Neural pathways: running without thinking

As I review my first week of non-running re-hab, I realise that today marks 76 days until TMBT. Eleven weeks, which includes at least another week of full-on physiotherapy related exercise involving Not Running. Then the ever familiar road to recovery, hopefully culminating in a pain free ultra at the end of August and a good solid attempt at the arduous climb that is the ‘short route’ of The Most Beautiful Thing distances.

kinabaluBeing told not to run, even if it’s for the long-term good, is the last thing a runner wants to hear. I had been explaining to my Pilates instructor Jayne that I was sick of the Hamster-wheel of injury, followed by time out for recovery and the never really being able to test myself for fear of re-injury. My current/ ongoing issues are the result of over-training and racing, but the underlying reasons are poor biomechanics and hip stiffness which I’ve traced back to childhood. Jayne suggested an assessment with a physiotherapist who specialises in podiatry and also Paralympic rehabilitation. OK then!

After a video assessment (walking, running, with and without shoes) and various strength and alignment exercises, some interesting issues came out which I’d never heard from previous sports injury professionals:-

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My right leg (which currently carries the afflicted Achilles tendon) is my ‘good’ leg and tracks straight with good pronation, neutral gait and no podiatry issues

My so-called ‘good leg’ on the left is rotated inwarded severely enough that I supinate and run without the use of my big toe! What?!!!!!

If I continue to run longer distances using only the smaller toes of the left foot, it’s likely I will cause stress fractures in these toes, as they are not strong enough for the duty I am giving them, which should really be harboured by the big toe and the second toe. My right leg can only do so much to compensate!

The tightness in my soleus and Piriformis started in childhood and is likely not easily or quickly correctable without suffering injuries down the leg-chain. Orthotics (practically a dirty word in my vocabulary) were suggested to correct the gait.

I can re-train my foot not to dorsi-flex when I run and to correct the S-shape I form during the foot strike (it should really be a outer heel-strike, rolling forward to toeing off diagonally, with the big toe- minimalist shoe and barefoot running fans, please look away now!). This can be done by Not Running and performing repetitive movements to create new neural pathways which the brain and thereafter the muscles, will recognise. In time, I should be able to run more efficiently, without thinking about it.

So in summary, my right side is compensating for the left and the outside of my legs are very strong compared to the inside sets of muscles which are very weak.

Things I already knew were:

  1. higharchMy Achilles is thickened and nodularised, possibly with neovascularity, that is, an increase in the number of blood-vessels in the tendon area; as my bodies attempt to get more healing blood into the area
  2. The tightness of the Achilles is what’s causing me pain and this is primarily caused by very tight calves (years of wearing very high heels won’t have helped). I need deep stretching and lots of rollering
  3. I have high arches, which are fairly rigid and don’t really want to help me out by pronating nicely through the heel-toe pattern, which allows for shock-absorption through the running gait.

Every day I must perform

3 x 15 sets of eccentric calf raises: up and down on the steps, gradually adding more weight. I do this FIVE times a day, every day. I’m currently loading with 2.5 Kg.

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2 x 100 ankle flexes with toes scrunched up. This is to train the ankle NOT to use the toes to lead the movement and to stop me dorsi-flexing thus helping me pronate, not supinate, on my left foot. I do this twice a day; which doesn’t sound like much but it takes a lot of concentration not to use the toes, keep the foot in plantar flexion and I can’t stop my mouth from pursing into a tight frown at the same time! Come ON Neural pathways – form already!

A variety of piriformis stretches including the more traditional post-run stretches as well as some moves borrowed from pilates/yoga.

After all this, there’s barely enough time for Life and Actual race training!

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So, I am breaking in my orthotics, which have been custom built to help me pronate more (!) on my left foot and help my very high foot arches to collapse in the proper way. Increasing the hours every day, I am walking in them and if there is no pain, I can attempt a run on Day 13. I’ve promised myself I will start with a 20 min jog 🙂 After that, I have to schedule an ultrasound to check on the status of the Achilles, which may or may not result in an injection to get rid of the extra blood vessels and yet another two weeks off from running, whilst the swelling recedes. I may have to have this done when I’m in the UK as the procedure is a little specialised and I’m not sure if the local hospitals have the know-how. But I will check. Another two weeks off from running……..(sigh).

Until then, building back up from a 20 minute jog into the realms of what will likely be at least 5 hours of climbing through trails and forest in Sabah, will be a challenge but I hope that my previous mileage PLUS all the swimming, cycling and other cross-training I’ve been doing- coupled with better biomechanics (not to mention my highly renowned mental determination) will allow me to have any amazing experience at TMBT in September. I hope everyone else’s training is a bit more traditional than mine.

TMBT – the unpaved road unravels

The road to the jungle is by definition, unpaved and so my efforts to gain some more off-road training has had to be upped. After studying my training record, I am still very thin on terrain training and I think this is a great shame, given that I am mere miles away from forest, streams, steep jungle inclines and many other aspects which will be encountered during The Most Beautiful Thing.

In the UK, I could drive for 30 minutes in-land and hit all manners of running surface from muddy grassy slopes, to gravelly trails, to heather clad mountainous fell. Miles and miles of compacted earth along disused railways and many more of asphalt pavements gave me no excuse not to get as many miles of running as I wished.

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Here in Brunei, there are a couple of set-backs which I am trying to compel myself to overcome:

Temperature/timing: the coolest hours are before sunrise and after sunset. However, it’s not very safe or pleasant to run in at dawn/dusk due to

  1. biting insects,
  2. humidity,
  3. drivers using the cycle lanes,
  4. cyclists without lights using the pavements,
  5. men-at-work using the pavements,
  6. huge deep leg-breaking pot-holes on both pavement and road.

The beach gets rids of items 3-6 but has it’s own drawbacks

  1. pitch-black after 6.45 p.m.
  2. trip-hazards from beach debris
  3. camber of the sand sloping up from the waters’ edge
  4. limited exits onto main road
  5. nefarious activities after dark (!!!)

Never-the-less, I am getting out onto hillier routes, namely the Labi Road, which runs from the Seria by-pass turning South, towards the small village of Teraja. This tiny outpost has traditional long-houses, situated very close to the geographical border with Sarawak, somewhere in the jungle beyond the end of the road.

DSC_0632My first venture ended abruptly after less than 4 hilly miles. Following some great long-run planning, involving proper fuel, drink, change of clothes, SPF and other considerations, I ended up ‘sprinting’ towards my car after being pursued by several feral dogs! These mongrel hounds are quite a common sight around Brunei, with families adopting upwards of 5 dogs, perhaps as pets but more likely as protectors! The Labi Road does not receive mobile phone coverage and a bite of any kind would leave me with at least a 30 min drive before we hit the main road and further to go to reach the nearest medical centre. Not something worth risking….but this is really the only hilly area I have found that doesn’t involve full submersion in the jungle!

DSC_0643My second venture went slightly better. No dogs, just the relentless sunshine, 33 degrees Centigrade and high humidity coupled with the threat of sand-flies for any walking sections! My routine for the longer runs was to have my “support vehicle” driven by my husband, park up every mile or so along the road and for me to run to it, rehydrate and get any food or equipment needed before continuing. Although this doesn’t replicate race conditions, it does allow me to concentrate on good quality running without the extra weight of carrying a rucksack or duress from being dehydrated. I feel at this stage of training, I really need to tax my legs with 3-4 hours of running. I will definitely get this during the Mauritius Marathon next month, a key part of my long run and heat training.

And…..STOP PRESS. Before I have time to publish the above, I spend an afternoon having my (on-going) Achilles weak-spot assessed by a very experienced physio and am now resigned to two weeks of NO RUNNING. The assessment (of which I will undoubtedly write more later) uncovered some very interesting facts about my biomechanics and fills in a lot of the unexplained history about why I seem injury prone. This has come at a very pivotal time in my training regime and I am again faced with a choice:

Carrying on running for long durations and ‘maintaining’ my current conditions with rest, massage, acupuncture, bandaging and various liniments including Tiger Balm, Nature’s Kiss Herbal Rub and Chinese sprays OR

address the biomechanical reasons why I keep ending up injured. [Aside: I have been injured for 2-4 months for every 12 months of running, which isn’t a great rate of return for my efforts. I get to a certain level and then have to take time off only to rebuild to a similar level of fitness before I am reinjured…….repeat, repeat].

I really want to be in good shape for TMBT and some of the other endurance events which Malaysia has to offer BUT I have also signed up for (a) a marathon in only 3 weeks time and (b) an ultra-marathon in 9 weeks time. The physio seems OK with me trying to get back on track for (b) but I haven’t exactly told her about (a). I know she would discourage it profusely!

The problem with having to plan events far in advance is that you tend to have the hotels, flights and race entries paid up as you begin training with only the hope that you will complete adequate preparation. I have certainly had to miss a lot of events due to injury over the years but I think I have always been sensible about entering just to enjoy the journey and complete or with the aim of a Personal Best. I have, as yet, never DNF’d (Did Not Finish).

However, as I enter my 3rd day of re-hab and no running, I am pushing the boundariesdont give up of reality if I think I can complete a marathon in under 5 hours, with 2 full weeks off in the 3 week lead-up to race-day. Even taking into consideration that I can and am still ‘training’ with cycling (outdoors and gym turbo-trainer), pool-running and swimming as well as core, pilates, weights and the physios stretches, it’d be a lot to ask to just get through the full 42.2K without detriment. Or is it? I’ve decided to make the full decision after I get re-assessed at the end of this week. For now, my targets are:

  • Do fortnight of running-rest, under physio’s guidance & see what happens
  • Re-assess goals after that

I don’t think this is the end of the road for doing TMBT justice, but I think targets prior to that are definitely in jeopardy 😦 But if it addresses the source of my poor biomechanics it will be worth it in the long(er) run.

Extra Zeds – back to back long runs

I really need more sleep. This week I’ve been forced to remember how difficult it is to do back to back runs and exist in the land of the living. A couple of days I have found beforeHarrisHalfmyself sitting in front of the laptop with my eye-balls rolling back in my head, fighting to stay awake. If I loiter anywhere for too long, I find my body starts to shutdown and urges me to catch a few zeds! Pass the Yerba Maté …….Zzzzzzz

All quite normal as I am asking my body to run between 3 and 4 hours, followed by 2 hours with only 10 hours sleep in-between. When I write it like that, it seems ludicrous! But this is what week 3, 4 & 5 has entailed, so just as well I’m facing a step-back week where my longest run will barely be in double figure mileage.

As a reward for the longer runs, I treated myself to an aromatherapy 90 minute massage to pummel out those weary muscles. And some new ‘incentives’ from Sportpursuit. I’m so good to myself, you’d think I’d try harder.

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So this is what I’ve been up to over the last few weeks, working towards The Mauritius Marathon, which will be my longest training run for the Speyside way ultramarathon in August and The Most Beautiful Thing in September.

Week 3: Long run 27K, 2 x 5Ks, jungle hash, HIIT and reformer Pilates

P1000465Week 4: back to back runs of 5 miles, 9 miles,10 miles (38K) plus HIIT and Pilates.

One of these runs was run along the beach wearing full length Salomon EXO compression tights. Although I’m sure my legs liked the additional support it was WAY too hot and the extra burden of running in sand and having to navigate beach debris and river inlets meant it felt a lot longer than it was. My Achilles was really stiff afterwards but following the piriformis exercises, I had absolutely no repercussions for my 10 miler the next day 🙂

Week 5: back to back runs of 5 miles, 18 miles, 5 miles (45K) plus HIIT and Pilates

and then this coming week is a step-back or drop-down week, with a cheeky wee 10 mile race called the Mizuno Wave Run near Kuala Lumpur. I have so far been really impressed by the organisation, local hospitality and excellent quality of race goodies provided by the Far East’s Road racing circuit. Let’s hope this one maintains the standard. I need to get back to the jungle hash though, as the terrain training will really benefit the hillier part of SSW as well as the overall conditions of TMBT.

Week 6 – 3 miles /10 mile race/3 miles (26K) and the shorter runs will be more or lessi_love_plodding_along_mug-rfbae3764c5024b4eb8602fbdb84a62b3_x7jgr_8byvr_152 ‘speed work’ involving 400m reps with short intervals. I can’t really expect my legs to like upping the pace even for these short runs but it’ll be good for them to have a change from all the plodding. If I don’t watch out I’ll be growing donkey-ears 🙂

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Borneo Half Marathon – the Unoffical Night Run

The Borneo Half Marathon was due to take place on May 5th in Kota Kinabalu (KK), in the Malaysian State of Sabah – to the North East of Brunei. However the race was cancelled (I’m not getting paranoid yet, but this is becoming a familiar story in my race calendar) due to local elections. Like many of the runners, we had non-refundable air and hotel bookings so decided to go anyway and a few ladies from Panaga were also due to run, so we all made our various routes towards Sabah; ours being an early morning drive across the southern border to Miri, Sarawak and a flight with AirAsia. [I sat beside a tiny ultrarunner who had previously competed the HongKong 100K- he and his friend ogled my Dean Karnazes book ‘Ultramarathonman”].

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KK will be the stepping off point for the TMBT in September, so we checked into the Hyatt Regency which was very plush and had lovely seaview rooms, delicious buffet lunch with traditional drum and dancer display and a luxurious spa.

There had been talk about meeting up for an unofficial night-run round the proposed routes and I quite fancied that, so I took my stuff and kept an eye on the website for further updates. Meantime, the Brunei ladies all met up at the race expo which was in this huge shopping mall called Suriah Sabah – a monstrous L-shaped multi-layered complex with higher end shops like Coach and Levi through to local style supermarkets and cafes in the basement.

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We bumped into lots of other runners, since we all seemed to have had the same idea of changing into our race tee-shirts. I got directions to the local outdoor survival shop from one gent and bought a snakebite kit and a small torch.

We spoke to a couple from Taiwan, whilst I was buying my very bright Adidas race leggings (as per the cover of last months Runner’s World magazine) and Wan (spelling?) had studied a year at Herriot-Watt and he and his girlfriend Avalyn (sp?) would be running the full marathon that night. There were various rumours about start-times for FM/HM but my plan was to just turn up at 21:30 and use the course map to navigate round. Wan thought 9pm, others were going for 10.30pm. Hmmmmm

Back near the hotel, Liz, Rachel and Marie ‘s other halves had ‘forced’ my OH to drink beer and therefore, I knew I was on my own for the race (the ladies had all had a run and were looking forward to a nice dinner/drinking in an actual pub, since Brunei is a dry country). I decided I would get a taxi but luckily, a local runner Hazazi offered to give me a lift. Well now, my Mum would have a hairy fit if she knew I was accepting a lift to a remote location in a foreign town and country, from someone I had met only days previously through FaceBook (!!) but I went with my gut and runners are usually a genuine, friendly bunch, so I said OK and we headed out to the Lika Stadium at 08:40pm.

Hazazi was meeting numerous friends and I was introduced as we started amassing in the car-park near the would-be start. The KK runners were handing out red bicycle lights for clipping on, as we would be running on open busy roads, in the dark. I had worn reflective, bright clothing and we would be running in groups for safety. So it was not to be a race. I hoped there would be some people at my pace, although I didn’t care about time I just wanted to complete the distance as a training run.

After some discrepancy in start-times, with foreigners who didn’t know the route being paired up with cyclists, I discovered the half runners had left already and the next bacth wouldn’t be going until 10:30 😦 Luckily someone let me use their phone and I rang OH to tell him I would get a lift home. Hazazi was looking after the orphaned Scottish girl and would also give me a lift back to town; how nice was that? Especially as he was due to run the 10K so would be waiting for hours…….so we agreed that I would run with him to the 5K turnaround point which was roughly at a Shell petrol station (an unofficial toilet/water station).

We started off in 2s and 3s and ran towards the sea, via some roundabouts, it was vaguely down-hill so I noted that for the return, as the course was a ‘lollipop’ (out and back route with a loop at mid-way). I was at conversational pace for the first few Ks which were along the coast-line but eventually H urged me on, so I tried to catch up with one of his friends Jasmie who was just ahead. I ran with him for a few more roundabouts and then another friend, Burn, appeared from an impromptu toilet-stop, so the three of us started a slight ascent on the main carriageway towards the University, where the hill-challenge lay. borneo water stationLuckily there were some volunteer water stations which also had 100Plus dotted along the course, some with tables, others from the back of a truck! So many thanks to everyone who manned these. The race might have been at night but it was still melting hot. I know now to just watch my heart-rate and slow down if it gets high, regardless of pace. We were pretty steady, speaking in clips and taking turns running on the outside. I was sweeping the hand-held torch I’d picked up in the outdoor shop, in our paths when the street light waned and occasionally swept it along the tree-line. The frogs were really loud! I held my precious electrolyte drink in the UltrAspire Handheld which is fast becoming my new race-buddy, despite saying after the Crathes Half 2012 that it was too heavy for just a half marathon (when I’m presumably meant to be running fast as opposed to an ultra-distance where I’m just bimbling along “enduring”).

borneo halfJasmie fell back a bit, so I was running now with Burn, who told me he had completed the TMBT 25K option last year and was moving up to 50Ks in September. Interesting, so I started asking a few questions and, well, we had a little race up the hill ! I wanted to see if I still remembered how to run a proper gradient as I hadn’t done so for a few months since I left Scotland. As we came through the campus, we hit the first of 3 inclines. Burn had a slight advantage in that he knew where we were going and how long the hills were whereas I was just striding with my head down; we both notably picked up the pace up-hill and I started to breathe hard for the first time. I was glad when we crested the top of the hill and then……suddenly we were lost! Looking back at the route map, it seems we should have gone right at the University but I think we went left and up another hill. Burn asked a passing student but we had no idea which right turn to take. J had easily caught up by then (humph! all our hard work on the hill was lost) and we all agreed that it would be better to do too far than be under 21Km, so we eased down towards the far right turn, knowing that what goes down must come up. I let gravity take me and coasted down but I think this is where the other two suffered the most- downhill hates quads, luckily I am poorly developed in that area 🙂

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Another ramp up, turning us back onto our original route and we were passed the half way mark and on our way home. I suggested we took a short walk to allow J to join us (and to get a breather) but after a minute or 2, Burn had had enough and we started jogging again and enjoyed the downhill we had previously attacked! We didn’t wait for Jasmie but Burn assured me that he knew the way alright and I gently reminded him that I did not (ie stay with me please).

By now the full marathon guys and gals who had set off at 9pm, were starting to come up towards us. I asked what the Malay for “Well done” was but was too chicken to say it, so just clapped or gave some encouragement in English. Everyone was so smiley and happy, like any run, some were struggling, some were coasting; we all waved.

I was glad to see the Shell garage as we excused ourselves amongst folks who were gathering on the pavements, probably wondering what was going on. Cars were tooting and shouting at us and we got a few more water stations before the final roundabout.

I was pushing quite hard now as my heart-rate had been slowly rising from mile 10 and I felt the lethargy of my 6am start, flight, expo. The last food I had eaten, being 8 hours previous, was a distant memory and hunger started itching at me to finish! We both speeded up and as I mounted the pavement over the last bridge I felt something go click in my right ankle. “No! The Achilles site, please don’t let it be the Achilles”. I didn’t want to sustain an injury on such an optional non-race as tonight (or at any other time for that matter) but there was no further pain and less than a mile to go……then suddenly we were finished! Only 12.65 miles. I said to Burn “I need to go on and complete the half marathon distance”, he understood and ran with me- a few laps around the complex until my Garmin said 13.11 miles. DONE!

Then I rested. I thanked Burn profusely for running with me (he looked like he could have sprinted off at any moment) and whilst I was topping up on cooler water at the running clubs’ van, Jasmie came in and had some pictures taken with Burn, Hazazis and a few others. Thank God no one wanted my picture as I felt quite gash, queasy and like I wanted to lie down. Of course I couldn’t, but I sat on the grass until we were ready to go. I felt very tired and light-headed and sick with hunger. I thanked Hazazis for everything – basically I probably wouldn’t have gone if he hadn’t offered me that lift – and made my way to the hotel-room. Luckily my OH hadn’t stayed out drinking so he got me some full fat coke and a huge bag of crisps from the mini-bar 😉 I collapsed into bed after a quick shower.

IMG-20130513-03254Next morning I went for a full-body massage and asked for them to be careful around the Achilles area. Time will tell what’s actually happened there. I felt yet again much better and had some delicious noodles for brunch at the Mosaic café. Spoke with another few runners in the distinctive race tee-shirt and felt pleased to be able to say “I ran it”. I also got a little present for my efforts – a Suunto Vector watch –  to help me with my hiller running and it includes a temperature gauge as well as altimeter. I’m looking forward to using it in the jungle hash.

We were also fair chuffed to get to Miri and find that the car was in one piece. The OH took another opportunity to stock up on beer before we crossed the border. So, another hot  race experience, in another part of the world. Unfortunately I can’t make the re-scheduled date as I’ll be in the UK (running) but I WILL be back to KK for the trail event in September and hopefully a few recce runs with my new Malaysian buddies before then.

Distance: 13.11 miles / Time: 2:23:50 / Race-pack contents: Newton technical tee-shirt, Newton sports socks, PowerBar, various money-off tokens / Race shoes: Purple Nike Lunarglide+ 4 / Race cothes: Adidas capris, 2XU socks (bought at the expo), Black Ron Hill reflective Fetch Everyone vest, Black Fetch buff