Saturday, May 21, 2016

Cramps are Crap!

I don't know what else to call this post, but seriously, cramps are crappy.

I didn't get a chance to write a proper race report after completing the half marathon at the BMO Vancouver Marathon two weeks ago; now just seems a little too late for it. But naturally, I need to talk about this event a little here. This was my most recent race and I ran this one very strong. Training runs leading up to it went flawlessly. The race itself started out great too. I was poised for a good finish, a good pace, good form, and no signs of that changing. But then it happened again, unexpectedly, cramping at the 18km mark. Not enough time between there and the finish to fully get over them (stretching, massaging, walking several minutes tends to be all that helps) and so I finished my race looking like this:

You can probably imagine why I won't be giving $70 to MarathonFoto for a high res version of this photo to remember this grimacing moment more permanently. The medical guy was very kind and all, checking to see if my screamy crying self, dragging my ass across the finish line was, in fact, dying. It was certainly not one of my proudest moments - it was a very very frustrating moment instead. I wanted the medic to leave me alone and let me collect my medal and disappear/hide myself from judging eyes. But I didn't have the words in me and he didn't believe me when I said, "I'm OK" because my face and my body were still screaming and saying something different.

Cramping at 18km and all the walking and hobbling I had to do to for 3km to get to the finish added a good extra 15 minutes onto my finish time from what I was on pace to finish at before the cramping. That's one of the worst parts of it - my pride gets in the way, and for some reason, people always have to ask you what your finish time was, or they simply look you up and I HATE how slow my time makes me look. I wasn't that slow. I was slowed down.

The BMO half came on the heels of running the April Fools Half about a month earlier. At April Fools, I cramped too. But these came on earlier, at the 13km mark, and after 4km of hobbling it off, I was able to run again so my finish line photo was a lot more graceful.

But again, with 4km of doing anything but running to get rid of my cramps, my finish time at this event was one of the slowest of my life. I know - I should be proud that I finished.

And I get it. Finishing is an accomplishment. But for me, running 21.1km isn't something I haven't done before. I've done is countless times. 22 races, and countless times in training. So finishing after suffering like that doesn't feel like an accomplishment at all. It feels like a failure. Like I'm cursed. Like I'm never going to get under 2 hours. Like I don't deserve it. Like I should give up. Like I'm too stubborn for my own good.

After BMO, I posted a note on my personal Facebook page regarding my frustrations, no holds barred. I was thrilled with the feedback I got, basically an outpouring of support to not give up, and some offered me ideas on what it is causing my cramping. I want to say THANK YOU for this support. I hear often that I inspire others, but truly, if others didn't encourage and inspire me, I couldn't do this at all. If you believe in me, then I shouldn't think it's crazy to believe in myself.

Frustration has been the theme of my long distance running since I ran my first marathon 4 years ago. That was the first time I'd ever experienced cramping like what I'm referring to here. It was intense and excruciating. I walked and cried. It was the biggest day in my life up until then and it was falling to pieces. The cramping added on a good 45min extra onto my projected finish time at this marathon. I finished, but I was ashamed to post such a slow time. It took a long time to get over this shame. Finishing a marathon is not anything to be ashamed of. In fact, I went on to run two more, and at both of these, I cramped too. My times improved, but I never got my time down to where it should. I continued to feel shame and that's likely a big reason why I haven't done any more marathons since. My fastest marathon was still 30min too slow for my liking.

Cramping forces me to stop and walk a long time. I lose control of my muscles. The only healer of this is letting time pass. Time is not what we have on our side at a race. Allowing time to tick on by is not something I like to do, which I am sure you can imagine if you have ever been acquainted with my competitive drive.

So what exactly are these cramps that I'm talking about? I'm not talking about a sissy little twinge in my calf muscles. I've get that occasionally, but I can normally still run and function through that. What I'm referring to is losing control over my leg muscles entirely. The pain is excruciating. It takes tenacity and courage to even move when it gets at its worst. Let alone walk. And running is impossible. It starts sometimes with my toes curling up in my shoe, or my quad muscles start to wiggle around and make it hard to balance on my feet. However it starts, it quickly intensifies to debilitating pain that feels like there are knives stabbing every inch of my legs. My quads always feel it the worst, but the pain is everywhere from the top of my legs right down to my babiest of toes. Literally half my body is overcome by the cramps and little compares to the pain.

I'm too stubborn to give up and love running simply too much that I tend to have amnesia after an incident and keep on signing up for long distance races. I refuse to just run short distances. I'm too proud and love running distances. I love the thrill of accomplishing the distance.  It's social and many of my friends are distance runners so running is a chance to be part of the same community events as these friends.

Over the last 4 years I have been trying without success to solve the conundrum of my marathon cramps. The trouble is, they haven't limited themselves to just my marathons. It started happening in my half marathons too and now it pretty much happens in all my half marathons. Is it under-hydration? Over-hydration? Electrolyte balance? Muscle fatigue? Lactic acid build-up? Poor running form? Inadequate training? Over-training? Lack of sleep? Poor nutrition overall? Insufficiency in one or more nutrient? The wrong meal the day before the race? The wrong breakfast on race morning? Muscle weakness? Muscle imbalance? Poor response to stress? All of the above? Some of the above? A little of this plus a little of that? Or the other this and other that?

There are so many variables and options and I believe I've tried everything. I have read all kinds of literature, consulted all kinds of experts, and tried so many things. Thing is, we all know the scientific method means that you can only change one variable per experiment to truly understand if that variable makes a difference to the experiment's outcome. So this would mean I can only make one change to my approach to see if the one change makes a difference. But it's impossible to replicate your training exactly, and with each race, there are a million things that are different to begin with: it's a different day, different location, different time of day, the fact that I've aged, my fitness has changed, different temperature outside, etc. So how do I truly narrow it down? Trial and error and refusing to give up.

But even trial and error doesn't seem to make sense. I once ran 23km in under 2 hours in a training run leading up to my 3rd marathon. If I can do 23km in that time, clearly I can run 21.1km in that time. My body is capable. This training run was when I was my fastest and fittest and was training with an advanced running group. Long tempo runs were part of my normal training. I was a machine. But still, when game day came, I would break. My coach told me not to give up and reminded me that when I do finally break 2 hours, I will break it by a lot. Things just have to go my way.

I have a few other variables that make my running challenge even more unique. First of all, my circulation challenges since my blood clot (ie., even today I have to pop aspirin before and wear compression socks on airplanes) - this could be a factor. I mean I had surgery on both legs in 2010 to overhaul my circulatory system there. It's far from perfect, so when it comes to purging away lactic acid from my blood, maybe this is an issue, and maybe I don't deal with lactic acid efficiently.

Secondly, I haven't ever admitted this publicly, but I also have a diagnosed condition that makes me sweat profusely. This isn't heat induced, but induced by any kind of stress or discomfort (extreme cold, job interviews, presentations/speeches in front of crowds, first dates, same thing!). It's more a symptom of my nervous system than anything, so maybe my issue is psychosomatic. I've finally learned how to treat it to control and avoid embarrassing situations (so I don't mind mentioning it now - perhaps this admission is now 'safe'), but when I run, it's not really something that can be controlled. Add in the additional stress and adrenaline factor of race day, and maybe that's just enough to make my system go into overdrive and my hydration plan that works in training falls short to make up for the difference. There are only so many litres of water or sports drink and electrolyte capsules that one can consume comfortably.

Maybe the key is that I have to truly, and I mean TRULY learn to relax on race day like I do in training and let go of all fear of the cramps, right down to my subconscious. I'm not sure how to do this. But I need to try. Maybe I should hire a shrink instead of a sports scientist!

I could go on about this topic for hours and tell you what I've tried and what I haven't tried. The thing is, I might never figure it out. I just have to be OK with the possibility of it happening again and not let it stop me. And that's why when the desire to run the Scotiabank Vancouver Half Marathon next month came about in my head, I decided in the end to go for it. At first I was afraid to, thought I should take a break, I was afraid of it happening and having to admit it happened again etc., but then a Groupon deal came up so my excuse about it being expensive was no longer valid. I'm excited to run this, sure I'm a bit freaked. But I am going to do this, and do it well. Zahida doesn't give up!


  1. I feel for you Zahida, I fell victim to nasty gut cramps at 33k of the marathon. The walk of shame from just after 3rd Beach to Brockton Point was not my highlight.

    1. No fun! Was that the first time it happened to you?

  2. Thanks for sharing Zahida. I have the same issue. I can do long (30+ km) training runs, no cramping. Any race over 20km - Quad cramping EVERY TIME! It's really annoying! I've been running for 10+ years and still haven't figured it out. Some races are better than others with the cramping subsiding fairly quickly, but I've never managed to avoid it completely on longer races. Still experimenting and hoping to figure out a solution one day. Looking forward to hearing about it when you have a break-through! :)

    1. Wow, I had no idea! Our cramps are soulmates (and they both suck). Same here, 30+km training runs, no problem. 20+ at a race = cramps. I'd love to hear more about what you've tried...

  3. Zahida! This is crazy...I want to help you beat this for Scotiabank!!!

  4. Hi Zahida- my two cents worth: You love the challenge of going the distance, and the social side of the half marathon events is very important to you. But you have a problem with cramping when you race the longer distances. So.... I'm thinking why not focus on setting some shorter race distance goals (10K, 5Ks) and use the half marathons as fun, long and steady training runs? I think I remember you saying once that your forte is shorter distances. Listen to your body and set goals that are right for you. I don't think anyone has figured out the cause or cure for cramps so why stress out over it? Have fun in the half marathons and enjoy the competition and may be the achievement of some new PBs in shorter races. Hope to see you looking happy at Scotia Half finish line!

    1. Hi Angela, I think you are right that I should set some goals for the shorter distances. I am nervous about working on speed again after all the injury I dealt with last year. But I think I am ready to try. The thing with my half marathons lately though, Angela, is all of them have been treated as fun LSD long runs. I don't wear a watch, I take walk breaks to hydrate, I line up further back, I go slow. I treat them exactly like training runs, but something about physically being at a race triggers the cramping. I've used this approach for both my halfs this year and all the ones I did last year too. No matter how hard I try to just have fun, it doesn't seem to work. But you're right, doing well in shorter distance races might be an encouragement to me.