ARTICLE: Reconstructing René

Picture this:

A 27-year old sports misfit turns up for an Irish Championship mountain race, under the mistaken impression it would make good training for a beginner in marathoning. He get’s himself injured but returns to hill running full of excitement. Without a clue he races almost weekly, sometimes several times per week, in his first year before running a marathon in 3:18 late that year.

He get’s a strange foot-pain at this stage but since pain is for the weak, or so he read in “Feet in the Clouds”, he ignores it. Rest is also for the week so he runs Powerscourt Ridge not too long after After all, he can’t get injured, he’s been telling everyone this for the last 11 months. Even when he does, he shows super-human recovery powers. He’s confident, as he should be, having read “Lore of Running” and obviously knowing everything about running. How could he not having been immersed in the sport for just over a year? Even on the rare occasion when he comes up short for answers, luckily the internet is teeming with expert advice, he can apply. When the advice has failed there is always plenty more.

Still, he struggles on, and get’s his first pair of orthotics, since the physio seems to think it’s a good idea. He throws them out half a year later when they haven’t made much of a difference. The calf-raises were also ditched, although everyone told him they are great. Using the little calf muscle and the inflamed tendons in his legs to lift the body-weight up and down did sound like a great idea on paper, but it got extremely boring and was quite painful too. Not all is lost, though, he’s managed to run a pretty good season, moving into the top-20 in many hill races. All new runners seem to improve really fast, both those who do little, those who do a lot and those who do bizarre training. No matter, our runner convinces himself he’s a special prodigy.

Autumn comes with depression, running is getting more and more painful. Our hero has forgotten that he’s unbreakable and since all the doctors and therapists he speaks to tells him he’s injury prone, weak and should run less, he believes this now too. He’s bought a second pair of orthotics, at least these were only 70 quid, but his physio bill is now well past €500 for the year. Getting his VHI refund is like Christmas come early. He’s still not running consistently, a few days off a few days on. Eventually, he get’s an MRI, that will give all the answers. He get’s some vague explanation about dark areas and small signs of inflammation. Yet the foot just bloody hurts! He get’s prescribed Difene, that’s a sure way to cure it, and is told to stick the foot in ice-water as many times per day as he can take. This works a treat for his pain threshold but the Difene makes him sick and he’s terrible company, always whining about the pains. Each day seems the same: stretch the legs as much as pain allows, take Nurofen, put foot in ice water He’s told to take up biking, but he wants to run, not spend half a day maintaining a bike, so that’s no help.

His little heart beats with excitement every time a new magical shoe is touted in Runner’s World. He get’s the ASICS Kinsei, the height of human shoe technology! Surely, all pain will not reside. Strangely, running in them is worse than ever. He really is a crock. The Kinsei are thrown out, with the last pair of orthotics. Then he reads about this thing called “Chi Running”. It sounds a bit New Age, but the book is all bubbly optimism, a welcome spark in the grim depression of non-running, so he signs up with Catherina McKiernan.

The course is great and he even get’s the chance to impress the other attendees with how well he has memorised all the cool phrases from the book such as “lean” and “cotton and steel”. He tries running up hill sideways but its too weird. At least he’s not bored during his runs at the moment, his brain is busy “lift foot, fall forward from ankles, little cyclical movements, or was it the other way around?” Before he knows it, the a laser surgeon in Dublin has made his foot pain go away. Happy days! He’ll never get injured again, he vows, he has learned all the lessons now.

A few months later he’s got weird pains in his ankles, despite the fact he was so careful. He decided to run easily one day per week as his recovery. Going from no running to 60km per week seemed so conservative for someone as talented as this guy. The physio tells him it’s normal: all the folks who came with knee injuries to his clinic went and did Chi Running. Now they come to him with posterior tendon injuries. He loves how each visit teaches him a new Latin word. The physio prescribes orthotics, stretching and some newer and cooler calf-raises. The orthotics don’t fit into mountain running shoes, and our runner asks why the orthotics are all the same if all the shoes are different? No answer.

While he has focused on being injured, he keeps getting beaten in races or performing really poorly. He concludes he is not training hard enough and finds smart ways around his niggles so he can keep up with his rivals who are storming ahead. Rotating shoes or taping up the feet can move the pain from one spot to another, genius! He dreams of his competitors training at night…

Over the next few years he get’s to learn a lot of new Latin words, his white tape is replaced by cool coloured tape with a “K” in the name and he get’s to buy a lot of shoes. He develops a close relationship to his physio, which is natural, because they see each other a lot. There’s talk about “barefoot” running. He remembers thinking running on grass as a child was fun that way, but it sounds a bit crackpot. A book comes out called “Born to Run”. Since he buys all new running books that come out, he get’s that, of course, and suddenly sees the light. As he puts the book down, he feels like Jesus just walked in the room. How could he be so wrong all along! It’s the fault of the shoes!

He can’t bring himself to throw them out, so he packs them into his ASICS race bags. There’s not a lot of them left as he hasn’t really race a lot (or run for that matter) over the last few years, but he get’s to read and write a lot about running, so he’ll be a champion eventually. Anyway, it’s time to go barefoot. So in order to do so he buys something called Vibrams. He steps out of the door with a big smile on his face and his little heart beats with anticipation, now he’ll run free! Five minutes later he hobbles back in the door. He tries a few more times but it’s like walking on glass, so he decides the Vibrams make really cool holiday shoes especially for walking in water. He digs out his old racing flats. All the serious runner do all their training in them. Sounds like a good compromise. He’ll ease into it, they way he always does.

Armed with years of wisdom he manages seven weeks of unbroken training. He does have to tape himself up, get monthly massages, foam-roll, stretch, ice, strength train and take the odd Nurofen to get through it, but get through it he does. Strangely after those seven weeks, he’s in pain again. Sure it was worth it, he thinks as he sits around waiting to heal for the next month. Racing season is almost there. He’s got a cold but decides a 5-mile tempo run should be done. It’s on the schedule after all and the whole master plan might fall to pieces if he doesn’t do it. Hobbling home with a very sore Achilles an hour later, he wonders what to do about his master plan…

They tape him up a few weeks later to run a reasonably good leg in a local mountain relay that he really wants to do well in. He’s got tape up to the knee as he collapses afterwards but he get’s a medal he can show his kids, so it’s worth it. He can’t run for two weeks after and to his surprise he cannot record a PB when he decides to still give “a half-marathon a go”. Life seems strangely repetitive now: race, rest, tape, race. Summers comes and goes. He thinks about all his great plans and how he’s suddenly 32. Too old for running really competitively surely. Many tell him so. You lose speed and flexibility, they say, but may be ok for endurance. But since he’s a crock, he can’t run high mileage. He reads a lot about “running less to run faster”. It sounds a bit crackpot, and besides even if it worked, it’s not very impressive to discuss your low mileage training on online forums.

For a few months, he takes a break from running. There are more important things in life, and he’s coaching now. He tells his girlfriend: “I’m afraid my biggest chance of achieving something memorable in running is as a coach.” Not to be melodramatic about it. But he knows the truth, because everyone mentions it: “you never heal back the way you were. You have to learn to live with injuries. You can’t train as hard when you’re older.” Why did he give up drinking again?

Then he’s Googling random things about running and comes across a website called Pilates Running. Whoa, he thinks, “Chi Running Mac 2”, but he’s heard Pilates is good, so he looks at it anyway. The website has some cool drills he hasn’t seen before and it talks about “hierarchy of movement” and other things he has not read in “Lore of Running” or on online forums before. He decides to find out more and since there’s nothing on online forums about it, he has to write the guy with website. Some chap called Tony. As he always wanted to see London, and besides, he’s pretty desperate, he takes a short weekend break to get a session. Sure, why not, he thinks, “I’ve been willing to pay for everything else.”

He looks for the place called “Gloves Boxing Club”. It’s different than the physio clinic alright. A guy in Rocky boxing trousers and freaky looking bare feet welcomes him in. That’s Tony. Our runner is disappointed that Tony won’t listen to all his knowledge. Despite his hurt feelings, he does as he is told. He’s told to do weird squats. He knows he can’t do those well as his knee is not quite right. Tony get’s him to jump off a step and tells him there’s nothing wrong with the knee. It does seem to make sense somehow. It goes on for four hours and when our man leaves the boxing gym, his head is spinning. Apparently, there’s nothing really wrong with him. Perhaps it explains why the MRI scanners never showed anything or why all the pills didn’t work? Tony says he’s just moving really badly and his body is telling him to stop doing it or he’ll break. Logical, he supposes, and since he got all the evidence on video, he has to throw out all the knowledge he had learned. Perhaps he’s not so smart after all. He did struggle to understand some of the new words, perhaps because they weren’t latin: levers, equilibrium, psychomotive! No matter, running matters, so our runner begins working all the exciting new drills. These are actually quite fun he finds, and he liked the story about the woman giving birth squatting for 35 minutes. Surely if a girl can do that, a big man like himself can learn to do a few squats.

In the office he realises that perhaps sitting hunched over in front of the desk really is a bad warm-up for running, so he get’s a standing desk. Mark Cucuzella, who is in the book “Born to Run”, got one too, so he knows he is in with a cool crowd now. Suddenly he’s running again. He begins to modify his schedule a bit and not be proud of the pain he puts himself through. That hurts a little bit inside, but he’s running faster, so he supposes it must be ok after all.

He has a few problems but suddenly he’s running every day. Then he does more mileage than ever before and he’s not even that tired. Next he begins to race really well and set new records again. It’s all very strange. Just because he is consistent and listens to his body. He has trouble wearing his old runners and begins running in flatter shoes. Despite pleas from his better half, he still can’t bring himself to throw them out to the orthotics.

A few month’s later, he’s convinced, after all, he hasn’t run without injury for this long the last four years. He decides to bring Tony over to Ireland to make more runners heads spin. Before they do that, he takes Tony and his gate-vaulting friend Ben for a run. They say he makes a lot of noise, they don’t like his Inov-8 X-Talons but they are very nice about it all. That is, until they have him run with closed eyes and barefoot up a gravel trail. Yet, it’s kinda cool, and a bit later he feels even better. They teach him how to jump over a big gate. He wishes his 3rd grade PE teacher who called him “motorically handicapped” could see him now. It feels weird to do all the strange movements so naturally, because people told him he wasn’t flexible and whenever he stretched he knew it was true.

There’s a lot of head-spinning when Tony takes a group of runners out with our guy, but he’s happy to see that he’s not the only one who likes to squat or thinks it’s cool to jump off a step with a weighted bar over your head. He realises he didn’t do everything right after the first time, but vows to learn how to be perfect.

Slowly he improves further and a month later he runs another marathon, just like he did shortly after it all started. This time he runs 2:55, despite a very hot day. He didn’t feel great but he’s learned how to relax and he feels confident with himself. Even if he had failed, he knows he’ll get better as long as he keeps improving his movement and trains intelligently. Also, Tony is coming back to spin more heads. He’s looking forward to it for every time he learns a little bit more and it also gave him an excuse to buy a cool video-camera to film people so they can see what he sees. The future looks bright, but when he looks around he sees a lot of others like him: looking for answers online, icing, stretching, buying orthotics, doing calf-raises and waiting for new cool shoes to come out or for appointments to free up at the laser clinic or with the sports surgeon up North somewhere. He doesn’t like the sound of that, even with a cool scar to show. He thinks they should just meet Tony…

True story? Fiction? A bit of both? Well, my long-term readers can be the judges of that…