As I relate this story, I consciously decided to wait to post so that I did not take a 'poor me' approach, which invariably could have happened a few months back.
My big goal for 2022 was the Pikes Peak Ascent. Typically run in August, this year it was pushed back to mid-September. Officially, it's 13.32 miles with over 7,800ft of ascent to the peak of Pikes Peak, at more than 14,100ft in height (one of Colorado's more than 50 'fourteeners'). The race begins in downtown Manitou Springs and is a wonderful, professionally run event with huge community support and still that grassroots feeling that so many successful events have lost as they've grown in popularity. Not so, the PPA or full marathon the following day (ascent + descent. Oof!). If you enjoy trail running and racing, as well as an epic challenge, put the PPA on your bucket list.
OK, so I jump into a local trail race here in Boulder in early-April and it goes extremely well. I finish feeling like my PPA prep is right on target. My goal was to beat my time from a decade earlier, the only other time I had competed at the PPA, but did so off the back of a full season of bike racing. Would the focus on trail running out-pace the fact that I was now 53 instead of 43? We would find out.
Then, on April 29th, things hit the skids.
On a routine trail run, on a slight rocky downhill where you could still get into a groove and either use rocks as springboards or hop over them without breaking stride, as I brought my left foot forward, my shoe caught a rock and the sole gripped. Something for which I wasn't prepared nor expecting. I immediately went into a ballistic pistol squat, with my left knee shooting forward and my ass coming down on my heel. While I didn't feel anything or hear anything, a sharp pain let me know something bad, or worse, had happened. Like with a rolled ankle, I kept running to get a feel for what just happened. My knee hurt the final 5+ miles, but loosened up and felt close to normal by the end.
Adversity. I felt encompassing soreness and there was a little swelling, but not what would be expected had I torn or ruptured my ACL. Yet, there was most certainly damage. As per my nature, I did several things over the subsequent 3 weeks: I refused to go to a doctor because, to me, surgery is a zero sum option; i did exhaustive research into what I was feeling in the knee to determine what had occurred; and, I ignored the pain and kept running.
The pain would ebb and flow over the 3 weeks, but never get worse. It was manageable. It was also weird. I could sit back on my heels to stretch out my quads and also do a frog sit (think of a breaststroke kick when the legs are flared out to the sides) without pain, but an ass-to-grass squat motion sent searing pain into the knee joint. I concluded that I had at least torn my medial meniscus if not also my MCL (now, a handful of months later, whatever damage may have been done to my MCL seems to have abated). However, 3 weeks later on yet another long trail run, the pain did get worse for the first time. Despite my stubbornness, I realized I had to stop running and reassess.
Curiously, lifting weights didn't hurt at all -- including squats and deadlifts, as long as I didn't go down beyond parallel. Neither did cycling. So, I adjusted and ramped up both. I would stay as fit as possible in case I could still toe the line at PPA. It was mid-June when I started to test the knee again while running. At first, jogging the half-mile the to gym. Then, a couple miles after biking. Then, finally, dedicated run sessions. I decided to race, but wasn't sure what the results would be. I got to the points where I could handle long runs, but my effort during them was higher than normal and my legs were pretty shot after. Still, nothing was keeping me from being able to race.
So, I did. The event was wonderful. It started as I had hoped and through 60% of the race, I was having a great race. As sometimes inexplicably happens, my body didn't seem to be processing the calories I was taking in. What worked in training wasn't working on race day. There is no aid the final 3+ miles because of how rocky and steep the course is, which can take an hour or more to complete. The top runners will finish this section in about 45 minutes. Over the final 4+ miles, I bonked. Hard. The final hour I was shaking from being so depleted. Effort and HR up to that point where in the range I wanted, so it wasn't from overextension earlier in the race. Multiple times I had pulled back on effort and followed slower runners who had started out too aggressively rather than blow by them as a conscious decision to keep the ego in the box. As a point of reference, 10 years ago, the final mile took me 17:30 to complete. This year, it took 33:01. It was both agonizing from being empty and filled with apathy. I had zero desire to keep going. But, what choice did I have being on the rocky face of a mountain with nowhere else to go?
I finished a half-hour slower than 10 years ago, but took some solace in the fact that I was able to race when a few months earlier it had felt like my ability to run the trails might have come to a screeching halt. I tried to look at the glass as half-full.
The next morning, I woke up feeling fine. Another indication the meltdown was caloric- related rather than effort-related. Whatever. It was still perfect timing for a recovery week. I started lightly back in the weight room, and pulled back on the running a bit. On Friday, my wife and I went to visit my brother and his family in Crested Butte. Coincidentally, Emma Coburn's 5k Elk Run was happening that weekend. We arrived super late on Friday and the race was the following morning. What the heck? I entered on a whim. I knew it was silly, but I was also intrigued by what a 5k at 9.000ft would feel like and how I would do a week after PPA and with zero specificity in training.
I set an admittedly arbitrary goal to break 20 minutes. I ended up running 18:24, for which I was pretty surprised. It made me wonder what I could do down in Boulder at 'only' 5,300ft and with some specific work toward the distance. Maybe for 2023.
However, yet more adversity. three-quarters of a mile into the 5k, my left hamstring pulled. It was shocking in its suddenness. I nearly stopped dead in my tracks. Instead, I shortened my stride to a shuffle. After managing to keep a full-on pull at bay by not fully extended my left leg forward, I kept the pressure on. My brother and his wife, both accomplished athletes in their own rights, were spectating rather than running and told me I looked like I was running with my trail running gait. I was! But, out of necessity.
Completing the 5k was not the best decision. I could barely walk for several days due to the pain in the hamstring. As with the knee injury (which persists today; it's definitely a medial meniscus tear), lifting weights hasn't seemed to bother the hammy and cycling doesn't either. I gave it a couple weeks break from running, then tried running super easy and it came back. Now, a full 5 weeks later, I'm giving it another go today. We'll see what happens.
The moral of the story? I'm not sure. Other than we're all hit by adversity. We need to decide how we are going to first react to it, the adjust to it and, finally, overcome it. It's not a linear path and there is not necessarily any sort of right or wrong answer. I credit Cian O'Brien for my chosen path forward after injuring my knee. In short, after Cian ruptured his ACL, he refused to go under the knife and instead chose to make it stronger through aggressive power lifting. If you don't follow Cian on Twitter, think about it. He bucks the trend of the strength training establishment; he's made me re-think what I do in the weight room which I have definitely appreciated over time. Especially since April 29th. When I fully separated my shoulder in 2005 in a bike crash, I decided to forego surgery. It took a couple years for the shoulder and arm to feel fully normal again. Today, aside from it looking kinda gross at certain angles, I don't notice it at all. Surgery would have been silly and zero help in the end. As with that, I won't get surgery on my knee unless it's very clear that it becomes the only option. I would rather practice some patience, challenge it to get better while also honoring when it tells me to back off and give it some TLC.
The hammy pull is just a fucking nuisance. Yet, if I don't honor it, I'll be telling you about it in another 3 months' time, which would be idiotic on my part. Trail running is what I love doing right now. It fills me up. So, it's tough to not be doing it, even though biking in the mountains is a close second. I would just rather be on my feet than on the steed.
Well, hopefully this was insightful and helpful. Until next time.