The Case of the Hampered HarriersOctober 15, 2009
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THE CASE OF THE HAMPERED HARRIERS
What can you do when your legs go dead for no apparent reason? Be patient, stay hopeful, keep training, and keep trying to figure out what’s going on!
by Greg Crowther
In the spring of 2007, Seattle ultramarathoners Brian Morrison and Ralph Pooler are busily and happily preparing for the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run. Their fitness is great, and they have hopes of exceeding their previous Western States efforts. (Ralph placed 34th in 2005 with a fine time of 20:42, and Brian almost won the whole thing in 2006 until collapsing less than a quarter mile from the finish.)
A few weeks before the late-June race, training becomes a struggle for both Brian and Ralph. They don’t feel sick, overtrained, or unmotivated; they just can’t run fast anymore. They drop out early at Western States, a huge disappointment. But a little later, about seven weeks after their slumps began, they both feel better and start running fast again. At the end of July, both clock personal-best times at the White River 50.
My friends’ bizarre tale arouses my curiosity, but I don’t know what to make of it. Then the same thing happens to me the following summer, and I get really curious. All of a sudden, all of my runs — easy jogs, time trials, intervals, everything — seem to have slowed by about 15 to 20 seconds per mile. As with Brian and Ralph, there’s no obvious cause. I’m not ill, as far as I can tell, and there have been no important changes to my training or diet. I’m not injured, sleep-deprived, or stressed out. Blood tests reveal that I’m not anemic or hypothyroid. I have not recently broken a mirror, walked under a ladder, or crossed a black cat’s path. What the heck is going on?
In the absence of an explanation, I find myself overanalyzing every easy run. Did I feel better today? Am I getting back to normal? To avoid driving myself crazy, I settle into a pattern of doing a speed workout roughly every third day. If and when I’m really improving, I’ll know because my times in these standardized workouts will get faster. The recovery jogs in between will be kept as stress-free as possible.
Weeks go by. My times don’t improve, and neither does my attitude. What if my condition is permanent? Will I still be able to derive some enjoyment from competing, or will I turn into a non-racing “fitness jogger”? I’m not sure.
As the first week of October approaches, it occurs to me that I’ve now been slow for about seven weeks. Could I have the same undefined malady that Brian and Ralph had? If so, will mine go away soon? I do a workout, and it goes surprisingly well. Is this a placebo effect? I do another one a few days later, and it goes even better. This isn’t just the power of positive thinking; I’m cured!
What exactly it is that I have been cured of is still unclear. Conversations with a couple of physicians suggest that I (and Brian and Ralph) may have picked up some sort of sneaky, long-lingering virus — one that doesn’t make you sniffle and sneeze but saps your energy just the same. It’s as good an explanation as any.
Meanwhile, the lessons of this trying period start to sink in. I ponder the fact that the gift of speed can be revoked suddenly or gradually, in increments large or small. I should be grateful that, as I enter my late 30s, I haven’t lost much yet. For the moment, I am grateful.
I also look back with incredulity on the despair I felt just a short time earlier. Why did I feel so hopeless? It must have been because I was battling a problem that I didn’t understand. I guess I forgot that, sometimes, inexplicable problems go away inexplicably. A lack of understanding need not dictate a lack of hope.
Finally, I note that my seven-week nightmare has given me a new appreciation of what Brian and Ralph and perhaps many others have gone through. When Pam Smith, a college running friend now based in Salem (Oregon), emails me to say that she’s been struggling lately and to ask whether she might have the same thing I had, I am ready with examples and ideas. As a physician, Pam is somewhat dismayed to learn that my only “symptom” was slowness — not much of a basis for a differential diagnosis. She wonders whether she too has the hypothetical virus, or whether she’s simply overtrained.
She finds her answer a few weeks later. It turns out that her muscle weakness is a side effect of the Claritin she’s been taking for her grass allergies.
Ah, running — such a simple sport, but with such an abundance of mysteries!