Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Cotton Row Run / Limp

Monday was Memorial Day here in the United States. And Memorial Day is race day for me and everyone else entered in the Cotton Row Run. This is the race I had been trying to train for, but struggling with calf injuries. I've never had a problem with calf injuries in the past. This is something new to me. Apparently my calves wanted to make up for lost time with a vengeance because they've given me hell over the last 2 months.

Two months ago I hurt my left calf while training for the Cookie Dash 5K. I thought it was just a cramp so I kept on running. The next day my calf was in extreme pain. I tried to rehab the calf and continue my training, but the decision of whether to race or not came down to the day of the race and even then I was unsure. I started that race slow and remained slow for the entire course. I finished with a lousy time, but I finished without reinjuring my calf, so I called it a minor victory and basically a training run that just happened to include 499 other runners along with me.

2 weeks later, while running, my right calf started to hurt. "What the hell??" I stopped immediately, but it was still giving me problems days later. Throughout my training for the Cotton Row my calves were an issue. They just never seemed to be right somehow. Along with my calves, my left hamstring, right where it attaches at my knee, has been spasming like it wants to pull, too. It does this at the oddest times, like when I'm stepping over a pile of crap in my bedroom or something, rather than while I'm out running.

Monday at the starting line of the Cotton Row I was wearing a calf sleeve on my right calf. I considered wearing one on both calves just to be on the safe side, but I ended up not doing it. It was hot and humid, but not as hot as it was last year when this race nearly killed me. Overall I felt pretty good. I was planning to average not-so-spectacular 10 minute miles and try to come in as close to 30 minutes on the nose as possible.

I am in there somewhere
The start of the race was surprisingly disorganized. The race announcer never ordered the runners to get behind the starting line before the race began like they had last year. He also never warned the slower runners and the people planning to start out walking to get over to the side and out of the way of the runners who came to actually run and compete. Consequently, the race started with a significant number of runners ahead of the starting line.

Our race numbers included a strip containing a computer chip which records the exact moment we start and again when we finish, to make sure our times are precise. How they deal with runners who started ahead of the line I have no idea. Maybe they just use the official race start as their start time and don't account for the fact that they were 10 to 20 feet ahead of the line at that point? I don't know.

The start
Once the gun sounded, I was jammed into a pack of people trying to get moving. It was like crowding onto a subway car in New York City. There was no room to really move and get going. The people who simply walked at the start, I hate to say it, but they were selfish jackasses to be out there in the center of the road starting up at the front of the pack in everyone's way doing something like that. People tripped over them and while trying to get past them. If I had been injured trying to get past walkers at the start I might've been tempted to take a swing at one of them. Luckily that didn't happen. But getting past all of them, and there were a lot, was very frustrating. Every race has walkers, but this was the first time I'd ever seen walkers line up at the head of the pack in the center of the road like that.

The first half mile was nothing but runners trying to get away from the slow people jamming us all up. One woman next to me shouted in exasperation, "this is like a blood clot or something!" I knew exactly what she meant and I agreed.

Cotton Row Crash
The first mile I really didn't feel like I was running especially fast. I hadn't fully warmed up before the race because I was a little later than I intended getting there. I didn't have a good sweat going before the gun sounded. I ran the first half mile with my water bottle in my hand and continued to water up a little at a time while I struggled through the massive 'blood clot' of slow people and people who oddly chose to line up at the start only to mysteriously stop running at the beginning of the race and walk, causing collisions with the people running behind them who weren't expecting anyone in a race as big and competitive as the Cotton Row to walk within the first half mile. What is wrong with people that they never even think about all the other competitors who signed up for this race and paid their money to run while they, the novices, line up at the front and block everyone else? Is this the newest thing for passive/aggressive drivers, the newest frontier, to move into competitive races and try to jam everyone up out of a twisted desire to screw the world over?

Once I was past the majority of walkers and jog/walk/jog people, I began trying to settle into a pace where I felt comfortable. At the first mile marker they called out 10:15 at me as I ran past. I was shocked. Considering how many obstacles I'd had to fight through I hadn't expected to be on pace at all. But according to what the timers were reading out I was dead on the money. Losing a mere 15 seconds to people blocking me was a nice surprise.

During the second mile, as I was moving around slower runners and people stopping to walk, some guy moved over and tried to jam me up. There was no reason for it. No one was stopped head of him blocking his way, but someone was stopped ahead of me and he knew it. He just decided to slam into me and see if he could make me run into the girl who stopped in front of me. I managed to pass her on the other side as an opening appeared at the last second and then spent the remainder of the next mile dealing with him. He was a big guy, fairly thick to be a runner. In fact, he looked nothing like a runner. He reminded me of guys I used to play soccer with who only showed up to hurt people and pick fights. And he seemed to have a problem with me. We were side-by-side a lot, periodically changing the lead when one of us got ahead of the other. I was mad, and instead of thinking about my pace I was thinking about what I was going to do the next time he threw his elbow up at my throat one more damn time. About the time I had set in my mind how I was going to take him down to the asphalt and bounce his face on it like a hockey player, he fell off the pace and dropped behind. I never saw him again.

At the end of the second mile they read out 20:15 or so. I had run a good 10 minute second mile. I was right on the goal I had set for myself. If I could maintain for most of the third mile and pick up speed at the end, I might even have a shot at coming in below 30 minutes, like I used to do with significantly less effort. I began remembering just a short time ago when a time of 30 minutes or slower was absolutely out of the question for me. I never even thought about being slow enough to hit 30 minutes in a race. It just wasn't going to happen. 30 minutes for a 5K was a casual jog. But then my training had gone off into oblivion and my efforts to get it back on track hadn't been consistent. I'd had various injuries and illnesses to throw me off-track. I'd had other life issues that wrecked my training. And now I was dealing with calf cramps and pulls and a weird problem with my left hamstring. But today I was cruising.

And then my right calf went out on me. "Ow!" I started limping immediately. My right calf, the one with the sleeve on it to protect it and help it along, cramped and pulled. It was bad, too. I was forced to limp dramaticaly, going flat-footed on my right because I couldn't push off with my calf at all. I ran like this for awhile. It quickly began to exhaust my left hip to be running so crooked and awkwardly. I knew I couldn't go for another 1.1 miles like this. I was either going to have to stop and try to stretch it out or force my right calf to function even though it hurt. I hit a water station and grabbed a cup of water. I slowed to a fast walk while I drank it and poured it on my head. I tried to extend my stride in such a way that I could stretch my right calf with each step. I stretched it like this for several strides and then I resumed running, forcing the calf to work. It worked a little bit. It still hurt, but it was at least functioning partially now. I knew if I could just get the cramp out of the muscle I could probably force it to work long enough to finish the race. And then there would be hell to pay after.

Over 5,000 runners compete in this race each year
The last mile of the Cotton Row is annoying. It's a long straight stretch up a slight embankment. It's so long, in fact, that everyone begins to feel convinced that we're near the finish. I see runners pick up speed along here and I know that they're going to regret it and suffer. What I mean by that is, if a runner is in the same part of the pack as I am by this point in the race, chances are they don't have the strength or endurance to start speeding up so far from the end and still make it to the finish line. We're further from the end than it feels.

After an eternity we are directed to turn right and run a short distance down another street before making a sharp left and running down a slight embankment on a new street. It's disheartening for the runners who were convinced that we were nearly done before. You can see it in their faces as they sigh and either complain openly or simply stop and walk out of exhaustion. This new street is long and straight, too, every bit as long as the previous one that was so long as to feel like the final stretch before the finish. That road wasn't the final stretch, but this one is.

We ran for a long way in the blazing sun, with no shade and no more water stations, before we could begin to see a banner far off in the distance. But it's another agonizing illusion. That banner is not the finish line. And every year a significant number of runners see that banner far, far down the steaming sun-scorched road and begin to speed up, expending every last drop of energy in the effort to reach what they believe is the finish line. It's like being nearly out of gas and seeing what you think is a gas station far down the road, so you press down on the gas pedal and use up your last few drops because you believe you are about to reach your goal and refuel. Unfortunately for you, you aren't, and by the time you realize it your fuel is gone and you are doomed.

I repassed all the runners who sped up on the previous stretch, wrongly believing we were nearly there. I repassed the runners who waited until the final stretch to speed up and sprint for the banner over a half a mile down the road that looks so much like the finish line. By the time they were close enough to read it and realize that it wasn't the finish, but the starting line we were approaching, they had nothing left to carry them any further. So many people stop and walk as they approach this banner, ending their long race by walking defeatedly the last hundred yards or so to the finish line, which is further ahead beyond the starting line.

The problem with a 5K is that it isn't 3 miles. It's 3.1 miles. It's that extra .1 that causes so many headaches for races that are organized in such a way as to have overlapping start and finish stretches. The Cotton Row used to be laid out differently, back when there was no 5K and only the 10K race was offered. The start was on one side of a lake and the finish was all the way around on the other side, so that you knew when you were coming to the starting line again that it meant nothing and you should actually wait until that point to kick in your afterburners and try to sprint around the lake to the finish. With this new course people still aren't quite getting it, and the starting line, with its big white banner so easily seen from far up the road and blocking the runners view of the finish line banner so that it appears to be the only banner, is killing people at the end. It's like a race with a few tricks thrown in just to mess with your head.

Last year I was too devastated from the heat, humidity and my own lack of adequate training to sprint for what appeared to be the finish only to turn out to be the start. So the starting line illusion didn't affect me. I maintained my steady pace and just motored along as best as I could. I was dying last year by this point, but I had enough left that I could continue past the starting banner and hold my speed to the actual finish line, coming in just as the clock ticked 34 minutes, the worst time I had ever recorded in my entire life.

But that was last year. This year I was supposed to be different. This year I was in pain as I came to the banner where we had started and saw the finish line beyond it, along with countless runners stopping and walking in frustration because they had further to go than they had allowed for and had run out of gas. I was limping and tearing up my injured calf. And I saw the clock up ahead reading 30-something. Oh hell, I was a long way from that clock and it was already past my target time of 30. I started to speed up as much as I could. As I got closer I could see the clock more clearly. It said 32:something. Dammit, I had really blown my time on the last mile with this stupid injury! 33:00 clicked off and I was running as fast as I could for the finish and trying not to trip or collapse before I reached the end. There were two lines running across the road. Which one was the finish?? Which one had the sensor that was going to read my computer chip and record my time? Did I have to lean forward and throw my upper body across both lines? Why were there TWO lines????

Why are there two lines?
I crossed the line(s) at what felt like a sprint, but probably looked more like a normal, healthy runner's ordinary pace. Everyone was crossing the finish and then just stopping dead. I crammed into the crowd of runners at the end and came to a stop. I could barely breathe and I didn't want to stop. I needed to keep moving. I turned sideways and slid my sweat-lubricated body through the crowd of heat-stroked zombies until I came out the other side. Then I stumbled further past, looking for the water arch that they set up each year.

Invented for kids, increasingly used at races
Once I saw it, my only thought was to get to that arch and stand under it while the water sprayed over me. The water arch is just a bunch of PVC piple with holes drilled all along it and a hose attached to one end so that water flows through it and sprays out the holes, creating a wide showerhead that dribbles streams of cold water over about 6 feet and allows multiple runners to stand under it and rapidly cool off. I stood under the water arch for a long, long time until I was completely soaked. Then I limped over to a shady spot near a wall and began trying to stretch my calves.

My corrected time, which they posted on a wall, was something like 33:15. I can't remember exactly. It wasn't good and so it wasn't memorable. It was simply better than last year. But it was 3 full minutes worse than what I was aiming for. It's frustrating that I might have reached my goal if only my calves had held up for the full race. There is nothing I can do about that now, though. So at this point I just have to start rehabbing my calves and try to strengthen them significantly while I get ready for the Warrior Dash later this year. That race isn't until September, if I remember correctly, and it isn't the sort of race where time is really the most important thing. But even so, I don't want an injury problem ruining that one for me, too. Last year I was sick as a dog for the entire week prior to the Warrior Dash. I went to the race not knowing if I'd even be able to attempt it and yet somehow managed to complete it. I didn't do well, but I did it. That was my victory then. I'm hoping for something a little better than that this year, without injury problems or sickness to make it less fun.

So what did you do over the weekend?


  1. Wow, you did it!!!
    Congratulations! :o)

  2. Your poor calf(s) :0(

    well done on making through running at MY pace!!! LOL.

    My weekend? boring domestic chores, a baby shower for one of my best mates Saturday; & Sunday watching my niece play in a big volleyball tournament (6 games?)

  3. Ute, thanks, I had hoped to do it a little faster, but at least I finished in less than my worst ever time, which was last year.

    AlleyCat, yeah, I don't know what is wrong with me lately that I'm having so many muscle strains. I thought your pace had sped up and was faster than mine. I always feel as if everyone is faster than me these days. My domestic chores were waiting for me when I got home. My cats had peed all over the floor because one of them stupidly pooped all in the litterbox and didn't bury any of it, leaving the other with no way to get in to pee, so he just used the floor. Yay! So how did your niece do in the tournament?

  4. Injuries drive you bloody mad don't they!! I don't know why we are more susceptible to injuries sometimes more than others! The fastest 5.5 km I did was 29.20 mins. I'm usually around the 33- 35 min when training leisurely, so no, I'm not really faster than you!

    Bummer about your cats....mine's a bugger for not "burying", but at least she doesn't have to share so it's her own mess. I've got a ginormous litter box so she has space.

    Tess & one of her team mates were filling in for a city team (they live in the country) so didn't know the team & they hadn't trained together so was a bit awkward for them. Her club doesn't have enough players for under 15's which is the level she should be playing at, so she has to play under 17's I think which is a bit tougher or under 13's which is too easy. She filled in for an under 13's game which she could have won with out having any team mates (the opposition could barely get a serve over the net) & lost 3 won two in the under 15's & played off for 3rd on the day which they lost in the 3rd set. Was all fun. My sis said she only had 2 games so I though I'd only be there an hour! Ended up being all day....... Made me want to give it a crack!!

    Sorry for the essay!!!

  5. That is a scary number of people competing! You think you could be almost carried along in a Peloton wave!

  6. AlleyCat, I haven't hit the under-:30 times in quite a few runs now. I'm not doing so well. If I could just get my workouts more regular I know I could get the times back down again, but I've fallen out of my groove and seem to be having trouble getting back into it. I guess it's back to the treadmill for me as our hot, sticky summer season is here and I need the constant timer of a treadmill to tell me the moment I fall off the pace.

    I played a game of soccer once where we were short 5 players. Actually, we were short 6, but I had a friend who played and I asked him to play with us just to help minimize the slaughter. The other team was a city school and they had well over 25 players on their sidelines. Well, my friend was a lot better than I'd expected and the other team was a lot worse. He scored 8 goals for us and the other team scored none. We beat them 8-0 with our 8 players. It was the most lopsided game I'd ever been a part of. Basically my friend beat the other team all by himself.

    AboutLastWeekend, the number of people was only really a problem when someone stopped to walk right in the middle of the street. You would run smack into them or nearly injure yourself trying to get around them. I just wish the race organizers had ordered the walkers to the rear of the pack at the start and the faster runners to the front. In years past, your number was assigned based on previous race times you'd run, and the start was sorted with the lower numbers at the start and higher numbers at the back. This effectively solved the problem. I don't know why they quit doing this.