The Elusive Marathon, and learning to run ‘right’

A marathon has been at the back of my mind, however dimly at times, for the last four or five years, and by mid August of this year, I’d finally decided that I was ready. I’d spent four months working as a server in Wyoming, at a base altitude of just over 6000 feet and regularly heading up into 10 000-plus figures during big hikes and climbing trips in the mountains. For most of the last two years, however, running had just been a hobby, something I’d do maybe a few times a month just to keep fit. My trusty old Nike Lunareclipses had worn out at the end of exams this year, and for whatever reason, I’d decided to buy some trail shoes, a pair of Brooks Cascadias, possibly because I thought they might double as an approach shoe for climbing trips (jury’s still out on that one) before heading out to Yellowstone. My goal for the summer was to cover a total of 500 miles in the trail systems of the rugged Beartooth Wilderness to the North, my enormous dream backyard of North-East Yellowstone, and the pristine jagged Tetons in the South, and after the realities of seasonal employment set in, I soon realised that I would not be able to make up the requisite distance if I limited myself, as I had done the summer before, to big ambitious hikes of 20 miles or more on weekends and days in which I only worked one shift at either end of the day. Hiking on ‘split’ days (which gave you a 4 hour window in the middle of the day between shifts) was an option, but you wouldn’t be able to make up the mileage during that window and still be on time for the start of a shift. It was time to brazenly ignore the rangers’ advice about hiking alone, grab a canister of bear spray, and set out to run Yellowstone’s trails.

And suddenly I couldn’t stop. It was a feeling I haven’t had since I was fifteen or sixteen, when I got my first pair of shoes and felt that finally I’d found something that I was good at. Running’s been a very solitary sport for me, so I don’t know if many new runners feel like this or not, but it’s the most wonderful sensation. You feel alive and somehow even relaxed and that you could keep going forever, even though you know there’ll be a stitch just around the corner, and your head is clear and you don’t have to think and it’s so wonderfully easy. It honestly can become an addiction. That first-time feeling lasted about two years for me, before that first pair wore out and their replacements left me with tendonitis in my foot that dogged me even after they were replaced. After that, the teenager in me kicked in and told myself that girls wanted guys who lifted weights, not a stringy runner like me. So I ditched the shoes, ordered the protein powder and set about forcing myself to bludgeon my metabolism into submission until I could fill out, and at last achieve that bastion of masculinity, to ‘lift bruh’. Ever since, even after I realised that my body was just not going to let me keep all that weight on, running had been strictly casual, a long way from the days of running 90 miles or so a month before. But suddenly I had that first-time feeling again, and it was fantastic. I would usually get off from work past 11pm during dinner shifts, lace up my shoes and take my head torch and bear spray and knock off 3 miles, survive an encounter with a mama bear and a cub near Lost Lake and collapse into bed, ready to wake up at half past 6 and do it all again. Suddenly that 4-hour window during ‘split’ days wasn’t for napping; it was for setting off into the backcountry with a Camelbak, the bear spray and some clif bloks. For the first time in literally years, I was going up past 5 miles and loving it. I was even sacrificing meal breaks during shifts to do a quick Lost Lake Loop and then snagging stray corn muffins later on to eat instead. The furthest I’d ever run in my life was 13 miles, which I remember at the time was a slog. Now I was getting regularly over 10 miles and breezing through them. I was knocking off some of my favourite day hikes in Yellowstone in no time at all and nothing was stopping me, not bison, not bears, and amazingly, not my feet. Most incredibly of all, I wasn’t even feeling sore afterwards, and anybody who knows me will know I little I care (or cared) about stretching. The injuries that had plagued me after those Lunarglides (I still remember, Nike!) were nowhere to be seen, and I couldn’t understand it, but to be honest, couldn’t be bothered to understand because I was enjoying running at distance for the first time in years.

One day when I wouldn’t have to go in until 4pm, I asked a friend to drop me off at the Warm Creek Trailhead and proceeded to run the entire 19-mile Bliss Pass trail and made it back in time to eat and shower. This one definitely took a toll on me; the final climb up to Bliss Pass is about 1300 feet in just over a mile, and I was pretty shattered by the end of it; in fact I felt very nauseous about two hours into my shift and went home early. However, my muscles still felt fine. I’d expected to feel like I’d spent a whole day doing deadlifts the next morning, but there was only minimal soreness. A week or two later, I ran 28 miles in four hours dead. Still fine. No tweaks, no niggles – nothing. And then I started doing the math. I’d done 28 miles, my longest ever distance by quite a ways, at altitude, with a moderately heavy pack, on a very hilly trail (it was the Garnet Hill Loop fused with the Buffalo Plateau trail to Yellowstone’s northern boundary and back, if any Yellowstoners are interested). Jesus, just wait until I got back to sea level! I would be absolutely flying!

So I flew back to good old flat wet England, having achieved my aim of 500 miles covered, and set about picking up where I left off, running trails through the woods and by the canal towpath where my parents live. I found a nice easy road marathon in Valencia and started a training plan. There was just one problem. My beloved Cascadias were, ultimately, trail shoes. Sure they could handle a few miles on the road, but they weren’t built for 26.2 miles of pounding tarmac. I was going to have to buy new shoes. We went to the running shop, did the gait analysis, all that jazz, where we concluded that, for a road marathon, as a moderate heel striker, and moderate overpronator, I was going to have to ramp up the cushioning. I went home with a pair of Mizuno Wave Alchemy 12s, featuring ‘wave plate technology’ that delivered an outsole of 75% heavy duty carbon rubber, and ‘VS-1 cushioning compound’ in the heel. The long and short of it: this was a step up from what I usually ran in, a heavy-duty motion control shoe designed to stop my foot rolling inward too far and keep me cushioned for the full marathon. Sound logic, I thought – the higher the mileage; the more cushioning I’ll need.
On my first run in the new shoes, I felt a pretty severe tweak in my left knee after about 2 miles, a tweak which I still felt just from walking around a day later. I decided it was probably just a case of breaking the shoe in and stuck with them. I ran a 16 miler in them a week later, and a week after that, having run 60 miles in them, I woke up with what felt like a bruise under that left knee. Even after icing it for a day, I couldn’t escape the fact that these new shoes had left me with a small protruding lump under my knee which hurt whenever it made contact with anything, a cause of an inflamed patellar tendon. This wasn’t looking good; the marathon was 10 weeks away, and I couldn’t ease off now. But a week after that I came down with razor-sharp aching pain along the outside of my right foot. I was a hobbling mess. I took a week off running for the first time in 5 months and switched to the bike. I went to see a physiotherapist in Bristol, John Stephenson, who told me what nobody in five years of running, even three years in the school athletics and cross country team, had ever bothered to: I run like shit.

This had been an injury long in the making. This may seem painfully obvious to anybody who runs, so you can skip this bit if you know this already. Around 75% of all runners are ‘heel-strikers’; that is to say, they land on their heel first and then roll onto the forefoot and push off again. I was a pretty mild heel-striker, to be honest, but even so, landing on the heel is the force of your entire body weight coming down on the tarmac. And because I take long, loping strides when I run, my centre of gravity is a long way behind the foot I’m landing on. What this means is that the impact of that heel strike doesn’t get absorbed by the rest of my foot, or as I had previously thought, my shoe. It gets absorbed by my leg. That impact is sent straight up my leg and is absorbed by my knee. It was this impact that had so royally screwed up my left knee and caused the pain in my right metatarsal, as I later discovered. But why on earth had this happened now, I wondered, how had this injury not come sooner in my Cascadias? After all, the Cascadia is a far cry from the ultra-cushioned Wave Alchemy. It’s a trail shoe, so it’s designed to be more flexible to adapt to the ever changing terrain. It therefore has far less correcting technology for overpronation and heel striking. How was it that I ran totally injury free in far more challenging conditions for an entire summer in the least pronation-friendly shoe I’d ever owned, and then been hit with a big injury less than three weeks in the most pronation-friendly shoe I’d ever owned?

Precisely that. The cushioning.
Actually it’s a bit more complicated than that. This might be just me, but I have a feeling it’s a common thing: I know when I run on a hilly trail with a loose surface that I slightly shift my stance to deal with it. I take shorter strides, I work my arms more, and most crucially, I land differently. I’ve always landed on my forefoot when running and hiking uphill. I don’t know why, but it’s always been a thing I do. I remember running with my Dad years ago, and him telling me I’d be even better if I could just maintain that same gait when I ran on flat ground. However, during this summer, that’s pretty much what I did. The Yellowstone trails are so exciting, so adventurous that you quite literally need to be on your toes (or forefeet, to be precise) to deal with them. There’s fallen trees, loose rock, roots, snakes, enormous steep climbs, the constant risk of running around a corner and coming face to face with a scary animal, and very little long, flat stuff – until you get back to the road and you’re running home. So trail running over the summer had made me run more often in my ‘uphill’ style. Once I came back to Blighty, where people complain about the puny Bristol hills and I started training for a road race, I got lazy and stopped running ‘uphill’ as much. However, the shoes are equally to blame. As I said earlier, the new Mizunos offered a mile more cushioning than the Cascadias. And don’t get me wrong, I still think these ultra-stable, motion control shoes have a place for runners who are very flat-footed and need that protection. But for me, it would be more accurate to say that the Wave Alchemy shoes didn’t offer more cushioning, but rather did my foot’s work for them. By that, I mean that psychologically, I could run as lazily as I liked for long distances because my shoes would correct my worse ‘flat’ technique. I can’t afford to do that in the Cascadias; I almost instinctively want to run more in the ‘uphill’ technique because running ‘flat’ would hurt in those shoes. My working theory is that because I had all that extra cushioning, my technique got worse and worse, and I didn’t notice precisely because of that cushioning.

So, what was I to do? First, I had to sort out the long term effects of running ‘flat’ for basically five years. I study English literature at university so I spend a lot of time sitting down bent over a book or a laptop. I had one ultra-flexible vertebrate in my left lower back and two either side of it that were stiff as boards. I’d been running with that for years, most likely, borrowing movement from my lower back instead of using the full range of motion of my hip flexor. John got rid of that, plus some tension in my neck as well which had been impacting the way I landed on my right foot and causing that metatarsal pain. The hardest part about the whole process was that I haven’t been climbing in nearly two months because I was afraid about worsening the injuries, and had to focus everything on the running recovery instead. I asked my Mum to mail the Cascadias back to me, and ditched the Wave Alchemy shoes for good. I switched my training to the bike to let my knee and foot recover. And, with John’s help, I learned how to run right. For those who might be in my position and want to learn this too, I should warn you, I don’t think I’m quite there yet, but I can recommend some resources. There’s a fantastic Youtube channel called Running Wild that has lots of videos and drills you can do, and the slightly scary but ultimately awesome Eric Orton also has some good videos online. Apparently he has a book out as well, which I haven’t read, but I imagine it’s probably the same stuff as his Youtube channel.
So, the basics of running right are:

  • Shorter strides
  • Higher cadence (or the number of times your feet touch the ground – basically the same as shorter strides)
  • Straight back
  • Head held above your centre of gravity, not hunching over, with chin tucked in.
  • Arms held at 90 degrees, no clenched fists or tension
  • Leaning forward from your ankles
  • You want your elbows swinging behind you, that’s how you generate the additional power
  • Left arm should be behind you when your left foot is in front of you and vice versa
  • Also, read Born To Run by Chris McDougall, as a bonus.

That’s all the technical stuff that comes to mind right now, but it’s more about feeling than anything else. You want to feel very light and soft on your landing, like you’re stroking the ground more than actually landing on it. You don’t want to feel like you’re working too hard so that your hips are moving around a lot, or your arms are swinging across your chest, or your core feels weak and that nice, tall rigid frame starts to crumple. It should feel natural, smooth and easy. I’m aware I sound like a total hippy, but it’s unfortunately quite hard to describe. The final, and maybe most important point, is that it’s not a quick fix. It’s a case of fixing your technique, not just switching shoes. One of the most interesting questions raised in that wonderful Born To Run book is that running is one of the only sports where we’re not taught how to do it. Footballers learn how to optimise their kicks for different situations, whether it’s a side-foot pass, a low, hard strike into the bottom corner or a curling free kick. Swimmers learn exactly what angle their hands should enter the water during front-crawl. Even pretend sports like darts or snooker have a method of throwing a dart or holding the cue. Running on the other hand, is supposedly a simple case of going to the running shop, getting your technique analysed, and then getting prescribed the shoes that best correct your technique, rather than just learning the most efficient, and safest, technique to begin with. It’s a case of making your feet do the work instead of letting your shoe do it for you. As McDougall puts it, admittedly in a rather extreme example: ‘It’s like banging your head against a wall. You could tie a pillow around your head and it would help, but it’s better to just stop banging your head against the wall.’

So that marathon I was supposed to be running is this weekend, and I’m ultimately frustrated not to be there, but tremendously relieved that I had this injury when I did, otherwise I might have never learned to run right. I’ve had to dial the mileage way down – the downside of switching technique so radically is that landing on the balls of your feet fires your achilles and calf muscles in a way that they never were worked before, so I have a lot of muscle soreness. Overdoing it with a new technique can be just as dangerous, and I’m keen to ease myself back into the old distances very slowly. Usually I max out at around 4 miles these days, and I’ve been building in some barefoot runs, 2 miles at most to work on foot strength and make sure my technique is still solid. For now, that marathon remains out of reach, but I think I’m now better placed to get there than I ever have been. But to be honest, I’m just happy that I can run again at all; since the election 2 weeks ago I’ve been needing to clear my head more and more!

One thought on “The Elusive Marathon, and learning to run ‘right’

  1. Love this… very enlightening…. hope you continue to improve and find just the right technique…you have strengths in so many areas…..please be very careful during barefoot runs. Very dangerous things can be hidden in the grass …

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