New Beginnings

When we train our bodies as runners we generally try to follow a pattern of steady growth. There are always ups and downs, but generally over the course of weeks, months, and on into years we find ourselves hoping to become steadily more and more capable as runners. There are of course age limitations to this, and eventually even the most perfectly trained athlete will slow down as they age beyond a certain point, but up until that point we spend a huge amount of our energy as runners training our bodies and minds to keep growing. Despite this persistent goal though, the reality seems to be that virtually everyone has some serious bumps along this path. In some cases it’s injury or illness, in others it’s life commitments (family, job, etc), and in many it’s as simple as lost motivation or a shift in priorities. Whatever the cause, nearly everyone who identifies themselves as a runner comes up against time(s) when this path of steady growth is significantly derailed.

In virtually all of these circumstances it’s challenging to get back on the path of steady growth. Many people decide they don’t want to or that they don’t think they can. Others attempting a “comeback” succumb to some of the same challenges that set them off track in the first place and simply give up, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Some people decide that they just don’t want to run again, but it seems like more people want to, but decide that they can’t. In some cases this is certainly true, but more often than not I think these runners are set up in a perfect position to run stronger and wiser than ever. I’ll attempt here to briefly explain why, and perhaps a few of you can find motivation in this perspective.

I have been through this entire process before. I began running in junior high school and followed the path of steady growth for about six years. When injuries put my running on hold after three semesters of college I lost interest in the sport and began a period of almost 10 years in which I ran very little. Then, inexplicably, in 2005 I began to get the running bug again. After not running for nearly 10 years I had all kinds of hunger, my body felt like it was just waiting for the day it would be tested in that manner again. I never thought I would run at the level that I did back in school, but with all the things I learned in that 10 years of not running now on my side (not to mention 10 years of “rest”), I was set up perfectly to run much stronger and wiser than I ever did in the past. I came out of the gate running, and for nearly seven years I was on the steady growth train once again.

Toward the end of this past summer though, all this came crashing down in the form of severe health problems, and I have been on fewer than a half dozen runs in the past five months. I once again find myself going through this cyclical process. I am faced again with all the same questions. Do I want to get back on the steady growth path? Will my body allow me to? What do I need to do differently to stay on this path as long as possible going forward?

It’s not possible to definitively know the answer to any of these questions, but what I have learned from going through this process once before is that getting back on track will almost certainly require a major shift in the way I approach running. When I began running again in 2005 it wasn’t possible for me to run the way I did back in high school. At least not for any length of time. I actually tried for a year or two and then realized that it just wasn’t effective or sustainable. When I figured this out and began to run in a way that made sense for my 30-year-old self, and not my 17-year-old self, I began almost instantly to put in running efforts far beyond anything I ever imagined I could get out of my body.

Right now I don’t know when I will make a serious attempt to start back on this path, but based on the improvements in my health in the past month it will quite likely be sometime in the next few months. I know that I will need to take things very slowly at first, but I also know that once I do start to get my fitness back and begin to run on a more regular basis (possibly as soon as April or May, but maybe not for several more months) I will need to do some things very differently than I have in the past. Rather, not that I will have to, but that I will want to, and my experiences these last five months will be the thing that will give me the wisdom and patience to do so.

To me this is all a terribly exciting thing, and the entire reason I’m writing this article. I think that any major setback in our running is an opportunity to learn how to run in a different and more effective way. There is no exact “right” way to run, and because of this there is always something we could be doing to be better runners. When we’re on the path of steady growth we often become complacent and unaware (with reason) of this reality. When we get derailed from this path though, we are forced to step back, regain our bearings, and come back with a new and fresh approach. In this sense any major setback in our running is an opportunity to become a better runner. Often times the things which cause these setbacks teach us a lot more about running than smooth and steady stretches of running ever could.

I don’t say all of this in a cup is half full, blatant optimist (something I am often accused of) kind of way. I’m not writing to urge people who have been derailed in their running to push ahead and try to make the best of a bad situation, but rather to show people that it might not be a bad situation at all. Cup half empty or cup half full might not be the only options. The cup might instead be all the way full.

Of course this can all be hard to believe when you are in the midst of derailment, but I know for certain that my 10 years not running after college made me a better runner the past seven years than I ever would have been otherwise, just as I am expecting that my time away from running right now will make me a better runner in the future than I would have been without this experience. What exactly this will look like I have no idea, just that my best running days are ahead of me, and so too may be yours, even if you feel totally derailed right now – or rather, especially if you feel totally derailed right now!

There are 37 comments

  1. Jim

    Right on Geoff! Even if I had a fluky injury getting back into the swing of things has sort of felt flat. Perhaps a good time to reevaluate things. Mix yoga into the workouts, changing up the shoes, the trails, the mileage. Maybe get out and run with others more to break the funk. Well wishes on whatever path you decide to take(or what your body allows you to take).

  2. Pedro Caprichoso

    After many years vexed with injuries – the most serious of which a rupture of the soleus muscle, which left me in the "yard" for 3 months – I would like to share with you what I have learned for these past 2 years in which, through some changes, I was able to train consistently without any injuries.

    I am not saying that this works with everyone. I'm just giving my personal testimony of how I went from a runner who easily got injured to one that has not been injured for 2 years now.

    1 – Minimalist footwear:

    Following the trend of minimalist footwear, I have quit the heavy shoes with more cushioning and have started to train and compete with light and minimalist footwear, which allows me to run in a more natural and efficient way. The Asics Piranha are my favorite running shoes on the road: 120gr and 4mm of heel to toe drop. On the mountains, I currently use the Asics Fuji Racer: 200 gr and 6mm of heel to toe drop.

    2 – Running more in the mountains:

    For me, running in the mountains has 3 immediate benefits:

    (1) Getting in touch with nature for obvious reasons as opposed to running on tarmac and inhaling exhaust fumes;

    (2) Running on road is much more boring than running in the mountains (the miles pass slowly in the mountains but the hours go faster);

    (3) And speaking from experience, I believe that is advantageous to run in the mountains from an injury prevention standpoint.

    3 – Reducing speed:

    I have always been a fan of interval workouts from 400m to 1600m. However, I have not done any specific speed drills for over 2 years now and the truth is that I have never felt so fast. I still sporadically train above the pace at which I intend to compete; the difference is that now speed is a much smaller component of my training: I use it only in longer workouts at a slower pace. I am thus getting away from pure speed training and just doing fartlek. More than that, I've been noticing in recent years that the most beneficial training is not so much based on speed (min/miles) but on heart rate. So the speedwork that I do now is essentially done running uphill. I'll explain with an example: for me it is preferable, in order to prevent injuries, to run a series of 1 mile uphills at 160 beats/min and 7:00/mile than to do a series of 1 milers in flat terrain at 5:00 / mile at 160 beats/min, because the muscle impact is greater in flat terrain (thus increasing the risk of injury). Apart from traumatic injuries resulting from accidents, I think that runners that run essentially in the mountains are less prone to injury than someone that runs exclusively on the road, but I have no data to back this up.

    4 – Increase the distance:

    The best exercise – the one that gives us good health – is the aerobic one. We all know, for example, that in terms of weight loss is preferable to run 1 hour at a slower pace than 30 minutes at a stronger pace. Incidentally, the calories spent running 10km are the same, either if you do it in 1hour or in 30min: the calories spent are independent of running speed given the same conditions (distance, course and weather conditions). So nothing better than running far at a slow pace. If I had to choose one type of workout this would be it: 4 hours in the mountains at 8:00/mile. I also feel the need to do longer workouts (6 hours was the longer that I have done thus far) if the race for which I am training for requires me to train my mental game.

    5 – Rest:

    Rest, listen to your body and never do a hard workout tired. Before I would run to exhaustion. Now I run every day, Monday through Sunday, but I only do three specific workouts per week. The second and third days are always "easy" after Sunday’s long run. I never run more than 1h30 on "easy" days and never at a standard pace, but I rather run on feeling. Ideally, the clock stays at home on “easy” days.

  3. Mike

    Geoff, your article came with amazing timing. I, too, am going through one of the darkest times of my running life at the moment. I have always been a runner, and ran my first marathon straight out of high school 25 years ago. Since then, I have enjoyed a long and enthusiastic career of various athletic endeavors, from 5Ks to marathons to adventure races…over 150 in all. In fact, my best year for running races came the year previous – I’d even celebrated my first win in a road race. However, everything for me derailed this past summer, when my father passed away due to cancer. I'd been dealing with plantar fasciitis for the couple of months prior and, coupled with the loss of my father, I ended up retreated away from running and not to it. I just lost my stride.

    Since then, the injuries (both physical and emotional) have continued to gnaw on me. I’ve also gained a few, unwanted pounds, which doesn't help. I struggle through physical therapy to find solutions to the foot pains I am still experiencing. My last run was close to three months ago and I tell myself that I need this time off to regain physical health, but I still look out the window and secretly wish I were out there making tracks on the snowy trails.

    My desire has always been there, but my confidence has not. Yes, I know many runners have been there – heck, I've encouraged so many who have had similar problems – but I'd never actually experienced something like this myself. I had always felt I was invincible with my running, like an inherent ability that would always stay with me. It had always been my way to escape a long day at work; it’s allowed me to find clarity, peace and relaxation, and bring myself back into alignment with my wife and young children.

    I need this. It’s time I find it again. My best days are ahead. Thank you for your inspiration and confidence.

  4. eric hodge

    you blatant optimist, you!! (not a terrible thing to be accused of, in my book).

    maybe the glass is simply the wrong size?

    i think any situation that invites a fresh mental approach will do wonders for whomever is involved and whatever they are trying to accomplish.

    i very much look forward to following your re-emergence to running and can only imagine how inspiring it'll be…

  5. George K.

    I totally agree with you and as I read this I think it brought to my attention a major question that the middle aged runner (28-34) may have: Can you have a successful running "career", if you are of the older ranks while losing somewhat valuable time by taking the required breaks from running needed for your body and mind to heal…? In other words, will a middle aged, newer ultrarunner, be able to accomplish that of an experienced top ultrarunner within his/her lifetime, or have we've gotten started too late in life to give our bodies the time to train and time to rest needed???

    1. Anonymous

      George- im 34 and only started mountain running two years ago here in Ireland. This was my first time running since i was a school kid. After an amazing first year doing shorter fell races of 6, 13, 19 miles etc i wanted to do an ultra. I completed the 32 miles and 2000 metres of ascent. Now im training for two 50 milers this year- one in Scotland and the other in the French Alps

      1. George K.

        That's awesome! I'm glad to hear of your success and hope it continues, especially at those elevations!

        I've completed quite a few Ultra's so far and pretty much have one scheduled every month for 2013 with varying distances between 50K-100M. What I'm really trying to find out though is if "competitive racing" as apposed to "running" an Ultra is possible with people our age with such a late start into the Ultra distances…

      1. George K.

        Hahaaa! Sorry Digger! When I say "middle aged" I mean for the age to be starting out running Ultras. Since I've turned 30 I feel like I'm on an entirely different planet than some of the newer 20-25 year olds that have been running track and Xcountry for the last decade that are destroying Ultras right now.

        I'm excited to see that mostly 30+ year old runners are still dominating Ultras and I want to be able to tell myself that it's still possible for me to finish with some top times despite my late start into Ultra running…

  6. Shelby

    As always Geoff, you are an inspiration and encouragement as you write in the midst of your derailment. While I'm not currently sidelined by injury, I know I will come back to your articles when that day comes, because you have such a mature perspective on these kinds of setbacks. Thanks for letting us walk through this time with you and learn from your experiences. Good luck this year!

  7. Andrew

    Geoff –

    I had a moderate setback as I trained for my first 100 miler this past year. Fortunately, I got through the race. But I was forced to shutdown for 12 weeks and re-evaluate my entire training approach. I have been training hard (and smarter) for nearly 4 months now and loving every moment of it. I learned a lot about myself, my limitations, and how I can grow through the process. It wasn't easy and I had to let go of some ego-related concepts in my mind.

    Thanks for writing this!

    Andrew

  8. Mike

    Those diversions from constant improvement, whether it be injury, having a family, job requirements, have been the things that have brought me an equally great sense of accomplishment as the times when I didn't have any of those things and all you saw were the numbers. Some of my most satisfying runs now have been to go to work in the morning, leave work at noon and get in a solid trail run, then pick up my son from school before making dinner that night for the family. Maybe my absolute time in doing that run is not what it used to be, but there's a balance and appreciation to the running today, moreso than there ever was before.

    Best of luck in your health Geoff.

  9. Ben

    Love this article Geoff. Thanks for being an inspiration, and reminding us runners what running is really all about – self discovery. 2012 was a brutal year for me with a couple stress fractures and a cracked rib to boot. I'm now getting back on the running wagon, but it has come with it's own set of challenges; joints are rusty at times, various niggles surface. Your article is instructive here: look at the longer-term view and know that things will get better.

  10. Matt Smith

    As I recover from a pelvic stress fracture compounded with arthritis of the pubic symphysis, I can almost literally feel your pain. I struggled with this injury for months without a proper diagnosis or treatment regime, but now can finally see the light and have finally started running again after 3 months off.

    Had I been better at resting, I might have avoided the injuries, or at least recovered more quickly.

    As an aging runner (45) I am conflicted by the urge to run as many good races as I can before I am 'too old to PR' and the simple reality that my body can no longer protest the onslaught of entropy.

    Over-training and under-resting have consequences for those of us not bio-mechanically inclined to perfect running form (and even for those so blessed.)

    I'm glad to see that iRF is running articles on the potential downfalls of over-racing and I'm also happy to have a view into Geoff's personal struggles with these issues. Great article.

    Thanks,

    Matt

  11. Dan C

    Good luck when you start running again Geoff. I only made it 3 races in college before I was injured and didn't run for 18 years. Two years later after getting back and running some great races I had an accident and was out another 3.5 years. I have now been back 4 years and have had many more great races. Of course I'm not as fast as I used to be but if you enjoy racing, you can always set new goals that are just as much fun to attain as when you were younger.

  12. Brent Broome

    I don't think 28-34 is too late to start a successful ultra career. It may be too late to accomplish as much as those who started in their teens (as you'll have fewer peak years), but many ultrarunners peak closer to 40 than 30– just look at the 2012 ultrarunner of the year, 40-year-old Mike Morton.

    On a personal note, I started running at age 30 (in 2010) and have made monumental progress in terms of the intensity and volume my body can handle. I have yet to run my first ultra (I'm signed up for a couple this year), but at the young age of 33 I'm still on the steep part of the improvement curve and I hope to be mixing it up at the front of some ultras a few years down the road. So keep an eye out for my name– if I'm successful, you'll have yourself at least one anecdotal answer to your question.

    1. George Katsikaris

      Thanks and good luck to you in the future Brent! I'll keep my eye out as I love to get some motivation from people coming from similar backgrounds as my own. As with you, I too am feeling that I am entering the apex of my training, a point where I can really start to see major progress. I've been consistently knocking off an hour from the last on 50K's so I'm hoping that I can continue that progress and as you said, really start mixing it up with the front of the pack.

      Thanks again for your input, it would be great to see more motivation like this out there for our gen.

  13. Ethan

    Perspective is important. I'm choosing to look at my herniated disc after a solid block of training as an opportunity to rest and comsolidate fitness gains. At the very least I'm doing plenty of resting…

  14. Tarzan

    Geoff-thanks for sharing and offering a different perspective on running and life in general. Last yr I had a rough, scary yr. I ran my slowest marathon of my life in November and to me it felt like I won an Ultra. That marathon was very personal for me, just to able to run and be grateful, no matter what the time was, I teared up a bit seeing that finish line….you're right, the cup may indeed be full! Again, thanks for sharing.

  15. Melissa

    Your honesty is admired, and I love how you put all of those feelings into words. As a runner and writer myself, I just want to say how I appreciate this post and the notions and ideas that you've put forth. Not only are you a competitor whom I look up to, but simply from reading your writing, you're also a person who I feel many look up to as a human being. You have lots to say, and I think your voice is totally worth hearing :)

    Thank you for sharing your stories.

  16. Ron

    A good description of the rest of life, too, Geoff. Thank you for writing it. For most of us, things don't go as we thought that they were going to go when we were in our twenties or even thirties. There's a lot of things that can go wrong or right with our bodies and in our lives, and a lot of things that just occur by chance, for good and bad. The secret is to try our best and keep many options open and move forward on which ever path seems good and open. 'Running forward' can be literal and figural. One of the things that I've learned from the running nearly 30 years is that everyone is, indeed, truly, different. It is hard to say that this shoe or that form is 'better' for this or that person at this or that time in their lives. The doctors that I've seen for running injuries have been of little help over the years–there really doesn't seem to be much accurate science about it, despite all the so-called 'research.' And things that I or others thought were impossible are proved possible by some. Like life, it is a lot of searching for the best option one can and coming to accept that and enjoy it. Good luck with the return to running, Geoff. I know that you'll make it.

  17. Jason C

    Thanks for this timely post, Geoff. Derailment can get pretty dark. Recognizing the glass to be always full can be difficult if one constantly fixates on the water. In the past few months I had actually begun to resent my 10+ year estrangement.

    Thanks again,

    Jason

  18. Elite Pete

    "the calories spent running 10km are the same, either if you do it in 1hour or in 30min" – not true.

    The person running it in 30 mins is (almost certain) to bo a more efficient runner, meaning he requires less energy to cover the same distance.

    1. Pedro Caprichoso

      I understand your point, but I wasn't talking about two different persons. I was referring to the same person doing 10km in 1h or in 30min given the same conditions (distance, course and weather conditions). The same person!

  19. thomas

    Hi Geoff, your post is awesome, emotionaly, and shows that also the best runners of the world like you have difficult moments, nobody can always go up, there are always limits. one can go another way, try things from a different perspective.

    An interessting perspective gives the video from Kilian, summitsofmylife,

    i cant describe my feelings seeing this incredible, awesome video, beyond all we can imagine. In this video kilian describes also his feelings and motivation.

    take care thomas

  20. Charlie M.

    In my 30's I ran a slew of marathons, 2 100 milers, several other ultras, and I was competitive in local races. I thought I would get even more prolific and competitive in my 40's. Didn't happen. Had kids, got injured, can't stay healthy, tried switching to minimalism, switched back, still couldn't get healthy, and now I realize my best running days are probably behind me. Don't care. Still love getting out for a 5-miler during the day, love watching my kids grow, love following the sport from afar. Life truly is about perspective-giving experiences and the journey itself. My guess is you will be extremely competitive again, you're just in a down cycle from a prolific period. But if this is "the end", then you've just got to move on to different stuff. Life happens. Maybe you'll return to NY like your Mom has always wanted!

  21. Doug

    I think your story is quite inspirational and really makes me want to get back into running more often. One problem for me, though, is I've had a lot of knee problems over the years from spore and other activities. If you were me getting back into the running game, what sort of shoes would you recommend I get in order to allow me to best protect what's left of my knees but still allow me to get some running in? I want to try and follow in your footsteps (eventually) but just want to make sure I do it properly this time around :)

    1. Charlie M.

      If you choose minimalist shoes, make sure to give yourself at least 8-10 years of transition time…

      If you choose maximilist shoes, sign yourself up for knee surgery 8-10 years in advance…

      If you choose a "middle-of-the-road" shoe, definitely stay in the middle of the road because the 8-10mm drop will camber your knees into submission.

      I say all of this tongue in cheek having tried all the options and still suffering from the same sports-related injuries I started with…

      But perhaps you will have better luck. Hoping so…

  22. Mike D.

    I received this in an email a few weeks ago from Runner's World Qoute of the Day:

    "I have my own unique road that has had many exciting ups and heart-breaking downs, but one thing I know is that my journey is not over and the best is yet to come."

    Ryan Hall, Olympic marathoner

    I thought it was fitting to share.

    Mike

  23. Max

    I hope you keep us updated with your new discoveries Geoff. I've used your blog and what you described about your training to get ideas about my own running to pull myself out of a slump that was consuming me for a couple of years. I believe there's a lot more I can learn from what you discover down your road to help me find mine.

  24. Naomi

    I understand this, and my story seems similar. I too stopped running in college. I was a sprinter/jumper and I was hoping to do heptathalon when foot surgery made me stop and re-evaluate my running. I had fun with it at first, but after surgery I only became concirned with getting better fast and becoming good enough to run in college. I was not allowed to even stand up for 3 months, and 3 months later after intense therapy I was allowed to run. But it was painful, and I didn't enjoy running for a time or jumping for a distance. I got burned out and stopped, and then a couple years later found myself signed up for a Tough Mudder, then workin an aid station at Grindstone 100, then signed up for the USMC Marathon, then preparing for Holiday Lake 50k (which will happen this Feb.) But in the midst of training for my first ultra, I find myself in a slump. I moved from the mountains to the coast, where trails and hills are very lacking, and started work and another round of school (which goes from 5-10 each night 5 nights a week). With no time to run, knee pain induced by road running, and a 1.3 mile loop as my only trail, running has once again become a chore.

    This essay gave me hope! Thank you :)

  25. Julie w

    Such a great article, thank you for your wise words. This has brightened my winter of injury. Best to you and everyone else who has been "given" this type of opportunity come back better.

  26. Dennis Schaefer

    I started running in 1978, ran through the 80's, finished my 9th marathon in 1991 and stopped battling through the tendonitis. Did Masters swimming, got a Black belt in taekwondo, then in 2012, at age 61, retired from competitive Taekwondo sparring, started to run again with an eye on ultras. I was very apprehensive at first, waiting for the tendonitis to come back. But, because of different training strategy, new technology and and new attitude, am injury free through 2 marathons. I am listening to my body and it is saying "you can do this, but as a 62 year old runner," and its so far, so good.

  27. wglovett

    Well said as always Geoff. I appreciate your insight.. We all have ups and downs, that's for sure, some are just larger than others and tend to get more notice. And the more notice it takes from you the more worrisome that can seem initially.. Any time it causes you to evaluate what you want from the sport can't be all that bad. Concerning as it may be to find yourself in that position..

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