I still remember the first time I got iliotibial band syndrome. I was maybe a mile into my first triathlon when I got this dull, aching, stabbing pain in the side of my knee — pure agony. But I’d just completely destroyed the bike course, so I wasn’t about to DNF midway through the run. So instead I gutted my way through two of the most awful miles of my life.
I remember telling my aunt about it and having her respond, “So why don’t you just hit the weights and rehab your knee?” I thought, “Good point — I come from a strength training background, so I can figure this out.” I hit the weights, and it seemed to go away. Of course, I went to another triathlon and had the lousy run of my illustrious endurance career. But small victories count for something, right?
Later, I realized that if I just run uphill — up a steep hill that left my glutes miserably sore the next day — it would stave off that miserable injury. At first, I didn’t really understand the mechanisms at work. I just knew that it did the job.
Turns out that it’s all about what’s called your “posterior chain” — or the muscles that run up your backside. Yes, your bum. And also your lower back, hamstrings, even gastrocs, etc. etc. When you spend all day sat down in a chair like I do, those muscles get awfully weak. Your tensor fascia latae and your psoas, meanwhile, get really short and tight.
When you pick up running or cycling hoping to counteract the effects of all of that sitting, people with shorter strides often strengthen their quads without doing much about their buns. It just makes sense that your body’s going to reach for its strengths and avoid its weaknesses when you put it in a physically demanding situation. Trouble is, stronger quads don’t really fix your problem — they exacerbate it. And all of that movement in your knee and your hip tends to bring out the pain from your iliotibial band.
So what do you do if you find yourself with a nasty case of ITBS? For one, start including a regular uphill run at least once a week. And don’t just run a moderate slope — go find something steep and challenging and then do hill repeats on it. You’ll know you succeeded if the outsides of your bum are really sore the next day.
You might also try adding a couple of strength moves to your regular routine. Everyone recommends clamshells, etc., but I’m a fan of stuff that’s actually running-applicable, like these two: (I figure Running Times is out of print now, so I’m probably safe to post this.) Personally, I’ve had more success with the second one, the runner touch, than with the first. But maybe you’ll be different from me.
A friend of mine posted something on Facebook today about running and how uncomfortable it was. It got me thinking …
There’s something really unique about running fast. There’s a certain threshold that you cross when you give everything you are over to it. Suddenly, every movement, every conscious ounce of your body is engaged in the deliberate action of running. Every muscle, every bone, every organ, and every drop of blood pumping through your arteries — it all comes together for one purpose.
You see this in professional runners when they go hard enough. You see Paula Radcliffe nodding her head like a donkey as she chases a marathon world record no one else has touched. You see the muscles in Genzebe Dibaba’s face tense up as she hurls herself toward the finish line. You watch Bernard Lagat’s eyes grow wide as he kicks out those long strides down the final stretch.
And in that moment, running is no longer something you’re doing; it’s what you are.
Of course, it feels terrible. But all at once it’s both delicately aesthetic, uniquely beautiful, and devastatingly intense. It’s a sublime and yet viscerally awful experience. Moments like those, you realize, have killed men and women — blowing the gaskets on their vascular cylinders, so to speak.
I don’t think any other sport is quite like that — not the same way, anyway. Not cycling, not swimming, not snowshoeing or football. So it makes sense that runners hampered by injury or age find themselves longing for another time, a time when the movement itself swallowed them whole — before spitting them out on the beach past the finish line.
So needless to say, being injured has been an interesting (albeit unpleasant) experience. This bizarre cycle of losing tons of fitness through excessive resting and then re-injuring myself as soon as I try to start back up again — that has gotten very old very quickly.
I’ve run into three problems:
1. Diagnosis — I really don’t have the problem figured out completely. I wasn’t sure if I just strained a muscle (I was thinking soleus) or if I straight-up tore something (like a vertical tear in the achilles or something).
2. Re-injury prevention — Because I didn’t know what I did, I’m not clear on how I can avoid re-injuring myself. That’s the thing: for the first few weeks, I wasn’t sure if it was a result of running and cycling, running and swimming, just plain running, or even just plain cycling. I’m still not 100% certain how I did it in the first place, and that makes it pretty tough to avoid doing it again.
3. Rehab — It’s really easy for you to play armchair physiotherapist and say, “Duh—stop running, moron!” But newsflash: it’s an injury in a largely tendinous region of the body. That means it’s difficult to get a lot of blood flow in there, and when it’s hard to get blood flow, it’s hard to heal. So to some degree, I need aerobic exercise to keep a higher rate of blood flow. The other question is, do I put heat on it (like I would a muscle strain) or do I ice it (like I would a tendon injury)?
Fortunately, in the middle of all of this, the world’s finest exercise science and sports nutrition minds were convening a conference in Spain. And since it’s 2015, that meant I got to follow along via Twitter. Asker Jeukendrup had to make things one step simpler when he took all of the cool info I saw in 140-character tweets and summarized it like this:
Being the self-diagnosing hypochondriac that I am, and since I couldn’t get an appointment with a running doctor until December, I decided to start treating it like a tendon injury. I’m downing gelatin and vitamin c, and I’m trying to avoid impactful exercise.
So I had a recovery regimen to commit to. Then I read Born to Run (which, I should mention, was a brutal hatchet job on Ann Trason — but that’s a different story), and I started wondering about whether the new pair of Nike Pegasus shoes I got last Christmas are playing a role. Christopher McDougall, of course, hangs out with Jon Krakauer and therefore doesn’t have a lot of credibility in my book. But he’s not the only one out there who has suggested running shoes might play a role in the high rate of injury among North American runners.
The other day, I found myself in the mountains with a group of people leaving on a little nature hike. I’d talked them into doing it on the lower elevations of the Aspen Grove-Mt Timpanogos trail. After moseying along for the first mile with the group, I got an itch, poked my way to the front and took off on a little jog up the trail. When I got to the turnaround point, I didn’t feel like turning around—so I didn’t. I kept going.
It wasn’t until I’d gotten about three miles and 1,800 feet up the trail that I decided to call it a hike. By then, I could see the summit far above, with the clouds hovering, brooding over the snow-covered dampness of the mountain. So I bounded back down, fully expecting to have worsened my injury.
To my surprise, the next day my calf felt pretty good. I’d even felt some tightness while I was headed up, but that was all gone when I woke up the next morning. The familiar soreness in my gluteal and vastus muscles was back—and that just plain felt awesome.
But it got me wondering about trails. Maybe there’s still something I can do on trails. Maybe snowshoe season will be nicer to me than I expect. We’ll see.
I had about 10 days to go before my planned road 5k, so I moseyed on over to the track near my office and resolved to do something I’d never done before: Run a mile as fast as I could on the track. I was hoping for around a 5:30, but after a handful of 1:23-ish laps, I realized that was a little too ambitious. I crumbled in the last lap and finished up with what felt like a respectable 5:51.
Then came race day. I employed my normal positive split strategy and took off way too fast in the first mile. Then I melted in the third mile and brought it home with a 20:35 — good enough for an age group win.
And sometime after that is when my troubles began …
Back in 2009, I’d experienced some calf pain when I was training for Bone n’ Back. I stopped running, had a really lousy time, but got healed. Then, in 2012, I got it again when I was training for Robie Creek (which is part of the reason I backed out). Both times I left my leg alone for a couple of weeks and it got better. The end.
This time not so much.
I kept trying to squeeze in a run … and then I did my favorite running hill climb … and then I got recruited to do Grand Teton Relay … and then Rivalry Relay … and then Widow Maker … and then Snowbird …
In the middle of all of that, I was at a very important work event one afternoon when a coworker told me he wanted to go hike Table Rock that night, and my ears perked up. Besides, I told myself, he needs someone to help him avoid getting killed — someone who knows the trail.
So we started out way too late, and by the time we reached the summit, the sun was setting. We hadn’t yanked out our headlamps by the time we got back to the talus field beneath the rock, and somewhere in there, I nastily sprained my ankle. Voila — built-in rest time.
I stopped running completely for two or three weeks non-stop. Oh sure, I kept riding the bike, but my legs felt great. After a few weeks, I went out for a slow jog with my wife in the early morning, and my legs felt … fine, actually. A full week later, I went and jogged a mile with the legs still feeling good. So I came home that night and jogged another.
Then I woke up in the morning, and the pain was back.
So essentially, what this all means is that I moved to the base of a bunch of glorious, trail-filled mountain peaks … and the entire time I’ve been here, I’ve been too injured to actually enjoy them.
You know that commercial where the guy shows up in what he thinks is heaven and then eats a big chocolate chip cookie before he discovers that all of the milk cartons are empty and that it’s not really heaven? Yeah, welcome to my world.
At the same time, I see people who have it way worse than me, and I think how grateful I am that I’ve been able to enjoy the mountains as much as I have. I really have had some serious adventures, and for that, I am sincerely appreciative.
So here’s what I’m theorizing:
Plyometrics have always been a staple of my road 5k training. But I’m starting to realize that plyometrics and uphill training don’t mix. One makes the achilles tendon stiffer, and the other requires the achilles and gastrocnemius to have a little pliability. Ta-da — injury. (Learn from my example here, people.) And I’m sure the additional stress of changing careers and addresses didn’t help.
Now I’m thinking I need some time completely off of running, and I need it ASAP. I’m following the nutritional protocol for tendon injuries, even though I’m not sure I have one. After a few days off, I think I’ll be able to get back into cycling and swimming. But for now, it’s nothing at all …
At least, until I get to go hiking for work later this week …
This’ll make a lot more sense if you read this, this and this first.
I told someone I went to Las Vegas in November, and she immediately asked, “Did you go ride the roller coaster? Or go up in the Space Needle?” No and no. I hadn’t done any of the usual stuff in Vegas. Basically, I’d shown up, run, slept, and gone home.
That’s not to say I completely missed out on the Vegas experience. There were plenty of adult-themed Ragnar teams with adult-themed cartoons and jokes scrawled across their adult-themed vans. You can just imagine the cartoon that accompanied the statement “You’ve been flashed by …” Then there was the “Creep Van,” with “we have candy!” and “free puppies!” written on its windows. Just walking around the parking lot at the main transition was enough to leave you feeling guilty for all of the unrestrained laughter. (Scan the Ragnar team list for additional risqué team names — but don’t say I didn’t warn you!)
Then there were the costumes. When you’re running in the middle of the night, everyone looks the same: headlamp, tail-light, reflective vest, darkness. But when the sun comes back out and things warm up, out come the tutus, masks, neon spandex, clever t-shirts, etc. The college-age girl I met in the last blog post? The next time I saw her, she was dressed as a kitty cat in a bikini. Some people were more subtle about it, wearing only Dr. Seuss-style knee-length socks or a Forrest Gump outfit to compliment their beards.
Then there were the NeverNudes. Jon had told me about this hilarious YouTube video he’d seen of Team NeverNudes, a group that races in cutoff jean shorts and frequently takes the top spot for the entire race, earning themselves an additional medal. One of their runners, he said, had even run his first mile in 4:30 — blisteringly fast for a 200-mile relay!
So I was feeling pretty out of place at this exchange zone until I happened to bump into the Real Housewives of Teton County, a group of women who’d also run the Grand Teton Relay and live just over the mountain from me. That tells you how crazy it was: I was looking to Idahoans — of all people! — for normalcy.
After rubbing shoulders with these other teams at one of the larger exchanges, we headed back to the hotel for some more much-needed shut-eye. After an hour or two, I’d had enough, so I headed for the hotel lobby, grabbed some grub and sat down with a great article in USA Today about Sir Winston Churchill. In walked … another Ragnar team. Guess we weren’t the only ones with the brilliant idea to get a hotel room.
We met back with the other team for our final exchange on a road right next to the Las Vegas airport. Every few minutes, we’d get buzzed by a massive commercial jet landing across the road from us.
By the time our Van 1 runner arrived, it was already warming up, so Paul asked us to meet him halfway through his leg with some water. I found a spot in the shade where I started high-fiving runners as they ran past, including some really fast teenager who was blowing past all of these older runners.
Waiting at the next exchange, I started chatting with a pregnant gal who was wearing a t-shirt that indicated she was from Panguitch, and she filled me in on the fast teenager. “She’s a state champion cross-country runner,” she said. “I’m her coach, and this girl is her sister.”
Jordan took his handoff and we moved on to the next exchange. Whereas I’d run my previous two legs in 40- to 50-degree weather, I’d be running my last one in 80-degree heat. Fortunately, my last leg would be a pancake-flat 2.7 miles — a drag race.
Jordan handed off to me in a small city park, and I took off. And almost right away, I caught and passed a guy in cutoff jeans … one of the notorious NeverNudes! The Death Trap passed me just a few moments later, but then a funny thing happened: I caught up to my van … and then passed it while they were stuck at a stop sign. Then I caught and passed them again at a stoplight.
I’ve learned what makes running so irresistible for so many running addicts: it’s that feeling when your entire body becomes engaged in the forward motion of running, when every swing of your arm, every bob of your head is involved in driving your body forward. When that happens, running ceases to be something you merely do, a verb; instead, it becomes something you are — a state of being.
Absorbed in the motion, I got a song stuck in my head, something I’d heard when I’d used the restroom at the Casino before the start: You Found Me, by The Fray, which turned out to be the perfect running anthem for that last leg. Just then, I turned a corner and caught sight of a runner ahead — I was coming up behind the pregnant cross country coach and closing fast. I was too out of breath to say anything as I went by, so instead, I tapped her shoulder, gave her a thumbs-up and kept going.
The final stretch was a city park replete with little rolling hills and sharp turns. I saw Jon and tried to pick up the pace, but I was already flooring it. I finished my leg (which turned out to be more like 2.9 miles) in around 20 minutes, and I was completely out of breath for at least a few minutes before I climbed in the Death Trap. Once again, I’d nearly beaten the van!
Waiting at the next exchange, I bumped into the cross country coach.
“Hey, I still respect your coaching abilities,” I said, trying to get a laugh out of her, “even though I passed you.”
“Well, in her condition …” one of her teammates clearly wasn’t getting the joke.
“I know,” I reassured. “I’m just giving her a hard time. I’m just lucky she didn’t sick one of her high school runners on me!”
Fortunately, the coach got it.
The Sarahs ran their last legs, and then we all met up together at the Red Rocks Casino for the finish. We’d crossed the line in 29 hours, taking 76th place overall. But once it was all done, we were all done too. We went to some Chinese restaurant and then piled into the vans and called it a race. The next day, I was back in Idaho, and two days later, I was back at the office.
That’s when I finally looked up the NeverNudes’ video, I saw a familiar face. As it turned out, I know the guy who ran the 4:30 opening mile. It was Nick Symmonds, two-time Olympian, silver medalist at the 2013 World Championship, and all-around nice guy.
“Hmmm,” I thought, “maybe we could get him on our team next year …”
If you ACTUALLY want this to make sense, you’ll probably need to read this and this before you read ahead.
I sometimes hear people wondering where to find the motivation to exercise. Sometimes they even post about it online, and I find myself replying and then quickly erasing my reply instead of publishing it — because I know it’ll just sound weird or crazy.
Truth is, I rely on YouTube videos to get me psyched up about exercise. Seriously. It started with videos like this one, then this one, especially this one, and now even this one. I’d find myself watching them and thinking, “I want to do that,” and it would often lead to me doing a similar event just to have the experience for myself.
After a bizarre episode where we’d groggily missed our Van 1 runner coming through the exchange zone (which made me feel better about my own navigational flop), Paul had started us off and then handed the baton to Jordan at some vacant lot on the side of a major road around 1 a.m. The last stretch of Jordan’s leg climbed up the outside of this half-bowl-shaped section of golf course to this little city park by the main road.
I was practically shivering as I watched two headlamps working their way up the trail in what looked like an epic battle for supremacy — one trying to make the catch and the other fending him off. All around us, unconscious Las Vegans (vegans?) had no idea about the drama unfolding on their quiet little golf course. And only when the race officials announced his number did I realize one of those duelists was my own brother!
The other runner somehow managed to just barely hold Jordan off in a last-second sprint, slapping his bracelet baton on a girl’s wrist just moments before Jordan did the same for me. So naturally I had to blow right past the girl before we even got out of sight from the exchange zone. Then the pathway descended into this brightly lit tunnel that dipped beneath a major road. It was cold enough that I could see my breath in the light of my headlamp.
Right after the tunnel, the pathway turned upward, and I immediately caught and passed two more gasping runners. Then the path turned to trail — a genuine singletrack, no less — and I caught two more runners who were side by side and clogging up the path. Like a peeved motorcyclist behind two dawdling minivans, I shot the gap, passed another runner and then clawed my way to the top of the trail.
The trail dumped me onto some silent, tree-lined, suburban road where I followed the signs until they led me to a sharp left and a steep, paved uphill. On a flat road, you can zone out and pretty much forget what you’re doing, but on an uphill with an unsteady gradient, you have to concentrate on recalibrating and adjusting your pace to match the slant of the road — or you’ll find yourself walking.
As the road kicked up, I was already on the edge — running hard enough that walking crossed my mind but not hard enough to actually give in. Ahead, I could see two or three runners who’d reached the hill and begun walking. I quickly caught them and worked my way past the next group. Then I spotted two tail-lights that appeared to belong to people who were still running.
“I probably won’t catch them,” I thought. But as the hill snaked through the dark, empty streets, those lights came closer and closer … until they were behind me.
Just as I caught the second one, we were back onto another golf course pathway — this one a serpentine, undulating route through the shadowy green. As it tilted up for one last steep stretch, I passed a young girl with a flashlight and a walkie-talkie who spotlighted my number and then called it in to the exchange ahead. And then I quickly caught a laboring group of three who were working their way up the final steep incline to the orange cones.
I handed off to Jon, hyperventilating like I’d just come up for air, and Jordan told me they’d barely gotten there — I’d nearly beaten the van to the exchange! I’d passed 15+ runners on this leg alone, which is as many as I caught in the entire Grand Teton Relay, and it was my shortest leg!
At the next exchange, I was standing behind two tall college-age girls when I overheard the one say, “It was only supposed to be 10 miles — nobody told me they’d all be uphill!”
That’s when the hilarity of the situation hit me: Everyone else had volunteered to be Runner 9 because it meant running less mileage. I did it because it meant running the most uphill — 1,100 feet, of which 400 came during my middle-of-the-night leg. And that meant there’d be plenty of exhausted people to pass on my final leg in the afternoon …
If this post doesn’t make any sense, it’s probably because you haven’t read Part 1 yet.
By the time we arrived at the correct exchange, the sun had almost completely vanished behind the horizon — dusk was giving way to darkness. We spotted Paul lying down in the grass before we even found a parking spot, so I rudely shoved Jordan out the passenger door, and he got going.
“I passed a bunch of people,” a clearly disappointed Paul told us as he climbed in the passenger seat, “but they all caught and passed me while I was waiting.”
Being the Canadian that I am, I began a steady stream of “I’m sorry!” that would probably still be going right now if Paul weren’t at least a few miles away from me at this moment. My mistake, we realized, was assuming that the address on the page of the leg map was the beginning point for that leg when it was really the end. So you’d have to look at the page BEFORE your leg to find the address for where your leg would start.
Jordan’s leg was perfectly suited to him: a long, steady downhill. Jordan, unlike me, has indestructible legs made of titanium (not literally), so he can run forever, and he even prefers downhill over uphill. Psycho.
I couldn’t even tell it was Jordan as he came running up to the exchange point — one of the consequences of him wearing a headlamp. But I was pretty sure Paul needed me to give him some space, so I grabbed the slap bracelet without thinking twice about it. If Jordan hadn’t said something when he handed off the bracelet, I probably would’ve spent my whole leg wondering if I had some other team’s nasty, gross, sweaty slap bracelet attached to my wrist … because that would be so much more gross than having the sweat from all of these other strangers I’d just met the day before. Good thing I’m not a germaphobe or anything.
I felt like I was moving pretty quickly, but I couldn’t see anyone ahead of me as I started on the long, uphill straightaway. I even began wondering if I was running on the wrong road until I saw a faint tail light up ahead. I must’ve already been experiencing middle-of-the-night hallucinations because it seemed as if the light was moving toward me.
Going to the light gave me no premonitions of death, at least not right then, so I kept right on running full tilt. I blew right past the runner, who, it turned out, was actually running the same direction I was. Then I caught another, and then made the left turn and quickly caught two more. I reached the trail with five or six so-called “kills” and a strong suspicion that I’d gone out waaaayyyyy too hard.
The “trail,” as it turned out, was this bizarre undulating gravel pit. I’d be moving at a solid clip when, whoosh, the ground would disappear from underneath me in the dark and I’d drop five feet into this little gully, and a few steps later, I’d run up the other side. I quickly caught some guy who was moving at a good, but not great pace — and I’m pretty sure I freaked him out as I came up on him huffing and puffing like a 5’7″ hairy legged sasquatch. When I went to pass him, the gravel on either side was oatmeal soft, so instead, I got comfortable for a bit and then passed him when the trail widened.
As I exited the gravel pit, I came up behind two very slow runners who were blocking the entire sidewalk. I puffed out an “excuse me” and shot the gap, still wondering if I’d completely overcooked my legs in the first few miles.
I crested the hill and spotted the exchange, but it was on the other side of the street, which struck me as odd. I checked for traffic and ran over to a reflective-vest-wearing volunteer only to discover that I was supposed to run down to a distant intersection, cross the street like an old grandma in need of a dutiful boy scout, and then run the rest of the way to the exchange on the other side of the road.
“Oh,” I said, “okay.”
And I turned around and ran back across the street with the volunteer yelling, “No, hey, it’s okay …”
When I finally got to the exchange, getting mixed up once more as I came up to the pylons, my team was yelling “Go Mike!” and had actually gotten the crowd cheering for me too. Some random guy yelled out, “Way to go, Mike!” In retrospect, I should’ve responded MetroMan style: “And I love you, random citizen,” but if you can’t back it up by flying away, what’s the point, right?
“I think I probably passed 9 or 10 people,” I told Paul, in between gasps. “I hope that makes up for being late to your exchange — sorry!”
We piled in the Death Trap with me still hyperventilating and made our way to a park next to a large paintball arena and a brightly lit baseball diamond for the next exchange. And right about then, The Wicked Witch of the Waste came up with a brilliantly evil scheme … actually it was just a great idea, but wicked witches don’t typically just have “great ideas.”
“I have all of those points saved up from staying at Marriott hotels,” she said. “Why don’t I reserve us a room at a Marriott around here and we can get some sleep after I finish?”
The Grand Teton Relay was all about the backwoods — sleeping in a sleeping bag, carrying a canister of bear spray, watching the sunrise over the Tetons. At Vegas, when we had some spare time before Sarah arrived, we stopped in at a local REI for some late-night shopping. When we got hungry, we’d pop into a gas station for some chocolate milk. And when both Sarahs completed their lengthy legs, it was off to the hotel for a snooze.
Because I’m a vampire, I darkened the room as much as possible while everyone else was taking a shower, and then I passed out on a large leather chair, the taste of blood still on my fangs. (Too far? Couldn’t help myself.) I might’ve even slept for three hours, which would be more than the grand total I slept at the GTR.
But alas, the call eventually came sometime around 1 or 2 a.m., and we groggily piled back into the Death Trap. Van 1 was waiting, and it was about to get even more interesting.