Ultramarathoner Brian Mackenzie is the founder of CrossFit Endurance.
Ultramarathoner Brian MacKenzie is the founder of CrossFit Endurance.

 

After missing his 2010 goal race due to a knee injury, T.J. Murphy is committing himself to good health in the new year.

Written by: T.J. Murphy

In early November, just weeks away from my goal race at the Zappos.com Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Half Marathon in early December, my knee went on strike. Walking, running, standing—you name it—my right knee buckled in pain. I’d been training diligently for a year, with a focused buildup since July for a season finale half marathon.

As my co-workers will attest, I proceeded to go on with life and my training as if little had happened. Limping around the office, afraid to bend my knee in any fashion because of the rim shot of pain it caused, I was asked many times two questions: 1) What happened to you? And 2) How are you going to race in Las Vegas? I vividly recall my pat answer.

“It’s nothing. Just a little inflammation. No biggie!”

And with alarm in their eyes they’d reply: “You can’t be serious. You don’t honestly think you can run?”

“Here’s the hilarious thing,” I’d counter with a conspiratorial laugh. “The pain only affects my walking. Running? Don’t even notice it! Isn’t that hysterical?”

Just a riot. The whole truth was that, yes, I was slogging through daily runs, but each workout was a high-wire act requiring desperate levels of concentration on foot placement. One false step and and my right leg collapsed comically beneath me. Trick knee meets trap door.

I iced, I stretched, I did strengthening exercises. I popped Advil and went that didn’t work, I reached for the hard stuff, Aleve. I’d take the pill and then 20 minutes later talk to myself about how magically it worked, how it blew out the swelling and all was back to normal. Somehow I managed to run six days a week through November, including a few tempo runs and interval workouts, all the while limping through my day. Runs got shorter and  shorter and paces bled away speed like a sliced artery. “Tapering!” I claimed. How lucky I was that this was all strangely working to my advantage, I told myself over and over. You lucky, lucky dog!

On December 1 I dressed and wobbled my way outside for a lunch run. I wound up my motivation to concentrate like a steel spring and  (gone were the days I could let my mind wander during an endurance run) stumbled into forward motion. One hundred yards later I drooped to a complete stop. Whatever fiction I’d held together in my mind for a solid month had made itself apparent: I wasn’t running; I was just grinding muscle and bone. All I needed to finish the job was to try and sneak my way through a half-marathon competition.

I walked back to the office knowing that my goal to run a sub 1:30 half-marathon was long gone.

I stopped running altogether, and with my new self-honestly giving me time to consider the mental closet I had crammed the memories of my last ten years of being a runner: Injury, the blues, start running again, injury, depression, gain weight, more injury, back goes out, get sick of it all, force myself onto the soft and quite intolerable confines of a treadmill, lose some weight, and on and on. I eked out some races through it all, but I don’t recall ever feeling really good in the last decade. However, 2010 was a good year relatively: I lost a lot of weight, ran consistently throughout the entire year, and seemed like I was on track to be a version of the person I was in the 1990s. I had come to accept that rusty joints, stiff muscles, mild to medium limps, and frequent injuries were a byproduct of all my years of running and the fact that I was in my 40s. It was just part of the bargain. Right?

But is this a correct assumption? Is this the way it has to be?

I had no answer, but due to a story I began working on last summer for Triathlete Magazine—a story on Crossfit Endurance (crossfitendurance.com), a concoction brewed up by a power-lifting ultra-runner in Costa Mesa, Calif., named Brian MacKenzie—I had come to learn about others like myself, a shamed population of ground up distance runners given new hope, who were realizing transformational revitalizations in their lives as athletes and runners and in their general health. Crossfit Endurance is based on many of the foundations of Crossfit, an approach to fitness and athletics that combines unbridled sports science thought with a minimalistic, high-powered training methodology that—as opposed to the traditional way most runners follow a very rigid, one-dimensional training path—slays sacred cows and uses variation in training and draws on the best applications available from many different sports. Subjects like nutrition and mobility training are just as front and center as metabolic and cardiovascular types of exercise. And when you talk first-things-first about what Crossfit emphasizes most to newcomers (and veterans alike), it’s technique first, consistency second and intensity third.

In working on the story I talked with the likes of Guy Petruzzelli, a professional triathlete based in the Chicago area, who rebounded from a car accident early last summer by training at a Crossfit gym. His return was rapid, blowing his doctor’s mind, and his fitness took such a quantum leap that he has since fully embraced MacKenzie’s system, despite the radical difference from the way he’d trained his entire life for endurance events. Petruzzelli described to me the beating his ego took when he first went in the Crossfit gym—here he was, a professional endurance athlete, and the women were kicking his ass. He described a process where humility was his greatest currency as he slowly acclimated to the high-intensity, high-variance system that required not dozens of hours but handfuls. His success was so startling that he had no choice but supplant his old ways with the new ones. (For more on Guy’s story be sure to pick up the February issue of Triathlete Magazine, on newsstands now).

Physical therapist Joe Smoe
Kelly Starrett is the physical therapist helping put Burning Runner back together again. 

The more I looked into Crossfit the more interested I became, the more I couldn’t help but wonder if it could save me. This was all before the most recent injury. Even without the injury I felt myself gravitating to try it—the main reason being that despite 50 to 60 miles a week over the last year, I had hit some sort of ceiling. I just couldn’t run any faster. It was talking with another triathlete who had converted to Crossfit, Brittany Rutter, who embraced CrossFit Endurance after a long stale period in which all of her high-volume work was netting little in the way of improvement.

As much as I have been one of the most stubborn traditionalists when it comes to training for distance running—my early success in the 1990s came from standard Lydiard-style training programs—it would be a joke to not admit that what I’ve been doing the last 10 years has not worked out very well, the punctuation mark being the knee injury that killed my 2010 half-marathon goal five weeks before the starting gun.

The protest to the shift has been proffered by several of my running buddies: You’re going to get hurt doing this Crossfit thing. I had this concern as well. But then I thought: Hell, I’ve been getting hurt every year NOT doing it, right in line with ASCM’s stats about how most runners get hurt every year. What’s that saying about insanity and doing the same thing over and over expecting different results? The possibility that Crossfit Endurance could help me prevent injury and increase performance deserved at least an honest try.

Talking with Brian MacKenzie, I basically said, “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” When later I was looking at the Crossfit.com Journal I found a video of Brian teaching at a seminar. He talked about how many runners have come to Crossfit Endurance because they’re exhausted of being broken down. I was one of those guys.

First thing Brian did was recommend that I see Kelly Starrett in San Francisco. Starrett has a doctorate in physical therapy and with his wife owns and operates Crossfit San Francisco. He also has established a global following via a daily (and highly entertaining) video reel on mobility called “The Mobility Work-Out of the Day”– http://mobilitywod.blogspot.com.  Starrett has recently been working with a  number of world-class cyclists, including Levi Leipheimer, and before we started any form of training, MacKenzie wanted him to evaluate my situation.

On December 15 there I was in San Francisco, still limping like a dysfunctional robot, creeping my way across the broad truck lot behind the Sports Basement in the city’s famed Presidio, toward Crossfit San Francisco. To be honest, for many years I’ve become pessimistic about physical therapy—countless times I went into various offices, got the blast of ultrasound, muscle stim and stretching advice—and rarely achieved any results. Starrett’s approach is radically different within the realm of my experience. Rather than investigating the specifics of the injury itself, he approaches you as a whole-body problem to be addressed and solved, dwelling on the health of your movement and seeking out deep-seated problems that need to be shoveled into. Rather than asking me where the pain was, he had me perform a simple squat exercise—in seeing how I moved through the exercise he began to get an idea about how limits in my mobility and range of motion were poisoning my running. He talked at length about the genius of the human body to figure out ways around long-lasting problems—in my case a major knee surgery that occurred when I was a teenager playing football. And what had happened to me, Starrett postulated, was that my knee could no longer handle the punishing stress I flowed through it each and every time I forced it through a distance run. I was at the brink, he said, and perhaps on my way to a knee or hip replacement.

He then gave me homework—two of his mobility exercises along with the following advice—hydrate well, take fish oil supplements, do the mobility work daily, and start taking glucosamine to help loosen up the joints. He had me do the mobility routine and, I’ll be damned if I didn’t walk out of San Francisco Crossfit without a limp. I had limped each and every day for six weeks and I haven’t since meeting with Starrett.

And I’ve since become a mobility addict, reading about it, learning about how the body functions, and watching every Kelly Starrett video I can find on Crossfit.com. I also purchased a Trigger Point Performance Therapy kit (www.tptherapy.com) after seeing some of the items in the background of the videos. Do you want to work you hip flexor or IT bands? Get it. It’s incredible. Not to mention incredibly painful. But you can feel the looseness seep into the areas you work.

It’s just been a few weeks now but I’m stunned to be getting out of bed in the morning, not stiff, not beat up, not limping around. I can’t remember that ever happening. I doubt I was 20 years old. Starrett told me that age is not the barrier to mobility and to trash that conclusion, and then he talks about his 65-year-old aunt who reels off Ironman triathlons like games of bingo.

There’s nothing like a bit of success to make you hungry for more. With the change in my joint health, I talked with Brian MacKenzie about what’s next: how to journey properly and safely journey from the world of being a broken down runner into the Crossfit Endurance world. He’s told me it’s going to take some time and will inevitably confront a range of challenges—the brand of candor I appreciate.

So while last year was typical of the last 10 years of my running, my goal for 2011 is to give Crossfit Endurance my absolute best effort, with the idea of reconstituting myself as an athlete who can run rather than a broken down runner. It’s clear there are runners who have achieved impressive results with Crossfit Endurance—that sounds great, too. But right now my goal is to build a foundation of health that allows me to enjoy running again. That’s what I’ll be reporting on in 2011.

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T.J. Murphy is the Editorial Director of Competitor Magazine. He can be reached by e-mail at burningrunner@gmail.com.