Friday, November 20, 2009

The Edge

I recently watched Michael Jordan's hall of fame induction speech. It was pretty powerful and hard-hitting, though a bit raw. Jordan is the greatest, most dominant athlete I've ever seen in my life. He could jump like no one else, drive to the inside and dunk over you and, later in his career, pull up from almost anywhere and drain a three. And could he ever play defense. He was the closest thing to the perfect basketball player that you'll ever find.

Jordan's greatness was about his competitiveness, mental toughness and work ethic as much as his God-given physical skills and talent. He was so competitive and tough that when the game was on the line he wanted the ball--and it seemed everytime he sunk the winning basket and broke the hearts of many rooting for the other team. With him on the team, the Chicago Bulls won six consecutive NBA championships during the nineties (they didn't win during his brief retirement). Through it all, Jordan practiced harder than anyone--the first to show up and the last to leave. He also played harder than anyone, nearly throwing away his career over gambling and a misguided and thankfully brief foray into baseball.

As a man of decent but by no means great athletic ability, I don't look much to the immortals like Michael Jordan for inspiration because it's hard for me to relate to them. But I do draw from what made him great--competitive energy and a tireless work ethic. That said, Larry Bird honestly inspires me more than almost any other athlete--the fictional character Rocky notwithstanding. Bird played his heart out and talked some trash in the process. He had the sweetest jump shot there ever was. He played defense like a crazed Rottweiler, chasing you everywhere and trying to tear you to pieces. He never gave up. He was always angling for the upper hand. He ran down the court harder than the other players. Guys probably hated playing against Bird because he worked them harder than anyone (until Jordan came along). He was the ultimate plugger.

I try to run like Bird played basketball. I run with my heart, and I run hard. I'm not nearly as good at running as Bird was at basketball, but Bird had a mental edge that inspires me. I may not be elite fast--I never will be--my VO2 max might not be otherworldly (though I've never had it measured), and I might have only a limited number of fast-twitch fibers, but what I do have is intense focus and the will to work hard and then harder.

It wasn't always that way. When I was kid, I was timid, weak and anything but competitive. When I ran cross-country, I didn't run hard. I just ran without really caring much about where I finished, how fast I went and who I beat.

Things changed when I left cross-country behind and went out for the varsity football team, wanting to be like my big brother who was an excellent football player. There was this senior on our team who was a bully and really piled on the younger players like me. He took cheap shots at us and was really just a bad guy. He ridiculed a lot of the young players--including me--and no one stood up to him. Not even the seniors. This only empowered him to be more aggressive.

One day in practice I was at linebacker and he was on the offensive line. I was still learning so much about the game and the contact aspect intimidated me. Oklahoma drills had been nearly terrifying for me. He'd been doing his usual that day--hammering on the young guys like me and taunting us as well. I took it without really fighting back--as I'd always done. Finally, after he put a few nasty licks on me, I just got pissed off--not sure what exactly sent me over the edge--and went after him on the next play. I didn't knock him on his ass, but I sure hit him hard enough to send the message that I wasn't his victim. I wasn't anyone else's victim, either. I went hard from that day forward.

Things began to change after that day. I'm not sure why. Sometimes it's hard--I think--for those who knew me then as a weak, timid kid to recognize who I am today. I go hard, push myself and am always looking to go to the next level in exploring the limits of my endurance. I want to win and eventually go to the outer rim of what I can do. Sometimes this drive is misguided and hard to understand.

I wonder how many people out there have something deep within them that has never found its way into their being. How many people have gone through life without that trigger event that brought out their best and made them go for it all? It is for this reason that I want to continue focusing on ways I can help inspire people to run, achieve their goals and take on new challenges. Just as that bully found out that day, sometimes a raging fire can emerge from a weak flame in the blink of an eye.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Back in the saddle again! / Training week 11/9-11/15

I'm back in the saddle again! I'm back! I'm back in the saddle again! I'm back!

Sorry, but although I'm not a huge Aerosmith fan, I do love that song--and the lyrics pretty closely fit how I'm feeling right now. For the first time since the North Coast 24 on Oct. 3-4, I'm healthy and feeling pretty good. My heel is much better and I can run pain-free. My left knee is close to perfect. I battled influenza the week before last but am pretty well over that, too. Life is good.

For the week of Nov. 9-15, I covered 70 miles--the most miles I've run in one week since the 24-hour. It was great hitting 70 miles after weeks of struggling with heel bursitis and a series of aches and pains along with a case of influenza. At this time of year, I like to hold my weekly mileage to about 70-75 as I see this as my optimal maintenance level. I still have no plans for racing in 2009 and will instead focus on staying healthy, enjoying the holidays, running for the joy of running and getting ready for an awesome 2010 highlighted by the Boston Marathon and the Mohican Trail 100-Mile Run!


Meb Keflezighi winning the ING New York City Marathon on Nov. 1 with a time of 2:09:15--a personal best for one of America's all-time distance running greats.

In my last post, I failed to mention that something truly special happened in New York City on Nov. 1. The great American distance runner Mebrahtom "Meb" Keflezighi, 34, won the ING New York City Marathon with a scorching time of 2:09:15, becoming the first American since Alberto Salazar in 1982 to break the tape in the Big Apple's big race.

Anne and I watched the two-hour marathon special on NBC that Sunday, aired a few hours after the actual event concluded. Although we knew by that time that Meb had won for the men and Ethiopia's Derartu Tulu, 37, for the women with a 2:29:52, it was still quite exciting to watch as they fought off some strong competition. Tulu, with her forward-leaning form and ridiculous running resume, overtook world record-holder and defending ING champion Paula Radcliffe and never really looked back. Watching Tulu in action, it's hard not to really like her.

Meb's victory was/is amazing on several levels. First of all, he beat a very deep field that included Robert Cheruiyot, Ryan Hall, defending champion Marilson Gomes dos Santos, and many others. Second, Meb missed a lot of 2008 with a broken hip--a year in which he also lost one of his closest friends, Ryan Shay, at the US Olympic Marathon Trials in New York's Central Park. And third, I think a lot of people (myself included) mistakenly figured that Meb's best years were behind him. Wrong on that third count!

Given the magnitude of Meb's achievement, it's simply amazing that more wasn't made of his victory--and of the fact that six Americans finished in the top-10 at New York. US distance running is making a comeback! And yet so few people heard about what Meb and his fellow Americans did that day.

One friend I spoke with said Meb isn't really American since he was born in Africa--and so why should Americans really feel proud? Nonsense! Yes, Meb was born in Eritrea, but he came up through the American distance running system (attended San Diego High School and then UCLA, where he won basically everything), won a silver medal at the 2004 Olympic Marathon for the US, and very much showed his love of country when he crossed the New York City Marathon finish line wearing a USA singlet and draping himself in the flag. He became a naturalized citizen in 1998. He is as American as apple pie and I think Americans should be very proud that one of our countrymen--a real class act in an age of classless acts--won a race no American had won in 26 years. Go Meb!


Elite marathoners like Meb are amazing athletes. A lot of people might say elite distance runners aren't necessarily great athletes--just great runners. I couldn't disagree more. Elite distance runners--especially those at the marathon level--possess extraordinary natural abilities few have. They improve on their natural abilities through carefully-planned training to ensure that they peak at race time. During training peaks, I cover 100+ miles per week, run intervals around the track and blow down the roads at tempo pace and I'll never, ever approach what the elites like Meb do. Why? Because they have off-the-charts natural athletic abilities and I have only a limited amount of talent.

The distance-running elites have:
  • Tons of natural speed. Otherwise how else could they average sub-5:00 miles over 26.2 miles.
  • Ridiculous VO2 max. Running at such speeds over long distances, they need tons of oxygen, requiring VO2 maxes that very few people could ever achieve regardless of what they did for training.
  • Strength/endurance. It's hard to see strength in those skinny marathoners but--trust me--they have plenty of it. Their muscles have to be strong, resilient and loaded with endurance to support sub-5:00 pace over 26.2 miles. Most people who would try to run a sub-5:00 mile would burn out after maybe 100 or so yards. The elites can do that over 26.2 miles--just as Meb did at New York!
  • Perfect bio-mechanics. Most of the great distance runners have near-perfect bio-mechanics, meaning they can run with maximum efficiency. Everything from their foot work to their arm work functions in such a way that they use energy in the most efficient manner possible. Virtually no energy is wasted.
You can improve in each of these areas through hard work--I know I have. But I also know that, regardless of how hard I work, I'll never run a 2:09 marathon or even come close to it. It is for this reason that I really am in awe of elites like Meb. What they do is so amazing and so special that I believe in my heart and in my mind that not only are they great athletes--they're among the best athletes alive today.

All in!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Injury update / what's next

The last time I posted I was "wracked with injuries." My left knee and Achilles were killing me, and I had a sore right arch. As the saying goes, time heals all wounds. In my case, time is in the process of healing my wounds. My knee is about 90 percent and my arch pain is long-gone. My left heel, however, has presented many problems and is only now getting better.

Last week I saw my sports medicine specialist, Dr. Susannah Briskin, at University Hospitals, where I am proud to work. I had tried to "run through" and treat the heel pain, which I had self-diagnosed as Achilles tendonitis, but eventually I realized that nothing I did was working. The pain got worse and worse and there were times when I felt the tendon was going to come apart. I cut back my mileage to about 40 per week, avoided hills and even took a few days off here and there. The situation got so bad that I turned to Dr. Briskin.

Armed with x-rays and having examined my heel, Dr. Briskin diagnosed me with heel bursitis--good news, all things considered. My Achilles, she said, was very sound and really all I had was inflammation of the bursae sack between the tendon and heel bone. She gave me some temporary heel lifts, told me to continue with the RICE method (rest, ice, compression and elevation), prescribed dexamethasone (an anti-inflammatory), and told me to see Gordon in the UH physical therapy department. Gordon would administer the dexamethasone through a process called iontophoresis.

I saw Gordon this morning and received my first dose of the dexamethasone, a cortisoid. This will help reduce the inflammation and promote healing. The good news is that, going into the appointment with Gordon, I was already feeling better and am now hoping the dexamethasone will deliver the knockout punch to the lingering inflammation. I will see Gordon a few more times for additional doses of the dexamethasone.

This heel bursitis has been a real saga--similar to but not as bad as the knee injury I dealt with after the 2008 Mohican 100. The only difference was that after Mohican I had resolved to return to the 2009 race and do bigger and better things (which I did with my win); whereas now I'm pretty certain that I won't be doing any more 24-hour loop races for a long, long time. I think few good things are going to happen when you run a .9-mile loop 145-plus times. You run a huge risk of major overuse injuries. Maybe when I'm in my 50s I'll look at another 24-hour, but for now I'll stick to distance-based races up to the 100-miler.


This brings me to my newly revised 2010 racing schedule, which I'm still developing. Yesterday, I registered for the 2010 Boston Marathon, which will be run on April 19. I ran Boston in 2006 and 2007 and took 2008 and 2009 off. I missed Boston both years and am excited to return in 2010.

When I last ran Boston, I was a 50-mile-per-week runner who didn't do a whole lot of speedwork or tempo runs. Today, I'm very different. I often hit triple digits in my weekly mileage and am a disciple of speedwork, tempo runs and hill training. With all of that said, my goal for the 2010 Boston Marathon will be to set a new marathon PR (current PR is 2:58) and, if I get in the right training and am healthy, go south of 2:55. I believe that with strong, well conditioned legs and good aerobic capacity, Boston is a PR course. My Boston training will begin in earnest on January 1. Between now and then, I'm going to cover 60-70 miles per week and continue cross-training on the indoor bicycle trainer that Tim C. loaned me (it's excellent and puts my bike to good use!). Better to go into my Boston training fresh than worn down.

After Boston, I'll recover for a week or two and then transition into my Mohican Trail 100-Mile Run training. I'll have a solid base from Boston training (80-90-mile weeks with lots of quality) and will look to ramp up the mileage big time in May and early June to prepare for the 23,000 feet of climb and descent that Mohican mercilessly throws at you.

Along the way, I may run in the Youngstown Half Marathon in early March and potentially the Lt. JC Stone 50K in Pittsburgh also in March. I will not be running the Forget the PR Mohican 50K, which happens on Boston Marathon weekend, and will instead go to Mohican on a Friday in May or early June (day off from work) for an all-day training run on specific areas of the course.


Gordon asked me what drives me in my running. I didn't have a good answer, and it was a fair question. What drives any ultrarunner to do such distances as 100-plus miles? It could be any number of things. All I can say is that it's who I am. I love to run, compete with my legs and mind and heart, and battle the trails. I also love marathoning, but when passion comes into play we're talking about running 100 miles on hilly trails in wooded areas. One day maybe it'll be trails in canyons and mountains.

All in.