I was babysitting for my nearly 1 year old grandson the other day and he was demonstrating his newest trick, climbing stairs (don’t tell his mom). He does the typical 1 year old crawl…hands on the stair, followed by a knee up, second knee up and then hands up another stair and the shaky stand and repeat. Not much different than the method I’ve been using to climb stairs these days, only he’s a bit faster than me. As you may have guessed, my body’s reaction to marathon training has been less enthusiastic than my emotional passion.
There are three main parts of your body that have to play together to complete a marathon; your lungs, your legs and your brain. There are certainly other parts that play significant roles like your heart (if you’re not pumping blood, all the lung capacity in the world isn’t going to help), your blood (bleeding out is never very helpful while racing), and your digestive system (try running for hours when you have to go to the bathroom. It’s especially tough passing the water stations). But assuming you are of a relatively sound body and not leaking anything, the lungs, legs and brain are the key.
For me this year, the lungs are really not much of an issue. At the pace I’m running I get passed by little old ladies walking their dogs. On a particularly windy day last week, trash was blowing down the street faster than I was moving (never thought I’d be racing a tin can and paper cup…and losing). It was my lung capacity (or lack of it) that last year drove me to visit the doctor and probably saved my life. My lack of good red blood cells had me breathing like I was coughing up a lung when I was running. While my blood counts are still not back to normal levels they are way ahead of where they were this time last year.
As far as the brain is concerned, we’ve covered this pretty well in past blogs. It takes a certain level of insanity to want to run a marathon but there is a whole separate class of crazy for those that do it more than once. Case in point, when I was initially told I had Leukemia last year I asked the doctor if the treatment might be complete in time for me to run the marathon. My oncologist just paused a minute then responded…”ahhh, no.” I suspect she was trying to decide if I was kidding and then whether she should start my chemo treatment on the psyche ward. Looking back, it was a stupid question but at the time it seemed a reasonable request.
There is a rule that the navy seals use called the 40% rule. When your brain starts getting messages that it is time to shut down whatever physical effort you are performing you are only 40% of the way to what you are capable of doing. It’s based on research that says that the brain monitors your body and wants to assure that it always keeps a reserve (something about historical fight or flight and keeping enough energy in case you happen to bump into a saber tooth tiger). Training your brain for a marathon is teaching your brain to ignore the signals and keep going. When the legs, feet, knees, hips and lungs start whining (I’m tired, I don’t want to do this anymore) the brain tries to distract them, simply tells them to be quiet or ignores them. When they start asking why they have to keep going the response is “because I say so”. Not dissimilar to what you might hear from a tired parent of multiple young children.
That leaves the legs. Age has stolen my memory and my ability to make it through the night without visiting the bathroom but has sharpened the body’s memory of all my previous injuries. It’s not that those pulled hamstrings, knotted IT bands, stabbing knee pains, achy hips or tweaked Achilles are hurting all the time. It’s more that they lie in wait for that first day you are feeling good and maybe run a little farther or faster than they like. Then they attack with a vengeance, bringing with them all the history of previous times they have been injured (think couples therapy session…dredging up all the old wounds). Not all at once mind you. They are much too clever for that. It might start with a sore hamstring which causes you to favor the left leg resulting in the resurrection of a knee injury in the right leg which is really caused by a tight IT ban in the right hip which in turn causes a problem with the left Achilles. Before you know it, you’re limping down the street trying to favor so many different parts of your body that you look like the hunchback of Notre Dame. A rational human might decide at this point to take some time off to heal but when you are ramping up for a marathon, time is not your friend.
I was reading a running book the other day that touched on the subject of muscle memory in runners. The basic premise is when parts of the body get injured or fatigued then the brain will shut down the use of those muscles. Turning off muscles puts stress on other areas which in turn causes them to be turned off. The longer this goes on without a reset, the more tired/injured/weak you become. Part of the craze around training programs like cross fit is to train up a broader range of the muscles so that you have less chance of triggering this cycle. The author also mentions that there are pressure points that can be used to switch the muscles back on. One doctor said his patients likened the pressure point treatments to child birth. I had something similar done to me by a chiropractor a few years ago and while I don’t have a point of reference for child birth I can certainly say it was in the same general area as having a tooth pulled. Despite that, it may be time for another tune up.
At this point you might be asking “Why are you putting yourself through this?”. I’m glad you asked. We’ve already established my mental instability, that’s certainly one aspect. The other is a desire to do something hard to support the children who are also facing the daily challenges of dealing with cancer treatment. What they are doing is much harder than doing a marathon and often is measured in years instead of hours. I don’t like asking for money and I know there are lots of good causes that people can give to. I figure if I want the privilege of asking for help I have to demonstrate my level of commitment and passion too.
Here's a marathon trivia question for next time. It’s common knowledge that Kenya and Ethiopia have the top marathon runners in the world. After these two countries, what country had the most marathon runners in the top 100 in the world in 2013? Drop me an email with your guess. I’ll include the answer in the next blog.