[box]Warning: This post contains descriptions of uniquely female phenomena. How I dealt with it may be applicable to cramps in other parts of the body, but this discussion is particularly pertinent to a woman’s unique challenge with menstrual cramps. 🙂 [/box]
I was doing everything right during my first barefoot half marathon. I was pacing myself, not being pressured by what was going on around me, running my own race based on my MAF (maximum aerobic function) training of the past six months. I was running lightly over very rough asphalt. Although probably not as sharp of asphalt as what I had raced on for the Shamrock Shuffle in March, there was much more of it. I was running loosely, relaxing my hips and legs to avoid the traumatic calf cramps that I got last year at the end of the race (wearing my Moc3’s all but the last 2 miles). I was sipping my familiar diluted, somewhat salted, homemade lemonade. But at about mile 5, the female hormones kicked into high gear and I began having serious menstrual cramps that made my back ache and threatened to sap every ounce of strength. (click on any photo to enlarge)
I have not been able to schedule races around my female cycle since my body began the normal aging process a few years ago. So, I have done some research and basically found nothing about the subject in relation to running. What I did find was a much better alternative to female napkins, called a menstrual cup. I made sure to do training runs using this, so that if the need arose during a race, I would be ready. But up until today, this had not actually happened. This race day, I knew I would be dealing with this inconvenience, but the cramps caught me off guard. I have not had cramps during training or races.
But there I was, in the middle of my first barefoot marathon, and my first half marathon since beginning my MAF training, having the kind of menstrual cramps that usually send me to the couch. Completing the race meant a lot to me. Plus, I considered it a major step to preparing for running my first marathon, also hopefully barefoot, in a few months. I had to make some quick decisions and do some problem solving.
Hitting a wall, of sorts, in the middle of an event, and in this unanticipated way, was discouraging. For a few minutes, I felt like my body was going to just shut down on me. I recalled that staying hydrated, and having electrolytes, was supposed to help with cramping in general, so I decided to experiment with trying to take in more fluids than usual during a run. I knew that I didn’t want to drink too much at once, ending up with a side ache or throwing up. However, since I had my bottles right there on my belt, I could drink small sips as often as seemed reasonable. I began the plan right away.
Within 10 minutes, I noticed some improvement. The cramps were not as constant. They were still there a lot, but subsided some in intensity most of the time. I also found that my body’s natural reaction to the situation had been to alter my posture, so I concentrated on a slight lean forward from the waist, and this seemed to relieve the pressure I was feeling in my back from the cramps, too. The way I have learned to listen to my body in MAF training helped me. I have been getting better at monitoring how I feel and how hard I can run for certain distances at this point in my training without moving myself into an anaerobic stage. So, even though my muscles were fighting the hormone related fatigue, I wasn’t breathing hard. I could tell the difference between my breathing and many people around me. Even runners who passed me seemed to be exerting themselves more than I was. I wondered how long they could keep that up.
I was ever so slightly tempted to collapse when we passed an emergency vehicle, parked along the race track, just waiting to help runners in distress. Instead, I took the attitude of one-step-at-a-time. When we hit some more patches of rough asphalt, I noticed how I tended to tense up, so I tried not to.
It helped that I was somewhat familiar with the course from last year. A course has less of a never ending feeling if you have run it before. It also helped to run on the white line or cement sidewalks for a while, but that was probably help for less than a mile. Other runners were also trying out the sidewalk, as well as scattering about the road, so my choices didn’t stand out that I could tell. Still, it was strange to think the other runners around me had no idea how the variations in pavement were affecting me. Throughout the race, I got regular comments about people being impressed with my bare foot state. I tried to explain that it was more fun. In fact, I think trying to continue in my cramping state would have been much harder if I was wearing shoes, because shoes don’t allow for the same natural shock absorption that running barefoot does. This was constantly evidenced by the pounding I heard from all the runners’ feet around me.
By mile 9, I was feeling an odd combination of peace from holding to my MAF pace and panic from needing to be done due to cramps. I knew I couldn’t safely pick up the pace much, but I did a little, all the while looking diligently for the next mile markers, because I knew I could safely speed up at mile 11.
I must have missed the marker for mile 10, so was pleasantly surprised by mile 11. The large sign being held up there, saying, “You are all Kenyans to us” was heartening, and I told the man so. (I have read Running with the Kenyans)
I increased my speed more, but knew I wasn’t feeling as good as my practice sessions doing this, so held back a little. I did know for sure that I didn’t want to plod slowly the last couple of miles. If I was going to be uncomfortable with cramps, I was going to go ahead and run with some non-plodding determination, stepping as lightly as I could, and feeling good about my finish.
I passed other runners bit by bit at this point. My plan to do negative splits was apparently working in spite of things. I didn’t know for sure, since I hadn’t got my Garmin watch working correctly at the beginning of the race. Stupid user (that would be me) error. I forgot to let it find location and just tried to “start” it when the race began. All I knew was how much time had passed and how I felt. Changing the pace did some to refresh my leg muscles, even if it also required more oxygen. However, I saved more of a sprint until the last 0.1 miles.
Then, it was over. My first barefoot half marathon and my first race with menstrual cramps. I had felt conflicted about passing an obviously tired man about 10 feet from the finish line, but I didn’t do anything to constrict his passage. I was about 15 minutes slower overall than last year and very “middle of the pack” with my results, so I want to go back next year and be faster. However, I am not unhappy with an average pace of 10:10 under these conditions. I can be patient with what I believe to be a good training approach. It will be interesting to see what another year of MAF training, a marathon, and more time developing as a barefoot runner will lead to.
Possibly you are wondering about my feet after nearly 7 miles of rough asphalt? The little bit of superglue that I had put on a small section of one of the left foot must have been gone after a mile on that rough asphalt, but I never felt a difference, so the healing must have been more thorough than I knew. Both of my soles felt moderately swollen the rest of the same day after the race, but not as much as from the shorter Shamrock section of rough asphalt. It was not the sort of swelling that could be seen, but just tingled a fair amount when I walked. The soles of my feet show no sign of bruising and the skin is completely intact. The following day, my feet feel almost normal. My leg muscles are a bit sore from the final two miles, but as long as I keep moving some throughout the day, it doesn’t settle in so stiff. Ironically, I lost some skin on my thigh, where a pebble must have flown up and nicked me.
I have absolutely no regrets about running this half marathon barefoot, rough though some of it was. It is always more fun to run barefoot, if you have trained for it and conditioned your soles. I was passed near the beginning of the race by another barefoot runner who was thrilled to see me. I guess his age to be about 35. Unfortunately, I did not get to see him at the end of the race and find out how he did. He had said there was one other barefoot runner he had met, too. But the rest of the racers were crazy people wearing shoes.