My Road to Achill
I’ve only been running for three years, but I’ve noticed a recurring runner (R)/non-runner (NR) conversation that goes a little something like this:
R: I’m a runner.
NR: Have you run a marathon?
NR: (Nods. Loses interest. Changes subject.)
Completing a marathon is a rite of passage for a distance runner. It confers a level of commitment to the sport, of accomplishment as an athlete, of membership in a special (albeit slightly crazy) group. And while half-marathon is now the most popular distance to race in the United States, the marathon remains out of reach for many runners. Perhaps because it is more difficult, more of a training commitment, more daunting a challenge…whatever the reason, taking on a marathon is a milestone in a running career, and for me, that milestone is right around the corner.
I’m registered to run my first full marathon one week from today. Just seven short days, five pesky time zones, and 3,000 miles separate me from the starting line at the Achill (Ireland) Ultra, a multi-race event featuring three distances: half, full, and ultra marathon (13.1, 26.2, and 39.3 miles, respectively).
Despite my best intentions, my road to Achill has not been smooth one. Back in June, on the heels of a half-marathon PR and at the halfway point of my 18-week marathon training plan, my left knee decided it didn’t want to work anymore. A non-specified, non-dramatic, complete failure to function without pain, noise, or discomfort. One moment I was fine, charging up a small hill on my longest training run to date, and the next moment I was hopping in pain, unable to put weight on my leg.
I limped home in the rain, trying to rationalize the situation as a minor setback. Training was tough, but I was tougher, and minor setbacks were part of the process. By the next morning, my leg was swollen, and I experienced intense pain whenever I bent my knee, especially when walking up or down stairs. To complicate matters, the pain moved around. Sometimes it was on the side of my knee, sometimes the back, occasionally the front…it was never in the same spot, but it didn’t go away.
Over the next few days, I scoured the internet and attempted to rule out the big stuff: stress fracture, ACL tear, IT band syndrome, misaligned patella…the list goes on. I iced and elevated and compressed and rested. I was in Week 9 of training, and I could not run. Things did not look good.
The timing was not good either. In addition to being mid-training, the injury also happened less than two weeks before my husband and I were scheduled to set out on a 6-week, 9,000-mile cross-country road trip…a trip we had structured around our marathon training schedule. We planned to spend weekdays camping and hiking in national parks before settling in to a hotel near a great long running route every weekend. We were also registered for two half-marathons on the road: one in Michigan during Week 10 and one in Utah during Week 13.
I needed some professional guidance and a dose of reality. Did I have a chance of running the Charlevoix Half in 10 days? And was there any chance of getting back on track so I would be conditioned enough to take on the marathon at the end of August?
A trip to a walk-in sports medicine clinic confirmed my self-diagnosis of “unspecified tendinitis” (a.k.a. runner’s knee). The doctor advised me to “take a week or two off” and start a therapeutic dose of an anti-inflammatory. I reluctantly took a full seven days off from running and started taking the meds. The naproxen returned my knee to normal size, but it also caused me to develop painful mouth sores. I was a hot mess.
While I rested, I reworked my remaining training plan, remaining optimistic I’d be able to run both halfs and make it to Achill. I was just going to have to get creative. I cut back my training from 4 days a week to 3 and adjusted my mileage down. I also planned to cut out hills for a few weeks, too. When day 8 arrived, I took my first run on a treadmill to control speed and terrain…and then cried after barely breaking 15 minutes on that tentative first mile. Things looked up two days later when I managed to crack 12 minutes, and two days after that, I doubled my distance…to two miles.
So there I was, a week before the half, eking out two miles on a day when I was supposed to be running 10. I was discouraged and depressed, doubting whether I’d even be able to run Achill and questioning why I’d committed to such a far-away race in the first place. Not to mention the fact that we had those two half-marathons on the horizon.
It was a gloomy week, but I soldiered on. I trusted my training, listened to my body, and took things easy while focusing on what progress I could make each day. I didn’t make the decision on that first half marathon in Michigan until the morning of the race, and by adjusting my pace down and focusing on form, I was able to complete the course. That day I cried tears of joy instead of frustration.
Our road trip progressed west, and so did our training. There were highs—a pain-free 16-miler in Denver, Colorado at 5,200’—and lows—a swollen knee and gnarly grinding sound that stopped me in my tracks at mile 9 of a 16-mile out-and-back along the Missouri River in Montana. (Yup…just about as far as I could be from where we started. I inched along for more than an hour while waiting for my husband to finish his run back to the car and fetch me. It was humbling to say the least.)
Yet I kept going, taking each day as it unfolded. I took extra rest days when I felt I needed them, and I pushed speed and distance on flatter courses on days when I felt good. I focused on enjoying every run, of making the most of each moment as we trained our way across two countries. We ran before dawn in the dry Utah desert and slogged through 100% humidity in the Midwest. We ran at elevations as low as sea level and as high as 8,000 feet, logging mile after mile on paved country roads, dirt rail trails, and groomed gravel paths. We even ran on a snow-covered mountain trail in Montana on a 90-degree July day.
We returned home to New Hampshire in early August, just in time to tackle 20 miles on our own coastline. I needed a little help from my friend, Advil, but I made it the full distance with gas in the tank and a smile on my face. Post-run, Mother Nature provided the best ice bath a girl could ask for: a dip in the chilly Atlantic Ocean at Jenness Beach.
That beach run was two weeks ago. This morning, I logged the last moderate run of our taper period, two weeks of reduced mileage and increased rest before the marathon. Training has not gone according to my original plan, but I have trained, and I am as ready as I can be. Despite my injury—or rather, because of it—I am a stronger, humbler, happier runner. I am not fast, nor am I podium-bound. But I’m centered and focused, and I’m pretty sure they won’t deny me a Guinness based on my finishing time.
The Achill Ultra race organizers (themselves hearty and experienced ultra runners) have advertised the event with stunning pictures of the race course and the slogan “Make history on Achill.” In addition to those rolling fields and sweeping views of the sea along their twisty Atlantic Road, I’m expecting steep hills, strong winds, and drizzly conditions…it is Ireland, after all. But whatever the weather, Achill’s first marathon is set to be my first marathon, and I’m ready to make history. –J.
P.S. Online registration is open through tomorrow (August 18th), so there’s still time to register to make history yourself!