Brian's Story: Training for my first half-marathon

Sports Doc readers, my name is Brian Ferrie. I’m 37 years old, grew up in Cheltenham and now live in King of Prussia. Tomorrow I’ll run the Philadelphia Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon, my first-ever attempt to race 13.1 miles.

I’m far from a novice runner. I started running on my own when I was 13, did four years of cross-country in high school, and have never really let myself fall out of decent running shape since then.

Here’s the catch. When I was about 20, I experienced my first bout with iliotibial (IT) band tendonitis in my right knee, and it has greatly impacted how I train and race ever since. For those who aren’t familiar, IT band tendonitis tends to start as a dull ache on the side of the knee when running, and worsen as running is continued. In my case, the pain became so severe it basically took all the fun out of running.

For a while, I tried all kinds of things to make it go away, including prolonged rest, icing, protective knee straps and Ibuprofen. But whenever I tried to return to a daily running routine, the pain returned as well. Finally, I reached some level of acceptance about my condition. I realized that the pain seemed manageable as long as I didn’t run on consecutive days or exceed about 3 miles when I did run. So I grudgingly decided that as long as I biked and stayed active through my softball and touch-football teams, I wouldn’t dwell on the fact I could only run a few miles when I did hit the trail.

That mindset basically defined my running for about 15 years. I’d regularly run road races (usually about 5 to 10 a year) but they were almost always 5K’s. On those occasions when I tried to take on a 4- or 5-mile race, my knee reminded me why I didn’t push beyond that. Even a 10K seemed out of reach. A half marathon? Out of the question.

But a few factors combined to change my perspective over the past couple years. First, I decided to step away from playing softball and football, so I suddenly had a lot more free time. Second, I became gripped by a drive to get into great shape; no longer satisfied with the pretty good shape I’d been in for years.

Finally, I noticed how the popularity had exploded of long-distance races like Broad Street, the half marathon and marathon. These races were once the domain of only hardcore runners. Now people with little to no running background were training to take them on and succeeding. So I took it as a personal challenge to stop letting my knee hold me back and run a half marathon myself.

This wasn’t just a mind-over-matter issue though. I knew I had a legitimate condition and if I was going to overcome it, I needed to try some new approaches. So I did a little research and have added two key tools to my toolkit for combatting IT band inflammation.

The first was shortening my stride, because I read that keeping it more underneath my center of gravity would decrease stress on my knee and likely soften impact as well.

The second was buying a foam roller and using it regularly to loosen up my hamstrings, quads and IT bands (which actually run all the way up to the hips).

The result? Combined with the other measures I’ve tried over the years, I can honestly say these new tactics have helped me run training mileage and tackle race distances I thought were forever closed off to me. From the 8.4-Mile Loop Race on Kelly Drive last November, to the King of Prussia 10-Miler this May, culminating with tomorrow’s half marathon.

I still don’t run on consecutive days. That’s OK though since I weight-train on the days I don’t run. And my knee does still hurt sometimes. But when it happens I just ice, pop an Ibuprofen and get back out there again a couple days later. Last Sunday, I stepped onto the Schuylkill Trail in Conshohocken and did a 90-minute run for the first time since high school. Since then, I’ve tapered by running the 5-mile loop at Valley Forge Park on Tuesday and Thursday. Today on the eve of the race, I’m just riding the exercise bike a little in my apartment and stretching, wanting to feel rested and ready. My goal is to not only finish the half marathon, but run it at 8-minute-mile pace.

I think I’ve trained enough. Tomorrow I’ll find out for sure. It’s go time.

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