Saturday, March 01, 2008

A Zone of Beautiful Contradictions

It is 9 p.m. on a chilly winter night in our nation's capital. The temperature is below freezing and our hero is sitting on the side of the road, immobile, poking at the top of his right foot and wondering why he can't feel anything. It looks fine, he thinks to himself. It can't be frostbite. He is a mile from home and afraid to run, for fear of doing even more damage. He has no cell phone, no money for a cab or for the bus. He has no choice but to hobble home, increasingly aware that although he was dressed warmly enough for running, he was nowhere near insulated enough for walking. As his Garmin counts down the minutes until he reaches home (20 minutes at his current crawl), he thinks back to a scene in one of his favorite books where the protagonist is left outside in the cold too long, and has to have his feet amputated. Surely that won't happen to me, our hero tells himself. Still... is this the end of my Cherry Blossom aspirations?

Tough Beginning

The training schedule said 3 miles, and even though I had gotten home late, and I don't normally like to run in the late evening because it keeps me awake, I had no choice. I mean, I had drawn up that nifty little 5K map and told the whole world about it -- and I couldn't disappoint the world, could I?

It was cold outside, but sweats, a long-sleeve wicking shirt, gloves and a hat keep me warm enough. I was rested, caffeinated even. I could make it.

After mapping out my route I uploaded it to the Garmin, so that it could beep at me angrily when I inevitably veered off course. I started on my adventure and my pulse began to rise... I walked for a minute every 3-4 minutes because that was the plan... but then around half a mile my calves became incredibly tight! I have had problems with tight calves for years, but I thought I had gotten over the problem several weeks ago. I stopped to stretch, and then continued running, and got tight again, and stopped to stretch. After about a mile, the pain hadn't let up, so I looked around for a stick to press against my muscles -- a poor man's version of the rolling-pin-like Stick that I use daily at home.

I found a suitable stick, rubbed it up and down my calves over my sweat pants, causing an oddly relieving pins-and-needles sensation. I felt better.

In the Zone

I pushed ahead, trying to keep my pulse in the 150-170 range. I jogged at a slow pace until my pulse hit 170, and then walked until it dropped to 150 -- since it usually takes one minute for my pulse to drop 20 points, this worked out well, averaging out to a jog 2-3, walk 1 pattern.

The jog wasn't altogether pleasant, but then something interesting happened: For a few minutes, I felt almost like I was in a Zone of Beautiful Contradictions:
  1. I was exerting myself, working hard, and it was tough -- yet I felt like I was in a groove and could continue the exertion with minimal effort.
  2. It was very cold out, the people I passed were bundled up from head to toe, and I could see my breath -- yet I felt comfortably warm.
  3. All I could hear was my own breath and the pounding of my feet on the pavement -- yet with my steady 2-2 breathing pattern, the sound was rhythmic, quiet, and almost tranquil.
  4. The world was dark and it was hard to see -- yet what I did see was beautiful: houses and paths bathed in the yellow glow of the street lamps.
At one point I passed an elderly couple walking a dog. One of them said to the other, "Hold the dog, there's a jogger coming." It took me a second to realize that they were talking about me. I smiled. Me? A jogger? Come now; I spend frigid winter evenings watching TV.

A Sudden End

As I passed the 2-mile mark, I felt good. With the walking and stretching, my overall pace was abysmal, but I told myself it's not about pace at this point -- it's just about conditioning my body to be able to keep moving. Speed will come later. Don't worry about it. Just keep putting one foot ahead of the other, focus on the feeling of each foot hitting the pavement.....

....hang on, is my right shoe coming unlaced?

I looked down. My shoe was fine.

....That's odd. Why can't I feel the shoe?

I stopped moving. With my left foot, I tapped the top of my right foot. Nothing.

Uh oh...

Contradiction #5: I had finally hit a running groove -- yet I couldn't feel my right foot.

I started to become a little panicky. I took off my sock, afraid of what I would find... but my foot looked perfectly normal. I reached down to feel it, but there was no sensation. It was as though the top of my foot had fallen asleep, along with the front and outside part of my right calf. Completely numb.

I didn't know what had caused the numbness, so I didn't want to risk exacerbating it by jogging the mile home. I didn't have my wallet with me so I couldn't catch a cab or take the bus. I had no choice but to walk. I realized that when you're jogging in sweats, 30 degrees feels like a comfortable 50. When you're walking in sweats, 30 degrees feels like THIRTY F#@$ING DEGREES.

On the walk home, I had a lot of time to think about what could be causing the numbness... and by the time I got home, I had figured it out.

Mystery Solved?

The working theory I had developed on the way home was that because I didn't warm up, and because it was very cold, and my right calf was far more tight than usual, the muscles in my leg ended up swelling so much that they cut off blood flow to the nerves running down the outside calf into the foot.

Within a few minutes of returning home and removing my shoe and sock, the feeling returned -- thank God! I turned my attention to the Oracle Google -- and I think I confirmed my theory. Several other people have reported the exact same symptoms, and no one is quite sure of the exact cause, but everyone is generally in agreement that it's some sort of pinched nerve.

But why did the numbness come on suddenly at the end of mile 2? Enter technology:

Look what happens 1.8 miles in: the elevation shoots from 330 to about 400 feet. That's equivalent to a treadmill incline of about 8 or 9 percent! Think about the angle that the foot hits the ground with a 9 percent incline -- it restricts the blood flow even more. End result?

Reduced blood flow to the nerve.


Now that I know what happened (I think), there is no need to stop my training. I just have to make sure I warm up before I go jogging in the cold, and I make sure to stretch and massage my calf muscles religiously. If it continues to happen, I'll make an appointment with a doctor, but this is the first time my foot has ever gone numb during a run -- and hopefully the last time for a while.

Next step: 3 miles with Diana. I am looking forward to showing her the Monster Hill that I have to face every time I jog through my neighborhood. It's not that I'm sadistic, just that I much prefer it if others suffer with me.

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