July 31, 2013

Survived 30-Day Meditation Challenge

Yesterday I completed a 30-day meditation challenge. Inspired by Sakyong Mipham's book Running with the Mind of Meditation, in which he likens learning to meditate to learning to run in that the mind is like a muscle that can be strengthened through practice.

The key, as Mipham suggested, was to start small and build a base, just as one does in running. So my goal was to spend 10 minutes each day focusing on my breath, clearing my mind from the constant whirlwind of thoughts.

Simple but not easy. Just like running. A few times I felt like quitting. But then I wondered why I had such mental resistance to doing something as simple and peaceful as sitting or lying still for just 10 minutes, focusing on my breath, which -- as my teachers remind me in each Bikram yoga class -- is the most powerful tool you have.

I also know the important role of breathing from running. Calming, slowing and/or deepening my breath in challenging workouts, or when it gets hard in a race, is crucial and always beneficial. 

It will take more than 30 days to learn to meditate, to get more comfortable, to find a sense of ease in  it. The more I struggled nearly each day over the past 30 days with quieting my mind, being mindful, just here and now, the more I wondered why that was and how I could change it. I am curious, intrigued.

So next week I will start the 21-day Oprah and Deepak meditation challenge -- registration is free and you receive daily guided meditations for 21 days starting August 5.

July 24, 2013

Withdrawn from Ironman Whistler

Earlier this month I made the decision to withdraw my entry from Ironman Whistler. The July 11 deadline, if I wanted a $150 refund, helped me make up my mind.

It was both a hard and an easy decision to make. Hard as I registered for the race in October last year with the intent of competing. As a former triathlete and five-time Ironman finisher, I could simply not resist an Ironman that landed in my backyard, one offering 100 qualifying slots for the 2013 Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

This year, only one other race (IM Frankfurt held earlier this month) offered that many slots, according to RunTri.com. Every triathlete competing in an Ironman wants to go to Kona, even retired triathletes like me. I am a far better athlete now than when I did my last Ironman in March 2005.

Yet by late April, the reality was that my injury (mysterious heel pain that had curtailed my running for nearly a year by then) had not disappeared. A 15-minute run was all it took for the pain to return. So I stopped running again.

Cycling, especially riding on the Computrainer in the aero position, was not helping, I realized. It only served to increase the tightness and imbalance that I now suspected was the cause of my problem. I stopped cycling too. The last ride I did was on April 21, the day before I discovered that my body still could not cope with a 15-minute jog.

Unfortunately, the bike ride is a little crucial in Ironman -- it takes up more than half the time any athlete needs to finish (unless you ride so hard that your run will take you longer than your bike did, not uncommon). Not having cycled from March 2005 until October 2012 meant I could not rely on a fitness base there either.  

While still hopeful in late April, I was already well aware that my chances of getting ready for an Ironman in August were very slim. I did not run again until June 4, starting with two 5-minute stretches. By July 11 -- the deadline to receive a partial refund -- my longest run had been 40 minutes.

I have consistently spent at least 10 hours a week on yoga, stretching, massage and rolling for the past three months.

When I realized that I was not even sure if I would be ready to run (not race, just run) the local annual 10km on August 4, I also realized that doing an Ironman three weeks later was just not a good idea. Indeed it was unrealistic. That made the decision easy.

There will always be another Ironman, should I want to do one. And after the past year, a healthy body is worth more to me than any race, even one with a hundred Kona slots.

Returning from injury: marathon thoughts

On Monday I had a 55-minute run to do. It was the final session of the seven-week Returning to Running program I have been following, and I looked upon this run as a graduation of sorts.

In the past seven weeks I have found the confidence that I have finally overcome the injury that has plagued me for the past year, stopping my training and racing dead in their tracks (for the first time in 17 years) just as I was at the peak of my fitness -- a 3:00:29 marathoner ready to go faster. 

Seven weeks ago, I tentatively did the first session on the program -- two 5-minute runs with a 5-minute walk in between. The roller coaster of hope and disappointment from the past year kept a lid on my optimism. Yet I knew that my body felt different too.

Yesterday I ran 55 minutes without stopping, bringing my weekly running total to 2 hours 20 minutes. Guesstimating a 5-minute per kilometre on average, I ran 40km for the week. While that's not even half of the 100km weeks I had grown used to doing, it now feels like a lot of running.

Throughout these seven weeks I have remained both careful and vigilant. I have done nearly all my runs on a flat course, first walking about 15 minutes and cooling down with the same (that's also the time it takes to walk from my house to the start of a flat running route.)

I have maintained my yoga routine, taking 30 Bikram classes over the past seven weeks, or an average of four per week, to keep increasing my flexibility and strength, particularly in the right hip / glute area. That's six hours of yoga a week.

And those 90-minute Bikram classes are challenging workouts in themselves each time. There is a reason teachers tell beginners that their main goal is to try to stay in the room. At the Sea to Sky Bikram studio, owner and teacher Jena often reminds us to "stop wrestling with the door, you have already decided to stay."

"Until you do it you can't comment on how difficult it is. It's tough. It's ugly," Wimbledon champion Andy Murray has said of Bikram, which has reportedly been a key part of his training for the past five years. 

Aside from Bikram, I also stretch after each run, using a sequence of at least eight stretches suggested in Pete Pfitzinger's Advanced Marathoning. As recommended I hold each stretch for about 30 seconds on both sides, doing each one twice.

And I roll. Daily. I use the TP Therapy ball and roller but especially the ball and particularly for the right side of my hip and glutes.

During the past seven weeks, I also had another five massages to help preserve and advance all the flexibility I have gained in Bikram. And I will keep working at that diligently. Especially as I increase my running.

It is exhilarating to be running again. I am so grateful.

I know that there is a long road ahead before I will be back at my fitness level from May 2012. But I am patient. And determined.

Over the next few weeks I plan to increase my long run slowly to 90 minutes by the end of August. With that, I'll be ready to start the training program for my next marathon.

I have already got my eye on one...  

July 08, 2013

A tempo run -- my first in a year

Today I was allowed to do a 15-minute tempo run.

I was excited, very excited. It would be my first run at effort -- any type of effort -- in a year.

I am still revelling in the fact that I can run again, and the thrill of the 40-minute run I completed last Friday.

Since I ran the Scotiabank Half Marathon at the end of June in 2012, I have not been able to do much running at all, let alone a session at any type of effort.

And today I got to go fast for 15 minutes. The program suggested 15K race pace. But it's a little hard to pinpoint race pace when you've not been able to train.

I figured my body would know best, so I opted to wear my Garmin to record the pace but to avoid looking at the numbers during the session.

As I have done so far in my return to running, I decided to stick to a flat course so my warmup began with a 15-minute walk from my house through the Smoke Bluffs to the trail along Loggers Lane. Then I began running and followed this asphalt bike path to the Brennan Park Recreation Centre, turning around after 7-1/2 minutes of relaxed running and running back the same way for a running warm-up of 15 minutes, as the training session suggested.

Now it was time to start my tempo run. I walked for a minute and started a new lap on the Garmin. It was nice to run "fast" -- it felt natural too, even though it has been a year since I did. I could feel the extra space that has slowly yet surely been opening up in my hip flexors with the regular Bikram yoga sessions and massage. I loved the tempo run as much as I thought I would.

Of course it was effort, so my breathing was laboured. I focused on relaxing into it and keeping what felt like a steady pace. I briefly checked my watch at what I thought would be my 7-1/2 minute turnaround point and managed to keep my attention away from the numbers revealing my pace.

A couple of weeks ago I took the Garmin on a couple of 30-minute runs and found that I was running about 4:45 per K, faster than I had expected -- and naturally then started to aim to stick close to that. After those two runs, I decided to leave the Garmin at home and wear a regular watch instead so my body would choose its own pace, rather trying to keep up to the one reflected on my wrist.

It was easy today to keep my attention away from the Garmin -- the exhilaration of returning to one of the things I love so much about running, moving your body at a pace that is challenging and comfortable at the same time while focusing on keeping your breath and body relaxed, was all I needed.

"Running is like flying -- there is freedom and levity. We are moving through space above the ground. It is a great way to connect with nature and to breathe fresh air," writes Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, author of (the superb) Running with the Mind of Meditation. He is also a 3:09 marathoner.

Freedom and levity were what I felt today. And gratitude, lots of gratitude.

A part of me still carries fear that the injury has not yet gone or that it might return. I try to let go of those thoughts as much as I can. Still, it has only been five weeks since I began running again and so I remain cautious.

After I walked home, back up through the Smoke Bluffs, I checked my pace -- in the 15-minute warmup I had covered 3.2K at an average pace of 4:45 per kilometre. 

As for the 15-minute tempo run, I had run at an average of 4:12 per kilometre for a distance of 3.6K.

July 02, 2013

Returning from injury: running update

Ten weeks ago, on April 30, I began a 32-day Bikram yoga challenge, with the goal to do one Bikram class a day at the studio here in Squamish. I wrote down my intention, "Set my body free so I can run." 

Only a week earlier, I had discovered that my body still could not deal with a 15-minute run. It was a devastating realization that the pain in my heel, which I first noticed in late May 2012 and essentially halted my running for the past year, was still there.

After various treatments which failed to eliminate the pain, I took a 4-1/2 month complete break from running (from October 1, 2012, until February 12 this year), and then eased back into it from scratch—after first building up to a pain-free hour of powerwalking. 

I took 2-1/2 months to build up from four 30-second stretches of running with 4-1/2-minute walk breaks, to three 10-minute stretches of running with 2-minute walk breaks. I had been able to do this twice in the week before I ran 15 minutes on April 22, only to discover the next day that my heel—unmistakably—was sore again.

At first I was angry, upset, and—most of all—desperate: what was it going to take?!

I have always felt, and still do, that there is no reason for me not to be able to run again. After all, there has never been a diagnosis of the injury. The obvious ones for the location of my pain such as Achilles tendinitis, a stress fracture, and plantar fasciitis were all ruled out.

As I calmed down a little, I returned to research and decided that my heel was merely the symptom, not the problem.

I stopped running again and also gave up cycling so I could concentrate on upping the frequency of my Bikram yoga practice to improve my flexibility and strength, particularly by opening up the hip flexors and strengthening the gluteal muscles. I kept my swimming routine.

A week into the Bikram challenge, I had a funny neck twist during swim squad. I stopped immediately. What the heck now?! Swim coach Roseline assured me that it was not a typical swimming shoulder injury, based on where I felt the strain/pain. Initially I thought a few hot baths and heating cream would get rid of the increasing stiffness in my neck that followed but it did not.

While I had trouble turning my head to the left, it did not noticeably affect my Bikram practice (only the triangle pose was somewhat affected) so I was able to continue my 32-day challenge.

After five days, however, I realized my neck was not going to release the tension on its own. I was not sure if the neck issue resulted from swimming (I had done the BC provincial champs swim meet on April 26), or just a 'funny' move, or whether my body was beginning to shift with the daily Bikram classes.

I did know it was time for a deep tissue massage. My swim coach recommended RMT Natalia Finlayson and I went to see her on May 10.

That first treatment made me feel a lot better, though I also knew my neck was not out of the woods and so I stayed out of the pool, as I did not feel like risking a shoulder injury.

Meanwhile, I kept up the daily Bikram routine. And I noticed more flexibility in my right glute and piriformis, both from the daily yoga but also from Natalia's massage on my back, shoulder and neck.

I went back to Natalia on May 13 and she again treated the left side of my neck and back as well as the right hip, glutes and piriformis. She said swimming could work diagonally. She also recommended that I stretch on top of the Bikram routine, as yoga is not a replacement for stretching.

By the third treatment, my shoulder and neck were much better and she spent a lot of time on my right piriformis, which held release a ton of tightness. I had by now told her about my heel injury, or rather symptom.

By May 22, I was back in the pool and felt good enough to swim with the squad for an hour. I decided to stick with the massages, now focused on the tightness on the right side of my hip, quads, and glutes. I could tell that all the hip opening work in Bikram was helped along by Natalia's massages, and vice versa.

After the fourth treatment on May 23, and 23 straight days of Bikram, Natalia encouraged me to try a run again. I felt comfortable with the idea, indeed had felt for a few days that I would be OK to run, and ran two 5-minute stretches, with a 5-minute walk in between on May 24. And I continued from there as per this return-to-running program by Pete Pfitzinger.

In the 10 weeks since my body rebelled after that 15-minute run, I have done 53 Bikram classes—or a little more than five classes each week on average. (That compares with the 50 classes I did in the prior five months, or an average of about 2.5 per week.) I also have had 10 deep tissue massages from Natalia, with the first on May 10 and the most recent one on June 24, a period of six weeks.

Yesterday I ran 35 minutes--in one go--a day after running 25 minutes. Amazing. If I had not experienced it, I would not believe it.

I know that there is more work ahead. More Bikram, more massage, more stretching and more strengthening. After each Bikram class, I do a TFL stretch as well as a piriformis stretch. After each run, I do the stretch routine as recommended in Pete Pfitzinger's Advanced Marathoning. I use the TP Therapy products daily, especially the ball and the Grid foam roller. I also have regular Epsom salt baths.

I am optimistic that this time, after a year of struggle, I am on the road to recovery. Namaste!