Pain is Temporary

Lisa running along California’s coastline. Photo credit: Chris Chabot.

We push ourselves to the edge of our ability so we can learn. We learn how strong our persistence is, and how far we’ll go before we’ll let adversity beat us.

It was midnight in the middle of a forest in Texas, hours from appreciable civilization. I had just run 80 miles and had another 20 to go. I hadn’t slept for over 20 hours, and was still far from finishing my first 100-mile race.

I could head back to my hotel, or I could finish this race, this ultramarathon, this exercise in endurance that was roughly the equivalent of four back-to-back marathons.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to quit.

Just weeks afterwards, I met my manager and his manager in a conference room. We were preparing a quarterly business review. In that meeting, the entire vision of the presentation was changing again.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to quit.

These are frustrating experiences, and they share a commonality: difficulty on the home stretch. When the end is in sight and so much has already been accomplished, yet the goal posts seem so far away, it’s natural to think about giving up.

Will I let another 20 miles beat me? Will I let spreadsheet Cell B24 beat me? What about knowing that, tomorrow, I’m going to have to rework this presentation again?

At mile 80, in the dark Texan forest, as the clock ticked past midnight, I considered my options. Just as the presentation wouldn’t write itself, neither would this race finish itself.

The answer was clear. I’d already decided to keep moving several times during the day. This was just another decision point, and, really, that meant there was no decision.

I got up and summoned the courage to stumble back onto the course.

Those last 20 miles took a very long time. I had to walk most of them; unbeknownst to me, blisters were blossoming on every toe. My wet shoes squished into the mud, and my headlamp almost ran out of batteries several times, leaving me alone with the dark trees.

Finishing that 100-mile race is one of the moments I am most proud of. It taught me that giving up is not the answer. Even though a task – a race, a presentation, or a mathematical model – may seem insurmountable in the moment, it’s usually not as bad as we might think.

That presentation I worked on with my manager and his manager was one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had in my professional career. However, I also learned more from working on that presentation than on any other I’ve put together. From messaging to slide layout to the creative process, my presentation skills improved dramatically after that difficult week.

We push ourselves to find our limits, and, ultimately, to exceed them.

As runners say: pain is temporary. Pride is forever.

_Prompt: Show us an activity you enjoy doing. Tell us how you think it contributes to your personal and professional development_

Confessions of an Injured Runner

This is not a stress fracture! Also, check out my dense and well-defined muscles.

“Let’s go schedule a followup. You okay to walk?”

“Yep. Let’s go.”

I stood up and walked out of the room. Blood quickly started draining out of my head. My vision looked like a poorly-focused vignette.

“Nope.  I need to sit down again. Hang on a minute.”

My name is Lisa, and I’m an injured athlete.

That exchange was about five weeks ago, in a doctor’s office at Stanford. The doctor had just told me he was about 80% certain I had a stress fracture. It was on the growth plate of my right tibia. I most likely wouldn’t be running for about three months.

“What can I do?”

“Swim.”

The next few days were disastrous.

I was immediately terrified that, without a regular exercise routine, I would promptly gain 40 pounds and never be an athlete again. Despite the irrationality of this thought process, it seemed like a very real outcome. To try and combat this perceived impending obesity, the first thing I did was sign up for a membership at 24 Hour Fitness, the only gym nearby with a pool open at all hours of the day. Within a week, I was swimming 2 miles a day. Within three weeks, I was up to 3 miles.

In my mind, I was no longer a runner. I wasn’t actively running, and it wasn’t clear when I next would, so that meant I wasn’t a runner.  I felt like I was lying to the world, posing as a runner when I clearly wasn’t one. I didn’t tell anyone about my injury. I was too embarrassed, and it was too painful to think about it, much less talk about it.

I stopped eating for about a week and dropped several pounds. Because, in my mind, I wasn’t an athlete, I didn’t know how to eat anymore; food no longer was categorized as fuel. It was an undefined quantity with no clear use to me.

The first few weeks were worse than any breakup I’ve ever been through. After a breakup, I could pound out a hard 10 miles to work off the emotional turbulence. Running has always been a way to burn of pent-up emotional confusion. This injury was the first problem I had encountered where it couldn’t be solved, or at least temporarily alleviated, by running.

Every time I felt pain, I imagined my bone splitting apart. It was nauseating.

A few weeks later, I went back for an MRI to confirm the diagnosis. I made sure to eat breakfast beforehand; I had convinced myself that the dizziness from the last visit was due to low blood sugar, not shock.

There was good news, and bad news.  The good news: it wasn’t a stress fracture. The bad news: it was tendinitis. Recovery time for tendinitis can be as short as 4-6 weeks. I was relieved, but it also didn’t immediately change anything I was doing. I still had to spend every morning confined within the walls of a windowless gym.

Sidenote: There’s no doubt in my mind regarding what caused this injury. I didn’t give myself enough time to recover after my 100-mile race. Consider that lesson learned.

Today, about five weeks after the first diagnosis, I ran 1.25 miles without pain. Today is the first day I’ve felt real optimism that I’ll run again.

Over the past few weeks, things have settled down a bit. I’m cycling almost every morning, and I’ve started lifting some weights. An exercise routine has been successfully established.

I’ll probably do some additional writing on different facets of this recovery process, mainly so others can read about some of the things I’ve learned. Having never done any research on injuries prior to this event, I’ve definitely learned a lot about injury prevention, recovery, and some specific health issues, like the female athlete triad.

Because of this process, my motivations and psychology around running and my approach to life have been torn apart, laid bare, and pieced back together. It’s been an eye-opening experience, made even more shocking because of the relative lack of severity of the injury.

Importantly, I’ve come to terms with this injury. Just because I’m not running today doesn’t mean I’m not a runner. I’m still a runner. I’m just taking a vacation.

Have you had a sports-related injury? How did you recover?

Race Report: Rocky Raccoon 100-miler

[originally posted at gametheoryninja.com]

As some of you know, I ran 100 miles this weekend.  Here’s the race report.  Also, I know it’s not related to game theory at all.

The race I ran was Rocky Raccoon, a five-lap race in Huntsville, Texas. You can see the results here. I finished in 24:58:28.  Only 43% of the 415 runners finished. (Does anyone have updated stats on this?)

Lap 1: It was a dark and stormy night …

About an hour before the race started, Dad and I were sitting in the rental car.  Rain was coming down in sheets. Per the normal clichés about storms, lightening zig-zagged through the sky and thunder echoed through the forest.  We don’t get storms like this in Northern California, and I hadn’t prepared for it.

I hacked some holes into a black plastic trash bag, and used duct tape to get the extra plastic away from my legs.  In my mind, the end result looked like a superhero combination of a Catwoman costume and a steampunk bustle. In reality, it probably looked like a house getting tented for termites.

The race started at 6am. Much of the first lap was in the dark.  It took less than a mile for me to trip over a tree root, a hazard the course is notorious for.  I was already bleeding, and we hadn’t even been running for ten minutes. Somehow, this early wipe-out didn’t dampen my spirits any more than the storm did.

Every two or three miles featured an enormous, impossible-to-avoid mud puddle. I was regularly up to my ankles in mud and water. My shoes were at least damp, if not drenched, for the entire race. This would prove to cause problems later.

I don’t remember much of the first lap. There was so much running left to do, and I didn’t want to think too much about what was to come.  I do remember, around mile 8, having a bit of a panic attack.  I still had 92 miles to run.  92 miles seems a lot longer than 100 miles.

Lap 2: The Man with the Sea Dragon Compression Socks

Every so often, in a race, runners will fall into step and pace off of each other. The two runners acknowledge each other and run in silent camaraderie. No words required.

For lap 2, and some of lap 3, I found such companionship with a man whose name I still don’t know. All I know about him was that he had running spandex and compression socks that looked like sea dragon scales, so that’s how I mentally referred to him.

Somewhere during lap 2, I also met a man named Bruce. He was wearing a blue shirt with cat paw-prints on it, so, being a cat person, I had to ask about it. I learned that Bruce was from Toronto, and told him I’d be visiting in July for World Futures 2012. Bruce had heard of WFS; he’s a CIO for a large school district near Toronto with 7k faculty and 54k students, so he’d been thinking about attending.

Best part: Bruce is in the middle of deploying Google Apps for Edu for his school district. [For those who don't know, Google Apps is the part of Google I work for].  Bruce and I talked about everything from Gmail to Chromebooks to centrally-managed Android tablets. I’m somewhat embarrassed to say I drilled him for about an hour on his opinions on our products.  He seemed happy to oblige my curiosity.

Lap 3: Lothlorien in Light and Shadow

About midway through this lap, I saw the sun for the first and last time during the race. It was a wan orb, low on the horizon, mostly obscured by emaciated tree trunks. Spindly shadows reached across the dirt path.

Seeing the sun made me unreasonably happy.

Around mile 52, I realized that it was going to get dark before I got to the turnaround and could pick up a headlamp.  I ran the last 8 miles of this lap very quickly to avoid getting caught in the dark.

Lap 4: Trust

This was the lap I had been looking forward to for the last 60 miles. My thought had been that if I could just get to this lap, I’d make it the rest of the way.  This is the lap when my pacer, Georgia, joined me.

The first two-thirds of this lap were great.  It was fantastic to have someone to talk to, and Georgia was an excellent pacer. Real friendship is carrying extra caffeine Gus and a jacket for your runner.

One of the fun parts of this lap was being able to share my newly-acquired, yet very intimate, knowledge of the course. Having been around the course three times times already, I could tell her where all the turnoffs were, where the tricky roots were, and the easiest way around mud puddles.  The aid stations were at 3.1 miles, 6.2 miles, 12.2 miles, and 15.6 miles. The hardest bit was the loop between 6.2 and 12.2, because that’s a full six miles without aid.  The far timing mat was a little less than 10 miles into the loop.

There’s one stretch of the course – less than a 10th of a mile – that’s right along the lake. It’s the only part of the course with an unobstructed view of the sky. On lap four, we had front-row seats to the stars.

That short stretch is also difficult, because just a few hundred yards away, across the lake, is the finish line.  You can hear the shouts and cheers of spectators urging their runners across the timing mat. It throws into sharp relief the fact that you’re just about halfway through the lap.

If I learned anything this time around it’s that, in long distance races, mood swings happen unpredictably and with no discernible cause. Miles 72 to 78 were very tough, and I’m not sure why. I had to sit down for a minute on a mound of dirt, where I spent two minutes contemplating the meaning of life with Georgia before finishing the lap.

At the impromptu rest point, I was about three-quarters done with the race. Sounds impressive, but not when that means I still had another full marathon until the finish.

Lap 5: Silence

Georgia and I finished lap 4 around midnight. I had been running for about 18 hours at that point. A sub-24 hour finish was still possible, but I knew in my heart it wasn’t very likely. I haven’t done a lot of research into this, but my intuition tells me that negative splits don’t often happen on 100-mile races.

After inhaling a chocolate donut and my first-ever mocha [which was delicious - thanks Dad!], I grabbed my iPod and took off for the last lap.

It was dark. Profoundly dark. And very, very quiet.

At this point, runners were either by themselves or running with a pacer. Everyone was spread out along the course.  Runners were exhausted, focused, and not interested in talking to othe rpeople.

All I could think about was the next step I was about to take.

When I talk about running, I often get asked about my music. Usually, I don’t listen to music. It’s distracting. When you’re this tired, any additional outside inputs or stimuli – even music – seem complicated, confusing, and overwhelming.

On this lap, I think I listened to about 45 minutes of music before I had to turn off the iPod.

The most frustrating part of this lap was that my muscles and joints felt fine, but I was unable to run. The constantly wet shoes finally taken their toll. Mud puddles had nurtured blisters on every single toe and the entire front pad of both of my feet. Each step was excruciating.

This lap reminded me of the Ave Maria sequence from Fantasia. Individual runners – little pools of light – painstakingly making a pilgrimage to the finish line. Not quickly, but inexorably, as if pulled by some external force.  And the sky is slowly turning grey.

The finish line.

There was no big celebration at the finish line. I walked across the timing pad, we took a picture, and that was that.

Epilogue: You Have My Sword, and my Bow, and My Axe

I finished the run in 24 hours and 58 minutes. I think that’s the longest I’ve been awake. I consumed more caffeine during that period than in the previous six months combined. There were highs, lows, and a lot of learning.

The hardest part of this race was not the roots, although that’s what the course is known for.  The hardest part was running in the dark. One of the reasons I like running is that it provides the opportunity to be fully immersed in nature. No technology, no distractions.  In the darkness, all you get is a tiny pool of light: just enough to see the path in front of you. There’s an entire forest, and all you get to see is some dirt and roots.  And a few headlamps twinkling in the distance. It’s hard to describe how frantic I felt at times, not being able to see anything around me.  Physically, 100 miles didn’t feel substantially different than 50. Mentally, the challenge was the darkness.

When I crewed for Mike at Badwater, he mentioned that picking a good crew is one of the most important components of a successful race. I didn’t think about it much at the time, and I didn’t understand why that would be the case until the end of the 4th lap of this race.  Going into the 5th lap, I felt like I was suffering from information overload, even though the number of ideas I had to hold in my head was very small. Case in point: I had to choose which jacket to wear on the final lap. Despite being a binary decision, this seemed like an insurmountable task, so I deferred to Georgia to help me decide. Decisions like that, so late in the race, can make or break a finish.

To sum up: I had a great crew. Dad and Georgia were incredibly supportive, upbeat, and helped me make good decisions.  Thanks so much, you guys. I could not have done it without you.

After finishing, I promptly pronounced I would never run another 100-mile race again.  Just over 24 hours later, I’m taking less of a hard line towards that assertion. While I have no immediate plans to run another 100, I could see doing it again, sometime in the distant future. Just to see how it compares to this one.