Return to Running: how to run a PR in one slow hour, January 2012


It's January 19, and I'm due to run one hour, slow.


That doesn't sound like anything special. Every runner does it. Thirty years ago, one hour slow for me would have meant a pleasant recovery run, maybe a pre-race taper. But today, if I complete sixty minutes of running, it will be a momentous PR, my longest and most significant run for ten years.


And the most surprizing. It will be a run I didn't dare hope for. In 2006, when a worn knee cartilage finally forced me to stop running completely, I thought it was for ever. For ten years I'd hobbled in more and more pain, tilting grotesquely along like Richard the Third on a bad day, not daring to see my shadow in the sun. Mostly I ran only up hills, where the impact was less, walking grumpily back down.


On January 19 one year ago, I had partial (unicompartmental) knee replacement surgery. I wrote about it, and new research into knees and marathon running, in this column [Roger on Running, February 2011, News About Knees]. The advice of the surgeon, although he is a strong advocate for exercise, was firmly not to run. Ever. I did not plan to try. With the raw scar, I also carried a vivid image of the clunky-looking metal and plastic prosthesis that was now glued inside my body. Biking and walking were it, for life.


Readers of this column won't need telling how much you miss running when you are deprived of it. No book or novel has ever adequately described that intense frustration and resentment, the sheer sense of lack. You feel your body has betrayed you. You long for that simple rhythmic movement. When I biked past favorite sports fields or trails from running days, it was like visiting a friend's grave. I pined for the textures of the earth beneath my feet. At big races that I was covering as a journalist, I felt like the old war horse who hears the bugle and whinnies to go for one last arthritic gallop. When I reported from New York in 2010 how Haile Gebrselassie wept when he thought he had run his last race, I knew from the inside what he was feeling.


So how come I'm running an hour today? Or anyway, hope to run an hour? I have unqualified confidence in Russell the surgeon. He did a brilliant job. I listened to him. And then I kind of forgot.


It happened very slowly. In February, as the wound healed, I carefully walked, with a cane at first, building up from laps of the deck at home to an hour on trails and open hill country. Equally carefully I resumed biking. By the end of March I was up to full steam on the bike. In April I was walking an hour or so in Mohonk Preserve near our Hudson Valley home. One day, on impulse, I tried jogging for ten paces. Nothing broke. Nothing hurt. By the day before the Boston Marathon, in the Charles River Park, it was 5 x 50 paces – and of course, Bill Rodgers caught me in the act.


“Don't tell Kathrine, or anyone – I'm not supposed to run!” I pleaded. That was when Billy told me that Grete Waitz had died, another runner whose identity was always interfused with running, whatever life threw at her. Like Billy. Like me.


The bike was still my official work-out, but every four or five days, I took a longish walk with a few jogs inserted. And slowly increased the jogs, adding minutes. Gradually the jog/walk days became a kind of interval session, like 5 x 5 minutes, with five minutes walk between. That was in July, along the Mohawk Canal in Utica, during Boilermaker weekend; it felt wonderful to be “running” again on a leafy trail that has such strong pre-race memories.


When I reached thirty minutes total, I began to join the jogs together. It was in Berlin, late afternoon before the Marathon, that I ran thirty continuous minutes for the first time. As reward, when I rounded a corner in the Tiergarten Park, I found myself running a few yards behind the unmistakeable figure of Haile Gebrselassie, on his last meditative pre-race jog. I held position in his footsteps for two minutes. Who would have thought I would acquire an unforgettable running experience at this age, and after knee surgery? I now go around claiming to be the last person who ran with Haile while he was still world record holder. A cynic suggested that his loss in Berlin was because he was demoralized when I kept up with him. But Haile had not retired after all at New York in 2010. And with a touch of triumphant defiance, I thought, “Neither have I.”


Still running every fourth day, I began to add one minute each time. It sounds nothing, but it's amazing how it builds up. That's a lesson for every new or rehabilitating runner. As a coach, I often quote Joseph Conrad's Nostromo, who had an illicit horde of silver, and adopted the motto, “I must get rich very slowly.” Very slowly, in the last month, my runs have been 55 minutes, 56, 57, 58 and 59...


If you work, you will improve. That is the runner's mindset. I can't express how good it feels to be making progress again.


It hasn't all been easy improvement. Getting in shape never is. A hamstring played up, filling me with a sense of deep injustice that you can get injured while running so slowly. I went out sometimes with a younger friend, Dennis, and his even younger dog Radar, who were great company, but whose pace left me crumpled and weary. Dennis was considerate, but Radar is Australian, and they are always dangerous to be around.


There was positive reinforcement. Jack Taunton, western Canada's leading sports medicine specialist, reassured me that the advice not to run on a knee implant because of possible wear or damage is a matter of proper caution more than known fact.


“Run carefully, on soft surfaces, and avoid downhills,” was Jack's suggestion. He is a runner, so understands. I began to ask why forty minutes' running should cause more wear than three hours' walking. I met and heard about runners who raced on new knees. Mike McCully, a retired astronaut in Florida, put it simply.


“I love to run the Space Coast half-marathon. If it means my artificial knee wears out faster, so I'll get another one.”


My son, who often gives me wise advice, said, “Lifestyle is all that matters, dad. Do what you love.”


My wife as usual saw to the heart of the matter.


“I was worried at first about you running, but that day when I met you walking back to the hotel from running in the Tiergarten, your step seemed lighter and your face was like a happy kid.”


After I have run an hour, I'll start to vary it, which I enjoy. Mix in shorter runs. Run some hills. It's great to be thinking creatively again.


But first, I have to do the hour. The feeling is like before a race. I will enter territory today I haven't been into before. There is uncertainty and there is challenge. Sure, it's only an hour, it will be slow, and the increment is trivial - one minute. But sometimes the best PR is the one you achieve by one second. And even better is the PR you achieve when you thought your PR days were over.


Later, 7pm. Diary note for January 19, 2012:


“Ran 60 minutes. PR.”

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