NYC marathon: When right goes wrong

Karla Bruning takes a lesson from Ryan Hall and reassesses her goals for the ING New York City Marathon. Photo: Tacou/stock.xchng

NEW YORK—15 weeks down, one week to go…

Runners tend to be goal-oriented people. Whatever the goal may be, we plot, we plan and we train to make it happen—running right, eating right, sleeping right, doing everything “right.” But what happens when something goes wrong?

I found out the hard way in the last two weeks of my training for the 2010 ING New York City Marathon on Nov. 7. Reassessing goals and shifting expectations are among the hardest things a runner can do, especially when the goal is in sight.

Take Ryan Hall. After a hot streak in 2007 and 2008—he broke the North American half-marathon record, won the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials and at the London Marathon logged the fastest time ever by an American-born runner—Hall was officially dubbed the next great American marathoner. In 2009, he placed third in the Boston Marathon and won the Philadelphia Distance Run.

Then he made a goal: to break the U.S. marathon record at the 2010 Chicago Marathon on Oct. 10.

But after a shocking 13th place finish in September in the same Philadelphia half-marathon he’d won the year before, Hall announced that he was withdrawing from Chicago due to unshakable fatigue.

“It was a hard decision, not so much because I wasn’t sure if my body was ready to perform—I was sure of that—but more because I had invested so much energy, passion, and life into the last six months of training,” Hall wrote in his blog on Sept. 30. “My level of fatigue, though not an injury, could have lasting implications on my career should I choose to run an all-out marathon through it.”

Then came the bombshell—Hall was changing coaches and changing scenery.

“To be honest, change is not always easy,” he wrote in a blog entry on Oct. 22. “ It would be easy for me to stay on the team and continue to train as I have been, but I have learned to trust my intuition.”

Talk about a re-evaluation. The running world, and I, took notice.

So when my doctor temporarily banished me to the elliptical trainer in the wake of some ominous knee pain, I found myself questioning everything—from my gait, to my training program to whether or not I could, or should, be at the start on Staten Island. My doctor postulated that I had a meniscus tear, tendonitis or a pinched fat pad. First, all I could think was, “What? My knees are fat?” Sheesh! And then, “Oh no! Am I going to be able to run the marathon?”

Ryan Hall runs to marathon victory at the U.S. Olympic Trials on Nov. 3, 2007 in New York City’s Central Park. (Photo: AP)

If a pro like Ryan Hall could pull the plug on the big goal in the big race that he’d been training for his entire career, perhaps I could conceive of missing the marathon.

I had one last long run on my schedule—a 20-22 miler. So on my doctor’s advice, I rode the elliptical trainer in my gym for nearly four hours just in case I could still run the race. Yes, yes, you read that correctly. I rode for as long as it would take me to run 22 miles, and I kept my heart rate between 65 and 75 percent of my max.

A few days later, I was lying in an MRI tube. The technician gave me a choice of music to drown out the clanking cacophony of the test. Frank Sinatra crooned in my ear—of all things—the “Theme from New York, New York,” which plays at the start of the marathon. I smiled and hoped it was a sign.

The verdict? I don’t have a tear or tendonitis or fat knees. Yay! I have arthritis. Boo. I was totally shocked, but shouldn’t have been. Arthritis is in my genes—nearly everyone on one side of my family has one form or the other including my sister, aunts and grandparents. I’m sure training for my fourth marathon didn’t help.

But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel: my doc cleared me to run. She said it wouldn’t make the arthritis any worse. I just have to manage the pain.

So off to the physical therapist I went. What could I do to help? Maybe my gait is wrong? Nope, my PT said it’s fine.  Maybe being a heel-striker is wrong? Nope, my PT said it wouldn’t matter where I land on my foot. But I can strengthen my quads, hamstrings and core, make sure my IT band is nice and loose, and then get an injection after the race to slow the arthritis down.

But with all the knee shenanigans and two weeks lost to the elliptical, I’m shifting my expectations for the race. Like Ryan Hall, I’ve learned to trust my intuition.

Could I still break 4:30 like I planned at the outset of training? Perhaps. Am I still going to try? Maybe. Would I like to at least PR? Sure. But am I going to sweat it? No.

Being able to shift expectations is important if I want to be a lifelong runner. Hall shifted gears because he didn’t want to run one race at the sacrifice of his entire career. Though I’m no Ryan Hall, I feel the same way.

So I’m ready to let this be a “fun run” without the pressure to perform. If the pain is too searing, I have no qualms with earning my very first DNF. Far faster and far smarter runners, including Paula Radcliffe, Haile Gebrselassie and Meb Keflezighi, have done it.

But something tells me that if I can stomach four hours on an elliptical trainer, running the New York City Marathon, with screaming spectators and bands lining the course, is going to seem downright easy, even with a newly arthritic knee.

So start spreading the news, I’m going to be a part of it…after all.

Karla Bruning is an award-winning journalist and running nerd. She has completed three marathons, trains with the New York Harriers and is a member of New York Road Runners. Follow Karla’s “Notes From a Running Nerd” at RunKarlaRun.com, Facebook and Twitter@KBruning. To listen to an interview with Karla, check out The Marathon Show, available for streaming or download on BlogTalkRadio and iTunes, or listen to a panel of runners, including Karla, discuss the ING New York City Marathon.


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Karla Bruning

Karla Bruning is the host of On The Run, a TV and web show from New York Road Runners. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, American Athlete Magazine, RunnersWorld.com, Active.com, The Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Orlando Sentinel, and two dozen other outlets including ESPN2, Universal Sports and ABC in New York. She and her work have also received mentions from The New York Times, Runner's World, Fox Sports, Canadian Running, The Baltimore Sun, and PBS among others. She also covered the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver for The Washington Times.

 

A former Newsweek reporter, Karla has won a Fulbright scholarship for American journalists and reporting grants from the Scripps Howard, Carnegie and Knight Foundations. Karla holds degrees from Amherst College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

 

When not pounding the pavement as a reporter, Karla is pounding the pavement as a runner. She has completed seven marathons, four triathlons, trains with the New York Harriers and is a member of New York Road Runners. She is a writer, editor, and on-camera reporter dedicated to covering the sport of running from a runner’s perspective. Find Karla on RunKarlaRun.com, Twitter@KBruning, Facebook and Google+.

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