On Ultrarunning, Acupuncture, and Believing
On Ultrarunning, Acupuncture, and Believing
by Claire Nana
Ultrarunning simply defies convention. It seems
impossible that two legs can travel 100 miles or more unassisted. Even
ultrarunners themselves often report being so tired, so depleted during races
that they truly don’t know how they finished them. It seems that in times like
those there was something beyond themselves that propelled them forward – all
they had to do is continue to put one foot in front of the other.
Yet this is also why injuries can be so hard for ultrarunners. Unlike races where each step converts to measureable progress, trying to fix what is broken physically can sometimes feel like two steps forward and three steps back. And what ultrarunners don’t do well is back off.
Such was the case for my husband, Andrei Nana. After
his first Spartathlon – the epic 153 mile race from Athens to Sparta – in 2013,
he suffered an avulsion fracture in his left tibia. At first, he simply thought
it was a result of running hard, essentially slamming his feet into the
pavement, and all it would take was rest. So after a year of trying, he rested
for 12 weeks. Yet as soon as he started running again, the pain came right back,
so intense at times that trying to walk around his office after a long run was
excruciating. And yet, at other times, the leg didn’t seem to hurt while
running. So he rested for another four weeks. When he started back, there was
no change in the pain level. He tried massage, ultrasound, even different shoes
– thinking that the heel-to-toe drop might be aggravating the injury.
And nothing worked. As much as he tried, there was no running through this one.
As I began to wonder how life without running for a
hardcore ultrarunner might be, a friend of mine mentioned that she had just
been to her massage therapist. “Boy he really beats me up,” she said. I perked
my ears. “Do you think he can help my husband’s running injury?”
“I’ve seen him fix worse,” she said, “And his son,
the acupuncturist there, you should see what he has done with some people.
There was one man who wasn’t walking when I started there, and now, you’d never
After taking down the information, I decided to give it a try – on myself. Leaving that day, I purchased six sessions for my husband and gave Andrew Farretta, the acupuncturist, a warning: My husband is a non-believer.
He looked at me, unfazed, “Ok well, we’ll see what
we can do.”
Yet, as far as ultrarunning was concerned, Drew was
a non-believer too. In the following sessions I had with him, he’d often ask me
How do you explain ultrarunning to a non-runner? I
think I said it was like a meditation, only in an exaggerated form. “But what
do you think about for all those hours while you are running?” he’d asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered, I guess the thoughts
just sort of take care of themselves.” I knew it didn’t make sense to him, and
yet I could tell he was interested.
Drew wasn’t a stranger to pushing himself. His
father had been a competition gymnast, and his mother an active equestrian, and
Drew himself, practiced gymnastics, often achieving what looked like impossible
positions to me.
Yet even still, trying to tell an athlete that, like
Dean Karnazes says, “When you run an ultra, you talk to God,” doesn’t make much
sense until they experience it for themselves. As I left that day, I wondered
how he’d explained acupuncture to Andrei.
Thoughts do take care of themselves on a run, and
for the most part the body does too. But not always. Sometimes injuries create
scar tissue which then results in a cascade effect: muscles become tight around
the area and don’t move smoothly as they should, circulation is disrupted, and
healing just stops. It seems then that the body enters into a protection mode
where every stress that training places on it only results in more guarding of
the injury. What needs to happen, Drew had told me, is that the pattern is
broken, circulation is brought to the area, the muscles relax, and the body
“relearns” how to move.
But you also have to have enough faith in the
process to keep going.
Finally, after eight sessions, Andrei was running
again. And Drew also had started running. First a mile or two with Andrei after
his treatments, and then a few more on his own. After a few weeks, he and
Andrei were running “long runs” of ten miles on the weekends.
It was time for a plan. Andrei suggested that Drew first run the Ft. Lauderdale Half Marathon, and if things go well, consider entering the Keys 50K a few months later. As far as definitions are concerned, in two races, he would be an ultrarunner.
However, as most ultrarunners know, ultrarunning
really starts at 100 miles. And after a successful finish at the Keys 50K, in
5:46:02, Drew set his sights on the Icarus Florida
UltraFest 24 hour race in November, just five months later.
As the race founder, Andrei thought that not just would the course be conducive
to a first 100 mile attempt – it is a flat, shaded, one kilometer loop – but
also that Drew would enjoy running with the participants that would be
completing the six day race.
In preparation, Andrei and Drew had run the course several times, Andrei explaining the strategy behind running a loop course, the pacing required to finish 100 miles in 24 hours, and the mentality needed to push oneself beyond what one thinks is possible.
It’s never the body that limits you, it’s the mind,
and on November 24, 2016, Drew accomplished more than he ever thought possible.
He ran 103.1 miles in 24 hours.
To put things in perspective, most runners are happy
to simply complete 100 miles in the time allotted, which is usually between 32
and 36 hours. A second, and much more ambitious goal would be to run 100 miles
in under 24 hours. This goal usually takes 2-3 years of solid training and
Drew did it in 11 months.
And in the meantime, he helped a lot of other runners. After his own return to running, Andrei referred an impressive collection of runners to Drew. From Joey Lichter, the ultra-triathlete who is currently training for a deca-triathlon, which is ten “Ironman” distances in a row, to Grant Maughan, a two time second place Badwater 135 finisher, and Jodi Samuels, an accomplished ultrarunner with seven 100 mile finishes to her name.
Needless to say, Andrei is now a believer. But so is Drew. In his latest race, the Keys 100, he finished in 19 hours and 31 minutes, qualifying for the Spartathlon in 2018.
For more information about Andrew Farretta and The Center For Massage Therapy, visit, www.centerformassagetherapycoopercity.com
For more information about Andrei Nana, and Nana
Endurance Training, visit, www.nanaendurancetraining.com.
Claire Dorotik-Nana is the author of Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks Into Springboards. She also pens the blog, “Leveraging Adversity” on Psychcentral.com.