Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sun, 4 Jun 2006 05:12:49 -0400

Surviving the Big Injury


An ex-student of mine, Kyle Carnes, reminds me of myself a couple of generations ago. He studies journalism and he runs, as I did as in college. His running sometimes crosses over into the writing, as mine too did then.

At work recently on an article about weathering his first big injury as a runner, Kyle asked for my comments. My passions for both the craft and the hobby that we share are such that answering him took hours. Here is the short version:

I've survived the Big Injury the runners fear, and probably need. Nothing grabs your attention so powerfully as a career-threatening injury.

An entire book -- Run Gently, Run Long was its title -- grew out of my Big Injury. Almost losing the running taught me lessons that I otherwise might not have learned.

This story began more than 30 years ago with the first signs of a bony growth on my heel, which I later learned was cutting into the achilles tendon. I ignored the pain for months -- until it wouldn't allow normal walking, let alone running.

A doctor said, "You might never run again unless that calcium deposit is removed." I worried about not running again even if the surgery was done, but had to take this gamble.

The simple out-patient operation (which also repaired the achilles, sawed almost in half) and its immediate aftermath devastated me emotionally. I spent the first dreadful night after the surgery back in the emergency room, being calmed from a serious panic attack.

Rehab took the only form it could, in small steps forward mixed with a few in reverse when I tried to rush nature's recovery timetable. First came biking while still in a cast, then crutching a mile, then walking that mile, then run-walking it, then running very slowly (even the walkers passed me on the track), then gradually upping the distance and pace.

Progress seemed to take forever at the time, but I now see how quick it really was. Seven months post-op, I finished a marathon. It wasn't one of my fastest but was the happiest.

The Big Injury taught me lessons about speed limits. Before this breakdown I didn't know there were any.

I loved to race and had the freedom then -- before wife, before children, before middle age -- to indulge every weekend or even more often. My racing totaled 20, 30, even 40 percent of my weekly mileage.

With post-surgery hindsight I saw this was way too much. My speed limit (racing miles plus any speed-training miles) was no more than 10 percent of the total mileage.

Below that limit I felt good and raced well. Beyond it my results were predictable: first declining performance... then chronic low-grade pain and fatigue... and finally injury or illness.

At least nine in 10 of my miles needed to feel easy. A second speed-limit sign popped up here. My best results came when most of the running was at least one minute per mile -- and usually closer to two minutes -- slower than I could race a similar distance.

I became a follower of Bill Bowerman from afar. Before meeting him and before my move to his hometown of Eugene, the Big Injury made me a believer in the system he called "hard-easy." The legendary University of Oregon track coach mixed tough training days with relaxed recovery days.

Bowerman was an experimenter. (His tinkering with shoes led to the company that would become Nike.) He found that few his athletes, many of them sub-four-minute milers, could train hard even two days straight without compromising their performance.

Steve Prefontaine was a rare runner who could thrive on two-hard, one-easy. Most of the school's runners did better on one-and-one. Two-time Olympic marathoner Kenny Moore ran best on one-hard, two-easy.

Runners with less talent and more age than Bowerman's test subjects might be better served by a program of hard-day, easy-WEEK. That was another big lesson from my Big Injury.

The biggest lesson from this episode: you don't fully appreciate what running means to you until you've almost lost it. You search for ways to keep from losing it again.

(RC 627 will tell how Kenny Moore, a longtime Sports Illustrated writer and Bill Bowerman's biographer, learned his hard-easy lesson.)
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