Monday, July 25, 2016

Training on Empty: Chapter 18

Chapter 18 – The Stress of It All

“All glory is fleeting.” – George Patton

There’s no doubt that competitive running can be stressful. It is physically and mentally challenging and there’s an enormous amount of pressure in any running event to give it your all. Running a race entails laying everything on the line and stepping up your game to see whether or not it’s in you to go past your limitations, be they physical or mental. Any weakness is exposed for all to see, and you can be left feeling quite vulnerable out there in just a pair of running shorts and a singlet.

In contrast to countries where running is a way of life, running here in the United States is often regarded with skepticism. When I was younger, running was nowhere near as popular as it is today, and I often got strange looks from the people I ran by on the trails. In a way, this added to the pressure for me to run well, because there were so few people who considered running something people did to enjoy themselves. It made more sense to run if I could defend the activity by explaining that I was training to race, was preparing to compete, and could beat just about anyone. As a result, I was always in training, never really taking time off to regroup. I went from track in the spring to road racing and mountain racing in the summer. Then, I continued from mountain racing to cross-country in the fall, and finished out the year with a few indoor track meets and more road racing during the winter.

My high school was already a high-pressure environment. It was considered one of the top schools in the state not only in athletics but also in academics. Going to school, racing and having an eating disorder were, in a sense, like having three full-time jobs. It’s no wonder my body and mind grew tired. In the summers I had one less stress by not having to worry about school, but the other two stresses were still there and growing stronger all the time.

In addition to the general stress of running, my body was exposed to an enormous amount of additional stress because of my poor running form. Unlike many other good runners, I was a “toe runner,” meaning that I landed on my forefoot rather than on my midfoot. This made me injury-prone and also made it so that I had to work harder than other runners in my ability range to secure the same results. My racing style was entertaining for spectators, because I never started out in the front. Instead, I often had to come from behind and make a bold move in the middle of the race, passing the others to gain the lead. From there, it was a matter of stretching the lead as much as possible to avoid having to kick at the end. I could turn out 82-second quarter mile pace until the cows came home, ate their hay and went to sleep, but I couldn’t run much faster than that if my life depended on it! My coach told me that the end of the race would always take care of itself; I knew that no matter how tired I was at the end I would give it my all to cross the finish line first. Our strategy for shorter races like the mile was to run the third lap as if it were the last and hang on to the end. Typically, the third lap of a mile race is the slowest, so it’s mentally challenging to push that lap. It was crucial to get as large a lead as possible, so essentially I had to work at peak effort for the entire race.

Despite my less-than-perfect form I was obviously able to hold my own. Often, I think, it was sheer superior determination that got me to the finish line first. I had a horrible upright posture that, again, was not ideal running technique by any means. Everyone around me felt I would be a better runner if I could have had more of a forward lean. My form led me to run with a short stride, so I had to make up for it by having a quick rhythm, or turnover. Unlike the girls who had long strides and nearly perfect foot landing, a combination that naturally propelled them forward with each stride, I was forced to concentrate on pushing harder and being mentally tough. Adverse conditions were my forte. Rain, mud, wind and snow didn’t scare me, and indeed were things I thought gave me an edge.  
In a sense, I was the perennial underdog. Even when my name started to be recognized in the running world, my come-from-behind technique tended to excite the crowd, making it seem as if each win I racked up was unexpected. I worked on my form all through school. I practiced downhill running in order to get the feel of leaning forward more, and worked on drills to keep my knees up in front and then kicking my heels up in back, The irony was that my incorrect road racing and track form that I worked so hard to change was perfect for uphill running. I could take a more natural comfortable stride when I raced in the mountains. In addition, the soft trails were far less brutal on my body than the track or the roads. In the mountains I felt as if I could run forever. Eventually, though, even mountain running would be difficult and painful.

As much as I loved mountain running, I loved the roads and even the track as well. I just loved to run period. The stronger I became as a runner, the more I was willing to take risks and push myself, entering the elite division in major races rather than the open or junior division. Again because of my poor form, I had difficulty in road races, especially longer ones. Being a toe runner put enormous pressure on my feet. I was always at risk for stress fractures. In longer races I was constantly dealing with blisters, because instead of boasting the optimal heel-to-toe roll runners covet, I landed hard on my forefoot, causing great friction and a braking effect every time I landed.

In one 10k race, I entered the elite division and found myself running against 1984 Olympic Marathon Silver medalist Rosa Mota and other internationally recognized runners. Though I was a great warm-weather runner, having set a course record in the Diet Pepsi 5k in Denver in 97-degree heat the year before, this race would be different. By mile four,  my feet were so riddled with blisters that I had to run in the middle of the road to avoid anything other than flat, even surfaces, as the slightest camber in the road caused more pressure on my feet. I took my turns extra-wide but was still in great pain with every corner. In the end, a sizable fraction of the elite field had dropped out, the stifling weather too much to bear. I finished in well under 40 minutes but also far off my anticipated time of 36 minutes. My feet suffered for days after, and I could hardly walk until the blisters started to heal.

Unfortunately, by the time I was in my later years of college, I was beginning to show signs of arthritis and stiffness. My lower back and hips were constantly sore, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to find a comfortable stride. I would become so sore after races that easy cool-down jogs were painful. I often found myself limping the next day as well. It seemed that while I had jumped into the spotlight as a young athlete, I was slowly starting to slip off the stage. As my races became less impressive and the pain got harder to manage, I found that fans who hadn’t seen my name in the paper for quite some time would often come up to me and ask the standard question: “Are you still running?”

During the times I was running well, I felt as if I were making some kind of real impact on the world, changing it or opening a door somehow. I never ran for the fame or the glory. It was always something that seemed almost beyond me, a driving force, yet there was a part of me that hoped I would do something memorable one day, something great. I thought perhaps my destiny would be reaching the Olympics or traveling to Europe to compete among the world’s best mountain runners. Ultimately, no matter what event I settled on, I hoped to set a record that wouldn’t be broken. “Records are made to be broken” never resonated with me – until, of course, many years later, when my own records started to fall.

In 2005, a local newspaper held a poll to determine the number-one athlete in Colorado history. I didn’t hear about the poll until a friend called me and told me she saw my name in the paper. According to this poll, I was ranked 18th on the “all-time best high-school athletes ever in Colorado” list. The girl who deservedly won, Melody Fairchild, was also a runner who had broken most of my course records several years after I had graduated from high school. She attended Boulder High, naturally a rival school of Fairview. Though my school records still stand today, one girl who attended Fairview and ran cross-country years later was ranked above me on the list. Years after the fact, it’s rare that people remember a standout high-school athlete, at least in a sport like cross-country. New athletes come to take the spotlight in the crowd and develop a fan base. Today, most people don’t know me as a runner. At times, though, an occasional fan from the past will say, “hey, aren’t you Lize Brittin, the runner?”  When I hear this, it makes me cringe just a little to remember all the pain I went through during my competitive running career, but I have to smile at the thought of somebody actually remembering my hard efforts. It’s touching.

Though there are some runners who may stand out on a small scale, it’s uncommon for runners to be recognized to the same extent as other athletes. It’s a rare that someone like Steve Prefontaine comes along, a runner so brave and strong that people remember not only the great races of his time, but the brash manner in which they were run. Frank Shorter and Grete Waitz both have had statues made of them, but unfortunately it’s uncommon for distance runners to be well-remembered. Maybe with the increased interest in running in the early part of the 21st century, that will change.

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