On Sunday, May 5, 2013 I crossed the finish line of the Pittsburgh Marathon with a time of 4 hours, 42 minutes. I was healthy and happy, with a huge life goal being accomplished. Earlier that morning I stood in the starting corral, waiting for the gun to sound to begin the race. Making it there was a marathon of a different sort.
In the spring of 2011, I ran the Poca River Run, a 15K race that winds through a local countryside over rolling hills. It was the first race for me farther than a 5K. Though a runner most of my life, I would usually do only a couple of miles at a time, never being consistent in my efforts and never following any kind of training plan. My son and I ran the Poca River course the week of the race, and I was amazed I could run that far without stopping (though I was very sore at the end). So a few days later, we ran the race itself, and though I struggled, I finished, slightly ahead of my son. I was thrilled that I could do such a thing. A week later I went back to Poca River to run the same distance, only to stop midway through the course with a pulled groin muscle.
My wife Jeannie and I have always enjoyed the TV series, “The Biggest Loser.” While I was nursing my pulled groin muscle we watched an episode in which the contestants were challenged to run a marathon. I thought, “If they can do it, I can do it. I’ve wanted to get more serious about running for years. There is no better time than the present.” At 50 years of age I knew I would need some expert help, so I met with local, Christian running coach Matt Young and shared with him my plans. He was enthusiastic, and agreed to work with me. Our goal race was the Marshall Marathon in Huntington, West Virginia on the first Sunday of November 2011.
The training schedule got underway the first of July 2011. I was vacationing with my wife, son and daughter-in-law in Myrtle Beach at the time, so the running began in considerable heat and humidity. Things went well through September – I was getting all the mileage Coach Matt had prescribed in my training plan, and was excited about the race on the horizon in November. I noticed that mid-September my legs were getting heavy and the miles were getting harder to cover. I thought, “I’m 50 years old, and I’ve never trained for a marathon. Some fatigue has to be normal.” Coach Matt advised me to slow down my training pace so the miles would not be as demanding. I continued with the runs, with the miles still being difficult to complete.
On Saturday, September 24 I started my prescribed long run of 16 miles. I ran along MacCorkle Avenue in St. Albans, enjoying the view of the river. All the runs were early morning, when the temperatures were cooler and the traffic was light. Around mile 5 a car veered toward me, coming off the road and over to the shoulder. I jumped from his path, and landed in a ditch which had been dug for a future bike lane. I tried to start running again, but my ankle was aching and wouldn’t stop. I hobbled home, only later to discover it was broken. My first attempt at marathon training had come to an abrupt halt.
By the beginning of 2012, I was ready to make a comeback effort at running, so I trained for the University of Charleston half marathon. Coach Matt gave me the plan, and I followed it diligently. On April 29, I crossed the finish line with 1:55 on the clock, which was a very pleasant surprise for my first half marathon. Still, the full marathon hadn’t been accomplished, and I was determined to achieve the goal.
After the UC half, Coach Matt put together another plan for me, this time combining training for the Charleston Distance Run on Labor Day weekend and for the Columbus Marathon in mid-October. The training began on Memorial Day weekend. Again, I covered all the mileage diligently, and did the extra hill drills and exercise Coach Matt had prescribed. The summer was proving to be a very hot one.
On June 30, 2012 a derecho storm rolled through the area, knocking out power for several days. Temperatures soared to 100 degrees the following week, and with no air conditioning the conditions were miserable. Still, I trained every day of the plan, running in the early morning when the temperatures were not quite as warm. By the latter part of July however, my legs were getting heavier with each run. My quads seemed to be shutting down on me, and eventually it was difficult to run at all. I had a mysterious soreness on the inside of my thighs. Still, I stuck to the plan and soldiered through the mileage and the increasing pain. On August 1, I started the prescribed run with even more stiffness, but was determined to force my uncooperative legs to run. After the first half mile I felt a sharp pain in my left heel. I stopped running and walked home. I learned a few days later I had fractured my Calcaneus bone. I was blessed to require only a walking boot rather than a non-weight bearing cast, but my running was finished for the season. Several people asked me, “How in the world did you fracture your heel bone?” It was a great question, one for which I wanted an answer as well. Something wasn’t right.
I began wondering if I had some kind of problem that was causing frequent bone breaks. After some tests, I learned that my Vitamin D count was good and that my bone density was normal. I kept thinking about how lifeless my quads felt during the training, and how my inner thighs had ached. I could find no answers.
One morning while I was still training Jeannie noticed a large, protruding vein on the back of my left calf. It didn’t bother me, so I didn’t think more about it at the time. After the heel fracture, I went to a vein doctor to see if he could correct it. I certainly couldn’t run, so I might as well have the thing fixed. He looked at the vein, agreed it was a problem, then told me he’d like to check my legs to see if I had any other circulation issues. My Dad had severe varicose veins when he was in his late 30s, and had to have the great saphenous veins in both legs surgically removed. I later learned the condition is genetic. Upon doing ultrasound tests, the doctor discovered that the great saphenous veins in both my legs were four times larger than normal, and were not functioning as they should. Even though there were no visible signs, much of the blood in my legs was not getting back to my heart because of the faulty valves in the veins. The doctor informed me that the two saphenous veins would need to be closed. When they were, the body would send the blood back to the heart by the many other healthy veins. I was concerned about the diagnosis, thinking that the procedure would end my ability to run longer distances in general, and prevent me from achieving my lifetime goal of running a marathon. He assured me that once the procedure was done and my legs had healed, I should be able to resume a very active lifestyle. He also told me that I had likely had problems with my saphenous veins for a long time, with them growing progressively worse over the years. It’s a fairly common ailment.
I had to wait a few months before the procedure would be covered by my insurance. The insurance company insisted I try wearing compression stockings first, which only make the problem a little more bearable but never resolve it. Finally the doctor was cleared to perform the procedure called a vein ablation. A small laser catheter is inserted in the saphenous vein near the knee or ankle, and run all the way to the groin. Then heat is applied as the catheter is pulled back down, causing the vein to close. One leg is done in the doctor’s office on one day, then the second leg the next. About a month of healing is required before running again, though walking can be done immediately.
The doctor performed the procedure on each of my legs in early November. By mid-December the fractured heel had mended as well as the legs, and I was running short distances. In talking with friends, I learned the Pittsburgh Marathon was scheduled for May 5, which would allow me an earlier date to accomplish my goal. I’d also be able to train in the winter, avoiding the heat and humidity that always accompany summer training. I would rather bundle than broil any day. Coach Matt worked with me on a plan. By January 1, the plan was underway. This time the training went smoothly. The only struggle I had was with a few bitterly cold long runs. The water in the bottles would freeze, and the gel packets were nearly impossible to squeeze with the cold, numb fingers that were under my heavy gloves. I survived it however, not missing a single day. There was a special sense of accomplishment as I passed the 16 mile mark in long runs, since that was the distance at which I had been injured previously. Then I passed the 18 mile mark, then 20. Soon the tapering had begun, and before I knew it I was driving to Pittsburgh.
I’m under no illusion that the surgery on my legs will prevent any future problems, but I do believe that poor circulation can make a person much more vulnerable to injury. Without proper circulation, the legs can’t function well during a run, and can’t recover properly afterwards. That’s why compression stockings are so popular during and after runs — they increase and enhance the circulation.
My greatest concern during all the training for Pittsburgh was injury – I did NOT want to get injured again. I knew it was a risk I had to take however, so I carefully trained and did my best to allow sufficient time for recovery between runs. There were no injuries, or anything even close to an injury during the training. There weren’t any aching muscles – just running the plan.
Ironically, on the night before the marathon, Jeannie and I walked down the street from our hotel to get some dinner. We then walked a few blocks farther to a special shop that was known for its delicious ice cream. While walking along the street, I was gazing up at the tall buildings and some of the decorations in place for the next day’s event. Talking, gawking, and not watching where I was going, I tripped on a curb and fell down on the sidewalk. Thank the Lord I wasn’t injured, but it was a scare that prompted me to be even more careful until I reached the starting line the next day. With God’s help, the patience and encouragement of my wife, and the supervision of a skilled running coach, after more than two years and three training attempts, I finally made it to the starting line of the Pittsburgh marathon.