Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Who Quits Before Race Day?

My bro passed along this article from today's WSJ, and I felt like it was speaking directly to me (and the thousands of other runners who end up injured in the final days before the marathon). It truly is astounding that despite the many bang-ups and hang-ups that impede almost every runner's training at one point or another, nearly 80% of runners who sign up for a marathon, both start and finish the race.


Here is the full article...

Who Quits Before Race Day?
Injury From Overtraining, Fear of Undertraining Can Lead to 15,000 No-Shows

A month ago, Gary Scheiner felt ready to finish under four hours in the ING New York City Marathon on Sunday. Today, he couldn't run a single mile.

During the high-mileage final weeks of training, a sudden tightness in his back escalated into a debilitating injury, relegating Mr. Scheiner to the field of broken hearts, those who won't make the start of the race.

"The decision to pull out of the race was devastating," says Mr. Scheiner, a 44-year-old New York advertising executive who finished last year's race at 4:11. 

In marathon running, defeat is broadly defined as failure to reach the finish line. But more often it is a failure to reach the start. Of the 60,000 runners who registered for the New York marathon several months ago, about 45,000 will show up for its Staten Island start. Fewer than 2,000 who start the race won't finish.

Those 15,000 no-shows reflect a variety of unforeseen circumstances. The most common reason, race organizers say, is injury. In the weeks before a marathon, long-distance runs reach a peak, increasing the risk of injury, research shows.

"I always tell my runners that getting to the starting line in one piece is their biggest challenge," says Jonathan Cane, a New York City running coach.

An obsession with fulfilling training regimens may prompt some runners to drop out of races they could easily finish. About a month ago, New York fitness trainer Althea White realized she had fallen far behind her training schedule. Instead of its recommended 30 to 40 miles a week, "I'd been running only 13 to 18 miles for a couple of months," recalls Ms. White. She considered dropping out.

Instead, at Mr. Cane's suggestion, she attempted a 20-mile run two weeks ago and completed it without difficulty, giving her the confidence to race on Sunday. 

Most urgent for those running any marathon is the need to taper. Coaches generally recommend leaving three weeks to recover from the longest training run of 20 or more miles. No runs should exceed 12 miles two weeks out from the race. The week before should include only two or three runs of two to four miles. 

As easy as that may sound—resting ahead of a race—many runners find that advice hard to follow. Bodies trained to run want to run, especially as nervous energy mounts ahead of race day. Some coaches recommend light yoga as a way of burning off energy while stretching.

Sports medicine specialists say that predicting and preventing running injuries is an inexact science. But a long and slow increase in long runs is generally safer than a quick escalation, says Stephen Pribut, a Washington, D.C., podiatrist, marathoner and past president of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine.

"Six months to build up mileage is better than two," he says.

Ideally, long runs ought to at some point include a 20-miler—if not longer—and two 18-milers, each long run spaced two weeks apart, Dr. Pribut says. 

What is the shortest long run acceptable for a would-be marathoner? "It depends on age," says Dr. Pribut. "A 22-year-old can get away with a shorter training run than a 50-year-old," he says.

If a less than fully healthy runner believes he can finish, he probably can, coaches say, noting that 98% of starters finish the race. The inspirational value of cheering bystanders is sufficient to get many runners across the finish, they note.

Ahead of the Oct. 9 Chicago marathon, Scott Covington completed only 13 miles of a 20-mile training run before being stopped by plantar fasciitis, a heel injury common to runners.

Told of the setback, his coach told Mr. Covington not to run another mile before the marathon. Given that the race was fully three weeks off, that advice sounded crazy to Mr. Covington, a 45-year-old Chicago flight attendant.

Despite his skepticism, Mr. Covington ran no more, scaled back his planned speed and finished his first-ever marathon in 5:45 essentially pain free, he says. "I'm elated that I took my coach's advice," he adds.

That wasn't how it worked out for John Crowe, who as the New York marathon approached hoped that his knee pain would fade, as it did last year when he managed to complete three marathons. But this weekend there was no letup, so he went online Sunday and canceled his entry in the New York race, requesting that it be deferred to next year.
"Sensing my despondence, my kids asked, 'What's up?' " Mr. Crowe says in an email. "I said, 'I've been training for this since July, how do you think I feel?' "

"Sweaty?" one son answered. 

"I couldn't not laugh," says Mr. Crowe, a 42-year-old Wall Street executive. 

More than 80% of those who sign up for marathons both start and finish them, suggesting that running injuries are less common than some of the medical literature has suggested.

"It's impressive that that many marathoners are successful," says Dr. Pribut. 

Mr. Scheiner had planned to run for charity and collected pledges totaling thousands of dollars. Dropping out required writing to everyone who had "paid money for me to cross the finish line," says Mr. Scheiner. 

In early October, Mr. Scheiner finished a half marathon fast enough to feel confident about completing the New York marathon in under four hours this year.

Soon after that half marathon, he felt a tightness in his back that at first didn't seem to be running related. But it developed into a debilitating inflammation that he and an orthopedic physician believe to be running induced. 

Sensing that high-mileage running in the absence of other exercises left him vulnerable, Mr. Scheiner says that in the future he will spend more time in the gym strengthening the muscles in his shoulders, back and buttocks. 

For now, though, he feels a sense of loss. For 12 months he has been dreaming about reliving the New York marathon, an experience, he says, that was "almost religious." 

Write to Kevin Helliker at kevin.helliker@wsj.com

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