Along with several teammates from CSU, I headed to Dedham last Sunday, Oct. 4th for “Bernie’s Run,” the fifth race of the six-race New England Runner Pub Series. Even with a leisurely 11:30 a.m. start time, the morning felt early. It was definitely not summer, as cool temperatures, overcast skies, and a brisk breeze had me putting on layer after layer, digging out gloves I hadn’t used since March, and a knit hat I hadn’t worn since the snowpocalypse.
I had other reasons for being a little apprehensive about the race. My last two attempts at competition had been problematic, as I struggled to understand and cope with a baffling set of symptoms that I’ll summarize as “warmup dysfunction.” Briefly, these symptoms can occur after a few minutes of warming up or in the early stages of a race, and make me feel exhausted, sometimes to the point that I need to stop for a minute or two. But once I’ve done that, I can usually continue normally, running long or fast as though nothing had happened.
On the Friday before the race, I had spent a couple of hours with doctors at MGH who specialized in Cardiac Performance in athletes, discussing possible explanations for my symptoms, and ruling out more serious issues. Earlier, I had spoken to my regular doctor about this, but as sympathetic as he is, it’s challenging to describe something that is mostly noticeable and irritating when I’m engaged in otherwise healthy physical activity race. I find I lack the vocabulary to describe my symptoms properly, because the baseline of being a competitive runner is not the baseline of a typical 57-year-old man. When I use phrases like “profound fatigue” and “breathing difficulties,” I’m doing so from the perspective of what I think I should feel like when I am fit enough to run many miles at six-minute pace, not from the perspective of a couch potato who struggles to make it up a flight of stairs.
In any case, I entered the Oct. 4th race with some misgivings. In my previous two races – the Seasons 20K and the Lone Gull 10K — I had started conservatively, but had had to stop after a couple of miles to let the fatigue pass before continuing to run normally to the end. As you might imagine, this was annoying to say the least.
After examining me, and talking to me extensively about my symptoms, the doctors assured me that there was nothing worrisome about my slow heartbeat, blood pressure, or EKG. This was a relief. At the same time, it didn’t fully explain the mysterious symptoms. The doctors proposed some possible explanations, and scheduled additional tests. One of my last questions before leaving the office was whether there were any reasons I shouldn’t race on Sunday. I think if this had been my regular doctor, the response would have been to avoid racing, but from the doctors at Cardiac Performance Center, the response was both more encouraging and more nuanced: essentially the doctors recommended being guided by my symptoms, that is, stop if I needed to, and not try to override the signals my body was giving me. They saw nothing wrong with me running or racing as long as I paid close attention to how I was feeling.
Based on their analysis of the symptoms, I also decided that my warm-up routine was insufficient. In the last few weeks, I had gotten in the habit of doing light warm-ups without anything too strenuous. This, I decided, was the wrong approach. Instead, it seemed to me that my warm-up should be as hard as possible, as hard as the early parts of the race. Without knowing the exact mechanism, it seemed that my body was showing a delayed response to the signals that out to trigger appropriate levels of heart and lung activity. I reasoned that a more strenuous warm-up would give my body the best chance to switch into “competitive mode” so that it could handle the demands of racing.
After arriving at the race and collecting my number, I jogged for about 20 minutes, did a few drills, and then commenced a series of fairly long, fairly hard accelerations, including one up a hill. I decided it was foolish to worry about whether these hard strides would tire me out; leg fatigue wasn’t the problem, and a little leg fatigue wouldn’t matter if I didn’t have to stop in the middle of the race to catch my breath.
Standing at the start as we listened to the national anthem, I really didn’t know what to expect. But once the gun went off and I started running, I immediately felt different than I had felt in my last few races. In those races, there was a heaviness about everything I did, and even if the pace didn’t feel fast, I felt my body was working unsustainably hard to overcome the resistance of the fresh pace. But in the first few hundred meters of Bernie’s, I found myself running fast with a sensation of no effort. Even now, it’s hard to describe: it wasn’t just the absence of distress, it was the consciousness that the autonomic processes in my body were responding appropriately to the demands I was placing on them. To say that it felt good would be an understatement. It felt liberating, euphoric.
Apart from my inner amazement, the race itself was not terribly interesting. In the first mile, I was happy to see my teammates Patrick, Kevin, and Terry, ahead of me and gradually pulling away. After the first mile, I came up upon a few people who I knew, and was able to pass them without accelerating. As the race continued, I had begun feeling a forgotten but familiar sensation of wondering whether I could actually hold my pace until the end. It was interesting to realize that in recent races, I hadn’t ever really maxed out my fitness. I had been held back by other things, probably a natural caution in the face of my unexplained difficulties, so that even at the end of those races, my legs were in pretty good shape.
But at Bernie’s, I was running hard enough to be really rubber-legged, and with a half mile to go, I was working very hard to maintain pace, and wasn’t sure whether my fitness would hold up enough for me to finish strong.
Before the race, Terry and I had jogged that last half-mile, and had noted its long and endless turns. I was glad we’d done so, because I definitely felt like I was just hanging on. One guy passed me with about 400m to go, but I managed to hold my position, crossing the line in 17:48. It was the first time all year that I had run sub six minute pace for a race longer than a mile. It had been hard, but it was the good kind of hard. The kind of hard where you feel you’re approaching your actual limits imposed by your fitness, not being held back by some system that’s working at 50% efficiency.
It had also been a good day to finish third in my age group, virtually ensuring that I would be in the top three at the end of the series. In the spring, when I had decided that I would actually try to finish all of the pub races, it certainly didn’t seem as though I would have much of a chance. I almost didn’t run the second race, the Doyle’s five miler in April, because of a hamstring injury. But I just kept showing up to the races, and picking up points here and there. It’s a cliché, but the older you get, the more important it is to keep showing up, healthy or not, and give yourself a chance.
So, one good race isn’t any kind of final answer. I have more tests scheduled this week to try to understand the exact nature and dynamics of my “warm-up dysfunction”, including a maximum exertion test scheduled for Friday that’s got me a little worried. At Bernie’s I was fortunate to have found a strategy that worked, but I know that’s not conclusive, just additional evidence that might come in handy as we grope toward a better understanding.
One way or the other, the main takeaway from the race for me was that I haven’t become permanently slow. Instead, there is a faster runner inside who’s dealing with issues that can be dealt with. You could probably say that about almost everyone in the race, in fact, you could probably say that about almost any runner at almost any time.
My next race will be another experiment. I don’t expect to feel the same euphoria and relief that I experienced with that opening 5:40 mile in Dedham. Euphoria or Despair are transitory feelings, and I’d expect something less dramatic next time. But for one weekend at least, normal felt great, and becoming re-acquainted with my true running self felt like coming home after a long absence.