188 - The End of an Era?

It looks as though my running days are over.


Would you believe I’ve been a runner for more than 50 years? I started serious regular running in my last year of primary school, 1962/3. I have run not so much regularly as persistently, since I have held many other sporting or exercise interests. Even with various injuries, time off running has been rare and I have failed to identify any period of as much as say three months of not-running. In those periods of relative inactivity it would be unusual for me to have also not had some sort of residual exercise, even if what we might call therapy in struggling to return to running. What you might call training, but that, to me, means there is some identified target such as a race. For me, the running itself is the target.


Why would that be so? Well, anyone who has read other essays on running in the widest sense recognises that there is an element of drug-induced high involved. Exercise encourages the body to generate endorphins which add to one’s feeling of well-being that is felt after exercise—the so-called endorphin high. Exercise freaks? Junkies, the lot of ‘em.


So we come to this last twelvemonth. I have had something like thirty weeks off from running. Mostly this has been due to long-term injury, a sort of accumulation of damage. In particular I have had a ‘bad back’, identified eventually as contraction of the hamstring pulling on the lumbar spine, reducing me overnight from an active older person to a geriatric with a stick. For this we can blame my stretching habits; particularly their lack, and more particularly still the lack of adjustment to routines with increasing age. My life seems to be built upon habits and routines. The back failure sends me to lie down for large chunks of time, mostly incapacitated, waiting for the pain to go away enough to go do some stretching, and/or see a physio; in general to do something about it.  However, that is a situation I can deal with once I eventually connect exercise to stretch and its lack to subsequent pain and denial of exercise. And denial of the endorphin high.

Related Essays

Running essays include 1723326677142188,

Hashing and hill-walking essays include 396287101135192

Allied sports health include  5863112124163188204

Other sport; Rowing


However, separately, I have a bundle of what is probably to be called scar tissue in various muscles, a build-up of what you might choose to call over-use across five decades. A particular problem in my calves was identified by one sports specialist and she seems to have cured that. Or at least she reduced it as an issue to below some threshold of being noticed. In the big muscles at the back of the thigh I have another problem I think of as very similar and I have felt this pull, shortening and slowing any pace (step and speed) for the whole of this year. Having reached a point where I have been trying to deal with this I fell into a cycle, entirely driven by a wish to compete on behalf of my new running club, of race—damage—physio—train—race. But the training element was too little every time so that each race simply restored the damage. I was doing as many races as training sessions, where I would describe the previous decades as offering a train:race ratio of more like 50:1 and, at the most crowded, still 5:1. One to one is not merely failure, it is a recipe for far more failure.

One can add into this dire mix that a paucity of training makes one try all the harder in the few sessions one has; chasing the immediate target of ‘race’, not the longer-term targets of, say ‘health’ , or ‘return to fitness’ or ‘return to race fitness’. This is a hopeless situation and I fell into that trap. On the way I picked up several age-category wins, one of which was awarded after I’d been saying it was my worst race for a long time. Which I deem unfair on those I beat who had a good day. [A ‘good’ day is one in which you out-perform expectations, feeling good during the experience (and better still afterwards)] My age-independent guide has been described in earlier posts and can be found on many Masters’ sites or by searching for age-grading. In China I was happy with race at 82% and once a year at 85%. Timed training would be 75-80%. On return to Britain I have managed only once to reach 80% and most races have been in the 75-78% range. This is therefore a marker of performance decay quite separate from age. Some of that is increased weight, a direct consequence of a British diet. I have returned to 73kg as for 2000-05 where Chinese weight 2008-13 was 68kg. I suspect also that the new addition is not in the same places as fifteen years ago, i.e. mostly around the middle and not spread around as muscle.


General response to this has been, in the last eighteen months (the same as the time spent back in Blighty) to develop a daily routine of stretching the offending parts. Measurement of success is how far past my knees I can reach with straight legs (and you have permission to laugh when I tell you I reach and have reached the floor far less often than once a year). Measurement of a successful stretch (I’m experimenting a good deal of late) is the extent of any perceived stretch in the hamstring (anything from the lower back to the back of the knees). I have discovered that one of the lasting problems has been where the sciatic nerve crosses some bunched muscles in the bum (the piriformis for those in the know); freeing up this has made a great deal of difference.


However, the test of whether I dare go running is as simple as trying to jog across a road. If I feel that bunch of blockage in the mid-thigh, then it isn’t happening. And the bad news is that I have now spent more than £1000 on Physiotherapy to discover and treat this situation. I have undoubtedly slowed progress by continuing to run (the junkie effect). In the last six months I have taken an opposite view and stayed away from running so as to give the body a chance to exert some repair. Yet I continue to fail the road-crossing test. The ability to stretch is improving, but a minimum time of perseverance before any result can be detected is six weeks, so I suspect that merely sleeping in a comfortable position is the same as allowing the tendons to contract again.


My preferred physio of the moment is pushing his elbow into the thigh muscle. I know there is progress because he found a place where I was feeling only a pressure on the leg instead of distracting pain and reactions way lower down the leg (i.e. pushing on the sciatic nerve). Success here is that he pushed on a place that previously was painful, and I felt no more than the pressure.

Six months away from all running (I think I have put the kit on at most four times, and ten in the last nine months) has had several consequences, all of which amount to withdrawal symptoms:


  1. 1.I have been depressed and depressive, short-tempered and more irascible than my usual impatient frustrated self

  2. 2.I have spent a lot of money trying to find a solution

  3. 3.I have spent a lot of time on trying to accommodate this new behaviour, to the point where it feels as though everything I do is either aimed at returning to running or alleviating the current condition

  4. 4.Discomfort is damn nearly continuous. Headaches are common. The waistline has risen from 32” to 35” and I’ve had to remove some trousers from circulation. Generally, health has decayed. Up until last month I couldn’t sit and drive for an hour before the legs complained to the point where I must stop for more stretching (and we should recognise I can practically feel the muscle contracting back as soon as a get back into the seat).


Time for major changes then.


  1. (i) accept that perhaps there will be no more running. Cold turkey. Oh shit.


  1. (ii) find some less damaging exercise that restores other health and moves the leg situation to something acceptably comfortable. Current habit (excluding Dec-Mar) is a day a week in the hills (meaning 4-8 hours, 18-26 km plus usually 3-5 hours travel). To this I think I need to add regular gym time (exercise not in the house). I dream of going running but have learned that I mustn’t.


  1. (iii) Leave the running club, done last week. That includes a separation from the ancillary activities (committees for example). It also includes a loss of the several social aspects of being in a running club. Among the things I have learned in 30 years of teaching is that I am not a coach; I do not at all enjoy vicarious exercise. My first school had the motto exemplum docet which we read as teach by example, and in turn interpreted that as go do it too. So I ran for and with the school, I rowed only if allowed into a boat, I took soccer and hockey (almost) only if allowed to join in; I coached squash from on court (which is to say, I didn’t actually coach at all). I led by example and that may well have put a few off but it kept me engaged.   I have tried the other thing, standing on the sidelines; it bores me rigid. I feel much the same about making music and listening to it. If I go play in the band or orchestra or choir I’m hearing it and doing it. Yes, one doesn’t quite hear the same as the audience but I’m afraid that loss is preferable to the inactivity.  Extending this, for me the role of inactive spectator (except for things I cannot do) is extreme masochism. The adjunct activities associated with ‘helping’ an event occur are, for me, deprivation; others may view this as positive contribution but for me personally it is not enjoyable inclusion but painful exclusion.


  1. (iv)  Possibly, accept the consequences of old age. But I’m not old!! I might well have another 30 years. Sadly, the lesson appears to be that I don’t have 30 years of running left in the legs. Specifically, in the thigh muscle. Just possibly, accept that what is required is no more—or very little—competitive running. I’m not sure I can do that.


(v)  Find some other activities that provide a social element. That probably means going back to music, which means I must find a choir and/or a band.


What will not work for me is swimming (my bad breast stroke hurts the back quickly and I’d expect to do 800m at least on any visit to a pool). I’m not a fan of cycling since fighting with the traffic and enjoying the fumes both detract from the ‘being outside’ part.


Ideas appreciated.


I recognise that this is a load of me-me-me. It is also the long version of why I anticipate not going running. Hence the title. This is a significant change in my life and I do NOT like having to accept that there is something I now CANNOT do. So writing this is not only catharsis, not only writing down my feelings of despair over this, it is also an apology to those who are affected by my having to make this change.



DJS 20160401

but p.m., so not the joke I wish it were.


Picture from LGBT 5km race 20/7/2015

See also essay 204 on addiction. My thanks to Mark for the prompt.


Further, 20160404

This post collected over twenty responses on Facebook within three days, along with a wide variety of suggestions for substitute activity. Many of these were, one way or another, cycling in various guises. A few responded in the general sense, looking at the fit-for-purpose aspect of any exercise. I found these very useful.      

Don’t be shy to offer your own pennyworth, please.


I have not quite given up hope of returning to running, but at the moment I’m thinking a year off for repair might be in order. Repair includes losing the unwanted extra waistline, the unnecessary last 5kg, the increase in resting heart rate and, indeed, the missing get-up-and-go. A physical depression, perhaps?


20160420 update; Have attempted some running. Age-grading below 60%, which may be an all-time first, since I doubt I’ve been that low in 1960-2015. Weight up to 75kg, not the race-state 68-70kg. Hope is springing with the warmer weather. Discomfort continues in thigh, steadily more localised to small patches of muscle and several places where the sciatic nerve appears to be catching in its sheath. Physiotherapy spend heading to £1200. Diet modified to include a lot more fresh fruit and vegetables; that too is a difficult challenge.

20160427 update Yesterday at 65%. Check meaning of ‘monotonically increasing’. Hope!


20160901 update; Expenditure at the physio now exceeds £1500, but jogging success. Not running with the club (joined a brass band that meets the same nights so as to continue to not go to the club). Very slowly across August the age-grading has risen from 70% to 75%, where that measurement is done by the parkrun system. This, I think, is a marked success of sorts. Stretching has become built into the daily routine and fills any and all spare moments (i.e. when I realise I’m at a loose end, I sometimes remember to do some more stretching).


20170501 update: Age-grading in parkruns and training now rarely below 70 but not yet above 75%. Back at four days a week, sometimes six, but hills currently off the menu for reasons I do not understand, perhaps one of enthusiasm for the soggy stuff I think pertains here. Minimum required stretching discovered (i.e. doing less has restrictive consequences); one could always do more, but that remains as aspect of activity that I find directly unrewarding; it is preventative, not a positive activity in itself. My opinion, my problem, recognised. Just beginning to have the enthusiasm to dare to try running further and to consider the prospect of a 10km, 10 mile, or dare one think it, a half-marathon. Let’s see if the missus can be persuaded to try one at the same time....


20170711 update: Each time I return to the 75% mark there is an adjacent unconnected failure. Unconnected such as catching a cold, mildly connected such as bruising a toe (no idea how, it wasn’t while running) or blistering a foot (using the wrong socks in the hills lost a week). Not prepared to do a parkrun unless 70% will occur (22-3 mins), though it might be different if the spouse was more enthused - a different set of problems all blamed on her job... Trying, July, running three times a week not five or six. Very frustrating. On the other hand, going back to banding has been great fun. Thanks to Backworth Colliery and Stockport Silver for rescuing my temper. Looking forward to Blackpool Brass next month.


© David Scoins 2017