Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 16, 2011

Agony of d’ Feet

There’s a great line in Ken Russel’s 1971 film, “The Devils.” Father Grandier, played by Oliver Reed, is in the hands of the Inquisition, and the evil (that’s redundant; there just don’t seem to have been any nice inquisitors) Father Barre has him clamped into a vice-like arrangement on a table, which holds an assortment of decidedly unfriendly-looking instruments. Grandier knows what he’s in for, but he’s determined to make a good show of things, and says something flippant to Barre about what’s going to happen next. Father Barre, testing the heft of some kind of big wooden mallet in his hands looks at him and says matter-of-factly, “You will know pain.”

If you take my advice, you’ll stop watching the movie there, because it’s tough sledding for F. Grandier after that, and not pleasant viewing.

I recall Reverend Barre’s line whenever it’s time to run a race, as The Counselor and I did on Sunday morning. I wrote about the training lead-in to this race HERE. There really is nothing like race day, especially on a brilliant just-right California morning. This was the annual Firecracker 10-K, which starts and ends in Los Angeles’ Chinatown (that’s at the north end of Broadway, and a great place to poke around if you have time while you’re here). The race benefits the local Chinese community, and happens every year as part of the Lunar New Year celebration. They have the dancing dragons and local dignitaries and, at the highlight of the celebration, they set off a mass of about 100,000 firecrackers that take something like three minutes to blow up sequentially in a mass of smoke and incredible noise (driving out evil spirits to start the New Year free of them). Oh, yes, the Laker Girls were there, too, but I’m not clear on where they fit in the scheme of Chinese cosmology. This being the Year of the Rabbit, and the Counselor and I having been born in a previous Year of the Rabbit, we made this our target to return to racing, from which we’ve been absent for a while.

This is a relatively small, local race, and it lacks the gigantic crush of humanity one encounters at the big-name races; we’ve run one of the country’s largest half-marathons — the Indianapolis Mini-Marathon — that has 30,000 participants. There were about 2100 runners in the Firecracker 10k this year. As you stand on the street in the pack of humanity before the race, it’s fun to look around and see every type of person, from every age, wearing every kind of running gear you can imagine (many runners sported bunny ears this year). At a glance, you can just tell that there are some people who are here intent on turning in a good time, and others who are just here to have a good time. That must be nice: show up knowing that you can run a 10-minute mile or whatever, and just cruise along at that pace while you enjoy the scenery or chat with the other runners. I can never manage it. I HAVE to run faster than my best training time. It’s just the way I am. That is the reason that Father Barre’s dictum was apropos, because I was not trained to any acceptable level to run 6.2 miles, and I hadn’t even run that distance without stopping for quite a while. Some foot injuries had my training and lowered my expectations for a good finishing time. Therefore, I knew that before this race ended, if I was to turn in a time I could live with, I would know pain. It may be perverse, but I was prepared to feel extremely bad, if not at the end of the race, then later in the day when the euphoria of running faded and sore feet set in. I would know pain.

There’s a simple fact about running that’s important to know, which it has in common with almost any physical act: you’re only as good as you train to be. If the race is X miles long, and you train to run X miles at Y pace, you’re not going to run the race very much faster than Y. You might lower your time by 10% or so on adrenaline and effort, but not much more than that. To do more than that, you will know pain.

One of the great writers about running was Dr. George Sheehan, who said that the thing that distinguishes runners from joggers is a race bib. He was right. Even in a small local race, with nothing but pride on the line, races are different from ordinary daily running. There’s a goal, you have a strategy, and you adjust your tactics constantly to deal with whatever the day brings you in the way of temperature and terrain and how your body is working. Dr. Sheehan was noted for the way he went all-out in any race. An active runner into his 70s, he pushed himself to the absolute brink and collapsed at the end whenever he raced. He accepted the notion of pain as part of the deal.

The distinguishing feature of the Firecracker is that it has an extreme uphill section after you leave Chinatown and turn left into Los Angeles’ Elysian Park after the first half-mile or so. You climb and climb and climb, sometimes rather steeply, until you’re at one of the highest points that overlooks downtown Los Angeles. (You also get an excellent view of Dodger Stadium, which is directly below you.) There are ways to train for hill running. My foot injuries prevented me from doing that training. I expected the worst.

So, given the fact that we hadn’t trained sufficiently, the strategy was to go out slowly. That’s easy to say. I’ve said it at the beginning of every race I’ve ever run, and never accomplished it. This time, maybe just because we were so glad to be back in a crowd of people running a race, we did: 11-minute mile pace, on the nose. That is where it’s wonderful to have a running partner like The Counselor. She’s run thousands of miles more than I have, at paces I could never even dream about. Having her reassurance that we were on our target pace was comforting. This would be good. We knew that our pace would slow as we hit the uphill section, but that we’d make up a lot of time after the course headed back downhill. Things break apart on stiff uphill portions of a race. Many people are walking instead of running (I walked part of it, too), and the people you started running with either drop behind you or stream on ahead. You meet new people, and, if you’re walking you might have a few seconds’ worth of oxygen to say hello or comment on someone’s funny t-shirt slogan. That’s nice.

Then, of course, because you’ve gone up, and because the race finishes where it begins, you get to go down. Ahhh.

By then, I had figured out that my hurting feets weren’t going to fail me now, and I took off as fast as I thought I could manage. A couple of miles of downhill running do wonders for whatever tiredness or lack of oxygen or tired legs you were feeling up until that time.

But one thing was missing.

When I run, I’m a compulsive clock-watcher. I like to train on tracks, because you can time yourself: not just every mile but every lap, and, if you want to, every quarter of a lap. I’m constantly checking my pace against the clock: if you’re going to run a 9-minute mile, that means that a quarter-mile lap is 2:15, which means that every quarter-lap is about 34 seconds. One of the exciting differences between racing and training is that Things Happen. What happened during this year’s Firecracker is that, surprisingly, there were no mile markers. I knew from looking at the race map that the water stops were more or less at miles 1-1/2, 3-1/2, 4-1/2 and so on, but there were no markers. I had no real idea if I was on or over or under my target pace. All I could do was run at the edge of whatever pace I thought  I could maintain, and expect to Know Pain. Ordinarily, the pain disappears ten or twenty minutes after you cross the ol’ finish line, but since I’d decided to run through an injury, well, I’d feel it for a little bit longer, but that was my choice.

Still, it was great. Great to be back among a couple thousand people who had gotten up early to greet the New Year by trotting along through a beautiful urban park (and across the parking lot right by Dodger Stadium), and who said encouraging things to one another as they passed or were passed.

I usually finish about in the middle of the pack for all men, as well as in the middle of my age group. On Sunday, I finished farther down. My time would have won the race for men over 80, and finished in the money for men over 70. Obviously, I have a little work to do yet. I think I’ll rest my feet for a while.



  1. Ah,yes, but the Thrill of Victory! And you have that in your own way. Congrats to you and The Counselor!

    Like many things in life, this is something I can only watch in admiration from the sidelines. There are some things you just know that you were not born to do, and I know for sure that I was not Born to Run.


  2. I’m happy you had a good time, Brad – well done! I fully understand your knowledge of pain, having had an older untreated foot injury flare up every time I ran over about 2km (until I got it treated). I also understand the urge to check my time as I go — my evening run is a 4km loop and I’ve worked out the landmarks for each kilometre so I can keep track. And finally, the all-but-last part is a gentle 1km downhill slope where I can just take off as you describe.

    And all similar to cycling but for me replace “feets” with “lungs”.


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