The Instructive Power of Pain

Of late, I am increasingly grateful for pain.

For the first twenty-six years of my life, I had not the remotest interest in running a marathon. A half marathon, sure – I used to run that distance along the Hudson River on Sunday mornings in the spring and fall; I’d be hard pressed to identify a greater pleasure in my time at West Point – but a marathon? Madness.

Almost imperceptibly this summer, that mentality shifted. Perhaps it was my triumph over the Zugspitze on the first of August – with a partner I met twelve hours before our attempt, no less. Perhaps it was my triumph over the Nordkette, the mountain range that had unveiled my inexperience the summer previous, two weeks later. Perhaps it was a combination of the two – I was on top of the world, both literally and figuratively, and I felt grand. So when I saw an advertisement for the Freundschaftmarathon, a trail marathon whose course follows the undulating terrain of my immediate vicinity from Amberg, my hometown, to Weiden in the ancient volcanic northland. The terrain map looked absolutely delicious.

Tell me that ain't tasty

Tell me that ain’t tasty

Accordingly, I roped in my running buddy Seth, and the two of us set out to train for that marathon some six weeks hence. He had run the original marathon, so I figured he was up to snuff on the requisite training. We set into a rhythm of his design. On Mondays, we’d run six miles. On Tuesdays, we’d run eight miles. On Wednesdays, we would take a recovery day to conduct our unit-imposed Wednesday walk. On Thursdays, the highlight of my week, we would do our long runs. In six successive weeks, we ran a 10, a 12, a 14, a 16, and this past week, and 18 miler. Two days after I ran the 14 miler, I summited the Zugspitze, spent the night on the peak, and ran down the south face into the Eibsee – literally, ran. I had DOMS, Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, until the morning of my 16 miler, but I felt grand all the same.

I didn’t realize quite how much these had come to matter to me until that 16 miler, when a ride request from my buddy, road work, and a failure to use Google Maps before I left my house very nearly cost me my run. Throughout that debacle of a drive, I was ever so glad for the years of practice I’ve put into checking my impulses and remaining in control under duress; my friendship with my buddy Mike is worth far more to me than displacing my frustration to blow off steam. It was with incredible relief that I made enough of a time hack to log those miles – there was to be no make up on Friday, as I was to fly to Paris that very evening.

That run was our slowest run in weeks. We had been averaging a 7:15/mile pace on our previous runs. On this run, we averaged a 7:23/mile pace. The day before, Seth had played Gator Ball (a combination of soccer and football for the athletically inept) at the behest of his buddy, who had been challenged to a game by another unit – pride was on the line, and we are a proud people. I also happen to be fully aware of my inability in the realm of ball sports, so I opted out of the enterprise. Beyond the game, he had also biked to and from work that week, a one way trip of 15 miles, largely uphill. Suffice it to say, he was hurting pretty badly before, during, and after that run. We agreed to give our legs the long weekend to recover.

I spent that long weekend in Paris. As I could wax poetic on the many sub-subjects that Paris provided me then, I shall consider it sufficient to say that I left fulfilled, albeit slightly poorer. Maybe moderately poorer. But it was worth it.

It was 2300 on Monday night before my buddy Brad and I reached his house and began necessary nighttime rituals before I crashed, fully clothed, on his guest bed. Wake up was a scant six hours hence (this body prefers eight, but can sustain my heightened tempo at seven per night sans caffeine – good sleep is a pillar of good fitness!).

On Tuesday, our first run back, that long weekend reaped dividends. We clocked an average pace of 7:09/mile, dramatically overshooting our goal of a conservative 7:30, but we both felt great, so we pressed on. I used to evaluate my exertion level based on my ability to speak. I’ve recently learned that that is a terribly inaccurate measure, as I rarely now exert myself beyond a comfortable talking pace, and I am definitely not slacking. Six miles down and a thorough post-run stretch routine, all was well!

On Wednesday, I dutifully donned my combat boots and fell into my line of fellow officers promptly at 0625. The cannons went off at 0630, a song ensued (as with every morning, a tuneless song with schizophrenic tendencies), announcements followed, and then I marched back up to my office to change into running shoes. I then joined Seth for a lift at the gym. Believe it or not, as I’ve recently had stressed by my doctor in absentia, Dr. Jordan Metzl, total body fitness is vital to injury prevention in long distance runners – he’s even gone so far as to say that he’d rather I be strong than flexible. As I do fully intend to be a long distance runner for a lifetime, I’ll bend to that axiom. So, weight lifting twice a week it is. He also has a few things in his book about, say, a proper training plan for a marathon, but I’ve sustained a high level of fitness for the past eight years, so I’ve chosen to take that guidance as mere guidance, not gospel. Not this year, at least.

The Runner's Bible

My Runner’s Reference Guide

On Thursday, we ran our 18 miler. I woke up at 0430 and smiled, knowing that out at the airfield, hundreds of soldiers were huddled in the cold awaiting their chance to take their Expert Infantryman Badge (EIB) PT Test; their work call was at 0300. Talk about an inefficient system. I dodged this bullet by expressing my extreme disinterest in competing for a badge that means nothing to one with the exit door in the foreground. Anyway, Seth had devised a route that roughly mimicked the terrain of our marathon – namely, a really big hill in the final stretch. We ran from our office building in Vilseck to his house in Netzaberg, with a loop on post factored in to warm up before hitting the trail and bump up our mileage to the desired 18. Mile 16 was that really big hill. By this point, I was a good bit ahead of my comrade – staying with anybody for 16 miles is a daunting task – and feeling great. I ran straight up that really big hill, slowing relatively little. I then waited for him at the crest, and we finished the run more or less together. A good stretch, a pre-positioned Carnation Instant Breakfast, and a banana later, we were in his car en route back to work to start the day.

I got me my CIB, don't need no EIB!

I got me my CIB, don’t need no EIB!

I felt fine all day long. Euphoric, even. I have a few new NCOs in the office, and one of them is most amused at the level of energy that I sustain throughout the workday. I think it kind of annoys one of the others, but hell – be a dynamo of irrepressible joy, right? That mantra got me through Ragnar Skul (long U), so I figure it’s pretty durable. It’s done me well for the entirety of my Army saga, actually – it’s got more mileage than my running shoes, and it’ll definitely outlast those. I’ll keep that spirit alive until it’s ripped from my chest. Anyway, I stretched before I went to bed in hopes of waking up happy.

Instead, I woke up in vivifying agony. I was alive, alright – no need for Johnny Cash or his needle to confirm that one.

My right ankle ached right where the Achilles tendon meets the bone. I figured it might be a sprain, but I couldn’t trace it back to any point along my run, except for that little bit of running along the slope of a ditch to dodge a mother and child on their way to school. Stretching was my remedy here.

My calves, especially my left, radiated a deep, dull ache – insistent, the sign of a Grade 1 Strain (thanks, Dr. Metzl). The recommended course of action on that injury is to suspend all lower body exercise until the pain went away completely. Not exactly feasible with a marathon, the sole object of my ambition for the past six weeks, ten days away. This, accordingly, was somewhat of a mood-mellowing message.

Meditate on that one!

No candy cane dreams here!

My knees were so insistently painful that I could not walk up or down a set of stairs without very deliberate placement of my feet and a lot of sidestepping. My little hypochondriac’s handbook told me that IT band problems only manifest themselves during a run, so that diagnosis didn’t fit the bill. The only other option seemed to be a lateral meniscal tear, which is far more debilitating than tightness in the IT band, and far less common than an anterior meniscal tear – therefore, in addition to being slightly concerning, quite confusing. Reading about the advisability of surgery in the advent of such a tear was a tantalizing treat, that’s for sure.

The sum of all of these things led to severe self-doubt when it came to thoughts about my upcoming marathon. That morning, I dedicated my exercise hour to recovery. I biked for a few minutes to warm up my muscles, then began a static stretch sequence. I linked in with two of my fellow officers, and we did a push-up workout as well as a set of Tabata sit-ups before we initiated a second stretch sequence with a muscle roller. Dr. Metzl insists that the roller is an essential piece of recovery equipment for the running man, but warned that initial uses of it to loosen the IT Band would be quite painful. He was true to his word, alright, but I slogged through my iterations with dogged determination.

I left work that afternoon and drove to Grafenwoehr, land of the local big PX, to look for a roller at the suggestion of a co-worker. I did not find one, but did find a set of resistance bands. I acquired them, then skulked on home in sullied defeat. I spent the afternoon reading Running Strong, planning a trip to Regensburg, and napping. I did put a backstop on my napping by laying plans with friends for a dinner in town at 2000. I walked the two kilometers to the restaurant for some mild muscular exertion.

Following my dinner, a comedic affair, I walked home, happy and sore. My buddy Nate had to rise early for EIB training, and my buddy Aaron and his friend Ozzy had to catch an early morning train to Munich for a game. As the rest of my friends were either doing EIB, away on a training exercise, or getting cut open, I felt quite content to call it an early night. After a thorough stretch, I curled up with Running Strong and fell asleep around 2200. I had in mind to actually do yoga, that long considered but rarely practiced healing art, in the morning.

Waking at 0600, I felt oddly elated. So. Much. Energy! I cleaned pretty damn near my whole house, started laundry, and did a 30-minute yoga routine I found on the YouTube before 0900. It was pretty spiffy – I began totally tight and ended fairly limber. The yoga instructor assumed that I had a substantive knowledge base in the field, which is patently false, but I was able to follow along enough that it felt a worthwhile engagement of my physical faculties that left my dignity intact. Yay in home exercise.

Oscillating between modes of transportation, I opted to drive to the sports store. I made it there around 1115 – and found myself at a mall. In typical male fashion, very quickly found what I was looking for, then, in a spirit of unorthodoxy, lingered a bit longer to peruse the shop. I walked away with a roller, a roll-out ball, and two sweet neon running shirts for a song. I grabbed a sandwich at the deli downstairs, then pondered what to do with the rest of my day.



I ended up driving into downtown Regensburg with no great purpose in mind. I opted to travel sans GPS, and intuited my way into a little corner of the city that seemed rather refined. I parked at 1258 and bought my two-hour parking ticket, that being my imposed upper limit. I began walking and quickly realized that I was surrounded by Thai massage parlors advertising an hour for 30 Euro. At 1310, I walked into one of those parlors and asked for a massage. By 1318, my massage had begun. Every single muscle sighed in contentment as long held tensions were teased out. I couldn’t have spent a better 30 Euro. I walked around the city a bit, realized that I had run out of all objectives save a grocery run, and headed to my car to begin my journey home.

Inspired, I stopped at the Kaufland a few kilometers from my house. Generally, I’m a simple Netto guy – there is one about 500 meters from my house, and I can walk there after work. Today, however, I had grander ambitions. I wanted to explore the world beyond my front door. In doing so, I discovered WHOLE CHOCOLATE MILK! Talk about a perfect day. I must have been grinning like an idiot, but I felt flat out euphoric. This was a wistful dream realized. No longer must I subject myself to that shoddy skim substitute, or those chocolate powders that leave clumps at the bottom of my glass. Nay, for today, I had discovered the luscious, smooth, creamy richness of whole chocolate milk. I could have died happy.


Unadulterated Ecstasy

Thus ends my narrative tale. Pain is instructive. I have been reading my little runner’s Bible daily. I’ve been learning yoga, and rolling out my muscles daily too. I’m learning both techniques and terminology. I even went on a furtive run this morning, possibility of calf strains and all. I tried to keep it to an eight minute pace without a watch. and I think I did okay. I didn’t kill my NCO, if that’s any measure. Tonight, I’ll roll out my muscles again, and tomorrow, I’ll do a total body workout, then roll out my muscles. The remainder of the week will be calm.

And on Sunday, I’m running that marathon, hills and all.