Friday, January 1, 2016

listen to vince

Have you ever gone against something you knew to be right, only to have to face the music later?

I found myself in just such a situation last summer.

I had returned from TransRockies on a Monday evening, with the final race of the Run Flagstaff Summer Series, Gaspin' in the Aspen, that Saturday. Just 0.031 points separated my nearest competitor and I in the Summer Series standings going into the finale.

I was tired from the 118 mile jaunt through the Colorado Rockies the previous week and needed to get through the race, necessitating just the right shoe...something feather light. At 6.4 ounces, with flames engulfing each heel, only the Brooks T7 Racer would do. I jumped online to order some, only to discover that my size was sold out. BUMMER!! I knew this was the size I needed.

Years ago I had discovered this shoe thanks to Vince Sherry, owner of Run Flagstaff. Over time, Vince went on to special-order numerous pairs of these for me (one of the countless benefits of tapping the expertise at your local running specialty store); we had discovered through trial and error that I needed a full size larger in this particular model, as they run small. Even so, when my size wasn't available, I noticed the next-smaller size was....knowing that my foot would also fit into this shoe, I defiantly pressed the "submit order" button.

My trusty T7s arrived the night before the race. They were beautiful and LIGHT, just what I needed. I laid them out by my racing kit. I was set.

Out at the Flagstaff Nordic Center, I did my warm-up. "Oooh, these shoes are a bit snug," I thought to myself as I made my way across the terrain. While I know it's never a great idea to race in "new" shoes, I told myself they just needed to be broken in, that things would improve as we raced (these aren't exactly "trail" shoes, either, but Brooks shoes are wonderfully versatile). I gathered with everyone. The megaphone horn went off. I found my rhythm. Two women who were not competing for the Summer Series title were way out in front (one is an amazing professional runner and the other clearly no never knows who'll turn up at our Flagstaff races!), while I managed to stay ahead of my competitor. My feet were not happy as we covered mile after mile. I crossed the finish line 300ths of a second ahead of Michelle (my competitor), securing the Masters win and Summer Series title.

After my warm-down I anxiously took off my shoes. My socks were soaked in red. Three bloody toes stared back at me. I had rubbed the skin right off the top of toe knuckles on both feet (involving three toes). Dang! Vince was right. Turns out I needed that bigger size after all.

The next day I donated my new shoes at our Flagstaff Running Community Picnic. A week later, as I was packing for my first trip to Europe, my foot became increasingly sore. There was a localized pain at the base of one of the toes whose skin was partially missing. I asked a friend who's a nurse if it could possibly be infected. He suspected it was, so I scheduled a clinic appointment.

My doctor wasn't available the day I went in, so another provider (who knew nothing about me and took a very long time to ascertain I needed an antibiotic) wrote me a prescription. The pain evaporated just in time for my overseas flights.

I made a point of wearing Brooks compression socks for the all-night crossing of the pond (heeding the advice of the Paulai Lama, a decorated triathlete and knower of all things wise, who had told me that compression socks do wonders for international travels). I arrived in Shannon, Ireland, on a cold grey Saturday morning.

My friend Jorg (a family member of sorts - he is the dad of Vicky, the German exchange student my aunt and uncle had 17 years ago) met me at the airport, to embark upon what would be a whirlwind tour of six European countries with his dog Caera. After grabbing food, we drove around ancestral lands all day. However, something was really wrong with my leg, way up high. It became increasingly hard to get in and out of the car, or walk. Jorg was having a good time making fun of me.

I could barely jog four miles that evening. It was less than a week before the World Masters Mountain Running Championships, the entire reason I had come to Europe. Later that night I discovered the wonderful concoction known as Guiness (real Guiness, not the kind we get in America).

Sláinte (cheers!)
I woke up the next day to more pain and an increased inability to walk normally. I suspected my adductor but there was no one around to confirm that. Instead, we pressed on to our next destination, way up in County Mayo (the boonies). We were staying with friends of Jorg's, Shirley and Patrick, who proved to be incredible people.

I hobbled to the kitchen for dinner, explaining why I was walking so funny to these kind folks I had just met. Lots of talk ensued about their hometown hero, the local doctor who travels from town to town in order to treat those in need. They wanted to call him in the morning. Of course I didn't like where this was leading, as all I wanted was for someone to do active release therapy or some such thing on me (did I mention I was in rural Ireland?). After a fabulous meal (I mean a LOT of delicious food, made with love), an inviting fire beckoned me to sleep (my leg was so sore at this point that once in bed, I had to use my other one to lift it, in order to roll over...I did not dream of my race that night...instead, Vince was there in my consciousness - if only I had listened to him, I wouldn't be in this predicament).

I can still smell the peat from their land that fueled this fire
Jorg woke me 12 hours later (can't even remember when the last time I had done that was but it had been years) to say they confirmed the doctor could see me and would I please consider going...he went on to say I had missed the "big Irish breakfast" but they had saved me some, and if I could get ready quickly, Shirley would drive me into Mulranny.

Jerry Cowley is the kind of man you read about in storybooks, one who goes to great lengths to serve patients who wouldn't otherwise have care. He even left his post at one point to run for political office, so he could better advocate for increased essentials like ambulances. Patrick pulled out a recent newspaper and there was Dr. Cowley, being heralded for possibly having found the largest mushroom in Ireland. 

Dr. Cowley with the mushroom he discovered while walking on the Great Western Greenway (Irish Daily Mirror image)
We made the 40-minute trek to the neighboring town and entered the clinic. As we waited, I wondered if this man would be able to help me. Any skepticism I had melted away when I met him.

Two marionettes of creatures with shaggy neon hair hung from Dr. Cowley's shelves. His backpack was ready on the floor, for his next field visit. Before we got into the nitty-gritty, he got to know me as a person, genuinely listening.

An assistant came in and the exam began. "You have a low resting heart rate!" he exclaimed. Dr. Cowley said things like "fantastic" and "you're unique" upon discovering my beat-up toes and other trail scars (not what I am accustomed to hearing!). One toe joint was still quite red. After telling him about my shoe fiasco and the antibiotic I was nearly done with, he wanted to investigate whether an inflamed lymph node was signaling that the infection was still present (which would indicate the need for a stronger antibiotic). He asked if he could draw some blood.

"Sure," I said. One by one, nine vials of extracted blood were set beside me on the exam table.

After that he asked if we could do one last test. My fingertip was pricked. More blood trickled out. After an instant analysis he said, "You don't have diabetes!" I was to call in the morning for the other blood test results, upon which time we'd know if the additional antibiotic was needed. Meanwhile, I was given a prescription to help my muscles relax.

I wondered if this medicine would interfere with soaking in the local culture. "Will it be alright to still have a Guiness?" I asked. "Of course," said Dr. Cowley. "There's no harm, Sara."

He added, "How would you feel if you didn't do this race?" Oh man. It had taken me decades to get to Europe. Plus I still had four and a half days for my body to spring back. Shirley pointed out a special hotel just a few doors down from the clinic. John Lennon and Yoko Ono spent their honeymoon there. Surely this was a good omen.

Dr. Cowley can indeed work magic (or was it the pills?). I awoke a new person. I practically jumped out of bed. At breakfast, Patrick asked how my experience with Dr. Cowley was. I told him of my newfound spryness. "I wouldn't have recommended him if I didn't trust him with my own life, Sara," he said.

After breakfast I ventured down the road half a mile, to get a better look at a beach we could see from the house. Jorg had been running there each morning (though neither of us made it to a nearby national park with an amazing-sounding trail). I celebrated the morning. While there was still a catch in my step during this walk, I knew I would be racing that weekend.

We called Dr. Cowley. I didn't need the antibiotic after all, though he did offer to arrange for an x-ray. I politely declined, twice, but did agree to drop off a couple of urine samples on my way out of town (he was trying to make sense of something else he found in my blood work). I appreciated that he leaves no stone unturned (such dedication!).

I rested one more day (lost many days of running) and made my way to Betws-y-coed, Wales, with Jorg (via an overnight ferry from Belfast to Liverpool, where we explored Beatles haunts). While I was finally able to run, things weren't completely better.

I bumped into Nancy Hobbs, Chairperson of the Unites States of America Track and Field Mountain Ultra Trail Council, when picking up my race packet. I let her know I was looking for a massage therapist (had explained what was going on with my body). "Today?" she said. It was already 3:30, on a Friday afternoon.

That evening, just before the Opening Ceremony, Nancy ran over to me. "Sara! There's someone you've got to meet. Denise is here! She can help you." We immediately found Denise in the dinner line and arranged for her to work on me after she got a couple of bites (she had just arrived after driving for several hours). Her tent wasn't yet set up (she wasn't anticipating working on anyone till the next day). Once it was, she worked on me in the dark. She covered me in cozy blankets. She had been brought in by the local organizing committee as the primary physio to work on all of the international athletes who'd be visiting over the next week (a series of races were taking place). To say she has a gift with her hands is an understatement.

Denise Park helping an Irish runner
Denise worked on me for over an hour (Jorg came and went, then came and went again). It was amazing. She told me stories. My muscles relaxed. She knew just what to do. Everything got unbunched, without being worked too deeply the night before the race. I went to bed feeling hopeful, a bit excited.

Our home away from home was a room at Tyddyn Du, a farm not far from town
The next morning dawned rainy. "There's a reason it's so green here," one of the race officials said. Despite downpours beforehand and afterward, the rain held off for my race. It was my first time at such an event. We each had two race bibs (for front and back). The 35-39 year olds raced with us in the 40-44 division.

I ran my heart out.

My friends (Nancy, Chris Grauch, his lovely lady Charlie and Jorg) were all smiles at the end of the chute.

Photos courtesy of
I smiled too. I had come in 4th (7th overall, as two younger women plus an older one beat me).

The moral of this story is, keep things bubbly (and listen to Vince).

Buffalo Park - Flagstaff, Arizona

Buffalo Park - Flagstaff, Arizona
Thanks to Kevin Riley at action in solitude for this photo