Give Me a Break

stress fractureI know I should be grateful. I know it could be a lot worse. I know this is a relatively minor setback in the grand scheme of things.

But a stress fracture three weeks before my first overseas marathon?! It’s enough to make you weep. (Actually, I have wept. A lot).

After the doctor showed me the tell-tale mark on the X-ray and gave my foot a confirmatory squeeze, I made the kind of frantic suggestions you try with God when you suddenly realise your exams are far too close for you to pass without intense cramming and divine intervention.

I tried “What if I…?” in several different combinations, but to no avail. The doctor shook his head and looked at me as if I should perhaps be attending an entirely different kind of hospital as I suggested resting my foot for the full three weeks and then running really, really slowly. Or partially resting it and working up to a gentle jog. Or walking the entire thing…

But I’m going to Palestine, I pleaded. We then had a very interesting chat about the situation in the Middle East (I did not know that the queen of Jordan is Palestinian), and I felt we had built up some rapport, but he still would not come around to my way of thinking. The most he would allow was a symbolic half-mile walk. With a crutch.

“So how long is it, anyway?”

“26 miles,” I muttered.

I felt our newfound connection fizzle out in the stuffy atmosphere of a hospital consulting room. All hope gone, I dutifully repeated my recovery schedule after him: One week with the support boot and one crutch, two weeks with just the boot (walking on the heel), one week with the crutch and good runners, and a follow-up appointment on April 6th. Five days after the marathon.

“Of course, if you were ten years  old, you’d be up and about in two weeks, but at your age…” He shrugged and shook his head at the X-ray of my poor, elderly metatarsals. I clambered to my feet, wondering was he about to offer me a walking frame instead of the crutches.

So that’s it. I know it could be a lot worse, but please don’t tell me that: These crutches pack quite a punch.

 

 

The Softer Side of Running Injuries

Running Injuries
Thumper

Injuries: It’s a word that sends shivers up even the most well-aligned runner’s spine. The moment a muscle or a tendon announces its presence with even the tiniest squeak, you start to worry. You keep going, gingerly testing the protesting body part or striding along in denial, hoping it just shuts up and leaves you alone. Because an injury is a right pain in the ass/calf/heel.

Sometimes you are lucky. You rest up for a day or two and the pain disappears. Sometimes you have to work harder at it; you get out the foam roller, the ice pack, the support bandages, and you’re remedial work pays off eventually. Then there are the knots and tears that just move in and decide to stay. Massage, once something you look forward to as a relaxing treat, becomes a particularly vicious form of torture.

I thought it was just an age thing. I rarely picked up running injuries until about six months ago, when my body started falling apart like an old car held together with baling twine. Niggling lower back pain twinged now and then, a gentle intro to savage glute problems that have only just started to ease. Then knives seemed to take root in my right arch, stabbing me with each step. I even got shin splints, something I had not experienced since my first half-hearted attempts at running as an overweight college student in plimsolls.

Now it turns out my advancing years might not be the problem (or not all of the problem, at least). According to a study by Harvard Medical School and the National Running Center at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, it’s all in the footfall. The researchers examined the strides of 249 female recreational athletes by recording the impact of their steps using a force plate. They found that the key difference between athletes who were rarely or never injured and those who were injured regularly was the suddenness of impact. Unsurprisingly, softer landers fare better – just as you might hurt less if you jumped from a height and landed with flexed joints than if you landed stiff-legged.

So now I must try to quit stomping and start gliding. Apparently, one way to run softer is to listen to your steps: Gliders creep up on you without a sound, whereas Thumpers like me rarely give anybody a start with the stealthiness of their approach.

Well, spring is on the way. Maybe I’ll be tiptoeing through the tulips to a pain-free summer…

Everyone Says Hi: Trail Running Distractions

trail runningI’m back running 5 days a week now, in my usual, make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach to training for a new event. This time it’s the Glen of Aherlow Loop the Loop Ultra Trail Run on September 19—except I’m leaving out the “ultra” bit and doing just one loop of the trail run. You would think that a 13.1 mile mountain run with an elevation of 1,369 feet would provide enough distraction for a complete trail-running neophyte, but it hasn’t stopped me noticing things that are utterly unrelated to running. Like saying hello.

I headed out on a 5-mile run last week because it was half way through the week and I planned doing a 10-mile run on the Friday, so I figured going for a run half my longest distance midway through the week was a scientific enough training programme for me. I also wanted to clear my head because I was feeling cranky. I was still feeling cross after the run—partly due to general age-related grumpiness, but partly because I greeted two people on my way around, and neither of them even grunted a reply.

Now, I am not a remarkably sociable person (in fact, that is one of the reasons I like running), and I don’t say hello to every passerby if I’m somewhere busy, but I do think there are far too many of us on this planet to behave as if we lived in our own little worlds. A meeting of eyes and a mumbled “‘Morning”is not going to damage your psyche.

I have been considering whether I am being unreasonable and whether it is presumptuous of me to expect somebody to respond when I squeak out a hello as I lumber past them. Maybe I am. Maybe I should just jam my headphones in and keep my head down. But maybe our shared humanity is just too precious a link to avert your eyes or stare blankly when somebody makes a brief appearance in your world. We’ve seen too much of that lately.

Don’t worry: To any fellow world citizens who wish to avoid my grating greetings, you won’t have to fling yourselves into an accommodating bush; just don’t make eye contact and you’ll be quite safe. I’ll pound past, and my red face won’t be because I’m cross but because I’m starting to discover far too late just how tough training for a trail run can be.

Triathlon Trials

content writer blogWhen several people in succession gleefully announce their relief at not having to see you again, you could be forgiven for being a little upset. I, however, greeted the news with congratulatory smiles and waved them on to greater, Aoife-free things. That’s because they had just met me for the sixth time in a 42km run, which had been preceded by a 180km cycle and a 3.8km swim—all using the same set of limbs that had got them to the lake shore at Killarney Golf & Fishing Club at 6.30 that morning for the 2015 Hardman full-distance triathlon.

content writer blogsI was manning one of the water stops, which also turned out to be a motivational, counselling, and tourist information stop. From flashes of lycra pausing only to raise a hand to indicate that they had no need of such mortal crutches as water, to nauseated wrecks hobbling on their newborn foal’s legs, the human spirit in all its guises passed me at that midge-ridden corner of Killarney National Park. There was Douglas, who had broken his coccyx the previous Tuesday and “shouldn’t really” have been doing a full-distance triathlon, Darragh who promised to name his first child after me (I do hope it’s a girl), and a whole succession of men who revealed that their lovely wives would probably leave them if they ever did another such event.

content writer blogsYes, the winner finished the hilly and difficult course (the cycle takes in the grinding, ear-popping roads of the Ring of Kerry ) in a searing time of 10:06, and there were some thrilling moments when the first riders blasted up to T2 within minutes of each other, but the day belonged to people like Graham Janssen, the first swimmer out of the lake, who basked in his moment of glory, knowing he would be overtaken within minutes of getting on the bike, but also knowing that the previous year he had been one of the last to clamber onto the pier; and Dan Fitzgibbon, who made it further in the triathlon than he had any previous year, wheeling into the Castlerosse Hotel car park in the pitch dark, hours after the winner had gone home; and Siobhan Griffin, the second woman home, who gave up smoking and learned to swim the winter before her first full-distance triathlon last year.

content writer blogIn the end, it’s not really down to €4k Olympia bikes, Garmins, or ideal stroke rates: What is truly inspiring about the 80-odd individuals who took part in last Saturday’s epic event is the way that even the most unlikely athletes can complete superhuman challenges if they have an insanely dogged attitude. And a water-station steward they really don’t want to see again.

(All images courtesy of the amazing Valerie O’Sullivan.)

Learning to Swim in Italian

content writer runningA fortnight after our trip to Scanno, there are two things I want to learn:

– how to swim.

– how to speak Italian.

The Italian bit is easy to understand: As soon as we escaped the gritty heat and noise of Rome for the fresh prettiness of Scanno, I knew I wanted to stay. Given that tourists only trickle into this gem 155km west of Rome, without Italian you are really are reduced to Charades if you want anything other than gelato or vino. Although now that I come to think of it, maybe it’s not so necessary after all.

content writing runningAs for the desire to learn to swim, I can’t see myself getting far in a triathlon by holding my breath and flailing the other competitors into submission. Triathlon? Well, if you watched the annual Xterra triathlon in Scanno, you’d fancy yourself as a triathlete too. Of course, it has everything to do with the setting: Scanno is the kind of place that makes you want to skip down the wooded slopes singing. There is a purity in the air, an absoluteness in the colours, and a sparkle in the lake that makes you believe you would live more completely if you were to just roll your belongings into a spotted handkerchief and set up camp here.

content writer runningSo the desire to do a triathlon has much to do with the sight of horribly attractive Italians (even in day-glo Lycra) gliding effortlessly along the glassy surface of Lago di Scanno on a deliciously hot day, trotting through the tangle of medieval streets carrying their bikes as they climb flights of ochre steps, and loping along forested trails to the finish line. And all I need to do to claim my place among those bouncing, honey-limbed triathletes is learn to swim.

When I do complete my first triathlon, and I am unable to untie my shoelaces because the circulation has shut down in my fingers, I will remember  a golden day in Scanno and decide that the learning Italian bit was probably  more important than the swimming bit.

Sand Gets in Your Eyes

copywriter KerryThe image the organisers of the Brandon Bay Half Marathon use to promote the event depicts a sparkling expanse of blue sea and sky glimpsed from between swaying fronds of marram grass on golden dunes. It didn’t look like that last Saturday. Or maybe it did, only it’s hard to tell when your eyes are squeezed shut against an onslaught of wind, rain and sand.

About 90 of us lined up for the half marathon, although when I say lined up, I mean huddled against the whipping wind waiting for the race to start so we could get some blood flowing and stave off hypothermia. The route is loosely aligned with a series of little red plastic flags dotted 10.5 km along the beach, but everyone has their own personal version of the event, given that you have to negotiate sand that ranges in firmness from pillow-soft to bone-jarring hard, dotted with pebbles and shells in some parts and disappearing under waves and streams in others.

By the time I reached the 3km mark it all seemed very silly. The prospect of scurrying back to the start and wrapping up in warm dry clothes seemed the only sensible option, particularly as the gathering pools of water in my ears had started channeling the wind to create a weird whistling soundtrack to my trudging. The one thing that spurred me on was the thought of the half-way point. I knew from last year that once I reached that magical spot in the sand, I could turn my back on the wind and allow it to carry me like a strapping gazelle back to the finish line. So I bore with the flying snot, the anchor of my sodden shirt, and even the smiling faces of the leaders passing me as I reached the 9km mark, and, sure enough, everything changed on the return leg.

I actually found myself overtaking people and finished just a minute behind the third woman home. Momentarily elated, I downed a cup of soup (soup in July!) and was soon frozen again, my Bart Simpson fingers dead to all feeling. There was little time for the usual post-race chat with fellow sufferers, as we were all in a rush back to the warmth of our cars, and, anyway, chattering teeth and howling wind make it difficult to understand what people are saying.

Will I do it next year? I can’t wait! I think I’ll bring a hat, though…

Life’s a Beach

I’m in one of those “meh” stages of training, when heading out for a run seems about as useful and appealing as ironing bedsheets. Fitted ones.

I was probably a bit too eager announcing I would run the Dingle Marathon as soon as I had sweated over the finish line of the Lakes of Killarney Marathon, so now I’m starting to look for a way out whenever it is mentioned. I’m starting to hear excuses like “€70 is a lot for a run around Slea Head…/I wonder is running a marathon on the road seven weeks before the Mourne Mountain run a good idea…/It could be very warm…/I think I’m due a hair appointment that weekend..” spoken in a voice that appears to be mine. The result is that that, even though I have two perfectly serviceable legs and I am surrounded by scenery like this,

web copywriter Ireland

web copywriter irelandAnd this,

I just can’t get enthused about running these days.

But I have a plan to get me fired up about running again. I’m going to run a half marathon on a beach next week. I don’t mean on a road next to a beach or in a park overlooking the sea. I mean 13.1 miles on sand. I did the inaugural Brandon Bay half marathon in Castlegregory last year. It felt much longer. The sky was rolling with black surly clouds that occasionally slapped us with needles of rain, just in case the unrelenting gusts of gritty wind were not mean enough. The course is obviously completely flat, which has its advantages, but it also means that you can see just how far you have to slog until you get to the tiny little dot that is the half-way flag. Then there’s the sand. You find what you think is the Goldilocks medium between not-too-hard and not-too-soft, but then it vanishes into a mass of puddles, so you add miles to your route veering between surf and dunes trying to get the balance right again. It’s all very challenging, but in the spirit of all the best epic fantasies, there is turning point, a stage where you leave the dark shadows behind you and enter the sparkly place.

As soon as you round the flag, the wind is at your back, the sun comes out, and angels sing. Well, maybe not the last two, but things definitely take a turn for the much, much  better.

And that’s what I’m hoping for next Saturday.