Monday, February 10, 2014

Sean O'Brien 50 Mile

Or, in which I find myself unable to run, but then miraculously recover.

Some races just plain go wrong, but I think part of maturing as a runner is taking it in stride, to make a terrible pun, and make the best of it. Maybe you get injured or screw up your nutrition. Whatever happens, swallow your pride and relish the experience.

 Feeling pretty good cresting the rocky outcropping right before the first aid station.

I had a run in with terrible piriformis syndrome during the Sean O’Brien 50 miler this weekend. I was running solidly down from Buzzard Roost Ranch at the top of the climb on the return leg of the out-and-back when I felt a tingle in my right toes and something seizing up in my butt. Fast forward two miles later and I’m hobbling awkwardly as my right quad and hip flexor are inoperable and there is tremendous nerve and joint pain around my right hip. 

But let’s rewind. I took it super relaxed over the first four miles of the course, hanging back in about 30-40th and taking in the sights and smells of the pre-dawn Santa Monica mountains. Midway up the first climb onto the backbone trail I started to get my race into motion, and once I hit the twisty single track after the first aid station I was in the zone. It’s a good day when you feel like a river, flowing over rocks and around the curves, just letting the trail whisk you forward.

Heading down to Bonsall aid station. The trail winds its way off to the right to the bottom of the ridge, crosses the valley, ascends the far ridge, and then descends the fire road visible in the distance...only to run back up to this fire road. I know I've descended into trail runner madness when such prospects actually get me excited.

The ~2500 foot descent into Bonsall aid station is simply amazing, with panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean, Zuma Canyon, and a few McMansions in the distance (okay, those were lame, but the mountains are surprisingly remote for being so close to LA). The aid station, situated at the mouth of the canyon, was already heating up by 9AM. 

I made a crucial strategic move here that a lot of folks didn’t – I picked up a second water bottle. The next aid is more than 9 miles away with a good 2500-3000 feet of climbing and a hot sun beating down on the canyon walls. Why anyone would leave with a single water bottle is beyond me, but I passed folks absolutely trashed and dehydrated at the bottom of the steep fire road descent halfway through this section. Me? I was enjoying my icy Mountain Dew and salt water.

Just as I transitioned from the endless climb to the descent into Kanan #2 I felt the first sign of piriformis: a tingling in my right big toe and a weird tightness in my butt. At this point in the race things tend to just start getting sore, so I brushed it off. At Kanan I was joking with the volunteers about needing a new butt muscle and was still in good spirits, but things just crashed half a mile out from the aid station. My hip joint started to ache and it became increasingly difficult to swing my leg forward. Before reaching Latigo crossing I was reduced to an odd, lopsided shuffle-hobble. I couldn’t run up any incline at all, and running downhill was almost physically impossible: I literally could not move my leg the way I wanted it to. Crawling up to the aid station, I was desperate, almost ready to drop out, but something inside of me resolutely said, “No”. I called for a tennis ball and a volunteer lent me a foam roller. 

After maybe 20 minutes of rolling around in a dusty parking lot, I decided to give it a shot and trudge to the 43 mile aid station, Corral Canyon. There’s a short climb up from Latigo, which I managed to sort-of-run without too much pain, but as soon as I started the forested descent I hit rock bottom. My sciatic nerve was periodically firing up and sending waves of pain up and down my leg. Every time my glutes painfully seized up I would grab a tree. I finally picked up a sharp rock and started digging into my glute, trying in vain to calm my piriformis muscle. It must have looked absolutely ridiculous to everyone who passed me.

 Scenery like this is hard to enjoy when your butt is in seizure mode.

Every minute, stopped in my tracks. Every minute, digging a rock into my butt. It took me over an hour to go 4 miles, but I was still making forward progress. When I hit the dusty single track that weaves through the chaparral I awkwardly galloped straight-legged the mile or so to the aid station…

…which was manned by some absolutely awesome volunteers. Someone lent me a tennis ball and I went to work rolling around on it in the gravel. After perhaps 25 minutes of agony I suddenly felt my piriformis release its tight grip on the nerve, and the tingling in my toes subsided. The sun was out, the views were spectacular, and I was way behind where I should have been in the race. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me from enjoying my last 7 miles on the course.


Within a mile of leaving that aid station, I was back to running, albeit slowly. I found that if I kept my feet close together (as you’re not supposed to) I could move pretty fast without tweaking my piriformis. People who had seen me suffering on the side of the trail suddenly saw me blasting past them on the descent off the backbone trail. I ran straight up and over that final hill and sprinted the last mile down into the finish.
Never throw in the towel. Suck it up, swallow your pride, and just finish the damn race. Sometimes, if you stick with it and have the right attitude, you can solve those big problems and finish strong. I know I would have finished with a far better place and time had I not gotten injured, but that’s not how it went down so I can’t judge this race in that way. Pain is temporary but the sting of a DNF lasts forever. Besides, this was great training for Badger Mountain; the fact that this race felt "easy", injury notwithstanding, probably bodes well for my fitness.
 Malibu Creek State Park at the start/finish, unfazed by the smog a few miles to the southeast in the big city of sprawl.

I think the piriformis could have originated out of some sort of biomechanical compensation for a slight, lingering Achilles bursitis on my left heel. I was prepared for that to flare up but it was fine – just a little stiff – even after then compensating for my bum right leg. I’ve found injuries tend to alternate legs, which makes sense, but I’ve been stuck in a vicious cycle over the past year or longer. I think strength training has alleviated this somewhat, but it’s something I need to curtail sooner rather than later. 

But anyway, just remember – if your piriformis flares up during a race, sit on a tennis ball for half an hour, run with a rock dug into your glute, and stride with your feet awkwardly close together.