Richmond and look out over the San Francisco Bay.  It’s great to run the back trails around hilltop castles in Cornwall.  And during times when cycling has come to feel like a daily chore, running became a way to keep my joy of exercise alive.

And, I should note, almost all the running I’ve done has been barefoot running.  I’ve been using some form of Vibram Five Fingers for years now.  It’s made all the difference to me, because I used to get pretty frustrating back pain from running, but barefoot running, and the associated changes in gait, took care of this problem.  Barefoot, I’ve run all over Florida, California, and Cornwall.  I was barefoot in my first 5k, and then my first 10k, and then my first Bay to Breakers, and finally in my first half marathon.  I seriously doubt I’d have ever made it this far if I hadn’t made the switch to barefoot.

I mention this not just to shill for barefoot running but because I want to make it clear that I’m no rookie.  I’ve been running barefoot for years and I’ve even turned in some respectable times in my races.  But, now, it seems that my running may need to stop for an extended period of time, and I suspect that I’ve actually been a victim of my own success.  See, when I moved up to the East Bay, I saw the opportunity to use our train system for my commute, but I would need to still travel about 7.5 miles every day in order to cover the distances to and from the train stations.  Due to various reasons, a bike was out of the question, so I decided I’d try strapping on a backpack and running.  This seemed a pretty straightforward thing to do.  The contents of my backpack are only a couple of pounds (a tablet computer, wallet, and clothes, essentially), and running 7 miles is well within my reach, especially when each 7.5 mile day is actually 4 different runs.  And I’d be doing this 4 days a week, since I needed my car on Tuesdays.  Seemed like a great way to become a better runner, and I started to really look forward to the improvements in my times.

And this actually did work out pretty well for a couple of months.  I am beginning to suspect, however, that there were some odd aches and pains that I let slide which I shouldn’t have.  About six weeks ago, I finished my run to work experiencing some difficult pain in the bottom of my heel.  It was an intense but dull ache.  I ran home on it anyway, and then made it worse, and since then, I’ve had to stop running and heal.  After two weeks of being pain-free, I decided to try the daily runs again.  It only took one day of running to produce injury yet again.  Today, I’m limping around the office as the bottom of my foot aches with a strained/sprained sensation that runs all the way up to the base of my calf muscle.  I’m not 100% certain what I’ve done, but plantar fasciitis is my best guess.  I don’t believe that it’s been caused by a single acute episode but instead is the result of ongoing stress on my plantar fascia.  A likely story is that I may run with my heels a bit high and that this, coupled with a little extra weight from the backpack, has excessively stretched my plantar fascia.  No individual run caused the damage, but instead it’s been death by a thousand cuts as it’s crept up on me over time.

This is very frustrating, though, since it looks like I will have to back out of the Big Gay 10k, which is one of my favorite runs.  I also am going to have to seriously consider that I won’t be able to run in the San Jose Rock and Roll Half Marathon, either.  Normally, I’d make up the slack in exercise with cycling, but my trusty road bike, Thumper, was stolen a few weeks ago and the only cardio equipment in my home gym is an elliptical machine, which still involves a bit of foot flexing.  High intensity interval squats may be in my future for a few weeks.  This is probably a good excuse to surf more and to buy a new bike.

What’s not clear to me, though, is what to do to heal sooner and prevent this in the future.  I should see a doctor, but I’m too busy (and you’ll find out why soon enough), so I’m just trying to take it easy.  It’s likely this was a chronic problem so healing may take a very long time.  I’m also not sure if I’ll be able to return to barefoot running without running another injury risk.  If I can’t, then it quite likely could be the end of my running “career,” because I find no pleasure in running in shoes.  I ran barefoot as a child, and I take too much direct pleasure in feeling the ground beneath my feet.  I should consider, however, that it is constant barefoot running that led to this.  I have no arches in my feet, and that much engagement with my forefoot might have stretched some ligaments more than they can endure.

San Jose Rock and Roll Half Marathon

This past Sunday, I ran in the San Jose Rock and Roll Half Marathon, which is my longest running event to date.  For the record, a half marathon is 13.1 miles.  That’s a lot of running for someone like myself who considers running a fairly casual sport.  To be fair, this was supposed to be my big event for the fall, akin to AIDS/LifeCycle in the spring.  I need the lure of a big new challenge to keep me focused on training.  In a lot of ways, the story I’m about to tell shows that, above all else, I need to remember that it’s the act of signing up and committing to an event that gets me in the right mind to train for it.  I waited until just a couple of days before the run to sign up for it, and the result is that I didn’t make training a huge priority.  Really, I didn’t make it a priority at all.  I did some running in Falmouth back in July, and I ran in the Big Gay 10k in August, but I didn’t do any real, structured training for this event.  Part of it was feeling cocky about my cardiovascular endurance.  Another huge part of it was that life seriously got in the way.  In either case, I didn’t run regularly, and while I certainly had the cardiovascular endurance for a half marathon, my body wasn’t prepared for that level of punishment.

I will be kind on myself, though.  I achieved both my primary and secondary goals for the run, and I came close to achieving a “nice to have” goal, too.  My primary goal was to finish without walking, and I did this.  My secondary goal was to finish with a time of 2:30:00 or better, and my finish time of 2:21:34 soundly achieved this goal.  Early on in the run, I passed by the 2:20:00 pace runner and set myself an extra goal of trying to stay ahead of her.  That was a level of ambition my body was simply not up for, however, and I faded behind her in the final miles.

A highly successful day, but there are some major red flags that deserve a bit of review.  The first one of these is how completely miserable I was on the final miles.  I started out, as I mentioned, feeling pretty ambitious, and the first several miles were a complete blast.  In fact, I’d say the first half of the run was a lot of fun and I was seriously enjoying myself.  Somewhere around mile 8, however, things progressively got worse and worse.  My legs kept having less and less power to them.  I was having to shorten my stride.  My mile splits were slowly getting longer, mile after mile, and it was somewhere around mile 8 when they started to tank.  The seams in my Vibram Five Fingers barefoot running shoes were starting to chafe badly.  Nothing I tried to keep my head in the game was really working, and I was mostly holding on for dear life because I refused to give up.  I’m really glad I didn’t give up, by the way.  After the run, my legs were so wobbly and weak that I had difficulty stepping up onto a curb so I could walk home.  Since then, I have struggled with pretty nasty muscle weakness and soreness, tight tendons, and open, bleeding wounds where my shoes rubbed me raw.  Here I am, on the day after, and I’m walking with a very visible limp and shaky legs.  I know I’ll heal, and I’m glad to know that I’ve pushed my body to its limits, but there are, I believe, some lessons to be learned here.

  1. I need to treat half marathons with more respect.  5k, 10k, and 12k runs are all “fun run” distances for me.  They’re the sort of thing I can just do without preparation…just throw on my iPod and enjoy a morning of it.  I even show some signs of being mildly good at 5k runs, though I’d never be a true competitor with them.  Half marathons are a different beast entirely, largely due to the effects of running impact on my body.  I must prepare for them, and I probably should have more running in my week in general if I want my legs and feet to be in good nick for longer runs.  Given that I run barefoot, I likely have an even more direct need for training my body for the impact of running, as barefoot runners use their calves and the muscles in their feet more (or so I’ve been told).
  2. I need to look into keeping a pair of Vibram Five Fingers from giving me blisters.  The ones I have are pretty serious.  At 6 miles, I’ve not had a huge problem with blisters.  At 13.1, and after getting my shoes wet, I’m bleeding on both feet, and I have other large blisters that haven’t ruptured.  I’m sure the solution is as simple as a pair of socks.
  3. Knowing Sunday would be hard, I did a minor amount of tapering.  I went surfing on Thursday, had a lighter workout at the gym Friday, and did nothing of note Saturday…or so I thought.  Casual athletics count as exercise, though, and I spent a reasonable amount of time fencing on Saturday.  Standing en garde and lunging are workouts for the legs and core, and my legs were not exactly fresh on Sunday morning.  I need to be more watchful about my own laziness, it would seem.

I’m honestly not sure at this point if I’ll want to run another half marathon (or train for the big 26.2) at any point in the future.  Right now, as I shamble around the office and my home, I’m mostly just wondering when I can get back to my “normal” life of cycling and surfing.  Another part of me thinks, though, that my time wasn’t bad for someone without training, and these problems are all just new challenges to overcome, and I should do it.  For now, though, I’ll rest and make some decisions about what my life can and cannot support, and then decide if half marathons will fit in there.