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The Chicago Chronicles: Mind Over Matter

Saying that these last two weeks have been a roller coaster would be an understatement. I can’t remember the last time I have experienced this many emotions in one week. It started out with “the win” I’ve been aching for.

I decided to run the 5th Avenue Mile. Everyone is always talking about it, and for the last two years my friends have been constantly asking me when I was going to run it to see how fast I could run a mile. I wasn’t sure why so many people cared, until I realized that it had been a very long time since I had raced/timed myself in a mile. I was incredibly curious to see where I stood now. I was excited but terrified.

I was excited because I couldn’t stop thinking about how amazing it would be to get a PR and be able to officially know that my fitness was getting better. I was terrified because…well…what if I wasn’t getting better? What if I ran the mile SLOWER than the last time I was timed? What if I’m totally losing my fitness and starting to slow down? These thoughts tend to cross my mind at the end of every summer, because guess what? You run slower in the summer.

I could not have written a more perfect morning for the 5th Avenue Mile. It was chilly and overcast, and everyone was full of adrenaline. The ladies lined up at the start, jumping around to try and keep their muscles warm while waiting for the gun. It’s safe to say I was FREAKING. OUT. I kept turning to my friends and (actually anyone around me) continuously asking, “Why am I doing this? Why did I sign up for this? What are we doing? Why did I sign up for this?!” Luckily those around me were just as frantically agreeing, which made me feel not as psycho (albeit only slightly).

I had to take a few deep breaths and remind myself that it was just ONE mile. It’s not a marathon, it’s a sprint, and it will be over in a matter of minutes. So what if you end up with a slower mile time? That’s not your goal. Marathons are your goal right now. This is just something you’re doing because of curiosity. You didn’t train for it and there is nothing riding on this…except for your pride. But what if you are faster? Man that would feel so good.

Coach Conlon suggested that I aim for 6:39. Yeah … right. That sounded pretty ambitious but, of course, I trust him so I’m decided to go for it if he thought I could do it. He said DO NOT hit the 800M mark before 3:20. Ok, that seemed reasonable since I generally do my 800M repeats around that time anyways, this would be just another 800M right after it. Even if I slowed down a little bit, I might still PR.

Then the gun went off, and immediately I was back in high school, fielding the same fears and performance anxieties I had during every track meet. My stomach churning, my legs went numb, my brain shut off. All I could see was the woman in front of me, and all I could hear was my breathing. I was so preoccupied with making sure my legs kept moving that I did not look at my watch once. Although there was a timer at every 400M to show you where you were at — a blessing and a curse — I didn’t look until I got to the 800M mark to make sure I was at least hitting my 3:20.

Ok, now for the uphill to the 800M mark in… 3:05?? Wait what? How did…? No time to think about that, just keep going. But when should I start my kick? Being on a team like NBR, you don’t have a choice. They give you that kick and it is a HARD kick. Immediately I heard what felt like every person on my team cheering me on my way to the finish line. So much adrenaline!! I saw the 1500M and I sprinted as fast as my legs could go for what seemed like forever until I finally and breathlessly crossed the finish line in 6:10 with a 40-second PR and my first race at 70% AG.

And then started what everyone infamously named the “5th Ave Mile Cough.”

That next morning I woke up with so much left-over adrenaline from such a great, personal accomplishment, and I was excited for the run that was on my schedule for the day. A 20-miler with 16 at MP. This is great. The half marathon from the week prior was a mess and this would be a great showing of whether or not I am ready for Chicago since I didn’t get a chance to prove myself at the half. There had been a weird ache in my left foot since the Mile but I was sure it was just stiffness and would be fine after stretching and waking up my muscles.

I fueled as one would for a 20 miler and drank and entire bottle of UCAN as I was curious to see if this was something I would try on race day. Again, I could not have written a more perfect morning. It was very sunny but also chilly. A gorgeous morning for a long run. I left pretty early so I could have most of FDR and the West Side Highway to myself as that would be the most similar terrain to Chicago and would be great practice.

After my 2-mile warm up, I was ready to kick it in gear for marathon pace. About a mile in the pain in my foot came back and was much more noticeable. Figuring that it still needed some time to warm up, I kept going. After about another mile, the pain in my foot was so severe that my entire leg buckled under me, and I was no longer able to put any pressure on that foot. I was immobile from the pain but was even more so from the immediate realization of what this pain might be. I was devastated. I had so many thoughts and emotions going through my head that all I could muster was a soft, resigned, “no.”

I somehow made it home through my mentally numb state and after some Advil and icing, curled up into a ball in my bed for the rest of the day, repeating to myself over and over, “There goes Chicago.” To be quite frank, it was one of the hardest days I have had in a very long time. I had trained so hard for this race, and I truly thought this was finally my moment to BQ. I want it so bad, and I just couldn’t stop thinking about how unfair it was to work so hard for something you want more than anything and to be so close before it’s stripped from you without any warning or reason.

I felt defeated and wanted to give up. Anytime I started to feel better and attempt to think positively, that would immediately disappear as soon as I stood up and had to limp my way to the kitchen or any other part of my apartment. Even if it wasn’t a stress fracture and only needed a few days or so of rest to heal it, it was still too close to the race — and that was too integral of a training run — that I knew I wouldn’t be ready regardless.

I didn’t tell too many people, but those that did know were incredibly supportive. Immediately they started coming up with scenarios and silver linings. It was just another reminder of how amazing my support system is. Later that day I decided to check in on a friend that had raced that morning. Unfortunately her race did not go well either. The first 5 miles of the 10K went great, but the entire last mile she couldn’t stop thinking about why her foot was bothering her that it took her almost twice her original pace to finish just the last mile. I told her that running can be almost 75% mental — and sometimes that can be harder than the actual running. Which made me stop and think.

I had spent all day telling myself that Chicago was out of the cards for me. Whether you think it is or it isn’t, you’re right. Of course I wouldn’t be able to run Chicago…at least not with that attitude. Ok, so you’re injured. You are not the only one! I happened to also be reading Meb’s book “Run to Overcome” earlier that week, and I was coincidentally on the chapter where he went through pelvic stress fractures, hamstring tears, etc etc etc. And it truly seemed like the end of his career. Those injuries were about 4-5 years ago, but we all know how that story ends. He won the NYC Marathon and more recently the Boston Marathon.

I’m not saying that after a week of rest I’ll wake up and win the Boston Marathon (but a girl can dream, right?). What I am saying is that runners get injured. Pros get injured. Teammates get injured. It happens, and you’re not alone. What they all have in common is that they didn’t let their injury stand in the way of their accomplishments. It’s pretty obvious that I have a hard time taking a rest day. This was my body FORCING me to take a rest day, or several.

Every time I felt myself slipping back to negative thoughts, I remembered a blog post I recently wrote as a favor to a friend. She had nominated me for a blog called The Success Diaries, which is about women who have been through difficult times but have come out stronger. The featured women write letters to their younger selves giving them advice on how to make it through those next few difficult years.

I went back and re-read the letter I had written to myself for her blog. And then I read it again. Yes, this had been a hard weekend for me emotionally and physically, but it is nothing compared to what I’ve been through and what I’ve been able to accomplish through ambition and positive thinking. After re-reading my post, I knew my attitude needed a strong adjustment.

A few days later I started to feel a little bit better while walking and got on the bike to keep the legs moving as that was the only form of exercise that didn’t hurt my foot. I went into Finish Line and we did whatever we could to figure out where the pain was coming from, what caused it and how to stop it.

That next evening I took a stab at the AlterG, which is probably the coolest thing ever. The AlterG is an anti-gravity treadmill that allows you to run with only a certain percentage of your body weight. I started at 70%, and ideally I wanted to get to 80% as that would indicate I was close to being recovered and ready to slowly get back on track. Unfortunately I was only able to transition to 80% for about a mile before going back down to 70%, but it was still really awesome to not only run again but be able to use such a cool machine.

That next morning I left for a conference in Syracuse, which gave me more time to rest. I tried a few easy miles on the treadmill at the hotel, which went well. I figured after another day or two of rest, I would take another stab at a long run … ONLY if I could completely walk without any pain whatsoever by that point.

Come Saturday, regardless of the minor cold I had come down with, I was ready to try it. All week I had been pretty terrified of running again, worried that if I did the pain would come back, and it would be proof that this would be perpetual and not just a one-time “you need to rest” situation.

Slightly achy and stiff, I made my way through a pain-free 16 miles. I don’t care how fast it was, I don’t care how close to the race it was or that it was “only” 16 miles. All I cared about was being pain-free and ready to get back on track. I was incredibly sore the following day as this was the longest run I had done in several weeks, but as of this morning’s tempo workout, I came back strong. Maybe this was a fluke, maybe it’s not — regardless, I am truly stronger after resting.

The important thing is that I knew no matter what, I wouldn’t get back on track without getting over the fear of what this may or may not mean. Just like my friend who had an issue with her foot that was enough to distract her for the entire last mile of the race, your thoughts are so powerful that if you think you should give up, you already have.

Before the Mile, my attitude was to just do my best because no matter what happened, I would be ok with the results. I got a massive PR. My attitude after hurting my foot was that this was over and my BQ journey had hit a dead end. I could have gone straight home and finished my “run” on the bike or maybe some strength training, but I couldn’t get the motivation to do it. After the positive reinforcements from friends and family, I could only think about how one or two bumps in the road wouldn’t determine or negate the last four months of training. What would is giving up.

Once I started on Plan B, my foot miraculously started to heal, my attitude improved, and my confidence slowly came back. I’m not going to say that that was why I had such a great tempo run on Wednesday, but I would say it had probably 75% to do with it. Confidence is so incredibly powerful that near the end of my tempo run, my muscles were killing from not being used in that way for awhile. But I was just on cloud 9 from coming back and coming back strong that it didn’t even occur to me to slow down.

Like I said, maybe it was a fluke but I CHOOSE not to think that way. Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.

Erica Silbiger is a 10-time marathoner, having run her first marathon with Team in Training in San Diego on June 5, 2011. She will run the Chicago Marathon on Sunday, October 12, with her sights set on achieving a BQ. Erica is the Assistant Director of Admissions for the Columbia School of Social Work, and part of her job involves traveling around the country speaking to prospective applicants in the fall. She trains with North Brooklyn Runners. She also blogs at Eat, Sleep, Travel, Run, Repeat.

1 comment

  1. Dianne StahlSeptember 27, 2014

    You go girl!! Whatever the outcome, I know you will give it your best. You always do!

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