Check Engine Light

With three straight ultrarunning seasons in me, one thing’s increasingly clear: I’m at a point of diminishing returns. To continue improving I have to keep working on what I have control over, namely volume and intensity of training while exploring some shorter race distances to help build greater power and speed. In 2015, with two successful 100mi campaigns in the bank, I found myself in early November wondering where my desire to put up big weeks of training had gone. North Face Endurance Challenge… you temptress! Alas, there was little training mojo but in the words of Jack London, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” Racing always seem like fun. Why not race more, train less and see if I can’t work on that power/speed development?!!

The overarching plan at the end of 2015 was to “get fast” so I could race my way into Western States 100 at either Sean O’Brien 100k in February or at Gorge Waterfalls 100k in April. All these years of racing, I know how to mix up a good training/racing cocktail to achieve my long-term goals. So I raced fast and often over a 3-week period leading into North Face. I was sure to chop the volume since the intensity went up. It was a lot of fun and I felt like the experience would serve me well in the long-term.

As luck would have it, my golden ticket to States fell into my lap in mid-November as a result of the work I did with Tahoe Mountain Milers at both Western and Tahoe Rim Trail last summer. So I no longer needed to race my in at Sean O’Brien or Gorge. Yet, I still wanted to race those events, and badly. That’s what we do—we sign up for event, train hard, taper, and go big (then repeat the cycle). All the while, health often gets taken for granted.

After North Face at the beginning of December I pretty much shut it down and really wasn’t doing much exercise at all in the weeks after. As a masters runner now, I’m realizing this is a very bad idea; I really need to keep moving. I need to ride the bike more and keep things lubricated. After a couple weeks I went out and did some short trail runs only to find my left knee was givin’ me hell. I experienced an intermittent sharp pain under my patella. It was there. It was not there. Go to the bike. Work it out. Mix the cocktail. Find the solution. Manage it. Run. Pain’s better! Okay, ease back in…

The injury litmus test I’ve always used is if the pain subsides as the run progresses, you’re probably good. If the pain gets worse, you got a problem and you should back off the running and accept you have an issue that needs attention. My knee pain subsided and I chalked it up to a weird niggle that ultimately seems to have originated from racing two tough 30k’s too close together back in Nov; then piling more stress on top of that in order to encourage increased speed and mental fitness for the spring. By mid-January, Sean O’Brien (SOB) training was finally starting to come together:  a 70mi week with 15,000′ of elevation, backed up with an 80mi week with 18,000′ of gain. No knee pain, but… was somethin’ still goin’ on in there??

I wanted to put up one more big week of training before taking a rest week and then sharpening the week into SOB. Monday came rolling around and I noticed some mild swelling. Hmm, not good. After having dealt with a different stress related issue in the same leg a year before, I knew the best path was to take the issue seriously and get some help sooner than later. After a week, the swelling was just about gone and things were looking good again.

I followed through with my promise to myself and went in to see my sports doc and we hashed it out. “The x-ray looks good and I see no need for an MRI, but if you want one we can do it. Are you sure you wanna know what’s goin’ on in there?” We set up the MRI for later that same day. With Western States on the line, I needed to know exactly what I was dealing with, and if racing two tough 100k’s this spring was even in the cards.

This was 10 days out from Sean O’Brien. I had my plane tickets, car, and hotel booked. I was super stoked to race. My 3-month plan to arrive to Feb fast and fit looked like it had worked well. I would use SOB and Gorge as stepping stones to my States-specific training in May and June. Perfect! I asked my doc if I could go out and do my tempo run on the road before the MRI that afternoon. He said, “Why not?” The MRI would be what it was going to be anyway. Since I’d rested for a week and absorbed that last week of training I was on a tapered high starting this run. I zipped through a 14-miler on rolling country roads averaging low 6s the whole way—great! Average HR was in the high 140s—great! Green light for SOB 100k!!

My MRI revealed the following (see below). Everyone keeps telling me that it’s not as bad as it sounds. Well, I’m thinking, it doesn’t feel as bad as it sounds, so…

Moderate marrow edema within the anterior pole and body of the
patella likely representing stress related changes with stress
reaction/fracture. Additional probable stress related change involving the medial
femoral condyle and lateral tibial plateau. Focal deep chondral fissuring of the inferior central patellar cartilage.  Small joint effusion.

My doc went over my MRI results with me and suggested I take some time away from running to allow the knee to heal up. It was a bit counter-intuitive to see there was indeed, havoc going on inside my knee, yet I just had a great tempo run 2 hours prior with no issues at all. Well, what now?

In my early 20’s I drove my dad’s old Isuzu Trooper we got when I was in 6th grade. I put some big miles on that beast. By summer ’96 I don’t think there was a light on that dashboard that wasn’t illuminated. I drove it straight into the ground.

Clearly, ignorance wouldn’t likely lead to the bliss I’m seeking at the Western States 100 finish line in June, so just like that, Sean O’Brien was out (for the second year in a row). And after looking at at least a month away from running, so is Gorge Waterfalls. Trying to “force fitness” for Gorge—not to mention the stress of the race itself—could possibly lead right back to where I am now, or worse. I was bummed about SOB since I was looking to do well there, and Gorge, because I wanted to go back and improve upon last year’s performance. And yeah, it would’ve been cool to Top-2 at SOB and/or Gorge to prove—at least to myself—that I could earn my way in through racing, even if I no longer needed to do so. I’ll have to remain content with what I’ve done at the 100mi distance over the last 3 seasons. That’s confidence enough.

Rehabbing the knee. Photo Credit: Dave Townsend

We play the cards we’re dealt. I’ve stopped running and have gone in to Santa Rosa Physical Therapy and got some great PT stuff to help balance me out since this is the second stress-related issue on my left side, along with some reassurance that I’m looking good for a full recovery in time to come back right and do a proper build to Canyons 100k two days before my birthday in May. Naturally, I’d love to come into States having raced at least one ultra. And I’m feeling the good mojo with Canyons—100k with 14,000′ of vert. If I can train properly and hit 70-80mi running with 15-20k’ of gain with no knee swelling, it’ll be game-on. Otherwise, more rest could be needed and I’ll have to come into Western not having raced, which though not ideal, wouldn’t be that bad as long as the training’s there in May/June. It’s all about the preparation. Ultimately, knee-be-damned; I’ll baby it now, but come the end of June, it’s go-time.

Things are progressing well. I’m doing the PT every morning along with yoga and foam-rolling. I’m practicing fast-hiking on trail with a 20lb weight vest a few times per week, spinning, strength training, and did my first century ride over hilly terrain last weekend. That was a nice 7-hr effort. No pain during and no post-ride swelling. Yeah, I’m missing trail-running but it’s a no-brainer right now to take the rest given my goals later this year.

In parting, check out this sweet vid from Ultra Muse from last year’s Run Rabbit Run 100. That was a crazy day where I just stayed within myself and allowed the race to come to me. Hoping to be back in September (knee willing!).

Faster than Twitter, thanks to my beautiful, loving, and highly supportive wife Amanda for her thankless job [even from afar] as “First Responder.”  |  Thank you to Julbo Eyewear for the beautiful, functional, and comfortable sunglasses. It’s GREAT to be working with you!  |  Thank you to Hoka One One for your continued support and producing the best shoes out there—#LetsGoHoka!  |  Thanks to Inside Trail Racing for offering so many fantastic races in great places.  |  Thanks to Vitargo for the steady energy and SIMPLIFYING my nutrition.  |  Thank you Healdsburg Running Company for all the wonderful support. HRC rocks! | Victory Sportdesign produces the best drop-bags in the biz! | Thanks to Dave Townsend at Santa Rosa Physical Therapy for helping me keep the dream alive!






9 thoughts on “Check Engine Light

  1. Thank you for this post; I’m impressed you moved through “denial” pretty quickly and reached “acceptance” and are on your way to better health. (I’m referring to an article I wrote in which other top-level ultrarunners compare the stages of coping with injury to that of grief, You are smart to skip SOB and Gorge and focus on your own plan for recovery & training. It’s better to get to the start line in Squaw undertrained but healthy, than injured. good luck!

  2. Great, honest post, Bob. I love reading your race and training reports, and would honestly prefer those, but getting to see how guys like you deal with the setbacks is also really great.

    Have fun with those weighted hikes. I know back when I lived out west and regularly mixed in backpacking with my other training, my legs were always super strong.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful message Brian. Glad you enjoyed the post. And yeah, I would’ve much preferred this to have been a SOB100k race-report but it’s good to just keep puttin’ truths out there—makes setbacks easier to deal with. Good luck with your training and racing this year!

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