Marathon Training: A two week program?

Sometime back in June or July my brothers texted me and asked if I would be interested in running a marathon with them. Back in high school I’d been really into running and was decently good at it (my fastest time for the mile was around 5:30), but as I grew older and more and more out of shape, I’d been running less and less until I got to the point where I’d stopped running all together. A few times in the past couple of years I’d signed up for races and attempted to train for them. I ended up running all the races that I signed up for, but I failed at training for them. Between my asthma and being thoroughly out of shape, running seemed more painful than fun. I’d try to run a block or two, then I’d have to stop and try to catch my breath while fumbling for my inhaler. Sometimes I’d sit on the curb for a minute or two before slowly walking back to my apartment feeling defeated by my lungs and my body. After doing that once or twice, I’d give up on the training and just show up for the race (since I’d already paid for it) and wing it. I managed to finish all of those races, but it certainly wasn’t pretty.

The Marine Corps Marathon, which my brothers were trying to talk me into, was scheduled for October. At the time October felt like some point in a very distant future. I remembered that when I’m in shape I love running, and I figured that when I finished hiking the AT I would be in the best shape of my life. All of those things, combined with the fact that I’d always wanted to run a marathon, made it seem like a no brainer… of course I’d run the marathon with my brothers in October!

Before I knew it October was here, I’d finished hiking the AT, and I was in the best shape of my life. The only problem was that I only had two weeks to train for the upcoming marathon. According to coolrunning.com 20 weeks is a sensible training schedule for a marathon and, “You should not run a marathon unless you have at least a year of running experience behind you to prepare both mind and muscle for the miles and months of training ahead.” Well, I had at least a year of running experience behind me… way way behind me, say almost 20 years behind me. I decided that surely that still counted ;) It seemed to me that backpacking for 5 months should have trained my mind to persevere over long distances and through physical hardship, so the remaining question was how much of the training of my muscles for backpacking would overlap and translate to training for running a marathon? I wasn’t entirely sure.

From backpacking I knew that I could hike 26.2 miles, or a marathon, with a full pack in one day. I’d done that the day that I’d hiked from Boiling Springs, PA to Duncannon, PA. I also knew that with relatively good terrain I could hike 20+ miles a day at a 3-4 mph pace. How did that compare to the pace required to complete the Marine Corps Marathon? My brother had said that you had to complete the first 20 miles at a 14 minute per mile pace (~4.29 mph) and then you had to do at least 16 minute miles (3.75 mph) for the remainder of the race. Looking at it that way, it seemed entirely possible that I could finish the marathon in 6 hrs and 19 minutes, all I had to do was bump up my hiking pace just a little bit. Since I wouldn’t have a 35 lb backpack to deal with, or any mountains to climb, I hoped that that would be entirely manageable, but first I had to answer one important question: after tormenting my joints for five months on the trail, could I run at all?

When I got off of the trail my legs were a bit sore, my right knee was tempermental at best, and there was still that pesky labral tear in my hip. It was possible that my body would put up a painful protest when I attempted to speed it up and make it go for a run, but I had to start somewhere. I decided that I would try to go on some short runs first just to see how my body tolerated this whole running thing. I shied away from longer runs afraid that I might injure myself before I even got to the starting line. However, I ran into my first challenge before I even got out the door. I didn’t have any running shoes that fit me because my feet had gotten bigger as I’d hiked the trail. From past experience (the Dublin Half Marathon) I knew that it was a bad idea to run in hiking shoes (I painfully lost two toe nails figuring that out), so I borrowed a pair of my dad’s running shoes and set out for a two mile run. I started out gingerly, my knee aching a bit, and my body confused by the different mechanics involved in running compared to hiking, but eventually I hit my stride and remembered how much I enjoyed running. Being in good cardio-vascular shape and with my asthma under control it was downright fun to move through the world at 6 mph (10 minute miles). I returned home feeling somewhat reassured that I could at least run a little bit. My only complaint was that my upper body was a sore. I decided not to press my luck, so I took a day off before hitting the road again for another 2 mile run. This time I ran it at 6.67 mph (9 minute miles) and felt like I could have kept on running forever. The next day, however, my knee was sore, so I decided I better give it a little more time off to recover. It was also clear that my dad’s running sneakers were too big for me and I was going to have to get a pair of new shoes before the marathon.

Now, with a week to go before the marathon, the longest run I’d done was just two miles, and I still didn’t have a pair or running shoes that fit. I wanted to get at least one longer run in before the marathon, preferable in the new shoes that I hadn’t bought yet. Without a car, I was finding it hard to go somewhere and try on shoes to buy, and I was reluctant to buy shoes online without trying them on first. Eventually, with just days to go before the marathon, I asked my brothers which kind of running shoes they used and ordered a pair online. They would arrive the day before I flew into Washington DC for the marathon. In the meantime I decided I better get in my long run, a 4 mile run, before they arrived. I breezed through my 4 mile run with a 9 minute mile pace and once again felt like I could have gone on forever. If I ran the first 5 miles of the race at that pace, I would build up a buffer of 25 minutes and could walk the rest of the race at 4 mph (15 minute miles) and finish before the marathon cutoff times. It might not be pretty, but I was hopeful that I’d at least be able to finish the marathon.

It was time to pack my bags and hope that my hasty two week training plan would be enough this time. I went to the closet and pulled out a small duffel bag since I only had to bring a few things and didn’t want to have to pay to check any luggage. I was going to go to Boston, then fly to DC, and then fly from there to Florida for a much needed vacation after the marathon. It felt strange to be packing a duffel bag instead of my backpack. There was no reason to pack a sleeping bag or my tent. Suddenly I was having separation anxiety about leaving my pack behind. Even though I hadn’t used my backpack in a couple of weeks, I always knew it was right there… Ready for me to grab it and disappear into the woods at a moments notice. I hadn’t realized that I’d been using its presence as a security blanket as I continued to try to adapt to the post trail life.

This was it though, I was leaving my security blanket, heading into the city for the first time since April or May, and embarking on my next adventure: Running the Marine Corps Marathon!

Inhaler Physics (AT Days 64 & 65)

The skies opened up once again and began dumping rain on me at 1-2 inches and hour. I sighed and resigned myself to getting soaking wet again… The same thing had happened yesterday and the day before. Today, however, I only had two miles of hiking left and then I was headed into town to a nice dry hostel.

Even though I’d resigned myself to getting wet, the thunder, lightning, and really heavy rain weren’t making it the most enjoyable of experiences. I was hiking at about 2 miles/hr so I figured I only had about an hour of uphill in the rain to go. Suddenly I had an epiphany, if I jogged I could be out of the rain in 30 minutes or less… That would be much better than hiking in the nasty nasty weather for an hour!

I tightened the straps of my pack and with water streaming down from the sky and through the trail I started running. It felt good to stretch out my stride and navigate around the rocks and roots.

Not long after initiating this plan the slope of the uphill increased and I realized that I’d forgotten something. I’d forgotten that I have asthma. Doh! I stopped running, pulled out my rescue inhaler (which I always keep handy), and almost hungrily inhaled the medicine that would make it so that I could breath comfortably again.

However, instead of getting the usual easing of my breath as my chest opens up and my lungs full with air, I felt a caustic burning of my throat and lungs and if anything it felt like my lungs constricted even more.

Shocked and confused and now definitely having an asthma attack I looked accusingly at my inhaler. Had I
Accidentally grabbed my pepper spray instead? No, it was definitely my inhaler that I held in my hand. Perhaps it had gotten some sort of particulate in/on it that I had just accidentally propelled into my lungs (everything gets dirty when you’re backpacking). I carefully wiped off the mouthpiece inside and out and took a second puff of the inhaler sure that I’d fixed the problem and would soon be breathing easy again.

F***!!!! Burning, searing, pain as my lungs really ceased up. I threw my inhaler onto the ground; I threw my backpack onto the ground; I threw myself onto the ground. Stupid inhaler, why was it hurting instead of helping?! For the moment I didn’t care. I closed my eyes, leaned forward onto my knees and focused on breathing… It was starting to work, but I was still coughing and feeling short of breath. I reached over and grabbed my water. It soothed my throat and after a couple of minutes I’d stopped coughing.

I was still short of breath, but at least I could think again. What the heck had happened with my inhaler? I remembered the trouble I’d had with my inhaler at the ice hotel in Quebec City over the weekend. It was so cold outside that the inhaler wasn’t working… A common problem with canisters of compressed gases at low temperatures… And suddenly I was thinking about the ideal gas law (PV=nrT), and the compressibility of gases, and thermodynamics.

Was my inhaler acting up because of the weather? It was around 90 degrees out, 100% humidity, plus a low pressure system with a severe thunderstorm raining 2 inches/hr on me. I decided that somehow I must be having the opposite problem from Quebec City, that the compressed gas from the inhaler was still rapidly expanding as it hit the tissue of my throat and lungs. Since the expansion of gas is endothermic, that could essentially burn my throat and lungs with intense cold.

I had a hypothesis… Could I test it? Hmmm… I reached over and picked up my inhaler, which was still sitting in the middle of the trail where I’d thrown it in frustration and anger, and looked at it for a minute. My hypothesis was that the weather conditions were causing the compressed gas in the inhaler to expand over a larger area than usually, so that a noticeable endothermic reaction was still occurring as that compressed air hit my lungs. Based on that hypothesis I would predict noticeable plume as the inhaler was puffed into the open air around me instead of into my lungs.

I pointed the inhaler away from me and delivered a puff over the trail. It looked liked the white plume of breath that you see when someone exhales moist air on a cold winters day… Except that it actually had a propellant, so the plume extended out for about 3 feet.

I was still short of breath, so now I needed a plan. How to get the drugs from my inhaler into my lungs without giving them frostbite? I decided to use my hand as a spacer tube, hoping it would allow the gases to expand in my hand and not my lungs, while still directing the medication into my lungs.

With some trepidation, I squeezed down on the inhaler and inhaled (rather cautiously this time). It worked!!! No horrible burning sensation, and my lungs started to open up. I took a second puff the same way, and my breathing returned to normal.

Now I *really* was drenched. The rain kept pouring down as I walked the rest of the way to the road. I made it in 45 minutes.

Extra credit assignment: Demonstrate mathematically the crucial parameter/s (was it the humidity? the thunderstorm? or a combination of the humidity, thunderstorm, and temperature?) that led to the inhaler doing more harm than good. If I were at home I would have modeled this already and figured out the critical parameters both for this story and for the ice hotel… I miss having pencil, paper, and the easy ability to look things up and research them!

Earning My Name (Days 53-55)

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Patches. That’s the theme for this post. Patches of fog on the trail, patches of rain, patches of thunderstorms, and white patches on my throat (uvula and soft palette).

I’ve been feeling draggy and have been struggling with a sore throat for a few days, but had assumed that it was just allergies (probably from dealing with all of those dogs). When I got into town I spotted a mirror and pulled out my headlamp to take a peek at my throat. Sure enough, it was covered with white patches. The white patches meant one of two things: strep throat or thrush. Either way, I was going to have to take a day off of the trail and go to the doctors.

What do you do when you’re on the trail and need to see a doctor? You wander into the nearest clinic.

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So I wandered into the clinic and got checked out by an M.D. It turns out that the pretty, lacy white patches that were making my throat bleed were from thrush, which is a pretty common side effect from the daily use of my asthma meds (inhaled corticosteroids) in the backcountry. The doctor prescribed a nystatin mouthwash (which is annoyingly heavy for backpacking) and gave me a prescription for some systemic meds in case the mouthwash doesn’t eradicate those nasty white patches. I’m happy that my asthma is under control enough that the side effects of the asthma are worse than the asthma itself.

While I was there I also had the doc look at the patches of rash that have
developed all over my legs, hips, butt, and thighs in this hot, humid, and very wet weather. The doc determined that it was folliculitis and prescribed me some antibiotics for it after making sure I was doing everything else correctly first.

Asthma Update (500 miles)

So much has changed for me since I started hiking the AT that it already seems strange to think back to the struggles I was having with my health. Before I left was having trouble climbing stairs, walking, and sometimes would even have to sit to take my shower because I lacked the energy to stand. It always reminded me of the scene in the Princess Bride where Wesley says, “maybe I am only lying her because I lack the strength to stand'”

Climbing the stairs up to my third floor apartment was a momentous task (never mind climbing mountains). I’d make it to each landing (or sometimes just up a couple of steps) and then I’d stop and stare accusingly at the next flight of stairs as if they were tormenting me on purpose. I would lean heavily on the railing, remember that I’d just used my rescue inhaler an hour ago and then I would pout for a minute as I waited and hoped that my breath would come back. Eventually I’d make it into my apartment and then flop down on my couch or bed for a while to recover.

Now I’m hiking 15+ miles a day, mountains and all! I haven’t tapered off of my daily asthma meds yet, but I have gone from watching the clock to see if I could use my rescue inhaler again (4+ times a day) to using it once a day at the most. I haven’t had an asthma attack in at least two weeks.

On the flat and/or downhill sections of the trail I have no trouble keeping up with the other thru-hikers, and am faster than many. The uphill sections I still tend to be just a little bit slower than everyone else on.

The uphill sections are also the sections where the change in my breathing is the most obvious. At the beginning, even the mild uphills would leave me gasping for breath. I would count the number of steps I was taking between breaks. First 20 steps, then 50, then 80… After a few weeks went by I stopped counting. I didn’t need to motivate myself to keep moving with the promise that I’d get to take a break soon anymore.

The longer I hike, the stronger my lungs and body seem to get, and the fewer breaks I need to take on those uphills. I like that I can really feel the difference and progress that I’m making and that even after 500 miles I’m still feeling gradual changes. Someone on the trail told me that it takes at least 8 weeks to get your body into peak physical condition (if you’re a 19 yet old in the army). I don’t know how true it is, but I like the thought because it means that that the best is yet to come for my lungs and for my body.

Blood Mountain (Days 3&4)

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My only complaint about Georgia so far is all of the poison ivy. It will be nothing short of a miracle if I manage to get out of this state without getting a strong reminder of what it was like to be covered in it.

So far the trails have all been very civilized. I notice the uphills and have had to use my inhaler a couple of times, but my breathing hasn’t really been a problem. Unlike the trails in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, they seem to believe in these crazy things called switchbacks around here. By decreasing the steepness of the trails it seems to make things easier for both my breathing and joints (my knees and hips haven’t been bothering me too much yet). Blood Mountain was the highest elevation so far and it still didn’t seem so bad, though the weather gave it the kind of view i expect from a 4000 footer.

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Unfortunately I’ve been having a bit of a technology fail. My iPhone refuses to stay powered off. Since I need to conserve battery over multiple days this is a real problem. I’ve been switching it into airplane mode when I’m not using it to try to help conserve battery, but its still frustrating and annoying. After talking to tech support for a couple of hours and relocating to a place with wifi, we managed to do all of the software diagnostics and fixes possible, but the glitch remained. The solution is to send a replacement phone to my next mail drop location. Hopefully my batteries will last until then!

Prologue: Why I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail

The short answer is asthma. I’ve decided to leave my existing life behind to go hike more than 2,000 miles along the Appalachian Trail (AT) because I’m sick and tired of asthma controlling my life. Though it sounds crazy, I actually think that this trek will be good for my health and good for my asthma. How can hiking the AT possibly help make my asthma better? To understand why I think that this isn’t a completely crazy plan I need to provide you with some back story:

I have occupational asthma. This means that there is something associated with my job that literally takes my breath away. I didn’t know that becoming *literally* allergic to your job was something that could happen when I starting working in a neuroscience lab six years ago. I was excited about my job and learning how to run electrophysiological experiments and didn’t realize at first that I was getting increasingly fatigued and sicker as the years started to roll by. I figured maybe it was just stress, or the fact that I wasn’t in my early twenties anymore. I figured that it just meant that I needed to work harder to push through it. Unfortunately it just seemed to get worse and worse. Eventually it got so bad that I ended up getting admitted to the hospital and was diagnosed with occupational asthma. Then the question was, what was I allergic to? We assumed that it was mice and rats since that’s what the people in my lab worked with, so our lab took precautions to reduce/eliminate my exposure to airborne allergies associated with the animals. Unfortunately I continued having breathing problems. Eventually we figured out that what triggered my asthma the most was when our colleagues down the hall were working with guinea pigs. I wasn’t even working with the damn things, but they were still making me sick.

As it turns out, developing an allergy to work is incredibly common if you work someplace with guinea pigs, 80% of people that are exposed to guinea pigs in their workplace develop an allergy to them. I am part of the unfortunate 20% of that group that goes on to develop asthma. Developing an allergy to guinea pigs is a slow and insidious process that takes place over the course of 3-4 yrs and eerily matched the timeline over which my breathing troubles developed. I had to stop running experiments, and I moved my office to a different floor, but by then I had developed an extreme sensitivity to seemingly all rodent based airborne allergens (guinea pig, rat, mouse, and rabbit). I ended up not being able to breath whenever my boss sat down to talk to me (she eventually ended up figuring out that it was a result of her angora sweaters! Unbeknownst to me she figured out that the sweaters were the trigger and when she stopped wearing them and I was able to breath around her again). With so many of my colleagues working with animals, my breathing would get worse just being in the building. Things got so bad that even outside of lab I started losing my breath and voice, typically around friends who had pet guinea pigs. Decontamination showers started to become routine for me (on days I went into lab) and for my friends and their children before they could hug me. It seemed like allergies and asthma were starting to rule my life. I talked to my doctor and I talked to the occupational health personnel about my occupational asthma, and they told me that I didn’t really have I choice… I was going to have to leave my job. It felt so unfair. I had dedicated so much to my career and now it was making me sick and I was going to have to leave.

They are right though, when you can’t breath you don’t really have a choice. You have to fix the glitch. I have to focus on my health. Since hiking the AT has been a lifelong dream of mine, it seemed like life was giving me the perfect opportunity to walk away from my job… and to keep walking for another 2,000 miles. I hope that this decision to hike the AT will have the side effect of forcing me to focus on my health, to get into shape, and to modify a lot of bad habits that I’ve developed in the past few years as I’ve been struggling to keep my head above water. Struggling to deal with what has felt like a continual onslaught of both physical and emotional challenges. I am really looking forward to this trip. Looking forward to stepping away from the routine of my life and to doing something incredibly different with my time for a while. When I finish hiking the AT I don’t know whether or not I will return to academia and the career to which I’ve dedicated my entire adult life. I do know that I have to prioritize my health over my career, and that I will have to make some changes. I’m looking forward to the changes in perspective that I think will inevitably result from this journey.

I can’t believe that in about a month I will be flying to Georgia to start hiking the AT. I can’t wait!