Saturday, 12 April 2014

Intimations of (running) Mortality

In the end, the dark tunnel down which my runner persona was hurtling was just the final weeks of the worst winter in 36 years, and the bright light at the end of it, the spring sun.

But a near-running death experience such as I imagined I might be confronting when my foot problem (see two and three posts ago) stretched un-changingly into its fourth month, certainly sets one to thinking about THE END. And when you get the longest and most intractable injury you've ever had after your 50th birthday, you can be excused for contemplating the worst-- what if this thing NEVER goes away?

I've had enough close friends face similar crossroads to know that not being able to run anymore is nothing like the END end (about which there's no point in seriously contemplating anyway, as, to paraphrase Nietzsche, when we are death is not, and when death is we are not). Plenty of people at all ages manage to adjust reasonably well to a life without running, usually by switching to some other vigorous aerobic activity. But, for someone who has run more or less every day of his life after the age of 15, the prospect was bound to provoke a little more reflection.

Just as in the stories of the faux dead (people who were actually just dying, and not yet actually dead), my running life passed before me-- albeit less as a flash and more like Rainer Fassbinder's 15 hour epic Berlin Alexanderplatz, beer drinking included. And what did I recall? Interestingly, I remembered things about the days before I ever ran, and the little things that turned out to be indications that I would one day be a runner, than I did the highlights of my racing career (along with more prosaic thoughts about how beer would never taste a good without a prior, running-induced emptying of the tank).

Looking at a childhood picture of my late younger brother (dead of a heart attack at 39) and I, taken by our mother in the early spring of my 10th year, in which he is standing in the foreground, rubber-booted against the puddles, and I am running away from the camera for, apparently, the sheer thrill of it (my form and posture almost identical to what it is today-- maybe a little better-- incidentally), it occurred to me that the joy of running as simple movement had always been something available to me. Then I remembered how, maybe a year before that, I had gone a couple of weeks without my bicycle for some reason, and decided to run alongside my friends on theirs as we made our neighbourhood rounds (yeah, that's what your free-range 9 year old boy did for amusement in those days). There was also a period around the same time when, being a young equine-ophile, but of lower middle class parentage, I would decide that, if I could never own a horse, I would be one, by times trotting, cantering, and galloping through the conservation area near our apartment, as if on a trail ride, for an hour or so every day (come to think of it, I was really more of centaur than a horse, as my upper body was always the rider and my lower the horse). I guess when I contemplated never being able to run again, my first thoughts were of the loss of running as I had first encountered it-- as a feeling of power and fluidity, done for its own sake, because capable nerves and muscles simply compelled it in some primordial way. I'm not aware of feeling that sensation in its pure form much anymore, but its source must still be there somewhere, buried deep inside the old machine.

As it looked like my foot might actually get better (I'm now into my 5th week running on it, more or less pain-free), my mystical, near-death musings turned pretty quickly to practical ones. With the spring upon us and my younger athletes moving off of the indoor track and treadmills, I thought about how different my childhood introduction to running was from theirs. I'd long noticed that even the most well adapted of them tended to have far more minor injuries-- most of a certain type-- than I and most of my cohort ever did, in spite of the fact that we lacked what are now some of the rudiments of running survival, such as decent shoes, treadmills, and sport physiotherapy. From the age of about 6, I can remember little else but being on my feet-- outside in the spring, summer, and fall, and on skates or walking to school in the winter. Like the east Africans of today, I was, both of necessity and for pleasure, pedo-ambulatory almost constantly in the years before I actually starting competing at running. As a result, I was skinny and strong as steel in all the requisite places for a runner (feet, calves, quads and glutes). My early stealth-prep was, I think, a big part of the reason that I did not sustain my first real injury until age 30.

Even the most active of kids today do not spend a fraction of the time I (we) did on their feet. This is not meant to sound moralistic; things are simply different today. I have no doubt that, had we possessed the same inducements to inactivity-- your computers, game systems, and on demand televisual entertainments-- that kids do today, we would have been no different. After all, the rudimentary forms of these amusements that some of us did possess-- 3-channel analog TV, arcade games, and those forerunners of the Gameboy, hand-held units on which you could play something resembling football, using blinking LED hash-marks as the "players"-- enthralled us, particularly us boys. They just weren't compelling enough to supplant the outdoor activities we'd grown up doing. Many of today's young runners, in spite of having great shoes, t-mills, access to physios, and knowledge of the importance of things like core strength-- seem to have to pass through a gauntlet of minor foot, achilles, calf and knee injuries before reaching athletic maturity. In some cases, this hardening of the muscles and connective tissues can take years-- longer, in fact, than many budding runners are prepared to endure. Without good cross training plans to get through through these injury trials, many serious teenage runners would never recognize their potential, and would never progress to collegiate running, let alone to the senior elite level.

What is a coach of young athletes then to do? Unfortunately, not much-- at least without making running even more daunting (and, yes, tedious) to the young athletic mind of today than it already seems to be. If it's not practical to have kids on their feet constantly from the time they can walk, then one option would be for parents and coaches to prescribe a regime of plyometric and strength-building activities alongside a young athlete's running routine. And a certain very keen 13-14 year old will really take to this sort of thing. The vast majority (and probably even the keen ones, by about age 16) however, would, and do, balk at such a suggestion. The idea of going out for a run every day (or the 4-5x per week that beginning runners need to get used to) is such an alien thing to most kids today-- kids who have likely spent very little time outside, on foot, in their lives-- that adding another 30-40 minutes of what amounts to drill into their routines is liable to push many of them out of the sport altogether. One very good alternative solution for the more team-sport oriented kid is to encourage him/her to try-- or continue till about age 15-16-- a sport that entails some jumping, sprinting, and lateral movement. For kids with the disposition for hanging out with the typical jock type that inhabits the world of team sports, this is often a perfect solution. But running is well known for attracting the opposite kind of kid-- the kid who wants to control his/her own athletic destiny, who relishes the sheer difficulty of training and racing, or who just wants to be left alone. For this kind of kid, the team sport experience is anathema.

In the end, I think the best approach is to muddle through by getting kids to run small amounts, learn the basic routines of being a runner (the most of important of which is simply getting out the door to run easy, even if it means being alone for a while), and seeing how they hold up. For those who break down, try to isolate the source of their problem, teach them to x-train (which they will usually do, once they've experienced the feeling of being aerobically fit, and have thus learned to fear de-conditioning), and perhaps then try introducing some targeted strength work (which, again, is an easier sell when a young athlete has experienced, first hand, the importance of it.) And, then, most importantly, have them come back to running as soon as possible. It also helps greatly to teach kids that even the best runners in the world get injured, often more than beginners, and that getting hurt is part of how you learn and grow. (And, let's remember, running injuries are never fatal or permanent-- unlike those many team contact-sport athletes court on a regular basis. The worst thing about a running injury is that you can't run, and the worst part of that is the temporary heartbreak; it's therefore silly to avoid ever taking chances with your running in order to continue running-- i.e. at below the level of your potential!).

Nats X-C Addenda:

Thanks to everyone for your congrats on our winning the bid to host Nats X-C. Thanks also to our local paper for its rapid uptake of the story following AC's official announcement And, finally, a formal thanks to CFB Kingston, Fort Henry, and the staff at Tourism Kingston (Sport division) for their ongoing support (I think I may have neglected this in the post last week). They have been excellent, and have renewed their pledge to help us make these Nats the best and most memorable ever. And if there is one thing that our guests will learn shortly after arrival here, it that's Kingston knows how to welcome and accommodate visitors. It is, after all, one of our core businesses!

As for the twisted path we took to get the hosting rights, we know as little of the details today as we did last week. We remain curious about these details, but are content to leave the pursuit of them others.


Anonymous Richard said...

Thanks Steve, for your reflective comments. I actually still have my blinking LED football "gameboy" ... and it still works!


7 May 2014 at 19:56  

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