Racing the Reaper Man to Ultra: May 2022

After rounding off April with a 170 mile total mileage, I entered May planning to maintain my fitness on my first real break since I became ill. I was testing my improving mental health by flying away from my safe cocoon, my home, to ancient Ikos, the final resting place of Achilles’ father, Peleus. The modern name of this fabulous island is Alónnisos, jewel of the Northern Sporades, floating in the wine-dark Aegean Sea. With the 100k looming on 11th June, I had to get the balance right.

The only thing preying on my mind, was the continuing issue with my right leg. I knew I’d carried this problem with me through the winter, and it was getting steadily worse. Looking back at my diary for last October’s 50k, I could see the start of it where I noted:

My right hamstring had been tight behind my knee joint, so, even as I settled into 10:10 pace, I was far from happy.’

As my mileage increased, the more the leg was either giving way, or going numb. During last month’s 32 miler, it had really hampered me, so I was hoping a month of careful, lower distance runs would get me through. But, as we know, hope is not an answer – it is the last thing to do, after training and fixing injuries.

Travel day was long. We had to kill 6 hours in Skiathos Town waiting for a rescheduled hydrofoil, the Flying Dolphin, so we parked our bags at the Sol Levante Taverna and pottered about until the final half-hour. There was a 400m walk to the Flying Dolphin pickup point. Passepartout had a bad shoulder, so I carried both non-wheeled expedition bags, banging one into my right knee many times. I thought nothing of it. We arrived at Patitiri, had a mile run, then drifted into Old Ikos.

At Tsoukalia

I ran well in the first two weeks, but my right knee started to swell! A bruise was evident – I’d  damaged it in Skiathos (time to buy travel bags with wheels!) Alónnisos is a great island, though there is very little flat ground. My plan was to make the most of the hills and trails, peaking with a 10-miler in the final week and carrying my strength with me to the 100k. The first week was a slow build up with a 6-miler over very steep ground being the biggest run. I was so strong on the hills, but my knee was stiff and my right ankle was giving out on the downhills. The second week was 26 miles of hot, rugged trails, including a circuit of 7 miles taking in the notorious Killer Hill of the Alónnisos Challenge 31k, which I’d run in 2018. Again, I was strong on the hills, but my leg and knee were no better, even with some remedial exercises and cooling in the kiddie’s pool. I was in trouble.

Cooling my injured knee after running

By the third week I’d decided that I needed to reduce my mileage to my version of ‘resting’. Apart from my 40th anniversary of logged running, when I managed a big 4 miler up the huge climb to the Chora threshing circles and back, I dropped my other runs to a mile a day. We found relatively level ground at the defunct reservoir, a circuit of which is a mile – perfect, and a fabulous place to watch birds at the same time. Even so, we had also been walking between 20 and 27 hilly miles a week, so my leg was far from being rested. I got home knowing that my Race to the King 100k was becoming more of a burden to carry.

Once home, I started to ice and compress my knee, which finally showed signs of healing. I’d invested in a gel pack I can keep in the freezer, a brilliant piece of kit. On the last Wednesday of the month, I had a heart-to-heart with my PT, Martin Sorenson, who pointed me to a local sports physiotherapist, Ricky Lidbeater of Livebetter Physiotherapy. I was fitted in to his busy schedule on the following Saturday and met a really great professional, and nice chap. The prognosis was not damning, but roughly as follows:

  • My knee injury was separate to my other leg issue – the blows I’d suffered made it swell, this being the knee’s natural way of protecting damaged tissue. With ‘rest’ ice and compression it would heal.

The issue with my right leg was the product of two things:

  1. My lower back was tight on the right side, impacting my nerve that referred pain through my glute to the hamstring behind my knee – the original injury. This was cutting off the signal to my muscles to say ‘run’, on occasion, thus the odd giving way feeling in my leg.
  2. This was being exacerbated by a very tight right calf, leading to a swollen Achilles. These two issues were feeding off each other, so were not getting better, and the whole thing would be magnified on rough trails, particularly downhills.

I knew I could probably coax my leg over 50k, but by then I’d be pretty crippled – in the 100k, with the hills over the second half, I would probably damage myself beyond logic, and probably DNF. Ricky said it would be unwise to run it. On the plus side, I was given exercises to carry out, instructions to follow and also I could continue running, as long as I didn’t go beyond 10 miles, and that only occasionally. I quickly made up my mind to withdraw from the 100k and get fully fixed and fit.

After some pretty deep, but impressive massage on key areas, I was sent on my way feeling much better. The beast was off my back. Ricky and Martin would devise a weekly program for my regular session and, in between times, I would be doing various calf raises, foam rolling and icing to ease my calf, reduce the pressure on my Achilles and get fully fixed.

Running Thorney Island, pondering if I could outrun the guard dogs..

My running streak reached an unbroken 521 days by the end of the month, and by not being very sensible, just stubborn, I put in enough miles to get to 100 for May, and to make 18 months at or above three figures – another parallel streak. I was already planning some autumn ultras, but for the time being would be wiser with my 65-year-old body. After all, there are no spare parts for this 1956 model, so servicing is the only option.

May was also the month I had to prepare myself for returning to the workplace. The big day is 1st June. I’m still not sleeping too well, and still get terrible dreams, PTSD style. It is a difficult mental illness to come to terms with, but I will overcome it all. I can honestly say I have never been happier than on a few of the days with my Passepartout on Alónnisos and since. Real big, happy days. A happiness I’ve not felt since I was 5 or 6. This shows me the CBT sessions are working – that I’m having a further series shows how poorly I’d been. I also know this should never have happened to me, so I will be rectifying the root cause. The Alónnisos trip showed I could cope with crowded settings, for a while at least, but I still get tired after intense events.

‘Coping mechanism’ – I’ve reached the point where I no longer want to ‘cope’ with recurring mental issues, including those from childhood. You see, I don’t get depressed, in the pure sense of the word, but suffer from extreme anxiety. It is this anxiety that is hard to carry, long term. Thus, instead of coping, I have started to ‘deal’ with it. That means, to me, excising the root cause and leaving it behind. We tend to voluntarily carry our historic hurts, sleights, grief and sadness with us. Instead of memories, they become barriers to freeing emotions. All religion, ideology, politics, strictly set tenets and biases are like this – they blinker one’s logic. So, for me, those moments of absolute happiness are a sure sign I am finally breaking my own barriers.

So, I’m still Racing the Reaper Man to Ultra, but the next big races are a little further down the line. In the meantime, I’m getting new knowledge about injury recovery – something else that will go into Racing the Reaper Man. If I’m lucky, I can show early decisions about recovery over bulling through races, can make a huge difference to longevity. After all, older age should mean a gathering and application of learnt wisdom, not a repetition of youthful mistakes. I will now start pulling the book together, set up the required chapters and start writing in earnest.

A younger and older me. Still learning

May selected statistics

  • Weight: 11st 11.6 lbs (up a little, but still very stable)
  • Daily calorie balance: 1974 kcal – my highest since I started this. Care of holiday and lower mileage. 
  • VO2 Max average: 43 (Garmin continues to adjust down with age…)
  • Average resting pulse: 51 bpm – red wine in Greece has raised it a bit.
  • Total miles: 100 (stubbornly getting to the ton is my minimum, if I can.)
  • Unbroken running streak: 521 days
  • Belly: 30½”

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