Monday, April 4, 2011

New thoughts on running

That's what the Tarahumara must sound like, I thought to myself as I chugged along on the trail. I had decided to venture into Discovery Park to run the loop trail, and I was already wondering why I hadn't before. I think between the cougar sightings and the reams of homeless that tumble off the 33 at the Discovery Park stop for an adventure in urban camping, I'd convinced myself that it was deserted and dangerous. So far, the only thing that had given me pause was the enormous blue heron I'd come around a corner and surprised as he sat 10 feet off the trail finishing his lunch. I stopped long enough to look at him, which seemed to make him feel self-conscious. I was also passing and being passed by reams of walkers, dog folks, and other runners, most of whom were crunching the gravel like it was granola and they were starving, me included. I was sort of enjoying the feeling of pounding down the earth, landing hard on my heels on the downhills.

Then, I heard just a faint rustling shuffle on the trail behind me. Was it an animal? It didn't sound like the rhythmic runner's steps I'd gotten accustomed to hearing right before I was passed.

"Good morning!" she said cheerfully as she nudged by me. She was about 10 years older than me, similar build, with a knit cap and shorts over her running tights, and on her feet were a burgundy pair of Vibrams.

"Hey," I panted. "How do you like your Vibrams?"

"Love them!" she said. "My calves were sore, but if you ease into them they're fabulous!"

We chatted about Born to Run a bit before she pulled ahead with a "Have a good morning!" and made her way down the trail in front of me with that quiet, shuffling step. I studied her form closely. Her body seemed very still - no arm pumping or odd gestures, they were just relaxed in a bent position at her sides - and if I had a book on her head I don't think it would have fallen off. Her stride was compact and cadence was fast, and, most notably, her heels almost never completely touched the ground. They came close, but I could tell she wasn't really putting any weight on them. And she was out of sight in no time.

Watching her, I remembered Caballo Blanco's advice to the author of Born to Run: smooth, light, easy fast. I was observing all 4.

I came down out of the woods, and continued my run along the flat, even sidewalks around the park. Let's give this a try, I thought. I shortened my stride and increased my cadence, and concentrated on letting my weight fall on the front part of my foot. I made sure my back was straight and thought about keeping things smooth and easy. I thought about how the author trained by pulling on a rope tied around his waist while running forward, and was instructed to keep that feeling in mind.

A few intriguing thing happened. First of all, my breathing eased up. I'm not sure what my pace was, but I felt like I was running at about the same speed, if not faster. I also noticed that my calves and hamstrings were working harder to keep my heels up. Most notably, I found that instead of feeling like my knee action was driving me forward, the forward drive was coming from somewhere deep in my quads. It felt, at the best moments, effortless and easy. Maybe not so smooth, getting to be light, and definitely not fast....but I'm on the right track.

I came home excited, and (finally!) didn't need to rest my knee, although my heels took a beating on the downhills on the trails and my PF flared up a bit. I'm going to need to figure out how to run those better. I don't think Vibram lady flies down them and lands on her heels.

I was able to recreate that feeling from Saturday a bit on the treadmill today and the results were even better - no knee pain or foot pain at all after the run. My hamstrings, predictably, have complained and the muscles in the bottom of my feet and ankles that are responsible for holding up my heels when I put weight down have also made themselves known, but these are lazy muscles that need to start pulling their weight anyway and I don't feel sorry for them. My totally-not-endorsed-by-a-professional plan at this point is to continue to do my ankle/knee exercises to strengthen those areas, and continue to explore this new form. Just like any technique change (hello, singing), the learning part is going to take me back a few steps in terms of speed and distance, but rebuilding on a more solid foundation is going to be worth it as I up my mileage for the half marathon.

I'm excited!