Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Physical Challenge: 2011 Edition

Mud, it does a body good. 
(At the 2011 Minnewaska Summer Solstice Run)
What a year it's been already. Things are going well (all things considered), but athletically, they certainly haven't gone according to plan. I'll explain.

After training so hard and for so long for last year's Virgil Crest Ultra, I more or less took the winter off to give my body and my mind some rest and time to fully recover. That's not to say I became inactive. Instead, I traded targeted, intense training for fun recreational outdoor adventure that would help to maintain my base level of fitness. Snowshoeing with the girls in backpack and chest carriers. Skiing. Ice climbing. A weekly run or two through the Vassar Farm or along the country-ish roads that surround it.

As spring arrived I switched gears and began more intense, focused trail running training in preparation for the summer race season ahead. I had big plans... In the beginning of May, I was registered to compete in the North Face Bear Mountain Endurance Challenge, a highly competitive 50-mile trail running race in the Hudson Highlands. Then in late June - two days from now as I write this post, in fact - I was scheduled to run the Safaricom Marathon in Kenya on assignment for Trail Runner magazine. Next in July, I had my sights set on the Escarpment Trail Run, a grueling 30k trail race in the Catskills. And the schedule continued from there...

Instead, I spent race day of the North Face Endurance Challenge laying in a hospital bed in Poughkeepsie hooked up to an IV, and I've withdrawn from the Safaricom Marathon (and am instead headed to New Orleans for the ALA conference where Kelli and I are doing a cupcake baking demo and book signing!).

My problems all started on Good Friday of Easter weekend. We took the girls for a beautiful hike up East Mountain in New York's Fahnestock State Park. The hike went great, except that part way through, I started getting a strange pain in my elbow. At first it was minor, barely noticeable. Then it became a nuisance. It got rapidly worse from there, seemingly by the 15 minutes, such that by the time we got back to the car, I was in legitimate discomfort. Enough so that I pulled off my jacket and shirt and asked Kelli to look at it. She grimaced. My elbow was red, hot, and very swollen. Back at home, the swelling continue to grow, such that I began to lose range of motion. The pain grew intense. By later that night, I was at the hospital.

They diagnosed me with septic bursitis, some 80% of cases of which are caused by a staph infection. (I later learned that people with autoimmune disorders can be predisposed to the condition, though I've never had bursitis of any sort in my entire life...) To make a long story short, the staph-related septic bursitis appears to have actually been unconfirmed MRSA, a particularly nasty form of antibiotic-resistant staph infection. It not only failed to respond to a series of 3 different prescription meds, but it grew. By Tuesday, four days after my initial visit to the ER, the infection had grown to encompass an 8" x 6" patch of my arm. Doctors admitted me for what would be the first of two in-patient hospital stays.

On my 4th and 5th antibiotics, this time administered via IV, the infection finally came under control, and three days later, I was discharged and sent home to complete my recovery. All seemed to be going well until the following Thursday, exactly one week after I had been discharged.

I awoke in the middle of the night with rigors. They're like having fever-induced shakes/shivers/chills on steroids. To get the proper mental picture, it's probably more accurate to equate my experience to having a seizure, though they're not the same thing. My shaking and muscle spasms - through my whole body - were so violent they shook the bed enough to wake Kelli from her sleep and startle her. Within an hour, I developed a 104 deg F fever. Back to the hospital.

Kelli's and my first fear was that this was the staph infection rearing its ugly head again, having possibly gone septic in my bloodstream. That turned out not to be the case. After another 3 days in the hospital - during which time a) they drew LOTS of blood for tests, b) my window looked out on the Hudson Highlands the same day the North Face race was being held, and c) stuck an IV in my veins again - I was diagnosed with tick-borne ehrlichiosis. They put me on my 6th antibiotic in 2.5 weeks.

When I finally went home, still on yet more prescription drugs, I was depleted.

The Bronski clan, after the Minnewaska Summer Solstice Run
It's easy to forget that - as much as we might like it to be - physical fitness and training for a specific athletic event is not a convenient, linear, upward trajectory. There are bumps in the road, setbacks, whole steps backward. Off the top of my head, I can immediately think of several previous experiences: abandoning an attempt on 14,000-foot Mount Yale in Colorado when I was wracked with GI and other symptoms weeks before my diagnosis and switch to the GF diet; getting "glutened" at a Mexican restaurant the night before a ski mountaineering race in Snowmass; coming down with a bad case of H1N1 two days before the Xterra US National Championship.

Usually, these setbacks are temporary, and in the grand scheme of things, they're a blip (if a large one) on the radar screen. In the bigger picture, the important thing is to focus on our net progress. (This is a useful lesson to keep in mind as you embark on a GF diet following a diagnoses with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Don't get overly discouraged by a setback. Be patient, and focus on your net progress!)

But my back-to-back stays in the hospital were somehow fundamentally different. Soon, weeks away from training turned into a month and a half. I was weak. Tired. Fatigued. In many respects, I felt like I had gone back to square one. Like I had lost so much of my hard-won stamina, strength, endurance, speed.

Normally, such a sequence of events might have left me frustrated, or even temporarily demoralized. To my surprise, that wasn't the case. I think that deep down, I understood that I had been very sick, that I'd been through a lot, and that it was going to take time to recover.

Finally, 3.5 weeks ago I tentatively resumed my training, testing the waters to see just how my body was doing. As expected, my fitness had faltered. Before the proverbial poo hit the fan, I had been on-track with my training, doing 30 miles or so of trail running each week, with runs ranging from 6 to 16 miles, and most of those runs being in the 8- to 12-mile range. Once a week, usually on Saturday mornings, I was even driving 30 min south to Fishkill Ridge and Hudson Highlands State Park, where I could put in lots of trail miles with some pretty decent elevation gain.

My first week back, however, I managed just 8.5 miles or so, split as two relatively flat 4+ mile trail runs. Each week, though, my strength has been returning. My times are getting faster. I'm feeling more pep in my step. The old endurance Pete is coming back. I'm up to 20+ miles per week, and I expect that number to continue to climb in the coming weeks.

Last night, pretty much impromptu, I decided to enter a trail running race and "test" myself to see how my progress was coming along. The race was the Minnewaska Summer Solstice Run, a 14k run held at Minnewaska State Park, atop the gorgeous Shawangunk Ridge. It attracts a pretty healthy contingent of runners from throughout the region. Race conditions were...less than perfect. 1 to 2 inches of rain had fallen (and was continuing to fall), leaving the course wet, muddy, with standing puddles of deep water. But the rain did keep the sun and heat away, which was a good thing.

Even with the limited visibility due to heavy fog and clouds throughout the course, I could tell this was one of the more beautiful venues I've ever raced at. The course followed a series of gravel-covered carriage roads past two picturesque lakes. It weaved above, below and through the white quartzite conglomerate cliffs that the Gunks are known for. The mountain laurels were in full bloom, their flowers a pale pink everywhere.

The race began with a steady 3.4-mile ascent to the first aid station at 6k. I'll admit - I was really hurting for some of those miles. I found it difficult to gauge just how hard to push myself. I tried to keep my body on the edge of moderate discomfort, a rate of exertion that I knew would challenge me, but which would not result in me "bonking" later in the race.

The next 3k was relatively rolling terrain, which offered an opportunity for my legs and lungs to recover some.

Past the 9k aid station (5.5 miles), it was a 5k - 3.1 miles - back to the finish, mostly at a gradual downhill. Here I really tried to open up the pace. I knew from my splits at the 6k and 9k aid stations that I was slightly ahead of my target race pace. I had wanted to try and go sub-1:10 for the race, which would roughly equate to 8 minute miles. With the weather and course conditions, and my uncertain fitness, Kelli thought sub-1:30 was more realistic.

When I was within 2 miles of the finish line, I progressively pushed my pace every 5 minutes or so, each time trying to maintain a slightly faster pace. I crossed the finish line in about 1:07:30, which equates to roughly 7:52 per mile. I was more than pleased. (I'm still waiting for race results to be posted, but based on last year's event, which attracted more than 260 runners, my time would have placed me just inside the top 30% of runners.) It was confirmation that I was getting "back in the game." There's more work to be done, for sure. But that experience was just the boost I needed to inject some fun and some motivation and some positive reinforcement into my training.

Now I have my sights set on races later this season... the Escarpment Trail Run in the Catskills hopefully, and the Virgil Crest Ultra in the Finger Lakes in September, which I plan to make another fundraiser for the NFCA as I did last year. (More on that to come!)

In the meantime, come join me for the NFCA's free webinar, "Nutrition and Training for the Gluten-Free Athlete," which I'll be leading next Wednesday, June 29!

- Pete


Rosie said...

good on you all! sounds like you've all been through a pretty rigor ous time.... and come through it doing well at last... full on! you never know whats round the corner, just as well sometimes.

glad to see you recovering your strength

theMom said...

Great job, Pete! I'm glad you're all recovered from your rough spring.

I, too, have had setbacks, and can totally understand the frustration. I'm still trying to work my way back to running a 5K, after my 18 years of constant childbearing. Because of reading about your training last summer, I was inspired to begin the task, and had run a few miles (only one at a time) last summer.

Then life got busy and weather didn't cooperate, etc. But in late January I started the Couch to 5K program. Still haven't gotten through their schedule, since I tweak it to my own decrepit fitness level.

I'm off my running again now, due to some pelvic and iliac crest pain, but still managing long walks three times a week. I don't have to deal with a chronic condition. And my training is on a "micro scale" compared to you. But I can totally understand your frustration with the setbacks.

I'm glad to read about your success. Thanks for the update.