Back to basics: Start. Finish.

A week and a half ago, I was fearing the worst — that despite my plans to start the duathlon season late in an effort to rehab my leg, I was still not going to be able to compete.

The hamstring is still stubbornly causing issues when I run, and the last thing I want is to re-injure it and jeopardize my whole season.

If I run too fast, as in anything close to my training pace of last May or June, my leg seizes. And even with a warm up and a moderate pace, invariably at some point anywhere from 15 minutes to 45 minutes into a run, my leg seizes. Unpredictably, and without any prior warning. The feeling is akin to when you actually pull your hamstring — that split second before the searing muscle pain, when the muscles ball up and seize slightly.

For my brain, that’s a signal to stop — because the last time I ignored that feeling  and tried to run through it, I pulled my hammy and was out of a race — and for that matter, completely out of commission for many weeks. At best when this happens, I can make myself slow to a dead pace of about 6:15/km and hope it subsides — at which point I can pick back up and run again. At worst, I have to stop, massage the muscle, and then walk it off before resuming. It’s a few minutes of slowdown, but add a couple of minutes of slowdown to having to run at a slower pace to begin with, and it’s a slip quite far down the results sheet if you’re competing.

The frustration of this is immense. It’s hard to build your running volume or intensity when you’re consistently but unpredictably struck by this muscle seizing. And as a weak runner, I need all the training time I can get.

For each run, my cardiovascular system says “let’s go faster”, and my legs are willing to try. Unfotunately, it turns out, they’ve often written a cheque they can’t cash on that run. Stutter step, stop. Curse. Resume. Repeat.

On occasion, I avoid this cycle completely and feel euphoric. Invariably on the next run, it comes back again. Usually at an insultingly low pace, early in the run. There’s no rhyme nor reason — fresh legs, tired legs, no difference. Hills are predictably tough, so I’ve gone from seeking them out to avoiding them as much as possible.

So with about 8 days to the planned start of my season, back in to my physio I went, worried that her assessment would be that racing might indeed be a bad idea, even a week later on a flat course. Whether that was the case or not, I needed a professional opinion. Despite increasing my training volume, despite making it back to 100% strength in cycling and the weight room, even in hockey, where hamstrings get a serious workout from stop-start skating — despite all that progress, the hamstring was still causing enough trouble while running that I haven’t gotten near to my usual distances at this time of year, nor my usual speed. Never mind making gains in either capacity.

The problem with hamstrings, of course, is that they form a massive portion of your posterior chain. While your calves and glutes take part in running, it’s your hamstrings that bear the brunt of it — and more so the faster or more explosively you move. That’s why sprinters develop such impressive hamstring muscles. And also why they blow them so often.

So, in a sport that requires  running twice, and running as fast as you can given the distance, would I have a chance at finishing if my hammy was in less than ideal form?

According to Susan the physio, yes.

Would I have a higher chance of blowing my hamstring completely in a race right now, due to this past injury?

According to Susan, no.

So with that info in my back pocket, for a whole lot of reasons, I’m racing this weekend.

I’m racing because, as Susan pointed out when she was tut-tutting, poking and prodding me and forcing my legs into movements that she swore were legit assessments and not just plain torture, this is what I work for.

All those hours in the winter, and double the hours in the spring… all the early wake ups and “sorry I can’t meet you until after I do my workout” social plan delays… all the money invested in gym memberships, coaching/training fees and physio and massage… all the psychological strain and physical exhaustion… all the calculating of nutrition and hydration and work vs rest… all the schedule manipulation… all the lugging of workout gear on vacations and business trips… every last bit of the the sweat and struggle is for this, this short four to five month span where we still train like obsessed maniacs, but get to race every few weeks as our strangely masochistic but ever-so-rewarding prize.

It’s for this torturous hour to two hours out in the hot sun, early on a Saturday or Sunday morning, with a handful of people cheering us on, taxing our bodies and challenging our psyches. It’s for the feeling of cresting the last hill or rounding the last corner, seeing the finish line and knowing that once again, your mind and your body came together and showed you that you could do this.

So yeah, let’s race this weekend.

My choice of the race I would start at for 2017 was strategic, even back six or seven weeks ago when I formed my plan and was still optimistic about my leg. The course in Welland, aka Rose City, is dead flat. While I wanted to start earlier in the season, it wasn’t feasible. Locking sights on this one gave me a race date in June that allowed the most lead-up time to finish strengthening the leg, and to try to achieve race-ready fitness. I’d say both of those are about 75% of where I’d like them to be, truthfully. At least in terms of running.

Staying motivated to push to the full race fitness level, to keep training hard and long hours, requires the actual “reward” of a race environment. After that disappointing injury-induced DNF to finish the 2016 season, I need this mental lift. With the assurance from my trusted physio, I’m all for making that start-line and getting past my mental block.

When I did my very first duathlon in June 2014, the mantra was “Finish. Don’t finish last.” Frankly, at this point, I’m simplifying it further, because I’ll take last place over a DNF at any time.

My rules for racing the sprint at Welland, then, are utterly simple.

  1. Start the race.
  2. Finish the race.

As usual, I will focus on the bike portion of the race as hammer time. But this time, it will be fun to put my new levels of training to the test for the short 20km cycling course. I’ll be treating it as a time trial, knowing that on the run that follows, I’ll be taking it easy. And as for that run, I will pace for the legs, not the ego.

Sorry, ego. From my training sessions to date, it seems that means I’ll be running 5:10/km. Even slower if I have to. But hey, that’s still a whole lot better than not running at all.

Is it risky? Maybe a bit. But it’s also a good test for me to make myself stick to my own race, and not focus on who’s ahead of me, passing me, or for that matter, lapping me. The task is simple — do the race to finish it, and forget about trying for a place in the standings. It’s going to be a tremendous challenge. And I’m all about the challenge.

I clearly have more work ahead of me on this leg of mine. But for now, at whatever pace, let season 4 begin for Team McKnapp.