Trail Running and Chronic Pain

trail running chronic pain
Screenshot of my article’s promotion in the Trail Sisters newsletter. More photos available on the Trail Sisters site.

I wrote an article about trail running and chronic pain, and it was recently published by Trail Sisters. It’s an unfortunate reality that so many people can relate to stories about living with chronic pain, and while I’m always excited to get my work published, I’d rather see a day when there’s not much market for writing about chronic pain.

Trail Sisters is a group that promotes women’s inclusion in the trail running community, and I’m excited to be part of their mission. Whether you have fibromyalgia, spinal problems, and/or any other kind of chronic health issues, I believe that getting outdoors and moving your body is key to mental health and stress relief. I don’t always feel up to running, and sometimes my body doesn’t cooperate with my mind, but I never regret trying. Click here to read my article on the Trail Sisters website. 

Altra Escalante Review

altra escalante review

I got a long-overdue new pair of running shoes last week and put them to work immediately. The Altra Escalante is one of Altra’s newer designs, and it’s definitely a winner. I look forward to a future version with slight tweaks that will hopefully make a great shoe even better.

Running Performance

Stellar, except for the sizing (see below). I could’ve easily gone several more miles in these awesome shoes if they hadn’t felt too big. The more I ran, the bigger they felt—probably because my feet drifted laterally a bit, which reduced the functional length of my feet within the shoe. Other than that, I loved running in the Escalante. They stayed soft and cushy without being marshmallowy, and the knit upper had just enough support without being structured. I had to retie the laces a few times for optimum fit, which is pretty common for me when I run in brand-new shoes, but once I got settled on the right lacing, I was good to go. I ran with the Escalante on asphalt, concrete, and damp, grassy trails without traction issues, although it’s definitely not a trail shoe (and doesn’t claim to be).

Breathability

I didn’t find the Escalante any better or worse than most running shoes in terms of breathability. I live in Florida and frequently run in jungle-like humidity and extreme heat. There’s no shoe in the world that can keep feet cool and dry in those conditions, and the Escalante is no exception. Sweaty feet are just a fact of life for runners in the deep south.

Midsole

The white foam looked a bit thin when I took the shoes out of the box, but when I put them on, they were extremely soft and cushioned. The bounciness took a few minutes of adjustment since I’m used to firmer shoes, but once I started running, I was hooked. The Escalante is the most comfortably cushioned shoe I’ve ever worn. It feels a little too soft while walking, but it feels like heaven while running. I have sensitive feet that get angry easily, and I have zero complaints about the underfoot feel of the Escalante.

Outsole

The outsole reminds me of an old tennis shoe traction pattern. The rubber is pretty smooth but has deep grooves. It’s highly segmented and leaves a lot of the midsole foam exposed, which helps reduce weight. I’ll update about durability in a month or two.

Appearance

altra escalante review
I really like the way the Escalantes look and feel.

I’m a fan of Altra from way back when they issued their first Intuition that looked somewhat like a medical shoe with moon boot styling. I’ve often felt that I compromised aesthetics for comfort and function. Some of the major brands that’ve been around a lot longer make really good-looking shoes that always tempt me, but Altra consistently wins in the comfort and function categories. “Embrace the space,” as they say. Each time their designs have progressed, I’ve gotten happier and happier with the appearance of their shoes. The Escalante is the nicest looking Altra I’ve owned yet, except for maybe the bright red pair of Superiors that I own and love. I got the gray colorway in the Escalante, and it’s quite subdued without being too dark. 

Sizing

altra escalante sizing
Surprisingly, there’s way too much room in the front and front/side in my usual size, so I’ll need to go a half size down. This photo was taken after my feet were swollen from running, and the shoes are still too big.

I’m a 9 or 9.5 in every shoe I’ve bought for at least a decade. In Altra, I wear 9 in the Intuition (version 3.5) and 9.5 in the Superior (version 2.0). I bought a 9 in the Escalante and was worried it might be too small based on other reviews of sizing. However, it’s the opposite of what I thought. Immediately after I put them on, there was too much space in the front and side-front of the shoe. I moved my foot around a bit and changed socks, but there still seemed to be too much space. I don’t like tight shoes, so I decided to lace them up and walk around a bit. They seemed good after all, so I wore them for a 5-miler. Unfortunately, by mile 2, it was glaringly obvious that they were too big. I almost tripped a few times because of the excess length. I can’t believe it, but I think I’m going to have to exchange them for an 8.5. My feet always tend to shift laterally in shoes, especially when I run, and that lateral shift made the 9s feel even longer. Really unexpected to need a smaller size, but I have to go with what fits best, regardless of number.

Final Verdict

hurting like hell, living with gusto
Proof that I’ve been an Altra fan for years— check out the Intuition 1.5 on my book cover!

I LOVE the Escalante. It’s my new favorite shoe, except for the sizing. It’s an unstructured, perfectly cushioned, lightweight option for multiple paces and surfaces. I really, really hope the 8.5 fits perfectly so I can run a ton of miles in them. I’ll alternate the Escalante with my old pair of Intuitions (until I get new ones!), and still plan to use the Superior for trail running and the Lone Peak for hiking. Click here to buy the Escalante. 

Book Award

victoria stopp
It’s an honor to win a FAPA award, and I’m humbled and grateful.

I got word this morning that my book won a Florida Authors and Publishers President’s Book Award! There are so many letdowns, rejections, and silences in the publishing industry, and getting a little validation is a really nice feeling. I appreciate everyone’s support along the way.

I had a rough few days and haven’t slept much, so some good news was extra appreciated this morning. Something’s been going on with my low back, and the radiculopathy got way out of control a few nights ago. I’m not sure what’s angered my back this time, but something definitely got it fired up.

The pain and tingling in my legs got so bad that I couldn’t get comfortable in any position. Eventually, out of middle-of-the-night desperation, I took a chance and rotated my torso until I felt and heard a tremendous pop in the upper lumbar area. Even though it was a little scary to twist and crack my spine, the relief was almost instant. I’m still not where I was a week ago, but I was able to run 4 miles this morning and even put in some decent pace on the final mile. I’m sure the morning news that my book is an award-winner helped me speed up a bit on that last mile. Good news helps everything.

I’ll miss the book awards banquet because I’ll be in the northeast for other book-related events. It still seems pretty surreal that I won. Click here if you want to learn more about my book.

Summer Running

trail running
A good trail run is one of my favorite things in the world.

It’s been hot as hell in my part of the world this summer, but I’ve been able to gradually increase my running mileage despite the heat. My longest run this year is 8 miles, which makes me pretty happy considering I wasn’t able to start running again until March of this year after nearly a year off after a disastrous April of last year. I came home from a two weeks of travel and my legs were much tighter than usual and my back was stiff (although it’s always stiff, so that wasn’t new). I thought a run would help loosen me up, but it didn’t at all, and then an awkward bend to pick up my little beagle sent me into severe spasms. Fast forward to now, and with major core and posture work, medical marijuana (a whole other story that I need to write about), and personalized supplements, and 8 miles seems pretty awesome.

My speed isn’t where I want it to be, but I’m trying to stay calm and steady and trust that progress will happen. I’ve already sped up quite a bit in the last month, but I’m also being mindful to avoid common overuse injuries, like stress fractures, so I’m not letting myself do quite as much as I’d like to. I went from running 11-minutes-plus per mile upon my return a few months ago to running sub-10 this month. Both of those are very slow compared to my former self, but I’m still happy with the progress. I’ve done some very short stints in the 7-minutes-per-mile range, which felt great and a little scary. I’m always mindful of my back, which probably makes me tense up, so I’m trying to work on staying calm while speeding up my leg turnover.

trail running
The pitcher plants were in full bloom during my run.

My favorite run of 2018 so far was an 8-miler through the state forest. It was extremely hot and I went through all my water on my FuelBelt by the 2/3 mark, but the peace and scenery were totally worth it. Afterwards, I swam in a cold, clear lake while tiny fish bumped into my legs and I took in the enormity of what my body had accomplished. It was a great day, and I’m so glad to be able to run again.

Breaking Food Rules

I had a really bad day that mostly sucked because something I’d felt a lot of hope about turned out to be nothing. I’m always cautious with my hope, especially about things that seems like long shots anyway, but I guess I was more hopeful than I thought this time, and the letdown was shockingly crushing. It’s just a work thing, not life or death, but sometimes wanting something really bad and working hard for it and then not getting it is devastating. My rational mind says it’s part of a learning process, but that’s easier to say than it is to feel when the letdown is fresh and the pain is raw.

I’m usually not one to eat my feelings, but last night, after a healthy dinner at the local co-op, I eyed a big bag of ranch-flavored tortilla chips. In mild defense of my transgression, the chips were organic (LOL, I know, still fried junk). I decided that if I took a long walk and still wanted them, I’d allow myself to stray from my normally strict diet and indulge a little. The walk didn’t help lift my sadness, and I walked back to the co-op with fifteen minutes to spare before closing and plunked down $2 for the bag of chips. Then, of course, I ate them all. Every single one of them, even though the serving size was for a family.

It was a rare slip for me, and I felt the familiar guilt of eating crap while dealing with chronic health problems, but damn, those chips were good. I tried pouring some in a bowl and eating just that amount, but it wasn’t long before I dumped the whole bag out and feasted. The free-for-all didn’t make the disappointment of the day go away, but I truly enjoyed eating some junk for a change, and that brief feeling of pleasure was a nice distraction.

I worried that I wouldn’t sleep much and would get achy from the processed food, but I ended up sleeping longer (and uninterrupted!) than I have in months. I didn’t even wake up to pee in the middle of the night, which was probably due to the massive salt load I put in my body with my chow fest. And when I woke up this morning, I felt better and less achy than usual.

I’m not advocating a junk food diet, but I think there’s a lesson here for me, and that is to relax and enjoy a treat every now and then. That’s something that can be hard for someone who feels guilt over poor dietary choices, but maybe my thinking should shift to allow more occasional treats. When I woke up this morning, I felt great, ran 4 miles in a thunderstorm, and am way less stiff and sore than usual. Cheers to chips, at least every once in a while.

Book Sale!

hurting like hell, living with gusto
The book is a spinoff of the Fibromyalgia Athlete blog and tells some backstory and a lot more details of my journey with chronic pain.

I got word from my publisher that the Kindle version of my book will be temporarily discounted. Now’s your chance to snag the e-book for less than the price of artisanal coffee! Click here to check it out.

My book, Hurting Like Hell, Living with Gusto: My Battle with Chronic Pain, is helping me spread the word about those of us living with less-than-ideal health. I have no idea where the journey will end, but I’m happy with all the chances I’m getting to advocate for chronic pain patients.

As for my health, I’m having ups and downs as usual, but I keep seeking new information and trying new solutions. I met two awesome chiropractors while I was in metro Atlanta for book tour events, and they gave me invaluable feedback after taking specialized x-rays to analyze my posture. Since meeting with them, I’ve been able to return to running, albeit carefully and not easily. I work hard every day to correct my excessive lumbar lordosis along with the other postural misalignments they showed me on x-ray. Good health is definitely a work in progress, but the work pays off slowly and surely.

 

Running, Renewal, and a Pretty Good Month

cheaha sunset
Gorgeous sunset at Cheaha.

I’ve had as good an October so far as I had a bad September, health-wise. It’s been a almost six weeks since I’ve needed a chiropractic adjustment (although I have to twist, roll, and traction myself daily), and I’m back up to running multiple times per week and lifting weights. Until a few days ago, I was sleeping pretty well, too. Chronic health problems are often cyclical, and I was reminded of that a few days ago when my hips and low back felt locked and painful and self-care wasn’t cutting it. I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary to cause the issue, and I’m hoping a quick trip to my beloved chiropractor will fix my woes.

I bit off more than I can chew with work, and some of that stress is probably contributing to my tight muscles and sore back. The teaching semester will be over in about five weeks— not that I’m counting— and getting down to one job plus writing will be relieving. I don’t know if it’s age, health issues, or what, but I just can’t work as many jobs as I used to without feeling overwhelmed.

I had a business meeting at an office about twenty miles from the state forest, and I knew a good run in the clean air would help clear my mind. I saw an awesome rattlesnake and enjoyed the solitude. I had to stop a few times to try to work the kinks out of my back, but otherwise it was a great run. I hope I can get out there again soon. And speaking of awesome runs– I had a great one at Cheaha State Park in Alabama. The mountain views, the morning mist…it was one of those days when it’s great to be alive and aware.

Feeling Better, Looking Ahead

sunrise run
Sunrise run along the bayou.

I had a rough September, starting with a flareup of cervical dystonia. I’d been working out pretty hard for a couple months, and I suspect some of the exercises I did were too much for my neck. As I began to recover, I got a cold, and the next day got the stomach flu. It was almost comical except that I felt awful and got super dehydrated.

Now that I’ve been close to 90% normal (my normal), I’m increasing my exercise again. I got up at 5 this morning and went for a run, happy to avoid the 90-degree temps that will come later today. The sunset over the bayou was enough to encourage me to stop and enjoy it even though I knew I had limited time to run before the heat rose to a miserable level.
As I regain running strength, I’m alternating ten minutes of endurance training– slow, steady pace– with five minutes of speedwork– fast (for me) pace but not sprint. I’m comfortably up to 35 minutes of running each session, and I’m sure I could do more, but I don’t want to relapse into another battle with neck spasms.
I bought a new peanut, which is essentially two lacrosse balls joined to form a torture device. I hate using it, but it’s highly effective at breaking some of my cervical and thoracic spasms. I was super stiff and headed toward immobility last night, but the peanut came through for me and I feel much better this morning.
I’ve also gotten more dedicated to rolling, which I intended to mean I’m rolling twice every day, but what actually means I’m rolling about five days a week. I use a solid foam roller and it’s helping a lot to reduce the tension in my legs and back. Rolling the outside of my thighs makes my eyes water, but, like the peanut, the results are totally worth the temporary discomfort.
One of the weirdest, lingering effects of my September health issues is a major shift in my appetite. I lost four pounds when I had the stomach flu, and I’m pretty sure most of it was fluid loss. However, since then, I’m alternately ravenous for random food (like beans, rice, and salsa for breakfast!) and unable to finish my meals. I’ve been a mega-portion eater for many years, so this shift is very odd. I’m giving myself some leeway and allowing, within reason, whatever meals I want. I draw the line at pure crap, like the serious cravings I’ve been having for milkshakes, but I admit to eating corn chips and Mexican food for breakfast this morning.
I’m not one to wish time away, but I’m really looking forward to October. I hope the ridiculous high temperatures will finally drop. I can’t wait to actually feel cold when I walk outside. This October marks three years since my back started giving me major trouble, but I’m not dwelling on that anniversary. I’m ready to do some serious hiking and backpacking when the weather cools off, and I’m certain October will bring the cool breezes and nights that I crave.

Dirt Road Running and River Tubing

dirt road run
The T described by the shuttle driver was an intersection of wide dirt roads. Perfect for running.

I planned to run eight miles on forest roads yesterday morning and meet friends for a day on the river afterward. Despite careful planning, I realized my chosen route wouldn’t work when I found out from the kayak shuttle driver that my friends’ drop-off point was going to be more southerly than I thought. If I ran the route I chose, I’d come to the river north of them, and I was pretty sure I couldn’t catch their kayaks with my 99-cent tube. The shuttle driver saved the day by giving me fantastic directions for a pig-trail route to catch up with them further south. The new plan made me a little uneasy but sparked my curiosity. As my friends boarded the shuttle, I repacked my bag, ditching my iPod in favor of a compass and adding extra Gin Gins in case I got lost and hungry.

The shuttle driver’s directions were spot-on, even though he failed to mention a few turnoffs that made me more than a little nervous. Every time I passed another trail, I wondered if he’d forgotten to mention a turn. I decided to run out for an hour, and if I didn’t find the river by then, I’d turn around and follow my footsteps (and compass) back to my truck. I love adventures, but I hate going off road without a map. None of the forest maps I own—not even the official Forest Service map—shows the route I was on yesterday.

jurek endure bottle
Rationing my water from one of two 10oz bottles on my Jurek Endure waistpack.

At the eighteen-minute mark, I found the T the driver told me about. “You’ll come to a place where you’ll either have to go left or right,” he said. “Turn left.” I’d written his words down on a tiny piece of paper and stuffed it in my waistpack so I wouldn’t risk my memory playing tricks. I turned left like he said, and within ten minutes I was at the river.

Unfortunately, my friends were way upstream, so I had time to kill. I turned around and ran a bit more, than came back to the river and talked with a family who’d arrived via shuttle for tubing. What I witnessed—and the conversations I had with that family—is too powerful and emotional for me to talk about yet, but suffice it to say I felt the convergence of tragedy, unfairness, hope, and resilience. Rather than wait for my friends, I decided to hike further upriver and process my encounter with the family of strangers.

I found another unmarked trail, this one narrow and crisscrossed by spider webs, but it was a decent hike. I followed the route upstream for a mile until I hit an impasse. A huge patch of wetlands suddenly appeared, and I don’t think I could’ve even made it through with snake waders and boots, let alone in running shorts and sneakers. I dipped down off the trail onto a sandy beach and sat under a cypress tree in the river. My back and neck were really bothering me and I hadn’t slept more than three hours the night before, but the cold water felt great. I wished I could figure out a way to float on my back and completely relax without being carried by the current.

blackwater river
My riverfront view as I waited for my kayaking friends to paddle downstream.

My friends arrived eventually, better late than never, and their kayaks were loaded with food and supplies. It was great to see them paddling their kayaks toward me, and I sat with them on the beach and pigged out for a while before we headed downstream. I’d run with a deflated tube bungeed to my waistpack, and once I got it blown up, we took off down the river. Note for future adventures: tubing on a 99-cent piece of crap is a lot slower than going down the river on a kayak. I ended up getting towed a good portion of the way by three generous friends who switched off paddling duties as I clung to the tails of their kayaks. I told them I’d be fine and would catch up eventually, but they stayed with me anyway. Five slow miles later, we floated under the last bridge before the river becomes non-navigable, and I walked up the bank to my truck. Changing into dry, cotton clothes felt great after being wet literally all day.

It was a very successful trip in terms of nothing going wrong, but I was so ready for something crazy to happen that when it didn’t I was almost a little let down. I’m excited about the future, though—after seeing all those pig trails, I’m ready to go back and explore more uncharted territory. I’m going to take my GPS and make my own map of the trails. Who knows? Maybe I can sell copies of the map (to that one other person besides me in the whole world who would want to hike there?). Better keep my day jobs.