Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 12 Apr 2008 06:40:33 -0400

Trial Mile

RUNNING COMMENTARY 723

(rerun from March 2000 RC)

The last year of the 1900s was one of my healthiest ever, with no interruptions in routine. The streak broke in January 2000, when a heel injury gave me a chance to renew an old practice and learn that it still works if I let it.

A Kenyan taught me this lesson. The New York Times carried a profile on Cosmas Ndeti before one of his three Boston Marathon victories. Its most influential lines read:

"He runs according to the way he feels each morning, not according to any rigid schedule. He has been known to wake up, run for a kilometer, then climb back into bed."

When this story first appeared, I was limping through one of my frequent spells of achilles tendinitis. It had stayed with me for weeks, without improving, as I'd tried to stay on a schedule of "easy" runs that weren't easy enough.

Taking a clue from Ndeti, I listened more closely to what the achilles told me each morning. Because "miles" and not "meters" is my first language, I ran a mile and then decided what to do next. If signs of trouble appeared or didn't clear, and especially if they worsened, I forced myself to stop for that day and try again the next.

The pain limited me to a single mile at first. But soon the tendon announced that it was healing quickly under this more gentle treatment, and distances eased up to normal. Within a few weeks I was ready for a half-marathon race -- a slow one, to be sure, but on a pain-free foot.

The stubborn heel injury of early 2000 let me retest the trial mile. This time, less than a month after graduating from a long string of single-mile days, I was back to running 26 times that far.

Why, you might ask, even bother with this trial mile? Why not just decide whether to run or not before bothering to dress and go out the door?

The answer has to do with listening to your body. Running advisers all tell you to do this, but they rarely say when to listen most closely.

Before the run isn't the right time. That's when the body tells its biggest lies -- trying to convince you that it feels better or worse than it really does.

Sometimes running injuries go into hibernation between runs. You tell yourself at the start that you're okay, you try to run as planned, you overdo, the pain comes out of hiding, and you suffer a recovery setback by not stopping soon enough.

Just as often, though, the problem feels worst when you're not running. You think before starting that you're hurting and need another day off. A warmup might have worked out the stiffness and soreness.

The trial mile acts as a truth serum. It tells honestly what you're able to do that day. Listen.

Another value of the trial mile is that it tricks you into starting and seeing what happens. A basic law of physics reads that a body at rest wants to stay resting, and one in motion wants to keep moving. This is also a basic rule of running.

The hardest step to take is the first one out the door. Then once you've started, the momentum kicks in.

This law of running motion worked longer for me than it ever has before at the 2000 Napa Valley Marathon. I almost didn't start at all, debating until the last moment about taking a run alone -- or even taking a day off.

The excitement of raceday drew me to the starting line. But even then the plan was just to go anywhere from a few miles to at most half a marathon, then hail a ride.

The early testing period passed while giving no compelling reason to stop. The half-marathon came and went with a promise to a companion, Jan Seeley, to go 16 miles with her.

She stopped as planned. I said I'd like to run "a couple more."

Eighteen miles still wasn't quite enough, nor was 20. Momentum finally carried me to the finish line.

I paid later for going to this extreme, but at the time was euphoric. Never had a run, which almost didn't start, so far exceeded expectations.

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