As I write this I should be strapped into an airplane seat, the first leg of my trip to my first 100K at the Ultra Race of Champions (UROC) on Saturday in Virginia. Instead, I am strapped to an IV machine in a local hospital where I have been since Monday evening.
There will be no 64ish miles (course is a tad longer than 100K) in the Blue Ridge Mountains for me this weekend. Today, Friday morning, I ventured out for my first walk of the day after a nurse freed me from a tube and the leg cuffs that prevent blood clotting,.
Two laps around the fifth floor of the hospital, 336 steps — maybe a quarter-mile — in about 15 minutes.
My pace will get quicker as the day drags on. I will be able to add a third loop in about the same amount of time when I get up to walk again. Each time I venture out, I will not pass aid stations. Instead, I will ease by nurses stations with staff members ordering prescriptions, uploading vitals and other data, and planning their next rounds.
There will be no breaks for Honey Stingers, peanut butter and jelly tortillas, bananas, watermelon, chips or other aid station fare. Since my surgery this week, I have been on a strict no food, no water, diet. I have been eagerly looking forward to my next cup full of ice chips during each of the past three days.
Today, however, is a big day. I am being advanced to clear liquids. If all goes well, I may be able to do solids the following day. It’s about time as my most recent weigh-in showed me 10 pounds under my normal training weight.
An unplanned surgery
How did I get into this predicament?
In 2007, my appendix burst, thrusting me into the hospital for emergency surgery and a 12-day stay. My body didn’t recover quickly enough, perhaps because I was not a runner then and certainly not as fit as I am today.
Earlier this week, I felt pain in my gut throughout the morning and ended up literally losing my lunch. I left the business lunch meeting early and headed straight home, still in pain. After being sent to the emergency room Monday evening, it was clear that I was headed for surgery but it was unclear what was causing the obstruction that was causing my pain.
It turns out that some scar tissue from the appendectomy wrapped itself around my intestines, creating a choke point, which blocked anything from leaving my small bowel. Surgery fixed the problem Wednesday night, and now I am unbelievably excited about ordering my first non-meal of ice chips in four days. Coffee to start, then a Sprite.
Recovery, then returning to training
I understand that I am still not out of the woods yet. While I have not been nauseous, today’s liquid meals will be a good test for how my insides are recovering.
As far as my fitness goes, I will have a longer road back. After being discharged from the hospital, I will be recovering at home for two weeks. I am under strict orders to not lift anything, run, bike or pretty much do anything except walk.
If all goes well, I am hoping to begin my next training block on or about July 1. That would give me about 11 weeks to get ready for the North Face Endurance Challenge Series in Wisconsin, which I have run two of the previous three years. I haven’t signed up yet but would be looking at the marathon distance at this point.
Still, I am not sure how my body will respond to the long layoff. UROC represented my third DNS (did not start) and second of this year. Perhaps my body needed a break and this approximately six-week layoff will provide just that.
I’ve already battled the demons who are challenging me about getting back into an endurance training program. I’ve found inspiration as I sit up in my hospital gown, IVs dangling out of my arm, knowing that others have rebounded from lower lows to reach higher highs than I am capable of.
Yesterday, I watched the 14-minute movie about Adam Campbell’s comeback from literally falling off a mountain to finishing the Hardrock Endurance Run.
I’ve also been reviewing past blog posts of some elite endurance athletes who I have had the pleasure to interview and learn from. A sampling:
• Kaci Lickteig: After suffering a pelvic stress fracture during an October race which she won, Lickteig faced surgery and months off from running and other physical activity. But she never lost sight of the goal: getting back to running. Recently, she has returned to racing and is on track to return to Western States this year.
We conducted the interview as Lickteig was rehabbing but not back to running, She was focused on getting back to racing shape. “I’m very determined and stubborn and won’t let myself give up.”
• Andy Jones-Wilkins: After a severe hip issue threatened the well-known ultra runner and advocate from enjoying the sport he loves, he found a solution called hip resurfacing, a general procedure that is similar in theory to having a tooth capped.
Recently AJW had to pause his running to have the same surgery on his other hip. After the first surgery in 2016 he was able to come back and run 100-milers again, admittedly at a slower pace. But that didn’t matter for him. He met his goal of finishing the Hardrock Endurance Run once again.
“Success would be every time I put those shoes on that I was running for a reason,” he told me. “Whether it was the hour of meditative contemplation that my daily run gives me. Or traversing that loop in the San Juans or running for Squaw to Auburn. Success would also look like leaving a legacy for my kids — all of whom are athletes in different sports — that says ‘My dad laid it all out there.’”
• Chris DeNucci: Three months after surgery for a core issue that likely is related to an earlier surgery for his ulcerative colitis, he has continued to progress and is now back on the trails. He is set to run the Western States 100 this summer.
“The first feeling after getting back out there and my first run back was a sense of freedom or piece of mind,” DeNucci told me. “It’s the feeling a lot of us seek when running — just being able to run. That felt really good when I had not been able to do that in a while. It was an overwhelming peace. Then I quickly realized that I was extremely out of shape. It’s been a great experience to be able to run again. It’s made me so happy.”
Real and metaphorical mountains
And I reflected back to my mindset as family members, co-workers and others filled my phone with text messages of concern and support. I harkened back to one of my responses to a friend, who is also a co-worker and runner. This is the mindset I need to embrace during the time when I can’t go for a run:
“Been thinking about running a lot. This is why we do it. To explore. To challenge ourselves. To climb those real and metaphorical mountains. Because at some point we won’t be able to. That time hasn’t come for me yet. But this will serve as motivation to get back at it again.”
My real mountains currently have ribbons dotting the point-to-point UROC trail in northern Virginia. I won’t be passing by those confidence markers this weekend. But the race director has allowed me to defer my entry until 2019, which I truly appreciate.
My metaphorical mountains will line my journey from now through the next year when I will line up at the UROC starting line. They will include my first slow run, probably a mile or two, around my neighborhood.
It will be a long journey, not just on race day next year, but all the work between now and then. My race calendar will include the North Face trail marathon, the Chicago Marathon in October and then a 50-miler at the end of November. I expect my Boston Marathon qualifying time to get me into the 2019 race, which will likely fall about a month before the 2019 UROC.
For now, my journey continues with the healing process. One step at a time, pushing my IV cart around my loop course around the fifth floor of the hospital. There will be no finisher’s medals today, tomorrow or for the duration of my stay. But that’s not why we run.
We run to explore. We run to find ourselves. We run to find our limits. We run because we know that someday we won’t be able to.
That day has not come for me yet.