Posts Tagged ‘running injuries’

Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.
– Albert Einstein

Wrong way to use a TheraBand

Using the Thera-Band correctly is the key to effective PF relief

Hi.  My name is Mike, and I’m recovering from plantar fasciitis.

Check that – I’ve recovered from plantar fasciitis.

Na na NA na, hey hey hey, good-bye…

Plantar fasciitis accounts for roughly 10% of all running injuries. And yet judging by the sheer number of stories I’ve heard from runner friends in recent months – maybe because PF creates such lasting memories – 10% feels awfully conservative.  I’ve heard stories from all directions – on email, on Facebook, from our CPA’s husband, while shopping for running shoes at REI, and while standing in line to use the pre-race porta-potty at the Big Sur International Marathon (and the lines weren’t even that long).

Collectively these stories would read like one of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books I loved as a kid – some stories ended happily, with the PF dragon vanquished through either specific or vague treatments; other stories ended less auspiciously for those still struggling with chronic heel pain.  And in at least one case the dragon won the day, flaming breath scorching its discouraged prey to the extent that he hung up his running shoes for good.


I knew I’d read this story… I’m guessing that’s Shalane Flanagan pictured at right

But after three consecutive 60+ mile running weeks, I’m ready to call my own Operation: Heal Heel a resounding success.  And if you’re struggling with plantar fasciitis, then hopefully the next 2,000 words (and three short videos) will be of value in helping relief roll down like waters, and recovery like a mighty stream.

Knowing PF now as I do, I’d like nothing more than for my experience to help someone else recover quickly and completely.  As a runner and a biologist, I think about injuries and developmental biology in the same way – I can’t truly appreciate how something works, until I understand what happens when it doesn’t.  I now have a better understanding of why – in my case, at least – PF happens.

So I want to share the treatment plan that relieved my plantar fasciitis and enabled my return to running in less than a month – not with some heel pain, not with less heel pain, but with no heel pain.

We’re constantly urged to strengthen our core, or stretch our hamstrings, or mobilize our glutes, or engage our hip flexors.  But aside from “foam roll your calves,” much less attention is paid to what goes on between the knees and ankles.  Thing is, the knee bone really is connected to the ankle bone, so ignore the inner workings of the lower leg at your own risk.  For me, plantar fasciitis exposed the widening (yet reparable) gap between the “calves” and the “calve-nots”.

Even if you don’t have PF but feel like your stride is just inexplicably off, this may be a good place to start – before you focus too much time and effort on trying to figure out what it means to “mobilize” one’s glutes.

What didn’t work
First, an important cataloging of the pre-Big Sur approaches that had little to no effect on the progression or severity of my PF.  I pursued each of these at various times, while reducing my weekly mileage dramatically in an effort to have my cake (healing) and eat it too (training):

1) Rest – During a two-week stretch in March, when I should have been ramping up for Big Sur, I ran only one day.  As a runner, nothing is more frustrating than resting an injury without a well-defined plan of attack – watching helplessly as the days and weeks creep by, relying on faith and positivity to heal you while assuming that recovery is just a matter of time.  Turns out faith and positivity are no match for plantar fasciitis… two weeks on the shelf (in combination with options 2-7 below) did nothing to improve my injured heel.  And so, not wanting to embarrass myself (or worse, DNS) at Big Sur, I returned to training while promising myself I’d take time off to fully recover – after the race.
2) Frequent icingThis publication and this video might explain why ice did nothing more than numb the pain in my heel.
3) Ibuprofen – Granted I wasn’t popping them like breath mints as some runners do, but my brief foray into “Vitamin I” offered no discernible relief.
4) Vigorous massage – Much like other forms of massage, Active Release Techniques on both calf and heel offered exquisite though short-lived relief from the pain.
5) Hokas – I tried both the Stinson Tarmac and Conquest models for a couple of weeks each.  Thanks to their odd geometry and narrow toe box, I was able to relive the thrill of ultrarunning at non-ultra distances, since both models quickly chafed and blistered my feet in places I’ve never had blisters before (the underside of my big toe? really?).  More importantly, they did nothing to relieve my PF.
6) Orthotics – I have custom orthotics from several years ago that I no longer wear, so in the interest of improved arch support, I dusted them off and slid them into my running shoes.  I was rewarded with curious new aches and pains that competed with the heel pain rather than replacing it.  Like flipping a switch, no more orthotics meant no more new aches.  Unfortunately, my heel pain persisted.
7) Taping – Wrapping my foot in either standard athletic tape or kinesiology tape (‘cuz I liked the name, “KT Tape”) helped to some degree, but who wants to walk around with a taped foot 24 hours a day?  Besides, the positive effect quickly subsided when I realized my podiatrist charged – or at least tried to charge – $48 just to tape my foot.  Presumably the tape he uses is interlaced with gold fibers excavated from the ceremonial robes of dead baby pharaohs.

Hoka casualty

Yes, that’s a blood stain on the insole of my Hokas… and yes, I was wearing socks at the time.

Enter PT (i.e. What did work)
In the midst of my PF-addled and Internet-accentuated confusion, my best decision turned out to be my choice of podiatrist.  Not because the fellow I chose relieved my heel pain himself – he didn’t – but because he referred me to Doris.

Doris showed up at our front door on a Friday afternoon in early May, with her padded torture table tucked under her arm.  But no, we weren’t filming Pulp Fiction 2 – Doris is a physical therapist who works extensively with NBA players, including the L.A. Clippers.  Her intimate familiarity with sports injuries became immediately apparent, as within minutes she’d identified (without any prompting from me) two hypersensitive trigger points in my lower leg – muscle sorenesses I’d largely been ignoring for some time, filing them as so many runners do under “running niggles that will eventually work themselves out”.


As she worked diligently to remove the bullet I swear was lodged in my lower leg, it suddenly hit me, in a moment of pain-evoked clarity, that my heel was the least of my problems.

Because through all of her manipulations, Doris ignored my heel – didn’t poke it, didn’t prod it, didn’t invoke Reiki Crystal Healing to re-align its shakra (we are in L.A., after all).  Hadn’t she heard me say “plantar fasciitis”?  Sure I’d love to have stronger calves, but maybe later, after this PF demon was exorcised…

Instead, she explained (without any overt reference to the heel) that I’d developed imbalances in my lower leg and that I needed to strengthen the offending muscle groups, among them the peroneus brevis, peroneus longus, tibialis anterior and extensor digitorum longus.  And she prescribed three simple exercises that would ultimately become my holy trinity of PF relief.  I’ve included brief video demonstrations below… for the first two you’ll need a Thera-Band (the color of the band determines its resistance; I’ve been using high-resistance black).

My PF affected the main (aponeurosis) and lateral (outer) plantar fascia… if your pain extends to the medial (inner) plantar fascia, you’ll want to consider similar exercises that target the medial calf muscles as well.

Perform each exercise twice daily.  It’s that easy.  No really, it is.

1) While sitting in a chair, strap the Thera-Band around your injured foot as shown.  Using your knee as a fulcrum, evert (i.e. rotate your foot outward) the injured foot away from the healthy foot.  Be sure to rotate only your foot – don’t twist your leg.  Return to original position and repeat until the muscles in your lower leg start to burn, then hold in the fully everted position for 20-30 seconds, and finish with 20-30 more:

2) Tie the Thera-Band around something stable (e.g. a bannister rail, table leg or fat sleeping kitty) and, while sitting on the floor, strap it over your forefoot as shown.  Straighten your leg until the band is taut.  Keeping your heel in place, flex your toes and forefoot toward your body against the band’s resistance.  Return to original position and repeat until the muscles in your lower leg start to burn (in the video you can see my anterior tibialis – the targeted muscle in this exercise – flex with each movement).  Then hold your foot in the flexed-forward position for 20-30 seconds, and finish with 20-30 more:

3) Eccentric calf stretches: I know the name of this one, since it’s a common treatment for Achilles tendinopathy.  Stand with both feet on a raised step (a staircase or curb will work) and balance yourself with one hand on a wall or tree.  Raise yourself up on the toes of both feet, then lower yourself back down slowly and support yourself on only your affected foot, so that your heel dips slightly below parallel with the step.  Hold this pose for 2-3 seconds, then return to original position and repeat 15-20 times:

Doris offered that I could cautiously return to running after a week, but by that point I was once bitten, twice shy.  Wary of another false start, I waited patiently until I could dig my thumb into my heel without significant pain, gave myself a bonus week of rest for good measure, and then mixed in three days of rugged hiking out in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks.

During this time I also slept with a PF night splint on my foot every night, not always the most comfortable proposition but definitely one of the few nuggets of conventional PF wisdom that helped.  The fellow I met in the porta-potty line at Big Sur still struggled with his PF – he’d worn the night splint for a while but admitted to stopping because, in his words, “It kind of kills the mood, you know?”  Considering that both Katie and I are in a far better mood when I’m able to run – no, I don’t know.  And the splint pops on and off in seconds.

Exit PF
Exactly four weeks after my session with Doris, I was running two pain-free miles on the West L.A. College track.  The next day it was three, and then four, and then – on my fourth visit to the track in five days – I managed a very gentle five miles, as every tendon and ligament in my legs revolted.  And yet despite my reflexive hesitation, the foot felt springy and strong, like a brand-new body part I’d just pulled out of an Amazon box, with its odometer set to zero and “new heel smell” still intact.

I’d never been so happy – so absurdly, unapologetically happy – to run on the track before.  Pharrell Williams had nothin’ on me. And to be able to hop out of bed each morning now without pain, or bound off a curb and land on my formerly stricken foot, just feels – WOW.  Hopefully I’ll never take either sensation for granted again… but then again, I hope I do.

I’ve ramped up my mileage fairly quickly, running five days and cross-training two days per week, and still do my Thera-Band exercises two or three times a week (more often for the eccentric calf stretches).  I feel occasional soreness on the lateral side of that foot, though not in the heel, and it almost always dissipates by the next morning.  And I’ve taken to wearing my orthotics in my slippers, to provide more support on our hardwood floors.

But I don’t ice my foot, I don’t take ibuprofen, I run the vast majority of my miles on concrete (since trails here are less easily accessible than in Berkeley), and my foot feels comfortable in maximally cushioned Altras, moderately cushioned Sauconys or minimally cushioned Merrells.  The cherry on top of this recovery sundae is that my stride feels more fluid and balanced than it has since I-can’t-recall-when.

And we’ve finalized our plans for Berlin in September.

I’m not entirely sure what caused my plantar fasciitis in the first place, and so I’m hyper-aware that it could return.  At the same time I’m ever-vigilant of the need to keep my calf muscles strong and limber.  I can’t necessarily say weakness in my calf muscles caused my PF, but I can say with certainty that strengthening them relieved it.  Hopefully my experience can help runners and non-runners alike reach a similarly happy ending, without the frustration of first drifting among various pseudo-treatments that target the symptom while ignoring the cause.

So if you’re currently sidelined with PF, or have a PFrustrated PFriend, it can’t hurt to give these exercises a shot or pass them along.  Certainly not as much as your heel hurts now.  Besides, there’s always room for another voice in the Chorus of The Cured… one, more, TIME!

Na na NA na, hey hey hey, good-bye…

In the meantime, anyone in the market for a (gently used) night splint should drop me a line… though I’d hate to be responsible for killing your mood.

If you’re battling plantar fasciitis or other running injuries, feel free to contact Doris Martel at: dorismartel AT gmail DOT com.  My one-hour appointment was ultimately worth a whole lot more than what I paid.

UPDATE (4 Aug): Julie (who recently entertained her own PF goblins) astutely brings it to my attention that this post’s title may be a bit misleading given that, well, I’m also a doctor.  But since PhDs are real doctors and you should consult one whenever possible, and since it’s my blog, I’m willing (as always) to make an exception for myself.

I walked around for a while angry, in a bad mood… ‘Woe is me.’ I’ve gotten over that. It doesn’t do any good.
– Peyton Manning, on his attitude following neck surgery

28 Days Later_PF_BCH

“I used to be a runner.”

Joking or not, I’m sure Katie’s more than a little tired of hearing me utter that line.  Eight weeks since the Big Sur International Marathon and seven weeks into Operation: Heal Heel, I’m slowly working my way back into running shape. Sure, last week’s easy five-miler felt like someone had shortened every tendon and ligament in my legs by an inch, but despite feeling like a puppet with its strings pulled too tight, I’m happy to report that the foot held its own.  Now I just hope that light at the end of the tunnel isn’t another train.

No doubt about it – having plantar fasciitis (PF) sucks.  Not running sucks.  Watching others run when you can’t, sucks.  Reading about others running when you can’t, sucks.  Looking forward to National Donut Day more than National Running Day sucks.  Having a Thera-Band as a constant companion sucks.

As my labmate used to say in moments like these, “Deep breaths – in with Jesus, out with Satan…”

But the truth is, although PF could easily stand for “Plenty Frustrating”, a lot of good has come out of the past two months, apart from building a better foot.  So I thought I’d share 9 PFun PFacts I‘ve learned (or in some cases, re-learned) during my stint with plantar fasciitis:

1) R-E-S-T-E-D, find out what it means to be…
Yes, I frequently (and unapologetically) trumpet the glory of California with its extended beach paths, picturesque trails overlooking the Pacific Ocean and perennially perfect running weather.  But the flip side to being able to train year-round… is that I train year-round.  No winter breaks, no changing of the seasons to remind the body of its natural biorhythms, and no downtime to heal fully from the previous year’s training and racing schedule.  Running in California means running as far as I want, as often as I want.  Which often means running when I should probably be resting.

So these past six weeks have forced me to do what I’d never have done on my own – stash my Sauconys and rest.  I can’t say it’s my preferred approach, but admittedly my legs feel stronger than they have in at least two years (which they actually are, see point #6 below).  That was the last time I gave my body this much of a break, and I followed up with my current marathon PR in Chicago.  So for me at least, the evidence suggests that downtime now improves uptime later.  We’ll see.

I’d love to say, I’ve learned my lesson! I’ll change! and mean it.  But the reality is, that when I’m feeling perfectly healthy next January 15 and it’s 70°F outside, counting down intervals on a stationary bike or swimming laps in a crowded pool is unlikely to happen.  I’m good at recognizing when I need to shut it down because I’m injured… but asking myself to shut it down because I’m healthy?  Don’t hold my breath.

2) Working out at the gym isn’t the terriblest thing
First in the Bay Area and now in SoCal, I’ve found the YMCA to be a better, more focused workout experience than any of the countless for-profit fitness clubs, which primarily serve (especially in L.A.) as expensive venues for pretty people to see and be seen.  Until last month, though, I rarely ventured into the Y more than twice a week… and even then, I’d usually use my visit as an extended cooldown at the end of a run.

Part of my problem with the whole gym experience is that it reminds me a) I’m injured and b) I’d rather be outdoors. But with patience, I think I’ve begun to find my niche (five hours a week in a room with mirrored walls will provide some level of clarity).  I still have no intention of stepping on a treadmill any time soon, but I have discovered several new arrows for my training quiver – for example, I’ve grown surprisingly fond of the Stairmaster, where I can crank up the intensity while I struggle to avoid George Jetson-ing myself under its increasingly relentless pace.

With muted MSNBC always showing on one corner TV and muted Fox News on the other, I generally prefer people-watching to help pass the time at the Y… especially since the best thing about the Y may be its diverse clientele. Perched atop my stationary bike, my gaze recently settled on one particular “Customer of size” (to borrow Southwest Airlines’ euphemism) sporting a brightly colored tank-top with the normally arrogant message “Your workout is my warmup” stretched across it.

The whole scene screamed You go, girl!  She may have an uphill battle ahead of her, but the sign posted next to the treadmills says it all – “No matter how slow you go, you are still lapping everybody on the couch.”

3) WARNING: Google-ing your injury may be hazardous to your health
Two summers ago, when acute foot pain after the Wildcat Half Marathon convinced me to put my training on hold, the interwebz quickly pointed me to a diagnosis of either a) posterior tibial tendinosis, b) compartment syndrome, a painful and potentially life-threatening condition caused by increased pressure and a lack of blood flow to the limbs, or c) a brain tumor.

Luckily, I decided to take matters out of my own hands and consult a physical therapist who specialized in running-related injuries. Thanks to a diligent program of stretching and (more importantly) strengthening, my posterior tibial tendon soon returned to good-as-new status and has been nothing but supportive ever since.

The upshot: experts are experts for a reason.  Google is not an expert, and using Google won’t make you one.

On the one hand, the internet is a fantastic and unrivaled source of information.  On the other, it’s a world of worst-case scenarios and paralysis by analysis.  To spare other PF-stricken runners the frustration of online self-diagnosis, here’s a summary of what I learned by Googling “plantar fasciitis treatment”:

Ice.  Don’t ice.  Take ibuprofen (to prevent inflammation).  Don’t take ibuprofen (what inflammation?).  Lose weight. Stay off concrete.  Stay off uneven surfaces.  Stay off sand.  Stay off your feet and stop running.  It’s ok to run, as long as you reduce your mileage.  Wear orthotics to support your heel and expedite healing.  Don’t wear orthotics, you’ll only weaken your foot so it will never heal.  Go minimal.  Go maximal.  Run in super-cushioned Hoka shoes for added support.  Running in super-cushioned Hoka shoes will make your PF worse.  Use a frozen golf ball to massage the plantar fascia and break down scar tissue.  Massage is at best a temporary fix, not a cure.  Get a corticosteroid injection.  Corticosteroid injections may help – or they may cause your plantar fascia to rupture.  Change your running gait.  Don’t change your running gait, it will only lead to other problems down the line.  If all else fails – extracorporeal shockwave therapy!  Iontophoresis!  Platelet-rich plasma!  And wear a night splint – but don’t tighten the velcro straps too much, or you’ll cut off circulation to your foot.

PF splint

The PF night splint has helped a lot… and kept my plantar fascia stretched on the drive to Big Sur

To make matters worse, runners who do successfully recover from plantar fasciitis rarely understand what they did right – they typically attribute their recovery to a combination of two or three things that eventually worked, one of which is invariably some unappealing superstition such as alternating between the same two pairs of socks twice a day for a month.

In the course of my Google-fueled “research”, I happened upon the website for “Plantar Fasciitis Secrets Revealed”. This site promises the holy grail every injured runner seeks: an easy, sure-fire non-invasive treatment that will “eliminate plantar fasciitis and foot pain in as little as 72 hours and cure it completely within 30 days GUARANTEED.”  Every rational bone in my body screamed shyster!, and the $37.97 price tag did nothing to allay my suspicions.

So continuing down this poorly lit alley, I decided to investigate “Plantar Fasciitis Secrets Revealed” and found – among other gems – this awesome “review” that reads like it was written by either Chuck Palahniuk or a tweaking Yoda:

Home Treatment System is an easy to follow Plantar Fasciitis as well as Feet Soreness Remedy treatment guide as well as step-by-step instructional videos.  Laser hair removal can function completely with out really breaking the perspiration neither commit unique break of your frantic day time that…. Due to this the dog owner present a person 100% income back again assure.

After some consideration, I opted to spend my $37.97 on tickets to see the 3D showing of “X-Men: Days of Future Past”.  And I stayed off my foot for the entire two hours.

4) The injured runner never suffers alone…
Reading about others running may suck when you’re injured, but reading about others not running sucks more.

At first I thought it was my own injury that had tainted my perception.  Soon, though, I realized that a too-high percentage of the bloggers I follow have recently been injured, among them Jen with her traveling hip pain, Jeff with his overworked Achilles, and Scott with his own amazing (and amusing) head-to-toe panoply of injuries, PF included. Luckily this running thing is good for us, or we’d all be in a world of hurt.

As an injured runner, and especially when you’re not sure what caused your injury in the first place, it’s easy to feel like you’ll never run healthy again.  For non-runners, I equate it to the beaten-down, woe-is-me feeling that comes with having the flu, when just struggling out of bed saps all your energy and you can’t imagine ever being healthy again.

But you will.

I’m not here to cheerlead for Team Positivity, but scientifically speaking the body is an amazingly adaptable machine. Like any machine it requires maintenance and will occasionally falter, especially when pushed to its limits or fed a steady diet of the “-itos” food group (Fritos, Cheetos, Doritos…).  But unlike other machines it will rebuild itself, fix its broken bits (especially if you help out by strengthening them), and return to work with a renewed sense of appreciation and purpose.

‘Cuz your body is your biggest fan – even if it may sometimes feel like a bandwagon fan.

5) … except in the case of plantar fasciitis
If Hester Prynne were a runner, her scarlet letters would have been “PF”. Utter the words “plantar fasciitis” to any experienced runner, and it’s likely he or she will:
a) recoil as if they just rested their hand on a hot stove;
b) respond plaintively with “Oh man, that suuuucks,” as if you’d told them your cat just died;
c) immediately (and silently) celebrate the fact they’re not you.
Three months ago, any or all of these responses would have been me.  I felt great, coming off back-to-back marathons, runnin’ while the rest of the country was still (literally) chillin’, and steeling myself for the hills of Big Sur.

But PF is to runners what the Rage virus was to the general populace in the movie “28 Days Later”, rapidly transforming happy and healthy runners into limping, grimacing shadows of their former selves.  Luckily PF isn’t contagious, so it has that going for it – but no other running injury elicits the same unsettling mix of sympathy and horror from other runners as does PF.

Dan best summed up the healthy runner’s perspective in likening the words plantar fasciitis to the familiar dissonant and staccato strings from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “Psycho”. And for good reason – whereas other common running injuries such as Achilles tendonitis and stress fractures will likewise bring your training plans to a screeching halt, at least there are definitive treatment plans and timelines to guide the recovery process.

PF, on the other hand, is more like Churchill’s “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.  The lifespan of PF in most runners isn’t measured in days or weeks, but in months or even years, exacerbated by the fact that no legitimate doctor seems to know how long the plantar fascia tissue takes to heal.  And the most frustrating aspect is that there’s no sure-fire road to recovery.

So, to draw from the same fountain of wisdom that advises us to choose our parents wisely, the simplest and most definitive treatment plan for plantar fasciitis is to avoid getting it in the first place.  And with that, I just saved you $37.97.


Even my high-resistance Thera-Band shredded under the twice-daily demands of PF rehab

6) If exposed, seek immediate physical therapy
Too often, doctors and coaches seem content to regurgitate misinformation or hearsay that at best is unhelpful, and at worst harmful.  Massage therapists are excellent go-to’s for general soreness, but much less helpful for injury because the temporary relief they offer does nothing to resolve the underlying problem.  Physical therapists, on the other hand, prefer a more hands-on, get-under-the-hood-and-see-where-that-oil-leak-is-coming-from approach.

I recently had the good fortune to be referred to Doris, a PT who works with the L.A. Clippers.  She listened as I described my symptoms and their progression, then had me lie on my side on her padded workbench.  Within moments she’d zoned in on two trigger points on my lower left leg directly above the offending plantar fascia (I assume these are called “trigger points” because her poking and prodding felt like she’d shot me in the leg).

She recommended several simple yet targeted stretching and strengthening exercises, and within two weeks, soreness and discomfort I’d had for months had faded, replaced by real live muscles that now seem to support the muscles in my feet.  Tibialis anterior, extensor digitorium longus, peroneals – all present and accounted for!

Whether this rest-and-strengthen strategy will be my silver bullet remains to be seen… but it’s a promising start.  And as an added bonus, my running gait now feels more fluid and balanced than it did pre-Doris.

And all it took was one appointment.

So if you’re unfortunate enough to have PF, I’d recommend you forego the internet-inspired home remedies and find yourself a reputable physical therapist… unless you really enjoy popping Advil and storing golf balls in your freezer.

7) Not running frees up a lot of time
As in, a lot. Start with the hour-plus of actual running – or several hours, for the once-a-week long run – throw in the warmup and cooldown sessions, sprinkle liberally with stretching and recovery time, and my May featured large blocks of unscheduled time like never before.  I managed to transfer some of that angst free time to the gym, but the past month has left me wondering what non-runners do with all their free time. And I’ve begun to understand why Americans – especially those without kids – watch on average five hours of TV per day.

(I recently read that chimpanzees spend ten times longer than humans – 48% vs. 4.7% of their days – chewing and eating their food… no wonder you seldom see a family of chimps huddled together in front of their TV!)

Katie and I aren’t TV-ophiles, so instead I’ve been channeling my energy into several long-overdue projects.  And I’m happy to report that after ten years spent hanging from a doorknob in Berkeley or living in a cardboard moving box, my race medals finally have a home on our office wall, courtesy of Katie’s motivation and two 5/8-inch curtain rods from Home Depot:

Medals on doorknob

BEFORE: Ours may have been the most well-decorated doorknob in the East Bay (2013)…

Medals on display_MS

AFTER: Thanks to Katie’s initiative, I can now admire medals I haven’t seen in years

Two buddies and I also filled several days exploring beautiful Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, where we happened upon this lovely fellow digging for critters in a tree stump he’d just yanked apart without breaking a sweat:

8) Not running is a very affordable hobby
I haven’t purchased, or really even ogled, any new running gear since before Big Sur.  And I’m not much for retail therapy, so I hope the folks at Running Warehouse understand that honestly, fellas… it’s not you, it’s me.

My newfound frugality also extends to food, my appetite having diminished markedly without the need for all the extra calories.  On a good day I’m able to work straight through, from the time I get up until the time I eat dinner, on little more than trail mix and a banana.

Naturally, all this talk of parsimony ignores the fact that I’ve registered for two RunDi$ney races while I’ve been sidelined.  Dammit Mickey, I wish I could quit you.

9) Running is a fickle mistress
Few relationships have rewarded me the way running has. She’s many things to many people – a competitive sport, a lifelong hobby, a release valve for stress, a friend in tough times, a cheap and ready source of dopamine, a personal identifier, an all-purpose anodyne, a conduit to experience the world around us, an excuse to jack out of the matrix, a reprieve from routine, a time to turn the day’s lemons into lemonade and make sense of the nonsensical.  Like a trusted credit card she’s everywhere I want to be, and she’s priceless.

Pay her the proper attention, eschew shortcuts and she’ll make it worth your while.  Like any meaningful relationship, you’ll get out of your time together only as much as you put into it.  Start to take her for granted, let arrogance intervene, and you could suddenly find yourself rehabbing an injury and wondering where it all went wrong.  And some days… some days she’ll knock you down a peg or two, just because she can.

No doubt about it – running is a fickle mistress.  I’m just hoping she takes me back soon… I’m tired of sleeping on the couch with a splint on my foot.

So that’s my 9, but since 10 is a nice round number – injured or otherwise, what’s one important lesson you’ve learned during your time away from training?

With the marathon, even if you’re hurting, it’s like, ‘Well, I’ve come all this way.  Unless there’s a bone poking out, I might as well finish.’
– Al Roker, cohost of The Today Show

ET logo 2013

Clearly they see it too, because the voices now are impossible to ignore.  Once a barely perceptible pinpoint in the distance, the dazzling and ever-expanding glow that beckons on the horizon now threatens – no, promises – to vanquish the seemingly infinite darkness of the Nevada desert.  And the voices heed its call, compelling me onward like a single-minded moth toward a seductive flame.  Move forward, into the Light, the all-knowing all-seeing all-caring Light… release your tension, confront your pain, let Its radiance guide you, yes that’s it! feel Its warmth sustain you, Its compassion embrace you, Its omnipotence protect you….  I cross the threshold from dark into light, wholly surrendering both mind and body to the indescribable relief that floods every synapse.  Squinting into the soft resplendence, my gaze is met by an unblinking pair of impassive black eyes set in a featureless green, unside-down teardrop of a face.  Certainly the face isn’t human, nor had I expected it to be.  Yet fear, like darkness, has no place here.  The wide, expressionless eyes gaze silently up at me while the soothing voices in my head continue to reassure me – Welcome home, your long journey’s over, it’s time to heal.  My outstretched hand gently caresses the other-worldly face in an awkward mix of exhaustion and wonderment.  I step forward unsteadily, into the light and beyond.

Little green men in the Silver State
I’m no fan of Las Vegas, but I understand its allure… who isn’t instinctively attracted to bright and shiny?  And if bright and shiny appeals to you, then no place rivals the neon-powered spectacle of The Strip at night.  If tackled with the right group of friends, Vegas can be a genuinely fun place… but then, even the DMV can be a fun place with the right group of friends.  With each successive visit, Sin City feels more and more like a high-mileage, weather-beaten Volvo that’s spent the past 20 years parked along the curb, collecting layer upon gradual layer of dirt, pollen and neglect.  Throw in some spinning rims and purple neon undercarriage lighting, and that’s how I view Vegas.  Or in snacking terms, Las Vegas to me is that second donut, with the electric thrill of anticipation quickly mutating into the sickening aftershock of reality.

Behold! the spectacle of Seizure City (photo credit TakeTours)

Hey brainiac, here’s a novel concept: stay away.  And gladly I would, but where gambling outsiders like me hit the jackpot is in the city’s proximity – to Hoover Dam, to Red Rocks Canyon, to several National Parks, and to the barely-there town of Rachel, NV, site of last weekend’s E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon, organized by the folks at Calico Racing.

Why the E.T. Marathon?  And why now?  For two reasons: first, Chuck and Laura had run the race back in 2008 and highly recommended it.  And second, given that my 2013 racing schedule had already morphed somehow into my own personal X Games – sub-freezing temperatures and icy conditions in my first two races, record-high temperatures in my next – I figured what better place to continue the “extreme” theme than in the midnight darkness of the Nevada desert. With one slight caveat: since the race each year is scheduled to coincide with the full moon (hence the name), we wouldn’t be running in total blackness.

I’ve never been what I’d call an alien aficionado.  I find the subject of little green men more amusing than anything, although the presumption that we’re alone in the universe strikes me as naïve hubris.  During graduate school, I discovered and watched every episode from the first seven seasons of The X-Files, with its spooky (at the time) taglines of “Trust No One” and “The Truth Is Out There.”  Over time, though, my dedication to the show grew in spite of rather than because of its alien conspiracy storyline, which eventually took on an absurd life of its own.  In any case, to this running aficionado the prospect of running under a canopy of stars and by the light of the full moon while dodging alien tractor beams promised a compelling and one-of-its-kind race experience.  Not to mention a pretty cool medal.

So it was that Katie and I found ourselves – after narrowly escaping the crush of Friday afternoon L.A. traffic – cruising northeast along I-15N, through the no-man’s-land of unincorporated California and on the boundary of the Mojave National Preserve.  Like most interstates, I-15N doubles as a steel-belted graveyard, and out here the mangled roadkill of blown tires littered the highway like neglected rubber corpses.  As the temperature outside the car hovered near 110°F, I was surprised by the lack of heat haze rising up from the pavement, a constant from so many childhood summers spent driving under the blistering sun of hot and humid Texas.

The world’s tallest non-functioning digital thermometer in Baker, CA

We’d broken up the drive with a pitstop for gas in Baker, CA, home of the world’s tallest thermometer, an uninspiring and nonfunctional 134-foot-tall landmark built to commemorate the nation’s record-high temperature of 134°F, set in Death Valley in 1913.  As if to apologize for such a lame tourist attraction, Baker paid for half our tank of gas when Katie found an orphaned $20 bill on the floor of the gas station convenience store.  Returning to the car, and anticipating our upcoming arrival in the Silver State, I brought up a playlist from Sin City’s own house band, The Killers.  We then hopped back on the highway and 45 minutes later crossed the border into Primm, NV, where the first of many oversized neon casino signs offered a garish reminder of what awaited us on a much larger scale in Vegas.

Thirty minutes later, we exited the highway and rolled onto the Vegas Strip, center stage in America’s own Theatre of the Absurd.  Thanks to the generosity of Katie’s parents, our base of operations would be centrally located Caesar’s Palace.  After arriving too late to meet several members of our Antarctica contingent for dinner, we carbo-loaded on our own and then wandered among the urban gristle of the Strip before heading up to our room for the night.  “Absurd” is trying to exercise self-discipline and conserve energy in Las Vegas.  In August.  Welcome to the No Fun Zone.

On Saturday, anticipating the day to come, we made ourselves stay in bed until nearly 1:00pm, then ate a quick lunch and headed over to the race expo at the Hard Rock Hotel.  I use the word “expo” because that’s how it was billed, though the entirety consisted of several folding tables on which were stacked registration materials, goodie bags and exterrestrial merchandise/souvenirs.  At a smaller table next to the door sat a fellow selling high density foam rollers.  Even factoring in the time required for mandatory alien photos, we were in and out of the expo in ten minutes, and were again disappointed not to encounter any of our Antarctica colleagues.  From there we returned to our hotel room, where we packed and repacked, checked and double-checked everything we’d need for the long night ahead.  After a quick pasta dinner (carbo-loading session #2), we joined our compression-clad kindred spirits outside the Hard Rock Hotel, as boarding of the buses began for a 2.5-hour ride into the heart of darkness.

Leaving Las Vegas
An hour later, Katie and I sat side by side and lost in thought at the back of a dark and quiet bus bound for the outskirts of Rachel NV, population 54.  Despite its small size, Rachel has large street cred among extraterrestrial hunters as the township closest to Area 51, the mecca for UFO aficionados.  And the timing for this race would be perfect – with the U.S. Government officially acknowledging the existence of Area 51 earlier in the week, I figured UFO sightings in the skies above Rachel would be plentiful, as extraterrestrials staged their own long-awaited “coming out” party.  Adding to my anticipation was the recent experience of NBA player Baron Davis, who insisted just last month that he’d been “actually abducted by aliens” while driving alone from Las Vegas to Los Angeles.  All’s well that ends well, though, since apparently Baron was able to calm his nerves at In-N-Out Burger after his gracious hosts dropped him back to Earth in Montebello, CA.

Admittedly, my real fear about running through Area 51 was that I’d end up like Cartman:

Once on the highway we’d quickly left behind the billboard advertisements for vasectomies, hangover cures and pole-dancing classes, and had transitioned into darkness interrupted only by the occasional pair of oncoming headlights, the Christmas tree-like incandescence of the sporadic refinery, or the distant bolt of lightning greeting arid desert terrain.  I’d momentarily regretted boarding one of the “chatty” (vs. “quiet”) buses when the two fellows in the seat behind us began to discuss loudly and in graphic detail the plot progression of Breaking Bad.  Admittedly it’s my fault I’m five seasons behind and have yet to watch a single episode, but I do intend to watch the entire series at some point, and so I quickly jammed in my iPod earbuds to stem the tide of plot spoilers.

As our bus hummed smoothly along through the desert darkness, round overhead lights spaced at regular intervals bathed the upholstered seats in a soft green glow and cast each passenger in a Hulk-ish sheen.  Enhancing this effect was the neon green compression wear sported by many of our fellow passengers.  Though I myself wouldn’t be decked out in full alien regalia, I’d be tipping my LED-equipped cap to our otherworldly homies by running the (Area) 51K rather than the shorter marathon distance.  This only seemed right… if the race had been held around San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, I would’ve chosen to run the 49K.

Approaching our destination on Nevada Highway 375 – rebranded as the “Exterrestrial Highway” in 1996 – our human driver kept the crowded vehicle well below the unofficial speed limit of Warp 7.  At last the bus slowed to a halt, signaling an end to this leg of the journey and the start of the next.  Both literal and figurative electricity filled the suddenly lively bus, as anxious and excited runners decked out in blinking, flashing multihued running apparel stretched their legs, gathered their belongings, and prepared for what promised to be, one way or another, an out-of-this-world race.

Mike Sohaskey at start of E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon 2013

Countdown to midnight: All dressed up and nowhere to glow

We deboarded just before 11:30pm.  Diffusing away from the glare of bus headlights and into the shadows, I made my way toward the very manageable lines forming in front of the eight porta-potties.  After that mandatory stop I triple-checked my gear and nutrition, reminding myself where I’d stashed everything in the UltrAspire Alpha hydration pack I’d purchased two days earlier.  I’d decided to leave the bladder reservoir in the hotel room and use the pack strictly to carry bottles and gels, since the Alpha allows easy access to its front pockets without having to physically remove the pack.

I’d be carrying two bottles, one filled with Skratch Labs hydration mix and the other with Skratch Labs powder sans water, which I planned to fill once I emptied the first.  Normally one bottle would be plenty, particularly for a road race, but on this night my nemesis and leading sponsor Hammer Labs would be stocking all aid stations with their unpalatable HEED drink.  I assume they chose a midnight race so that runners wouldn’t see what they were drinking; in any case, I decided to play it safe and carry my own concoction.

Two water bottles?  check.  Headlamp?  check.  Blinking red light to give those behind me something to chase? check.  Garmin on and satellites found?  check.  Green glow bracelet? check.  And iPod just in case those last few miles got really lonely and I needed a musical pick-me-up?  check.  I was ready-ish.  With that, Katie and I wished each other luck, and she boarded the 11:45pm bus that would transport her to the finish line, where her 10K race – an out-and-back course that would double as the last 6.2 miles of the marathon – was scheduled to begin at 1:00am.

Black Mailbox at start of E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon 2013

Do not adjust your monitor: this is the Black Mailbox that stands at the marathon/51K start line

I spent the remaining few minutes before midnight wandering through the sporadically lit start area, searching in vain for the five members of our Antarctica expedition who I knew to be running the marathon.  How could finding five people in a crowd of less than 200 – even in these dimly lit conditions – be so difficult?  That failure behind me, I mulled over my race goals one last time.  By simply finishing I’d shatter my previous 50K PR, a sun-baked 6:33:45 set at the Harding Hustle 50K in June.  That, barring an alien abduction, was more or less a given.  But my unspoken (mainly because no one had asked) goal-that-must-not-be-named was an ambitious yet realistic five hours, a 9:27/mile pace.  It was a goal I wanted, and even in the lingering heat and nearly mile-high elevation, one I should be able to attain.

My glow bracelet popped off my wrist as race director Joyce gathered us around for her prerace announcements, the highlight of which was her congratulating one runner on this being her 200th marathon (cue well-deserved applause).  Then without further ado Joyce wished us luck, counted down the seconds… and as the calendar flipped over to Sunday, the 7th annual E.T. Marathon was underway!

The dark night rises
All race distances would overlap and run similar courses along the Extraterrestrial Highway.  With no turns other than the 51K turnaround at mile 26, the course would be among the straightest (and most straightforward) I’d ever run.  Or so I thought until, less than 100 yards from the start line, my iPod bounced out of the front pocket of my shorts and clattered to the pavement.  Quickly reversing course, I swept it up and jammed it in my calf compression sleeve before the oncoming stampede of runners could bear down on me.  So much for that genius idea… mental note: never again with the iPod.

Almost immediately I could feel the dryness of our surroundings in my parched throat, and by the first mile marker I could already feel myself sweating more than usual courtesy of the 88°F desert heat.  Luckily a cool intermittent headwind kept the night pleasant and my mind focused.  As I ran hugging the shoulder on the left side of the highway, my shadow ran alongside me in the left lane thanks to the full moon, which sat low on the western horizon.  As appealing as the idea of running by moonlight might sound, the idea of treading on an unseen rattlesnake sounded significantly less appealing, and ‘twas the latter concern that kept me running diligently in the arc of light created by my headlamp.  Under the faint glow of the moon, and with nothing but time to let your mind run wild, every tar snake on the highway might as well be the real thing.

Other than the occasional wafting odor of cow manure, I’d encounter no sign of non-human animalia, alive or dead, along the course.  And for natural scenery, the rolling hills silhouetted against the moonlight on either side of the highway would have to do.  Apart from the blinking, glowing and flashing of other runners, this would (not surprisingly) be one of the less visually satisfying races on record.

I reminded myself to blink frequently and not fixate on the arc of my headlamp.  During the Davis (CA) Moo-nlight Half Marathon three years earlier, I’d become so entranced by the beam of light directed at my feet that my left contact lens had dried up and popped out of my eye, forcing me to run the last ½ mile or so with my desiccated contact stuck to the eyelashes of my lower eyelid.  Battling a left eye that in its uncorrected state is only slightly more functional than a marble, I’d accelerated along the final darkened straightaway in a half-blind haze, as if someone had covered my world in a thin layer of Vaseline.  Amazingly, after crossing the finish line I’d recovered the contact which had remained stuck to my eyelid, and popped it back in without further incident.  “I was wondering why you made such a wide and wobbly arc coming around that last turn,” Katie later admitted.

Elevation profile for E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon 2013

Back to the Nevada desert, and after five miles of what felt like comfortably strong pacing on a slight uphill, the highway began a more pronounced ascent that seemed to steepen once I passed the mile 11 marker.  I knew from the course profile that this ascent – a climb from 4,523ft at the start to just over 5,600ft climb at mile 12.8 – would be the “gut check” miles, after which the course would change trajectory and carry us back downhill to mile 20 (and for half marathoners, the finish line).

Somewhere near mile 9, I began to pass the brightly lit and colorfully costumed back-of-the-pack half marathoners, a welcome distraction from the dark and quiet sameness of the first eight miles.  I allowed myself a celebratory moment as I passed the double-digit mark at mile 10, and continued to maintain a solid pace as I chugged up the hill, the density of half marathoners increasing as I neared the summit.

As I reached the peak at Coyote Summit, the course changed trajectory, and my downhill muscle groups gradually awakened to the joys of eccentric loading.  Two other runners flew by me on the right and were quickly engulfed by darkness.  At the same time I struggled to pull back on the reins and control my downward momentum after 13 miles of uphill running.  Somewhere along the way I made my second aid station pitstop of the night for water, thanked the faceless volunteers, and before I knew it the mile 16 marker was bathed in the harsh glow of my headlamp.  Halfway home!  Despite the 13-mile ascent in my rearview mirror, I knew the second half of this 51K would be the toughest, as carbohydrate stores ran low and muscle fatigue set in.

I had no way of knowing that a mile later, I’d be longing for the simple discomforts of lactic acid buildup and carbohydrate depletion.

Katie after finishing E.T. Full Moon 10k

Triumphant 10K’er and alien bounty hunter Katie flashes her latest prey

Where ankles fear to tread (Down but not out)
Soon I crossed the first of two cattle guards, the left edge of which was covered with a slender wooden plank to allow runners across.  I consider cattle guards a necessary evil… several can be found along the Nimitz Way trail in Berkeley’s Tilden Regional Park, and they’re the single biggest downside to trail running in Tilden.  I’d hoped never to run across another cattle guard after leaving Berkeley – and now I remember why.

The second cattle guard appeared in the vicinity of mile 17.  A reflective sign just before the guard warned of its existence, and I prepared to cross the wooden board in the same place as the first guard.  Except the board wasn’t there, and my brain momentarily hiccuped as it registered that the board – roughly the same rust color as the guard – was displaced a couple of feet to the right relative to the first guard.  I planted my left foot and cut sharply to my right in order to access the board and negotiate the guard.

And that was when my ankle – as well as my race – took a literal turn for the worst.

I’m no stranger to sprained ankles.  Indeed, the sprained left ankle has been the bane of my running existence since high school basketball, and I’m well versed in the pain and shock that follow a tweaked ankle.  I am, literally and figuratively, a loyal alum of RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) University (go Owls!).  But it had been at least two years since I’d last sprained an ankle, and I’d hoped that all my ankle strengthening exercises had signaled an end to the familiar treatment regimen that had become almost second nature.

The Little A'Le'Inn, a Rachel NV landmark, served as finish line for E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon

The Little A’Le’Inn, a Rachel landmark, awaits runners on the other side of the finish line

Given my history of ankle injuries, I knew I was in trouble even before I hit the ground on the opposite side of the cattle guard.  But for the sake of both race and psyche my pride kicked in, and I immediately transitioned into denial mode, telling myself to “rub some dirt on it!” (coach speak) while at the same time trying to convince myself that 15 more miles was eminently do-able.  As much as I wanted to hop over to the side of the road and collapse in a bitter heap, I knew from experience what the consequences of that decision would be – if I were to stop running even momentarily, the ankle would rapidly swell, I’d be unable to put any weight on it, and…

Through the rapidly descending fog of swirling emotions – pain wrapped in anger, swathed in disgust and shrouded in uncertainty – the decision was an easy one.  I hadn’t driven over five hours by car, ridden another 2.5 hours by bus and completed 17 miles including 13 uphill, just so I could go home with my first-ever DNF (Did Not Finish).  Truth be told, I still cringe at the thought of my tendinitis-induced DNS (Did Not Start) at Leadville last summer.  No, I’d come to run.  And barring the ankle coming detached from my leg and rolling off into the sagebrush, I planned to run across that finish line under my own power.

At the same time, I did intend to run – I had no interest in watching slower runners pass me by as I ambled along in “race-saver” mode and eventually finished well off my prerace goal of five hours.  So as I fought my way forward, I focused all my remaining energy on maintaining my ~9:00/mile pace.

I rationalized my decision to continue by telling myself that I couldn’t very well stop running and just lie on the side of the road, staring at the stars and elevating my ankle until someone found me and drove me to the finish line.  But as I concentrated on my footfall one uncomfortable step at a time, the conflicted voices in my head each argued its case, until finally my self-preservationist side struck a deal with my competitive side: I’d run the race, and I’d finish the race, but the race I’d run and finish would be the marathon, not the 51K.  The marathon, to my mind, seemed a perfectly reasonable endpoint and the ideal compromise.  And admittedly, I shed not a single tear at the realization that I wouldn’t have to run an extra 5.5 mind-numbing asphalt miles in the dark.

Hangin' with the locals at the Little A'Le'Inn in Rachel, NV

Hangin’ with the locals at the Little A’Le’Inn

In any case, this would be a different sort of challenge than any I’d faced before.  And from the moment I staggered to my feet on the far side of that cattle guard, the tiresome distraction of running along a desert highway under a full moon gave way to a single-minded determination to keep going, to maintain pace, and to avoid another glitch.  I had no idea how stable my ankle was or how long it would allow me to continue this charade.  Worst case scenario would be the ankle calling it quits far from the finish, thereby ensuring a DNF and leaving me an easy target for an alien tractor beam.  At the same time, I tried to find and focus on this cloud’s silver lining: Sure every step is painful… but at least it’s a consistent, reliable pain.  Ok, so maybe more of a lead lining?

The unanticipated shock to my system also sent my in-race nutritional strategy out the window.  My stomach was now in such upheaval that it was all I could do to stomach the occasional swallow from my bottle… and I knew I wouldn’t be needing any of the gels I’d brought along.

Reaching the brightly lit mile 20 marker, where the half marathoners turned in to the finish line, my headlamp momentarily blinded Katie, who was waiting on the side of the road to cheer me along.  Being careful to let neither face nor gait betray my discomfort, I quickly informed her I’d decided to drop down to the marathon distance.  She nodded in perplexed agreement, wished me good luck and off I went, one painful 10K out-and-back standing between me and rapture – as well as the blowback from one very pissed-off appendage.

Those final 6.2 miles were a hardcore lesson in perseverance, and I would have sworn that a sandbag now hung from my left knee.  But as the field thinned out and the blackness of my surroundings became more complete, I was able to admire and appreciate the stunning celestial landscape that filled the canvas of the eastern sky.  At last, here was the argument to be made for running in Rachel.  The last 6 miles of a marathon is a difficult time to focus on anything, let alone our place in the universe, but only in Southern Utah and Yosemite National Park could I ever recall my naked eye wielding such power over the night sky.  Keep going, the questionably supportive voices implored.  You’re almost there.

Slowly, in what felt like the running equivalent of water torture, each successive mile ticked by (did those mile markers keep moving back?), as the heaviness in my ankle diffused up my leg and into my entire body.  This was a very different “wall” than I’d hit in any previous race, but even so it was a wall… my brain knew it, my body knew it, and only a finish line at this point would shut them both up.  And then it’s there, in the distance, undeniable and unwavering, a life-affirming beacon that draws closer with every edema-inducing step – my wish being granted.

Mike Sohaskey with his hard-earned medal after finishing E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon 2013

Ow my ankle ow my ankle – oh, is it picture time? No problem!

Clearly they see it too, because the voices now are impossible to ignore.  Once a barely perceptible pinpoint in the distance, the dazzling and ever-expanding glow that beckons on the horizon now threatens – no, promises – to vanquish the seemingly infinite darkness of the Nevada desert.  And the voices heed its call, compelling me onward like a single-minded moth toward a seductive flame.  Move forward, into the Light, the all-knowing all-seeing all-caring Light….

As the eventual 51K winner glides by me looking very much the gazelle that he is, I momentarily entertain the thought of chasing down the marathoner roughly 20 yards ahead of me.  Stupid thought, I decide… what if he or she wants to race me to the finish?  A shredded ankle and public humiliation, in one fell swoop!  I must have sprained my brain on that cattle guard, too.

Release your tension, confront your pain, let Its radiance guide you, yes that’s it! feel Its warmth sustain you, Its compassion embrace you, Its omnipotence protect you….  Gingerly I make the right turn off the Extraterrestrial Highway, and 20 yards later I’m crossing the blue finish line mat, that symbolic threshold from dark into light.  At the same time, I’m wholly surrendering both mind and body to the indescribable relief that floods every synapse.  “3:56:40,” silently announces the impassive red-numbered clock timer above the finish line, in agreement with my Garmin.  So at least I’ve avoided any “missing time” from a UFO encounter or alien abduction.

Squinting into the soft resplendence of finish-line lighting, my gaze is met by an unblinking pair of impassive black eyes set in a featureless green, unside-down teardrop of a face.  Certainly the face isn’t human, nor had I expected it to be.  Yet fear, like darkness, has no place here.  Gratefully I accept the alien-head medal presented to me, and surrender the timing chip on my shoe to a second volunteer.  The wide, expressionless eyes on the medal gaze silently up at me while the soothing voices in my head continue to reassure me – Welcome home, your long journey’s over, it’s time to heal.  My outstretched hand gently caresses the otherworldly face in an awkward mix of exhaustion and wonderment.  Was it worth it? I ask myself in that same moment, though I have no doubt it was.  I step forward unsteadily, into the light and beyond.

Nothing could be finer than to see the finish line-a in the morning
(with a tip of the cap to Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson)

What happens in Rachel…
As usual, Katie’s smiling face and boisterous cheers greeted me as I crossed the finish line.  She’d had a strong race of her own, running the entire 10K and surpassing her goal of 80 minutes with a finish time of 1:16:51.  Given the darkness, the warm conditions and the fact that she hadn’t run as much as four miles since 2011, it was an impressive performance.  And she admitted to being glad she’d run, rather than riding the bus as a spectator or even staying behind in Vegas.

She couldn’t have been as glad as I was.  Because I knew that for my crippled ankle, what happened in Rachel would not stay in Rachel.  After letting the official timer know I’d dropped from the 51K to the marathon, I confessed my predicament to Katie and hobbled over to the folding tables set up in the finish area just outside the Little A’Le’Inn (say it aloud), a three-room motel, souvenir shop and restaurant that serves as the hub of Rachel’s tourist traffic.  And there I collapsed in a chair, where highly competent EMTs mobilized by Katie wrapped my foot and ankle in a large ice pack held awkwardly in place by several iterations of tape.  The human body, it occurred to me as they worked, isn’t conveniently built for icing.  Thanks again, fellas!  Much appreciated.

After 20 minutes I removed the ice pack and, in an effort to increase my comfort level, lay flat on my back on the graveled concrete with my ankle propped up on a chair.  The ankle was now throbbing aggressively – even the most short-lived comfort was illusory, and I being to shiver violently in a brutal mix of residual chill from the ice pack, and shock at the damage I’d knowingly inflicted on myself.  Now the voices in my head, once encouraging, began to abandon their sinking ship.  WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING? they demanded.  They had a right to know, though unfortunately I had no good answer.

As I lay on the ground listening to the sounds of finish line celebrations and reunions all around me, Katie brought me Gatorade and took pictures, and I discovered two pieces of uplifting news on an otherwise dark and emotionally stormy night.  First, the pain and swelling in my ankle were largely confined to the lateral (outer) rather than the usual medial (inner) side, meaning my diligently strengthened ankle hadn’t simply betrayed me to the same injury I’d suffered so many times before.  No, the “good” news was that I’d injured the ankle in a whole new way!  And second, I’d managed to maintain a respectable 9:23/mile pace after spraining the ankle (8:54/mile before), enabling me to finish 12th overall and second in the men’s 40-49 age group.

You had to know this picture was coming

You had to know this picture was coming

Despite Katie’s positive review, my bitterly uncooperative stomach wanted nothing to do with the Little A’Le’Inn’s postrace breakfast buffet.  Even more telling, on the bus ride back to Vegas it would take me 15 minutes to finish a single banana, in contrast to my usual 15 seconds.  Clearly postrace nutrition was going to be an issue.  Fortunately I’d done a solid job of prerace carbo loading, which very likely carried me through those final miles as I tried to find my happy place.

From my vantage point on my back, I heard Joyce announce fellow Antarctica traveller Rich Ehrlich as the winner of the men’s 60-69 age group in 5:07:35.  Congrats, Rich!  And then it was time to board the bus for Vegas.  Awkwardly pulling myself up off the ground, and now unable to put any weight on the ankle, I relied first on Katie and then on a benevolent volunteer to help me over to and up the steps of the bus.

Thus began the long and sleepy-eyed ride back to Vegas, the calico hills now peacefully rendered in the first golden rays of the rising sun.  While many passengers quickly assumed the “eyes closed, mouth open” position, I spent the better part of the ride trying to elevate my ankle and alleviate discomfort, which required monopolizing my personal space and (with her permission) most of Katie’s.

We entered the Las Vegas city limits just before 8:00am, though even at that early hour suffocating heat already blanketed the city.  The combination of stifling heat, mounting fatigue and still-throbbing ankle sent waves of exhaustion washing over me… or maybe that was just my body’s reaction to being back in Vegas.

Luckily we were able, on our second try, to find an open CVS that stocked crutches, enabling me to regain mobility for the rest of the day.  Sort of.  Because I was quickly reminded of another Vegas exclusive: with everything spaced so far apart, it takes forever for an individual with two healthy ankles to get from their hotel room, through the smoke-filled casino and to their destination.  This maze-like arrangement makes Vegas a decidedly subpar place to be handicapped.

We were treated to quite an electrical storm on our drive home

And so, after a clumsy but long-overdue shower, a visit to the Caesar’s Palace brunch buffet (itself nearly a mile long) and a five-hour nap, we decided to take advantage of our bewildered circadian rhythms, plus the lack of heat and traffic, and make the drive back to Los Angeles under cover of darkness.  Four hours and several impressive lightning storms later, we pulled into our garage in Marina del Rey.  Crutching my way slowly up the steps of our multi-level townhouse, I collapsed in our bed with my ankle supported by three pillows.  As consciousness faded, the Nevada desert and Area 51 suddenly seemed light-years away.

As I write this ten days later, the swelling in my ankle has subsided and the remaining soreness is gradually fading.  The foot and ankle feel stable, and I have no trouble balancing on them for two minutes at a time.  I plan to try running again next week.  In the final analysis, I guess all’s well that ends swell.

I’m proud that I was able to grit my teeth and gut out my toughest marathon yet, while still finishing in under four hours and placing well within the top 10% of finishers, including second in my age group.  And I’m satisfied with knowing I gave everything I had to give, and left it all out in the Nevada desert.  Would I have broken five hours if I’d had the chance to finish the 51K healthy?  And would I have run a faster marathon if I’d been pacing accordingly for the entire race?  “Likely” and “probably” would be my answers, although the frustration of not knowing will forever gnaw at the back of my mind.

After all, the truth is still out there.

Trust us, all those stories about extraterrestrials in Area 51 are just silly mythology.

PRODUCTION:  Joyce and her Calico crew did a terrific job of bringing together and pulling off what has to be a very difficult-to-organize race.  Coordinating the bus schedule alone would have addled my brain, and yet to my knowledge, all four races went off without a hitch.  Calico’s blend of detail-oriented professionalism and low-key vibe lent the race a much-appreciated “trail running” feel.  The t-shirts (from Greenlayer Sports) fit nicely, and the eye-catching, glow-in-the-dark medal is definitely a collector’s item.  As far as food, Katie gave the postrace buffet at the Little A’Le’Inn a thumbs-up.

Not surprisingly, my main recommendation for future races would be to COMPLETELY cover each cattle guard to ensure safe footing.  This shouldn’t be difficult, and if it spares even one runner’s ankle will be well worth the effort.  My only other disappointment – and even that may be too strong a word – would be in the choice of Hammer as the lead sponsor.  But much better Hammer than no sponsor at all, and my aversion to their products (particularly HEED) is simply personal preference.  Unfortunately my limited postrace mobility prevented me from properly thanking Joyce and all her superb volunteers, but I’ll do so here (thanks, Joyce! thanks, volunteers!) and look forward to running with the Calico crew again soon.  Even if it does mean another stopover in beautiful Las Vegas.

BOTTOM LINE:  Chuck summed it up best in his postrace text: I had a swell time at the E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon.  I have to admit that even with a healthy ankle, running on asphalt for several hours in uninterrupted darkness before and after a 2.5-hour bus ride isn’t my ideal racing scenario.  But I’m glad I ran in Rachel, for the novelty as well as the opportunity to run with Calico Racing.  If you’re intrigued by the prospect of running by moonlight, I can’t imagine a better place to do so than Area 51, or a better crew to do it with than Calico.

For an inspiring perspective on running through injury, or if you tend toward schadenfreude, check out Dan’s recent experience at the North Country Run 50-Miler.

E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon medal (glow-in-the-dark)

The E.T. medal moonlights as a night-light

August 18, 2013
26.09 miles (the final 9+ miles on a sprained left ankle) in Rachel, NV (State 4 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:56:40 (first time running the E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon), 9:04/mile
Finish place: 12/141 overall, 2/20 in M(40-49) age group
Race weather: clear, dry and warm (starting temp 88°F), with an intermittent cool breeze
Elevation change (Garmin Connect software): 1,129ft ascent, 843ft descent (starting elevation 4,523ft)

I credit my speedy mile 21 to the adrenaline spike from a Katie sighting