Roaring Back from Injury: Interview with Steve Sweeney

by Christine Bishop

                                       (Picture from Mt. St. Helen 50K)

What was your first race after recovering from your injury?

The Twisted Branch Trail Run 100K (64.2 miles) in the Finger Lakes starts in Ontario County Park just west of Canandaigua Lake and ends in Hammondsport at the south end of Keuka Lake. It’s mostly trails with about 5 miles of roads to connect the trail sections. There is over 10,000 feet of elevation gain and 11,000 feet down. For roughly every 6-mile section you are doing 1,000 ft of elevation gain on the trail. The race starts at 4 a.m. with a midnight cut off, a 20-hour time limit.

My race day began at 2:45 a.m. when I got dressed, had a gel and water, and got in the zone. My son Jim also ran, crewed by his girlfriend Bri; he came in second!! Trail Runner Alanna ran her first 100k and crushed it, with Dan as crew. Another local runner Mike ran solidly emotionally supported by his wife Rachel who was home expecting within the month.

What made you want to do this race?

I had signed up for this race last year before I broke my ankle. As a result my training was more than suspect. There are 11 aid stations prior to the finish line. I felt for sure I would be slow and not make a time cut off. As it turned out, I made it to the last aid station with 15 minutes to spare!

However, without realizing it I had been overcompensating for my right ankle with my left side, resulting in overstraining the left hip muscle from all the climbing. By my last few miles every steep hill hurt to push off, I had to stop and slowly push off through the pain. My pace had slowed to 30-minute miles at the end with the longest climb of the race at 800 feet still facing me. As a result, I dropped out at 58 miles with 6 miles to go.

     Steve is on far left with his son directly behind him with Laz Lake on Rte 20 in Delanson

Do you want to talk about your injury?

On Sunday, December 30, I broke my ankle in the Adirondacks at the Dippikill Camp the morning of Michelle and Josh’s wedding. In the early morning Ann Butler said she wanted to run and although running early in the morning is not my thing, I agreed to run with her. The day before had been warm with some snow melt that ran across the road. In the morning it was very cold and everything was covered by a dusting of snow, just enough so you couldn’t see ice. I took two to three steps and went sliding. My right leg carried me a distance until it buckled under me and my butt came crashing down on my foot, with the ankle not in a good position. Luckily I was in front of the cabin we were staying at, with a lot of people there; they carried me in. After x-rays in Warrensburg and the prognosis that I did a job on my ankle, Ginny wanted to go home immediately. Since we were not seeing my orthopedist until Wednesday (Tuesday was New Years), we stayed for the wedding and part of the social hour and then drove home.

My ortho doctor looked at the x-rays and immediately scheduled surgery for the next day, Thursday. Ginny asked him about my running prospects, and he was non-committal. For the surgery, since the smaller lower leg bone in my ankle was shattered a plate was used to bring the pieces together with five short screws into that smaller bone. Two long screws were used to connect and hold the plate and both lower leg bones together to keep the ankle immobile for healing. I was then placed in a removable cast. After the surgery, the surgeon approached Ginny grinning and said I would be fine and able to run again. Once he had prodded the small bone from where it had been wedged, everything went back into place. I had dislocated the ankle and there was tissue damage, which continues to swell when I run long or fast.  He urged against putting much weight on the foot until the long screws were out because if the long screws broke they would not be removable.

About 6 weeks on February 11, the doctor told me I could put some weight on my foot and hobble around the house.  At 7 weeks he took the two long screws out, but I will continue to have the plate and five short screws as a permanent reminder.

After that he said I could do whatever I could, which at that time was very little.

I had not exercised for two months so running immediately wasn’t going to happen, I hobbled around the house as much as I could for my first week. Nine days later on Feb. 20 I did my first walking mile, which took 35 minutes and was very uncomfortable. I supplemented the walking with going to the Y and doing elliptical, bike and stair climbing. By the 4th week I was walking a 20-minute mile and logged 10 walking miles for the week. Early on my weekly mileage was just walking. For a snap shot of how I was training, I averaged the weekly time for both walking and running over the week, with my mileage rising every month and average time coming down. By the 5th week I was averaging 17-minute miles. Being able to see where I had been and see how I was improving was very gratifying!

The early running mile times were closer to 15 and later 14 minutes using a walk/run technique I borrowed from Tim Van Orden. I have recently heard it called bigfoot running. He used it when he was injured, and I found that I could move faster than regular walking. The best description I can come up with is to sit low on your hips and take long strides, while keeping your head steady avoiding going up and down. There is no impact, and even with a limited range of motion that my ankle continues to have, this technique was a great way to transition to running.  

My goal was to start with a one run mile and add a run mile each week while also increasing my total miles about 5 miles a month. I did this for the first 3-4 months. By March I averaged 15 miles a week with an average pace of 17-minute miles which included 3 miles of running. By April I averaged 21 miles at an average pace of 14 minute miles with 10 miles of that running. By May I was up to 25 miles with my pace down to 12-minute miles and my run miles up to 22! I earlier had thought that if I could get to a 12 minute mile pace, I would be able to start the 100km race. This inspired me to continue.

My doctor had said to not over train the first 6 months to allow the bone to fully heal. By the beginning of June I felt good as my doctor had predicted. Getting to the 6th month and realizing that if I wanted to run a 100K race I would have to put in some serious miles. 25 mile weeks was not going to do it for a 100km race. I had two training months left before the race! I focused on miles, not speed, as I couldn’t work on both, besides my ankle still did not have a full range of motion. In June I upped my mileage to an average of 42 miles with a 12 ½ minute pace (the extra mileage caused me to slow down slightly).

IMG_4118FINAL.JPGEach week I also logged elevation. Since I live in Delanson, finding hills was easy. In June I was able to average about 2800 feet of elevation as measured by my Garmin. My fastest downhill single mile improved from 10:20 the previous month to 9:10. In July I reached 51 miles for the week with 45 miles of running with an average pace of 12 minute miles and 4300 elevation miles. My mileage went up, my elevation went up, and my pace stayed the same. This all gave me about 6 solid weeks of training for the race, with two easy weeks for recovery sprinkled in during the last months. The several last weeks before the race were devoted to recovering and peaking.

One philosophy of mine is to realize where I am at and I go from there. In the race I came up a little past the halfway mark at 36 miles and commented to my crew that I still had a shot at finishing at about the 18-hour mark (there is a 20 hour time limit). When I got to the 2/3 part at mile 46 with 18 miles to go, my average pace was okay and I still had a shot at 18 ½ hours. At that point my pace started slowing, but not fatally. Without realizing it though I had been over compensating with my left leg on all the steep hill climbing, and shortly after mile 50 my left hip gave out. By mile 55 every climbing step hurt so much I had to nearly stop and slowly push off with my left leg. The pain was incredible. Knowing that I could not run faster than 30-minute miles, I knew that I would not finish within the official time, and to possibly avoid more injury, I ended it. I nevertheless remain gratified that I was able to run as much of the race as I did- 58 miles.

                                         Kim and Randall

Who helped you crew this race?

Ginny and I recruited 2 friends. We also had talked to several people we thought might be interested and several were. One couple, Randall Cannell and Kim Scott, was really enthusiastic and they were awesome, awesome, awesome! Randall was so excited about crewing me that he is considering running it next year. Ginny and I hope to crew him. Randall is a fast runner familiar with roads. Although both ran the 32 mile Wakely Dam this year. That race is self supported, so runners must bring their own food and supplies for 32 miles. Twisted Branch has aid stations every 6 miles. Ginny, Randall and Kim were a great in help in preventing me from avoiding cutoffs so I could reach the last section of the race.

About the food at the aid stations…

I take a Hammer gel every half hour for the first three hours and after 3 hours I replace one of the gels with Perpetuem (for the protein) and of course I hydrate typically with a 22 ounce bottle of water every hour. After 8 hours I become tired of this routine.  I keep the gels but instead indulge in food at the aid stations. At this race, the quesadillas were good but the grilled perogies were exceptional. Sometimes there will be grilled cheese sandwiches, PBJ, soup, hot dogs, gummy jellies, M&Ms, chips, and pretzels, or whatever is offered. The Miwok 100K had hummus roll ups that really hit the spot. Ginny has made them for me since.

                                                    Steve and Ginny

What made you begin doing Ultras?

I stopped running at age 40 because me knees ached from fast road running all the time. The pain became so constant that I quit running. I had been coaching my kids at soccer so instead I started to play soccer twice a week. I would run once a week and that was fine as long as I didn’t overdo it. When I was 47 and the kids were pretty much out of the house, and while thinking about what I wanted to do when I was 50, I realized that I loved running. About ten years earlier I crewed John Remmer in the Vermont 100 mile race. I had never considered a 100 miler as it seemed to be out of my ballpark. But because of that experience, I thought, “You know. A 100 miler, 12 minute miles, 20 hours. That’s a damn good time. How hard could it be to do it?” And so off I went. I trained for two years starting at 10 mile weeks building to 40 miles at age 49. The following July I did my first ultra, the JFK 50, and also that July when I was 50, I did my first Vermont 100 miler! Amazingly, I finished bushed, but I had survived and I had no knee pain. I attribute that to taking glucosamine sulfate, regulating how much speedwork I ran and weight and strength exercises.

What is your next race?

To be determined. It’s possible that I will sign up for the Laurel Highland 70.5 miler in Pennsylvania which has a beautiful trail, or Kettle Morraine 100 Miler in Wisconson, also with great trails. Both will be held in June 2020.

What would you like to do when you are 70?

I don’t know but I do know that when I am 90, I still want to be running. Run the loop ultras, it doesn’t matter how many you do, one step after the other.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I would like to thank Ginny for all her awesome crewing and support and Randall and Kim for without them, I would not have been able to attempt this audacious goal of finishing a hilly single track 100K trail race with so little training! 58 miles is a good day on the trails!

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