The positive side

“I run with my head, my heart and my guts, because physically, I don’t think I’ve got a great deal of talent or ability. I started at the bottom and worked up.” – Steve Jones, former marathon world record holder

During the last several miles of the New York City Marathon, part of my focus centered on relaxing my muscles to avoid cramps.

As early as mile 16, I knew battling cramps would be nearly inevitable.

Over the years I’ve had several people ask me about cramps, what causes them and how to avoid them. My response has been that research can’t conclusively determine the cause of cramping. This recent Runner’s World article tackles the issue, touching on several of the most common culprits.

And I have my own thoughts on the subject, one that I’ve procrastinated in writing about since I didn’t have a lot of time to research and find links to support. But the above referenced article sums up commonly held thoughts and scientific conclusions on the subject.

There is no single cause for cramps. Each runner probably needs to determine what causes cramps for her or him, and how to best prevent them. It may not be easy to figure out what causes cramps because there are so many variables. And variables leading up to race day – nutrition, sleep, stress, time on your feet and mood – all influence the finished product.

Many of the usual cramp culprits weren’t reasons for the cramps I experienced in New York City. In 16 marathons, I’ve only suffered them a couple of times. During the Nov. 2 race, the weather was cool. Plus, I consumed plenty of fluids, used several gels to keep my energy and electrolyte levels up and even ate an entire banana about mile 13. In my case, lack of long distance training or hill work also were not factors.

My conclusion?

In three words: long, sustained effort. Or, in two words: muscle fatigue.

My plan in New York was to run an effort worthy of my best, regardless what the clock showed as the finishing time. In advance of the race, I had run more miles training for it than any previous marathon, spent a lot of money to get there, and dedicated my effort. And there’s no guarantee I’ll ever get back there unless I win a bib number in the lottery.

There was no way I was going to give anything less than my best.

By mile 22 and 23, my legs felt the onset of cramping, with flashes of the piercing pain to present a quandary. My options were limited to slowing down or gambling on pushing the pace, which had already slowed. As we wound through Central Park, the repetitive hills pounded my muscles into hamburger. The cramps became real, and now offered another likely scenario: walking.

I didn’t go to New York to walk. It would be beyond humiliating.

Then I recalled a relaxation method that I swore worked at least twice before: positive self talk. When a muscle began to hurt or cramp, I would acknowledge it, feel grateful for my place in the race and “talk” the opposing muscle into helping me out. It put mental focus on the opposing muscle rather than the one causing the problem. Staying positive is a choice, and requires less energy.

Sound funny? Maybe. But I’m a strong believer that a big part of running is mental. A positive attitude, approach and coping methods can carry anyone faster to the finish line than a negative outlook.

If you want to know the secrets to being a successful runner, here’s a pretty good place to start. It’s a concise overview on training, nutrition, mental strategies and cross training that should provide insight to runners of any level. And, if you’re simply looking for a little motivation, this highlight video of the 2009 Ironman World Championship should do the trick.

The gift

“It’s very hard in the beginning to understand that the whole idea is not to beat the other runners. Eventually you learn that the competition is against that little voice inside you that wants you to quit.” – George Sheehan

It was a traditional Christmas Eve morning, if not typical.

A thin coat of snow glazed the sidewalks and streets, providing the faintest prelude of a White Christmas in Fargo. The temperature hovered just below the freezing mark – nearly a 50-degree swing compared to Thanksgiving morning.

A group of 30 runners gathered at the Y in downtown Fargo for an annual Christmas Eve run. Nearly all who don’t head to work gather at a downtown bar to enjoy a few spirits before heading off to spend the holiday with family.

The annual gathering has begun to take on legendary status among some in the area’s running community: a few jolly hours of camaraderie featuring a handful of miles, music from the jukebox and plenty of funny stories. The gathering attracts runners of all levels, including some whose paths have crossed only because of the sport they love.

For me, these gatherings are a gift.

The remodeling project

“The idea that the harder you work, the better you’re going to be is just garbage. The greatest improvement is made by the man or woman who works most intelligently.” – Bill Bowerman, former Oregon track coach and co-founder of Nike

The past several weeks saw the return of the nagging ankle issues that prompted a long, painful setback last spring. But unlike last spring, I have an antidote.

It’s all part of the remodeling project I’m focused on during the winter months to make myself a better runner through several non-running strategies noted in my last post.

Note I am calling it a remodeling project. Not rehab or even a rebuilding project.

In the absence of fitness, endurance or a debilitating injury, I am remodeling my off-season training to improve myself as a runner.

When the ankle issues flared up again, and caused a bit of worry, I found my antidote by chance. Earlier this week, during a strength training session, my routine included some calf exercises. And nearly instant and drastic improvement. Not perfect, but a 70 percent improvement – before I had even left the gym.

All the more reinforcement for me that a remodeling project – to address weaknesses – is the perfect plan for the winter. Along with a steady diet of 15-mile weekend long runs.