Experiment on Self: A Year Later

by Carl Strang

Here I am about halfway through the race.

A year ago I returned to distance running as my primary exercise after about 7 years of bicycling. I saw in the barefoot running technique the potential for a lower impact running style that would eliminate the joint problems that plagued me in my early 50’s. Hence, the experiment on self. Last spring I gave my most recent update, as injuries unrelated to running forced me back onto the bike for an indefinite period. That hiatus lasted 8 weeks, which had me close to starting over with running. I learned that my sciatic problem was the result of a deteriorating disk that had my vertebrae pinching the nerve root on my right side. Physical therapy has practically eliminated that obstacle, thanks to daily stretching and core strengthening exercises. The foot problem turned out to be two things: an arthritic toe joint, plus a neuroma (swollen nerve pinched between two foot bones). Physical therapy, in the form of ultrasound plus electrical stimulation, caused the neuroma to shrink most of the way back to normal. The arthritis mainly means I must keep that joint as straight as possible, and I have gone to stiffer soled shoes.

One of the two podiatrists I have seen during the course of this process, Dr. Brown, the one who filled the final piece of the puzzle by diagnosing the arthritis, proves to have a famous father, sadly deceased earlier in the year: Thomas Eisner. This turned up when she asked my occupation to get an idea of how I work my foot, and “naturalist” led to her revelation. Eisner was one of the world’s most distinguished entomologists, and his work touched significantly on a wide range of evolutionary and other topics.

When I started running again, I had only 8 weeks to prepare for a race I was determined to run. In the spring I had paid $60 to enter a half-marathon, and I’m frugal enough that I intended to try it no matter what. I altered my experimental running technique a little, switching to a midfoot plant instead of the barefoot technique’s forefoot plant. I still got most of the reduced impact, while minimizing the aggravation of that toe joint. By September 18, the day of the race, I had gotten my training mileage back up to 22 miles per week, about 2/3 of where it had been when I was forced to stop in the spring.

It had been years since I last raced, and the support provided in this event was eye-opening: many aid stations manned by an army of volunteers, three races run at once (my half-marathon was the shortest distance; this race is called the Fox Valley Marathon because that is the longest choice), more than 2000 runners altogether. We were given chips to put on our shoes, which are read and automatically entered into computers along the way.

Here is the chip, tied onto one of my new, stiffer soled Brooks running shoes.

I ran conservatively, and was able to finish in an hour and 55 minutes, under my target pace of 9 minutes per mile (pathetic compared to what I could do in my 20’s, but under the circumstances I’ll take it). Another nice thing about these high end races is that every finisher gets a commemorative medal. I was surprised and a little chagrined (considering the marginal training I was able to get in before race day) to find that I had placed second in my 60-64 age group. Best of all, despite the race being run almost entirely on macadam, my foot felt fine at the end. With the adjustments I’ve had to make, I have to call my experiment a qualified success. I am a runner again, though I have had to back off from the barefoot technique.

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