The spring passed with no more incidents, but my will to run distance on dirt trails was being slowly drained. Long runs had surely entertained, but with the trails seemingly less accessible - at least safely - I went back to the less appealing road routes.
As this shift began, I continued my forays into indoor soccer, kept on running near my office, and maintained a healthy dose of cycling (or an unhealthy dose, depending on the day). But I wasn’t racing, which bummed me out a bit. In 2010, I took inspiration from a local ultrarunner, Mike Wardian, and started pushing my daughter around in the stroller on morning runs. At 6 a.m. I’d drop her in and we’d go out for 10 miles, usually on the W&OD trail. I was in pretty good shape, but I wasn’t training for anything, wasn’t getting faster, just eating up road time.
It was 100% junk miles, which is fine if you're doing nothing with it.
I still longed for races but never pulled the trigger. There were races near my office, but I wasn’t about to head out there on a weekend to do a 10k; there were races near my home, but most of them were 5k (or thereabouts) and just didn’t fit into my schedule. I was attached to running early in the morning if possible, including with a headlamp if needed, but not so much to waiting until 9 a.m. on a summer Saturday. I often thought those races should be advertised with a slogan like “All the heat and humidity you can take, and more!” Virginia’s like that in July and August.
The one more important shift I made was riding my mountain bike more. Parking at the soccer arena meant a short ride, so I found myself getting a good workout by taking the hard way. A couple breweries opened up, and I would ride to them via unregistered roads that terminated in soon-to-be suburban-neighborhood dirt bowls. The area was expanding, but only slowly in the wake of the real estate bubble, leaving swathes of unfinished exurbs, the flattened fields now growing high weeds, many of them sporting ticks that needed to be cleaned off my shoes, socks, and legs at the office or before getting in the car.
When I did run near my office, I dashed down suburban neighborhood (paved) paths and crashed through the verges between adjacent cul de sacs, turning the stubs of clearly distinct subdivisions into a 6- or 7-mile network. Near home, I found some long running routes that enticed me to increase my speed, looping south through a local park, northeast across the highway, west along the W&OD, and back home. My clocked time on this 12-mile route (according to my phone) went from 1:30 to just under 1:20 after I did it for a whole spring; returning to it that fall, I didn’t quite hit the speeds of earlier in the year, but I was certainly able to mash through close to 14 kph.
My ultramarathon thoughts fused with the trail thoughts, and I began daydreaming about my options for 2012. I mapped out a marathon-distance loop that would use just 5 miles of roads, exploiting instead the various (mostly paved) trail systems between Falls Church and Alexandria; perhaps this would be the spring goal. I met some friends on the Appalachian Trail one early-fall day, renewing my aggressive trail running desires in spite of the heat with a dozen sweaty, dirty miles up and down unfamiliar territory. Unfortunately, the travel time to and from the trailhead was too long to justify on a regular basis. I took a trip into Arlington, picked up the the C&O Canal Trail, and hooked back home across the Chain Bridge in a 20-mile jaunt that left me exhausted but satisfied. I invented a route circumscribing Falls Church, a poke at the idea that I could “run around” the city.
None of this was leading up to a race, just personal enjoyment at the prospect of improving my fitness. And improving my fitness it was!
In early January 2012, everything was looking good. I was in great shape, biking as often as possible in spite of the snow and ice, and enjoying the winter. We hadn’t had a lot of snow, so I was still able to get outside pretty often. Our team was pretty good that season -- as we seemed to always be -- and when I picked up my brother-in-law to go to one of our games, we had a little laugh about his recent deer strike on the way home from one of these late-night contests.
I was in the goal (as always) and playing decently. It was shortly after halftime, and I made a save and saw the opportunity to dash, emerging from the net -- as was my way -- to make a run up the pitch. A dribble skittered away to the boards, my lack of ball control evident in these mid-field touches. I headed after it, trying to outpace a chasing offensive player and send the ball up to someone more competent.
His shoulder tagged mine, normal contact for a mildly competitive league, nothing strange or violent or unexpected. I mean, except for the snap, which was both. And it was audible to everyone nearby.
My knee buckled immediately. I fell to the ground in agony. The offensive player stopped and stood over me, apologizing profusely. The referee issued a yellow card, apparently thinking I had been checked into the boards.
I sat, thinking, wondering, not knowing what had happened, what crazy internal damage this little nudge had wrought. Teammates carted me off the field, and I watched the rest of the game, hitched a ride home, and spent a week recovering even the slightest of movement. My GP checked it out, but told me to see a specialist when the swelling went away.
My wife was 8 months pregnant
I rehabbed my knee as best I could, gaining back significant mobility thanks to sheer strength of will. And strength of hamstring and calf and all the other supporting players down there. In general, my fitness was good enough to mask this kind of injury, and I was able to ride my bike in the basement for 30-45 minutes before any pain set in, at which point walking up the stairs meant holding onto the handrail, because I was guaranteed a twitchy moment or two where the knee would go all wibbly wobbly.
But my concern was ameliorated by the excitement over the pending birth of a child.
In mid-February, a local running club held an 8k at one of the many high schools in the area. The previous night, my wife and I had gone to the hospital, and just after midnight our second daughter was born. I slept in my wife’s room, and at 8 a.m. was ready to advertize the new life to the world -- which meant getting the heck out of the hospital.
I called my brother-in-law and a friend from the neighborhood and told them to meet me at the parking lot for the race, and to be sure to take our oldest daughter with them. They humored me.
The problem wasn’t so much the idea, it was the timing: the temperature had dipped into the single digits, and the wind was blowing hard. It was a crystal clear winter day, the kind that requires several layers in the sunshine and several more in the shade.
We met up, and I signed myself and my daughter - for the first time requiring the qualifier "oldest" - up for the 3k, while my friend went for the 8k. Since the courses started along the same 1.5 kilometers, he agreed to take that stretch easy and help motivate the youngun', who was, understandably, not too impressed with the prospect of freezing in a parking lot on her way to a meaningless race.
The starting gun went off, and before my friend and I could get moving, she sprinted 50 yards to the end of the building. Then she stopped, turned, and held up her arms.
“It’s too cold!” she cried.
I bundled her tighter, checked her skin was covered, and my friend and I carried her through the start of the course; at my midway point (1.5km), I tossed her on my shoulders and jogged back to the start line, my knee pain forgotten.
Pace, of course, had never been the primary concern, and in the final 100 meters we were caught by the frontrunners in the 8k race. I decided to show them that we were contenders, running with them over most of the distance. Near the finish line, I set my little one down and coaxed her across, then went inside and waited for the friend to return.
My daughter and I had finished 1-2 in the 3k, as I was the only person stupid enough to enter and she was the only person unfortunate enough to have a parent enter her.
My friend returned after what seemed an eternity. I put my eldest into the car, packed an extra blanket around her, and took her to the hospital to meet her new sister.
Next up: Surgical steel
Mash out. Spin on.
Some runner person. Also perhaps a cyclist & brewing type. But for your purposes, a runner person.