Learning To Walk Again

Learning to walk again, or, listening to your heart over your mind.

It was a cold Saturday morning in January. Despite the air temperature being only 9 degrees, the sun was shining bright in the cloudless sky. I reluctantly put on my running tights, a base layer, wind breaker, and laced up my trail shoes all the while thinking the modern day warrior’s uniform leaves something to be desired. Climbing into my van I flipped through the music on my phone as I waited for the engine, and the van’s interior to warm. It was so cold outside the exhaust from the tailpipe washed thickly over the van, reminding me of Sean Penn’s most iconic role. It was early for me and I needed something to both clear the brain fog and motivate me during the drive east to Horse Ridge. The Horse Ridge trail system was my go-to this winter.

The quiet trails and open landscape east of Bend, OR kept me connected to nature throughout the season’s snowfall. I settled on Learning to Walk Again by the Foo Fighters. Somewhat fitting, I thought, as I drove out Highway 20. In a sense, I had already begun a journey in learning to walk again.

I had decided 2016 was going to be the year I trained for, and tackled ultrarunning. While I’ve remained active, I haven’t trained for anything specific since a mountain bike accident in the summer of 2013. I’ve been trail running for the last couple years, but my long runs typically settled in the range of 12-14-miles. I quickly realized as I began assessing (or obsessing) how to tackle this feat of a 50K trail run, and reading more about fat adaption (burning fat as fuel), that I had my work cut out for me. Over recent years I’d moved away from the slow, below threshold, training principle I used to follow fairly religiously. I attribute this shift to aging and not wanting to lose speed, coupled with reacquainting myself with the pure joy of running through the woods and feeling the effort and the burn in my lungs and legs. I solely ran for the escape and the need to be in nature. I didn’t run with a heart rate monitor, and I’d consume Snickers and Swedish Fish to keep me from bonking (likely why I don’t write articles on nutrition).

As a result of this ill-advised “non-training plan,” little aches, injuries, and adrenal burnout finally chased me down in late 2014. My body began to fall apart from the inside out. To give my system a break, I took six months off any type of endurance training. It was hard, with no running at all. I walked 2-3 miles daily, surfed 3-4 times a week, and that was it. This was very different for a guy who, while never particularly excelling at endurance sports, had built his personal identity around doing long triathlons and mountain bike events over the past 15 years. Accepting that I needed to back off and give both my body and mind a break was difficult. As I write these words, I realize I likely didn’t give it enough time.

When the following summer came and I found myself back in the mountains of Central Oregon, I started running again. It was during this time that I decided I wanted to go long, but at 46-years-old and a little broken and battered from years of over (and improper) training, I’d need to focus on longevity over speed.

I’m learning to walk again
I believe I’ve waited long enough
Where do I begin?
I’m learning to talk again
Can’t you see I’ve waited long enough?
Where do I begin?

Seriously, where do I begin?

More than anything, I determined I needed to adopt a new plan of attack, which was my old plan of attack:  slow down and wean myself off sugar as fuel. While fat adaption and the resurging interest in Phil Maffetone’s Method (training heart rate = 180-age, +/- 5-10 depending on your injury and illness history and experience) aren’t new to me, it’s been many years since I’ve rigidly followed them. I abandoned those principles as I watched athletes who had trained with more speed and specificity, move from shorter distance racing to the long distances with great success. The movement for doing less volume, but more specific and harder efforts, became the default training principles of the next generation of athletes. It works — at least short term — and it’s easier to juggle the training with work, family, and other obligations. The high volume, low heart rate training first introduced to me by professional triathletes like Mark Allen and Dave Scott might not be practical for 90% of the athletes that make up the rest of the field.

While there is a place for speed work, fartleks, Tabatas, and HIIT (high intensity interval training), they came at the expense of longevity as I became a carb/sugar burner and lost my proficiency in burning fat as a primary fuel source. Looking back, my problem was I got lost somewhere in the middle. The volume is what I loved, and I convinced myself I could do more tempo to threshold efforts as I was just doing it for the enjoyment, not training per se. I didn’t want to hold myself back. I became one of the many that spent too much time lost in no man’s land. Training not easy enough but not too hard, still stressing my system so that whatever gains I may have made on short term pace were crushing my longevity and health.

Do you remember the days?
We built these paper mountains
Then sat and watched them burn
I think I found my place
Can’t you feel it growing stronger
Little conquerors

To go long again begins with the realization that whatever fitness I had built over the years was vulnerable, and it can flame out and come burning down with the striking of too many matches. It continues with an understanding that my place is in nature, and whatever is lost can be found. And it ends with an acceptance that it will come with a daily confronting of my toughest nemesis: pride. I was reminded that day in January, as I listened to Dave Grohl, that if I wanted to do this I’d have to approach things differently. My primary focus would be on health and longevity, not to be compromised for anything.

So, to add years I began with subtraction, 180-46=134. This means slowing down to 9-10 minute per mile pace, and walking many hills. Learning to walk again is learning to go slow. In actuality it isn’t a slow movement, it’s an effort movement to reduce damage and stress on the body, and optimize the use of our largest fuel source — fat. Aside from slowing my pace and doing battle with the head demons telling me I’m not good enough, fast enough, or suffering enough, I’ll make a significant effort to reduce my intake of sugars. Sugars from the likes of Snickers and Swedish Fish are obvious, less so are the gels and candy-like sports fuels. Most importantly, I’ll be cutting the refined pastas and breads I used to consume with reckless abandon, though gluten free. I’ll tackle these steps with a long term objective of improving my system’s ability to burn a better fuel, control inflammation, and promote longevity.

I define longevity broadly as a long quality life, and specifically as being able to endure long distances for decades to come. Largely it’s a lifestyle of movement in nature. I’ve little desire to race. I’ve never been competitive in that sense. A race is simply accountability, a date on the calendar that keeps me focused on a plan and makes it less likely I’ll make an excuse for skipping a workout during cold winter months. My training is primarily to allow me to get into the mountains come summer and fall with more possibilities. I train my body and mind to become adapted to the long moderate workload so I can sip a cup of coffee on a Saturday morning with a new trail map splayed across the table, and be able to plot a 10, 20, or even 30-mile day, to get further into wilderness.

Now, when I come to that hill I allow myself to walk. It makes it easier on my heart, but harder between the ears. My ego wants to keep pace and push up the hill, especially when running with others that are faster. I have to do a different type of suffering — a suffering of pride. It can take quite the mental fortitude to watch my Suunto start ticking in slow motion:  9 minute pace, 10 minutes, 12 minutes. The silent conversations begin, and the mathematician within shows up.

“At 12 minutes per mile up, I must run back down this at a pace four minutes faster to balance out my overall time.”

“The more I run the slower I get, WTF.”

“I can’t stop to pee, that’s gonna screw up my Strava entry and badge collection.”

But I let the time slip on. I check in with my priorities, and convince the ego to calm itself. In the end, it isn’t about the numbers on my wrist. It’s about experiences. Keeping alive, one moment at a time. Knowing you can survive and build again, but that it will take more time, a checking of pride, and a new mindset.

For the very first time
Don’t you pay no mind
Set me free, again
To keep alive, a moment at a time
That’s still inside, a whisper to a riot
The sacrifice, the knowing to survive
The first decline, another state of mind
I’m on my knees, I’m praying for a sign
Forever, whenever, I never wanna die

If I see you out there on the trail walking a little pitch, I’ll give you a high five because I know it’s more difficult than running up it. And if I’m running with you and have to let you go, don’t worry, eventually I’ll catch up. We can still share a beer at the end of the trail, you just might be through a pint by the time I get there. And that’s okay.