To Race or Not To Race? That is the Question!

Is it a stretch to suggest this Shakespearian corollary applies to competitive runners? Most of us have at least some of our identity connected to this sport we love. Not seeing our friends at races and toeing the line attacks our sense of self.   George Sheehan probed this years ago in his first book Running and Being.

However, to shift from the existential to the practical side of the question, we competitive runners find ourselves in this predicament, probably several times a year. We train to do well in peak races that have meaning for various reasons.   For me I look forward to doing well in the USATF-New England Grand Prix series and the BAA Distance Medley (5K, 10K, Half). I know the best runners will be at the Grand Prix races and I want my age-class competition to know I need to be reckoned with! At root, these rivalries are supportive and rewarding. Camaraderie develops because we have each made sacrifices over an extended time. And races are a celebration of that. The BAA races are all large (~10,000 runners) events drawing an international field and there’s a definite “buzz” being part of then.

If you’ve followed my blog, 2017 has been a year marred by a bad fall in February resulting in rib surgery and not being able to run for three months and then only incrementally returning to training. I essentially lost seven months of high-level racing, which I missed dearly.   I was looking for some redemption in the fall and beginning to feel the chops returning in September. I had increased the quality of my workouts, throwing in speed and some hills, had shed several pounds, and lined up at the Lone Gull 10K Grand Prix race on September 24 ready to race. It was a warm day so I scaled back expectations a bit, but otherwise met my goal. I saw the BAA Half Marathon two weeks later as an additional statement of my return. But as I warmed down from Lone Gull, my left hamstring felt tight then started to hurt.   As I made the long drive to Vermont later that day, it was throbbing. Clearly I had done something.

On the surface, it didn’t seem this should be happening. I had progressively upped my mileage, including 14-15 mile long runs every other week along with regular strength work. But the quality had been lacking.   So during the prior month I started doing eight to ten 100-150 meter striders several times a week. And was doing 800-meter repeats on the track at least weekly. I had also moved from my Boston apartment the prior month and was moving things to Burlington, Vermont where I had recently bought a condo. On top of that I was in the final stages of retiring from the Boston non-profit I had been with for 10 years. Certainly the running was helping to moderate and manage these changes, but the overall stress level was high. Something was bound to give. And it turned out to be my hamstring.

I proactively approached the recovery by water running the next four days along with light stretching and weights. The hamstring mostly calmed down, so I went for a run but felt it quickly tighten up and begin to hurt. So I walked a bit and headed back to the pool. Fortunately, my massage therapist had a slot that afternoon. He did his thing and suggested I had strained but not torn the hamstring as he was not finding “hot spots” indicating a tear. That was good news, but based on my symptoms I surmised I had a 1½ grade strain. The literature says it takes 1-3 weeks for Grade 1 strains to heal and 4-8 for a Grade 2, so that left me thinking I needed three to four weeks of active recovery (including light running) to fully resolve the issue. I kinesio taped the hamstring and in several days was able to run six miles at a gentle pace, though with some tightness and post-run soreness.

But the BAA Half was looming – two weeks after Lone Gull. At stake was a third straight age-class title, which would qualify me for a waiver from the $200 fee for next year’s medley and a guaranteed entry. In spite of walking/jogging the BAA 5K in April and a pretty slow BAA 10K in June, a respectable Half would give me a chance for the title. I was feeling game to give it a try. But then three days before the race, I came down with a nasty cold that developed into a hacking cough, making it hard to sleep. I went for a five mile run on Friday and barely moved! To meet my goal I needed to run 2 ½ minutes per mile faster on Sunday.

Sometimes you have to step back from the moment to gain perspective.   I assessed I had a 25% chance of running the BAA Half at my goal pace and not setting the hamstring back; a 50% chance I would finish the race at a slower pace (which would hardly be satisfying) and leave the hamstring more sore, setting back full recovery at least a couple weeks; and a 25% chance I would further injure the hamstring and set my self up for an extended recovery.   While I have taken many risks in my life, I generally live by the law of averages. I didn’t like the 25% chance of doing no harm. So I didn’t run. My choice was borne out by the six-mile run I did during the time of the race at a pace well over a minute slower than I would have attempted at the race. The taped hamstring felt stiff throughout the run, and was a tad sore afterwards. Pushing it for more than twice the distance would almost certainly have resulted in one of the 75% negative outcomes.

I thought I might question my choice. But I’m actually relieved I could make this decision and look forward to resolving this issue over the next two to three weeks and get back to serious training and racing.

I know other runners have stories like this. Sometimes we take a chance and win; sometimes we lose. But the important thing is the long view — to stay in the game. That was my motivation today.


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