What happens when you’re doing your best running in years and are on the brink of smashing that six year old PB? You get injured of course.
I have developed a literal pain in the bum, otherwise known as piriformis syndrome. I don’t know why I have this as I have not been doing anything differently, it has just appeared from nowhere to annoy me. The piriformis is a muscle below the glutes, which, according to my physio, does a lot of compensating for mechanical inadequacies elsewhere, such as a dodgy ankle. My ankle has always been dodgy and my piriformis has coped admirably until now, but maybe it just lost the will to live. Other than pain in the piriformis itself, piriformis syndrome causes sciatica-like pain all the way down the leg, and this has proved fatal for my running. When sitting or running it feels like my thigh and calf are being nipped by electric pirinhas. This makes all my muscles clench up and makes me run like I have a wooden leg. Everything feels hugely effortful. You know the feeling when you’re in the last kilometre of a half you’ve given your all to and everything hurts and you’ve forgotten how to run and you just need to keep going because you’re almost there? That’s how I feel from the very first step of each run at the moment.
This kind of post always elicits a stream of “have you tried”s so for the record I have tried yoga, pilates, piriformis targeted stretching, gobbling painkillers, sitting on a funny wedge cushion, standing up at work, using a footrest, swimming, professional massage, a massage gun at home, a tens machine, resting, running slowly, run/walking, heavy drinking, prayer. I have not yet tried, but am considering: paying for an MRI, cortisone injections or osteopathy, despair, amputation, getting a new hobby.
I had plans to meet friends at Crane parkrun in Twickenham which I didn’t want to cancel so I decided I would go along and run at a really slow pace. This went to plan, but I was dismayed to find what would normally be a leisurely and enjoyable pace (8 mins per km) still felt hugely painful and effortful and all I could think about was fighting the urge to walk. I feel I should write something about how lovely Crane parkrun’s course was and how nice it was to spend time with friends but now I’m in a spiral of woe so I’m going to have to go back at repeat it next year so I can write about it properly. By the end of the parkrun I was all for knocking the next day’s Hackney Half on the head. If 5k had been such a struggle then how could I do 21?
However walking to the cafe afterwards the pain disappeared and I started to have second thoughts because I knew the Hackney Half has a really generous cut off and that I could, theoretically, walk the whole thing and not be swept up by the sweep up car. I wasn’t entirely keen on the idea of walking the whole thing but the thought of not even giving it a try appealed even less. I often think that other people quit far too easily but I’m also aware that I take this to the other extreme and refuse to quit even when this would be the advisable thing. It’s this mindset that had me stuck in a toxic relationship for years and running a marathon with a broken leg, both of which cost me a lot more than I gained. But in the end, the thought of not starting, of seeing other people’s photos and medals and not having my own and not being able to say I did my best overtook any thoughts of self preservation and I found myself lining up on the start in the traditional Hackney Half sun.
My plan was to do a 90/30 run/walk but it soon became clear and that I wasn’t even going to manage that and I kept adjusting the ratio until it eventually became five minutes of walking for every minute of running. The running didn’t seem to be significantly faster than the walking anyway but it was significantly more painful. I tried not to look at my watch other than for the walk/run alerts because it was just too depressing. The crowds at the Hackney Half were wonderful as always, handing out sweets and offering hosepipes, but I recognised the sympathetic applause that I hadn’t been subjected to for so long. I wanted to stop and explain to people that I am usually better than this, that I can normally run the whole thing without walking, that my stupid leg has let me down once again and that I haven’t been scrimping on my training and it is not my fault. But people don’t actually care about any of this, they just see a silly figure waddling down the road way behind the pack and think “thank god that isn’t me”. I found it hard to believe that just two months ago I was running London Landmarks and was surrounded by so many people of a similar pace that I was annoyed they were getting in my way. Now, in a similar sized race, I could barely keep my eyes on the runner in front. At one point I looked at my watch and realised 2 hours and 39 minutes, the time of my last half, had passed, but I still had four kilometres left. I wanted to cry with the unfairness of it all. I thought I’d left this all behind! I thought I was well on my way to becoming a sub-average, unremarkable, top 90% runner and here I was back where I started, about to clock a personal worst and finish hours behind my friends like I used to.
Fortunately just as I was about to lie on the floor and start having a tantrum I was swept up by a very cheerful pacer named Ann Marie who had been given a very non-specific time of “over 2:30” to provide. (This is a pet peeve of mine, at least they’ve got rid of the “joggy” and “joggier” nonsense but there’s a world of difference between 2:31 and 3:30 pace and slow people have targets too. Why not just give them times to pace like they do at London Landmarks?) Anyway, the cheery pacer provided a very good distraction from my woe and embarrassment as I eventually reached Hackney Marshes and crossed the line in an all time personal worst of 3:15:02 – only to discover there were no finisher t-shirts and that everyone got the same medal as participants in yesterday’s free 5k. I’m sad to say that Hackney Half has gone right downhill since being taken over by dreadful company Limelight Sports and I won’t be back next year to atone for my poor performance. I hope it finds a new owner soon and returns to its former glory. And I hope I do too.