October 05, 2007

Around The Hamster Wheel - or - My Elliptical Marathon: A Quasi-Race Report

Training for a marathon is challenging when you have achilles tendinitis.

Perhaps the early stages of training might be manageable; the weeks when your schedule tells you to run just a few miles here and there. Being so far away from race day you can probably even spend a few weeks out of your running shoes. Maybe log in some quality time with the physical therapist to make sure you are healed properly. Ice, stretch, massage, electric stim, rinse, repeat.

It gets a bit more difficult as time marches on. When you're plagued with achilles tendinitis five weeks before race day, decisions become more rushed. The mental masochism begins the moment you see "20 miles" listed as your scheduled weekend run. You know that just 20 feet of running turns into unbearable pain, yet still you try to manipulate your mind to justify the agony. But there is no escape.

Maybe you haven't questioned how you'll make it to the end of the marathon, but you definitely wonder how you'll make it to the start.

So you become a regular member at your local gym. You think about jogging in the pool. Maybe you even give it a shot. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. By the time the clock hits twenty minutes you are about to go insane. The boredom is unbearable. So you get out of the water and sit in the jacuzzi and convince yourself that the heat and bubbles are more therapeutic anyway.

You come back later in the week with the intention of going on the treadmill. Maybe you've even gotten so far as to convince yourself that it will create less impact on your legs. It will be good for you as long as you can go slowly, you tell yourself with shaky confidence. Just take it slowly. But you quickly realize that's a really bad idea because the achilles starts hurting before you even turn the damn machine on.

As you turn away in frustration, you notice it from afar. It's as if the moment you lifted your head up, the sounds of a heavenly choir echoed through the exercise room. The light bulb of an idea flashed so brightly you nearly blinded yourself with enthusiasm. You think you've figured it out, the solution that could be your ticket out of this. Your ticket to a successful marathon.

Say hello to the elliptical machine.

You walk over and touch it. You slowly reach your hand out to caress the mechanism's long arm. Your fingers curl around the heart rate sensor with emotional tenderness. You step one foot cautiously onto the platform and realize there is enough resistance to lift you up and put the other foot in place. You smile. You finally have it all figured out.

And so your indoor training begins.

You do your speed workouts on the elliptical. Twenty minutes of higher intensity isn't so bad when there is no pounding on the legs. In fact, it almost feels good. You plug out some 5 and 6 milers on the machine. A quick 40 minutes and it's done. The iPod gets you through most of it. You almost begin to enjoy it.

Then the weekend comes around. The schedule calls for thirteen miles. For days you have mentally prepared for the challenge. You psych yourself up. You load up your iPod with all the best entertainment and make sure you grab a bottle of your favorite electrolyte fluid.

You step on the treadmill with anxious anticipation and begin movement. Your feet go around and around, arms pushing and pulling incessantly at your sides. You are revolving endlessly on a hamster wheel. Going nowhere fast.

An hour and forty minutes is what it takes. You can't believe it. An hour and forty minutes you spent on the elliptical. You feel like you should get a medal. Some type of award. Maybe a plaque in the hallowed hallways of the YMCA. At the very least, a pat on the back and a free diet Pepsi.

But just when you thought you've succeeded, you suddenly realize the road continues on. Thirteen miles was a rest week. It was a gimme. You look at the following week's schedule in horror. The Saturday workout stretches it's arms out to choke you. It makes fun of your 13 miles. 18 miles it says in bold red letters. 18 miles.

You repeat the distance softly to yourself as if the words will make it less intimidating. 18 miles. But it doesn't work, the fear engages. 18 miles? 18 miles?! 18 MILES!!!

How can I do this? It isn't possible. Will my legs give out? Will I go insane? Will I collapse from boredom?

Throughout the week, the anxiety creeps quietly amidst the spaces between your bones. It tickles and taunts you. It unnerves you at the most inopportune moments.

But somewhere around Thursday or Friday, the anxiety meets it's foe. A switch gets turned. You flip the script and suddenly the anxiety is no longer a limiter, but a driver. Suddenly your faith is stronger than your fear.

You get to an empty gym on Saturday morning, a row of silent elliptical machines await. You lift one foot on, grab the arms and pull the rest of your body on top. With a deep breath, you begin...

* * * *

2 minutes, 1/4 mile: Has it only been two minutes? Every painful rotation of the hip flexor feels like my bones are being held together by rusted hinges. Since when did I transform into the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz? And where's my damn oil can?

8 minutes, 1 mile: One thing I've learned about my body since I got plagued with these nagging lower leg problems is that it takes me a full 20 minutes to warm-up. Unfortunately, this knowledge doesn't help. It's only been 8 minutes. This sucks. My achilles feels tender. My hamstrings are tight. My calf is a piece of wood. I slow down the pace to something just short of making the machine stall.

26 minutes, 3.5 miles: I suddenly notice the pain is gone. Heart rate is hovering around 140, resistance at 6. Legs are moving in circles fairly quickly. Achilles feels good. Woohoo!

32 minutes, 3.87 miles: Somebody just turned on the fan. It's a nice cool breeze. I open my mouth and look up towards the sky as if I'm soaking in the sunshine. But I'm not. I'm inside a room with no windows, no sunshine and no view of the sky.

41 minutes, 5.2 miles: The iPod is blasting an album by Brand New, my favorite running music. I'm feeling good. I'm bouncing to the music. I'm mouthing the words to my favorite songs. I might even be singing the words, I'm not sure, I can't hear myself. Either way, I've suddenly become the people that I make fun of. I pick up the pace and shift the resistance up to level 8.

49 minutes, 6.3 miles: I'm putting in more effort, grooving to the music. I feel like I can keep this up all day. I look down to see my heart rate: 149. Ooh, that might be a little too hard. I slow down... kinda. Sorta. Not really.

51 minutes, 6.55 miles: I'm not hungry. I feel pretty good. But realize I should eat something if I'm going to keep this up. I glance over and notice fellow ellipticalers on both sides of me. Damn. I hesitantly reach into the bottle holder on the elliptical and pull out a Hammer gel. I sense the man on my right peeking over, no doubt wondering what kind of fool brings gels to an elliptical workout. I'm wondering the same thing. I try to remain calm. I quickly rip the top off the packet with my teeth and try to conceal my embarrassment. I can feel them watching me. I can sense their eyes rolling. I just have to get through this quickly. I keep my eyes forward as I chug down the guey substance. I swallow too fast and begin choking. [cough!][hack!] I shove the empty gel packet into the bottle holder and grab my fluid. [ckh-uuuuh!] Must drink. [hack!] Must stop coughing. [kuh!!!] Don't want to bring attention to me. [cough!!] Too late, they're looking. I swallow my fluid but it makes matters worse. I stifle a cough [co-rrmmmph!] and clear my throat loudly and macho-ly. Whew. That did it. I take a big breath. Well that clearly didn't quite go as planned. I stare forward and stand tall. I don't want to meet their eyes. I don't want them to know me. I want to squirrel into a little corner and curl into a ball.

1 hour, 7.4 miles: There's a 60 minute time limit on the elliptical machines. I'm fast with the ATM, a speed demon on a punch clock. The moment it tells me my workout is over, my fingers fly. I punch the buttons with laser-like dexterity. Clear, new exercise, manual workout, weight, time, resistance, GO!! I don't lose a beat, I'm still moving, still keeping the rhythm. A boy on his hamster wheel. I am elliptical, hear me roar.

1 hour 23 minutes, 10.3 miles: My mind is starting to fade. I stare at the clock. This is boring. The seconds inch forward. I swear that the clock seems to be slowing down. I tap on the digital timer to make sure it is still moving. Of course it is, it's digital.

1 hour 30 minutes, 11.2 miles: I am listening to a podcast of Babe Ruth giving his "Farewell to Baseball" speech. His throat is beyond gruff. It sounds like every word out of his mouth is an effort that may kill him. I'm starting to feel that way about the elliptical. Around and around my legs go. My mind is numb. I'm staring incessantly at the wall.

1 hour 41 minutes, 13.05 miles: I passed last weekend's workout length. Woohoo! The legs feel good, though the body is definitely tired. Achilles is getting a little tight. I start counting the specks of dirt on the wall. I lose count after 17 and start again.

1 hour 43 minutes, 13.2 miles: It's that time again. I look behind me to see if there's anybody I know working out in the gym. I don't know why I look for people I know. They are the last ones I want to see at this point. Of course, the moment I see somebody I know I quickly turn my head back. I hope he didn't see me. Please God, don't let him have seen me. I reach into the water bottle holder and pull out another Hammer Gel. I hold it close to my chest, firmly encased in my hand so nobody will know. I quickly rip off the top of the packet with my teeth like Tom Hanks eating that mini-corn in the movie Big. Swift, small and smooth movements. I quickly swallow the gel. Swift, small and smooth. Please God, I say to myself, don't let them notice me. I can feel eyes piercing through my back. I can sense them laughing at me. I hide the empty gel packet and slowly push forward.

1 hour 53 minutes, 14.4 miles: My mind is still numb. I'm not sure the gel worked. Wasn't it suppose to energize me? It's not working. Maybe it expired. How long ago did I buy it?

1 hour 58 minutes, 14.9 miles: I'm listening to a podcast of Nelson Mandela's speech right after he was released from jail. I don't understand most of what he's saying, his accent is too thick. I keep listening anyway. In my head I keep singing that song "Free Nelson Mandela" by The Specials. Free, free, freeee...Nelson Man-delllll-aaahhh. I want to be freed. I've been staring at a wall for nearly two hours. I'm pretty sure the Geneva Convention has rules against this.

2 hours 2 minutes, 15.2 miles: I'm either entering a diabetic coma or I've just gotten into a special zone. I can't quite tell the difference at this point. Maybe the gel just finally kicked in. Either way, I'm feeling a rhythm again.

2 hours 10 minutes, 16.25 miles: My body is a bit tired, but it's mostly from my mind. My eyes stare blankly into the distance as my legs uncontrollably spin in circles. I feel like Jack Nicholsen in "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" right after the lobotomy and just before the big Indian guy suffocated him with a pillow. I glance over my shoulders for pillows. Or big Indian guys.

2 hours 12 minutes, 16.5 miles: I start having a spiritual experience. I feel like I'm on LSD, or as close as one could get without ingesting any drugs. My eyes are closed. I start getting flashbacks of Ironman Lake Placid. Images come zooming in front of my eyes. A tsunami of emotion floods my heart. I start feeling the bodily pain of that Ironman bike ride. I've reached behind the smiles. My heart is flooded. Nelson Mandela finishes his speech. Apparently there is no more apartheid. I want to cry.

2 hours 20 minutes, 17.5 miles: I emerge from my spiritual awakening to notice a woman on the elliptical to my right. I don't remember when she arrived. She is staring at me. I don't know why. She thinks I'm crazy. I can tell from the glare of her eyes. I try to remember if I'd been talking out loud during that little journey of mine. I think I may have clapped at the end of Mandela's speech.

2 hours 32 minutes, 18.6 miles
: I try to add up my mileage but my brain doesn't seem to be working properly. In three attempts I come up with three different distances. I average them out and realize I must've passed 18 already. I decide to keep going for reasons I have yet to understand.

2 hours, 45 minutes, 20.2 miles: I reach 20 miles. I'm proud. My body is a little tired. Achilles is tender. There is a weird tingling in my right calf, I've never felt that one before. I should stop. But I don't. What has happened to me? Do I actually enjoy this?! Have I really been on this godforsaken machine for nearly 3 hours?! My legs keep spinning in circles. I turn on a podcast called "Podictionary" and listen to the definition and etymology of the word "crater."

2 hours, 49 minutes, 20.7 miles: I reach in the water bottle holder for my last Hammer Gel. I realize in ancient times that the water bottle holder would have been called a crater. I don't much care. Most people have already left the gym, I don't bother to hide my gel behavior anymore. I'm too tired, too bored. I tear off the top of the packet with my teeth like a rabid pack of hyenas tearing the flesh off the decaying carcass of a fallen gazelle. I suck down the Gel with fury and guzzle what's left of my fluid. I would pound my chest like Tarzan but I don't have the energy. Besides, I'd probably fall off the elliptical.

2 hours 55 minutes, 21.5 miles: I'm listening to a podcast of Robert Kennedy's speech right after Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. I envision somebody shooting me near the end of a marathon.

3 hours 10 minutes, 23.6 miles: My iPod battery dies, just like Martin Luther King, Jr. I'm left with just the voices in my head for the rest of this journey. I keep saying the words "I have a dream..." over and over. I can't make it disappear.

3 hours 18 minutes, 24.7 miles: I start singing songs to myself. Out loud. I begin to count the specks of dirt on the wall again but get bored by the time I reach 7.

3 hours 26 minutes, 26 miles: All of the sudden I feel great. Has it only been 3 hours and 26 minutes? I think to myself. This is wonderful! I can do this all day! I pick up the pace and increase the resistance. Level 8. I push harder. The adrenaline is pumping, the excitement brewing. I'm going to do a marathon!! I scream to myself. A marathon!

3 hours 27 minutes, 26.1 miles: Ouch! A pain shoots up my achilles. I reduce the resistance back to Level 4 and slow down my pace.

3 hours 28 minutes, 26.2 miles: I did it!! I DID IT!!!! I did a marathon on the elliptical!! I slowly stop my legs from moving.

I stand motionless on the elliptical and smile. I wait silently for the throngs of cheering fans. I want balloons and streamers and bleachers of people shouting my name in unison. I want sports reporters and the Guinness Book of World Records and TV cameras scrambling to get the best close-up. I slowly turn my body around to greet the masses. There is only a semi-decrepit 92 year old, silently struggling with the quad machine on the other side of the room.

I step off the elliptical and balance myself on rubbery legs. I wash the sweat off the elliptical, grab my belongings - my iPod, my water bottle, my used packets of gu - reach down, pick up my bag and hoist it over my shoulder.

I grin.
And then the grin becomes a smile.
And the smile becomes a laugh.
And the laugh screams through every part of my body.

I walk silently and proud, out of the gym, out to the rest of the world.


jbmmommy said...

Holy. 'mokes. At least that's what my boys would say and I can't think of anything better. That's some determination.

TriGirl Kate O said...

What would we do without our IPods????
Congratulations. I hope the real marathon goes just as well.

No Wetsuit Girl... overseas! said...

I'm not going to pat you on the back because you're kind of sweaty, but may I offer you a Diet Pepsi?

That's amazing! You are my hero.

Melissa said...

i hear the roar of the crowd. and the cracking open of a nice cold diet pepsi. congratulations on your elliptical marathon. great "race report"!! i am with you in spirit from my elliptical marathon training. fortuantely my gym offers little tv's for each machine so i can usually find a bad made for tv movie to entertain me. best of luck on the big day. when is yours? mine is next sunday the 21st!

j. said...

Thanks Melissa! I'm racing NY Marathon which I believe is somewhere on-or-around November 4th (I'll know it's race day when Catherine pushes me out of bed before I really ever would want to get up). Good luck on your marathon too! You should bring a TV of bad movies out there when you run.

Anonymous said...

I did a marathon today on the elliptical (2:40) and can relate to a lot of your experience. Well done!