Daughter Julia on the phone to me last week.
"How's it going, dad? ......I mean, should I book my flight to Glasgow?"
"Yes, go for it. I've just run three miles, how much harder can another ninety-two be?"
It's a long story. I won't dwell on the details but here are the headlines. I pulled a calf muscle back in October last year. By the end of February I was getting a bit frustrated with the number of false starts and re-occurrences of the problem. Two steps forward then two steps back sort of thing. I tried to piece together the reasons with the help of the physio. Well, she said, one clear problem is that you don't have anywhere near the muscle mass on the injured side as on the good one, and that's certainly not helping. I knew the problem. I have a bad knee, had it since a bad ski crash nearly twenty years ago now. Surgery about fifteen years ago helped but it's got worse again over the years as occasional over-rotations have displaced more bits of cartilage. I knew it needed doing but kept putting it off, it's just a bit of pain, you can live with that. But I must have been unconsciously protecting it, and that wasn't doing any of that leg any good. So I bowed to the inevitable and had the job done. The surgeon removed the offending cartilage (a "bucket handle tear" for the technically interested). He also said that I had lost some bone mass causing a cavity on the end of my thigh bone so he drilled some small holes back up into the bone to encourage it to fill up again. It's never going to be a great knee, I still have a ruptured ACL and some arthritis at the back of the kneecap, but it's a lot better than it was.
I limped out of the hospital on 19th March, with an instruction that the knee would bear weight as soon as I liked, but no running for at least a month. Ten days later I stepped out of the Olympic lift onto the summit of the Belvarde at Val d'Isere, clicked into my skis and hoped for the best. After a week of brilliant weather during which I kept to the pistes (more or less) and avoided the bumpy bits (more or less), I felt I was on the mend. On the 19th April, I ran half a mile in six minutes.
But I still had a pretty unsatisfactory right leg. A less than perfectly flexible ankle from a skateboard incident when I was younger (I'm good at falling off things, my skill levels have sometimes not quite matched the game plan over the years) doesn't help. My first attempts at jogging still caused a bit of aching in the calf and hamstring and I was developing PF in my right foot. Any attempt to push things too fast and I would be back where I started. So how to move forward from here?
I set some rules.
1. I'm going to beat this, even if it takes a while. From mid October to mid April I had lost six months and not made any progress. If it takes another six months or more to recover slowly and properly, that's OK.
2. I will stop using artificial aids. Taping and painkillers have been a constant accompaniment to my running for many years, and with the possible future exception of a bit of preventive taping for long races, I've binned them. Should save a fortune.
3. 12 minute mile pace and 6 miles of continuous running (is 12 minute miles running ? - discuss) are the maxima allowed until I can come home from a run feeling that both legs are the same. Walking has never hurt throughout this whole affair, so I can walk as far as I like. No running uphill, no matter how gentle the gradient.
4. Stretches for all relevant muscles, plus eccentric strengthening for right calf every day, and work on the PF.
Now this is all very well, and it's great to be making (slow) progress again, but I do like to have an event to look forward to. Since the problem started back in October I've pulled out of the Tour de Helvellyn, the Anglesey Coast, the South Devon Coast, the Grizedale Trail Marathon, the Hardmoors 55, the Highland Fling and the Great Lakeland 3-Day. The latter two were simply too close after surgery to contemplate, but on reflection for all the others I probably put too much pressure on myself to get running consistently at a good ultra pace too soon. That was because in "short" ultras (say up to 50-55 miles), you normally have to run quite a bit to complete them in the allowable time. But now we are getting into the season for the longer races, and paradoxically I feel that I have a better chance of giving one of these a go because the overall pace required is very much lower, allowing you to walk a very high proportion and still complete within the time allowance.
I have a choice of several for which I already had entries in, but I've decided to go for what has always been my "Desert Island" event, the West Highland Way. I'm not pretending that this is anything other than a chancy exercise but there are positives as well as negatives. The four big downsides as I see it are
1. I won't have done an Ultra (or any other event) since the Lakeland 100k back in September.
2. The race is just about two months after I started running (jogging!) again after the knee surgery.
3. I haven't run at anything above 12 minute mile pace for over six months, and I won't do before the race.
4. I haven't really done any effective running training at all.
On the other hand, I can tell my self that
1. This will be my eighth time in the race, and I have finished all the other seven. I know what the race requires, and I know the course.
2. I have averaged 2000 miles a year for the last seven years. That's a lot of miles in the bank.
3. By now (early May) I have normally covered around 750-800 miles. This year I have only managed 570 miles, but as most of that has been at a walking or slow jog pace, it still represents a lot of "time on your feet" which is what long ultras are really all about.
4. Although I have not got out of breath running this year, I have been able to get some aerobic training by doing lots of walking uphill at a reasonable pace.
5. And finally, the average pace required to complete the West Highland Way is barely 3 miles an hour. I might have to work a bit for the early cut-offs, but after that it can be just a long walk if necessary.
So from here, it seems to be on. Last year I ran a personal best in just under twenty-two and a half hours, six weeks before my sixty-fifth birthday. Deep down, I felt I would be unable to improve on that in the future and was wondering how to construct a goal for this year's race. Now I have one; if I can get to the finish in Fort William a minute or two before the final cut-off at noon on Sunday 22nd June, that will be a result I'll be as happy with as any of my previous finishes.
I feel that I'm walking a tightrope between now and June 22nd. Any number of things could knock me off between now and then, and if that happens, then it happens. But as of now, I'm on the wire, and it feels OK.