The only fresh air I inhaled for 72 hours was the puff of New Hampshire February chill when I opened and closed the slider on my sunroom to let my dogs in or out, followed by wheezing my way back to the couch. I’d been sick for over a week, getting worse. I could feel my hard-won fitness melting away like butter in a hot frying pan.
Part of the trouble with being a Master’s level runner (I’m 56) is how quickly we lose muscle strength from immobility related to injury or sickness. My 81-year-old mother, though supportive of my trail running devotion, reminds me, “old bones heal slow.” It has felt to me that it takes twice as long to re-gain what I lose in fitness from injury or illness, then it did when I was in my 30s.
This particular respiratory illness came right in the middle of my well-planned training schedule for my longest-yet trail run race, scheduled for Mother’s Day weekend. It’s called the “Wapack and Back” with three different lengths to choose from: 21.5 miles – one way on the trail, 43 – out and back, or 50 – out and back, plus seven more. The trail sits in southern New Hampshire, traveling over several knobby wanna-be mountains into the baby foothills of the White Mountains. I had tried for three years to sign up for the race, but because the number of entrants is limited to minimize traffic on the trail, I kept finding myself on the waitlist. This year’s sign-up opened at midnight on February 1st. I napped on the couch, willing myself to wake up at midnight. Instead, I woke up at 1:20AM, logged in and… all the slots for the 21.5 were already filled. So were the slots for the 50s. That left the 43-mile route. I felt confident I had training time to be ready for 21.5. And, I knew just as well, that I could NOT complete 43. I took a deep breath, posted all my info anyway, paid the higher entry fee, and signed up for the 43 miles. The next day I emailed the organizer and pled my case… that I was a Mater’s level runner, that I’d been trying for 3 years to get into this race, and please, please, please can I switch to the 21.5? He said yes. I was in!
Last summer I ran two 15-mile trail races and still had change in the bank at the end. I was following a similar training plan for this year, adding longer road miles with hills. I was running three days a week, and rowing on an erg along with weight lifting three days a week. Right before I got sick, I had an eight mile road run, and 16 miles total for the week. I felt on track.
But that respiratory illness set me back. Way back. How would I re-gain what I had lost? I felt panicked that my opportunity to compete in the 21.5-mile Wapack and Back would elude me for another year.
Then I remembered something I had read when consuming large quantities of trail running literature as a newbie to the community. Miles and speed and core strength are all important when training for longer races, but also important is how long a runner can stay on her feet. In essence, it matters less that I can road run 10 miles in 100 minutes (and even that is optimistic for me…). One hundred-minutes-and-done doesn’t fully prepare me for six hours of trail running and power hiking. What matters more is stamina: “Time on Feet.” I need to be upright, body balanced, mind engaged, and moving forward for hours.
This information came back to me as such a relief! Because of that respiratory illness I had missed two weeks of running. I had missed nine mile and 10-mile long-run weeks. I needed to modify my training program to make up lost time. Maybe I could resume my training with a more concentrated effort on “Time on Feet,” (TOF) instead of just accumulating running miles?
Yes, I still have to keep an ear on my pace, listening for my tempo, to meet cut off times. But for me, a solid back-of- the-packer, who wants to run the race, enjoy it, duck under the finish banner free of injury, who isn’t out to win (well, maybe place in my Masters’ age-group? Can’t deny my competitiveness here…), “time on feet” has become my enhanced training module.
This feels a bit familiar to me since until four years ago I worked 12-hour overnight shifts as a nurse on a busy acute care unit. I trained my mind and body to stay alert and engaged, as I had to be on the move for hours at a time. Following my illness this winter I reminded myself, I can do this. I know how to DO this!
I am accumulating “Time on Feet” by mindfully staying active for several hours at a time. A month after my respiratory illness, I buckled on my running pack and briskly walked six miles, keeping the same tempo up and down hills, then I walked to the library, post office, and general store, adding items and weight to my bag at each stop. When I got home, I didn’t sit; instead I trotted up and down the stairs with laundry, then cooked and cleaned in the kitchen, bending and reaching and lifting. I deliberately kept going. My training journal from that day reads: TOF 3.5 hours.
Trail running moms naturally have built-in TOF: the little ones and even school-age children keep you moving! I have one husband, two dogs, one house and sedentary work. I am now consciously building one day a week into my training schedule of a 12ish mile run with hills power-hike, followed by three to four hours of on-my-feet planned active time: cleaning, laundry, shoveling snow, jogging the dogs, backpacking to errands. I don’t sit at all, but take fluids and snacks as I keep moving, mimicking being on a long trail run. As the cough from my respiratory illness faded to a hiccup, so did the panic about not being ready for my 21.5 mile trail race. I still have six weeks of training to increase my TOF and agility on the trail, but I also feel more confident that I’ll have the stamina to keep going. And keep going.