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Cramping During A Trail Run Caused Me to Reevaluate My Training

The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely through the world through manual competence have been known to make a (person) quiet and easy. They seem to relieve (them) of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of (themselves) to vindicate (their) worth.” – Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, p. 15.

“Most things are answerable by training.” – Lee Conner, multiple 100-mile podium finisher

On June 9, 2018, I became a trail runner – officially. It was the hardest running event I have completed to date. The Rothrock Trail Challenge takes place in eyesight of where I work at Penn State University. The race itself is in a state forest I have run plenty of times before and I consider that forest to be one of my happy places. Actually racing those same trails, in my happy place, proved to be a different animal.

The Rothrock Trail Challenge is a 25K and the course covers about 3,700 feet of elevation. It has six steep climbs, one of which is down and back up a mountain gap encrusted with boulders. If you’re not running over sharp rocks on the course, you’re watching your footing over hard roots. I’ve run a few road marathons in my day and even though this race was roughly 2/3rds of that distance, it was more difficult. I finished the race, but much slower than I had anticipated. Rather than let that missed expectation get to me, it has spurred me to train a bit harder for the next challenge.

Training is the Answer

At mile 12 of the Rothrock Trail Challenge I started getting cramps and twisted my ankle on a wet rock. I was particularly frustrated because it was on a flatter part of the course where I could make up time by running a faster pace. Unfortunately, because I twisted my ankle, I had to walk it out for about a mile before the final ascent. As for the cramps, those are nothing new to me because they usually come at about mile 20 of a race. Soon after I got cramps during this race, a very kind runner came up behind me and gave me a salt pill based on some old wisdom that cramps are caused by an electrolyte imbalance. Unfortunately, I don’t think it helped a whole lot. The drink mix I had been drinking all day was actually already loaded with electrolytes and other vitamins and minerals in addition to the glycogen I needed to keep going. Despite my preparation with my drink mix, the cramps came back during the final descent of Rothrock. I managed to push through them and after the final descent, I was able to run at about a 10K pace to the finish line which was like a nice chaser to an otherwise very stiff drink.

A Pattern of Running Cramps

After the race I looked back at the other times I got cramps while running and I started seeing a pattern. Previously, running cramps always came on at about the three-hour mark, was almost always during a descent, and only happened during a race. This has now happened to me four times. Now that I know that, if I can predict it, I can fix it. When looking at all the things that might cause cramps during running, the one that stands out to me (especially since I am sure that it’s not an electrolyte problem or something that different shoes can fix) is training. Cramps tend to happen when running form breaks down and the body starts to use different muscle groups that it might not be used to using. What happens is the communication between the brain and the body fails, causes those muscles to contract when they should be relaxing. Because the same cramping almost always happens during a race when I am putting my body through greater exertion than training and for longer periods of time, I am just not adapted to it. There are two ways to get my body to adapt: train those muscle groups that get recruited when running form breaks down and simulate the exhaustion that happens late in a race that causes that form to break down in the first place. These are variables I can control and I can work my way into a better performance.

Measuring Competence

Running is as much a mental exercise as a physical challenge. What we call “mind” is essentially a metaphor for the things that are happening in our physical brains. As we train our bodies to adapt to different stresses and overcome new challenges, we are employing our brain to adapt as well. It is in this dance between my body and brain that running predictably and consistently improves my mental health. The question I have been working through as I continued to feel the aches and pains of Rothrock in my tired body is why does this activity make me want to work harder and perform better where in so many other areas of my life, not meeting expectations would cause an immediate and almost compulsive reaction to escape? If I submit a proposal for an article or presentation that gets rejected, I never want to submit something else again. If I teach a course or give a presentation, I always feel that it was the worst performance I have ever given and somehow must have failed the people present to hear it. I have an irrational fear of rejection so strong I can give you dozens of reasons why even trying to write a book is a waste of my time and that of others who might read it. I can also tell you precisely where this fear comes from and yet it still haunts me. The difference has to do with the measure of competence. For writing, artistic creation, and research, one is at the mercy of others’ interpretations as to the value and efficacy of that work. A piece of writing that while might be brilliantly executed on its own, but that no one finds to be valuable or all that compelling, is not likely to get published or garner much of an audience. The value of these things is largely determined by what other people think and feel about them and there is very little control the creator can have over those opinions. For anyone with a mental illness that causes a persistent flow of intrusive thoughts that feed beliefs that you are awkward, weird, or inherently of lesser value than others, one rejection can cascade into a litany of destructive beliefs. It becomes such a habit that it is extraordinarily difficult to disentangle those beliefs from reality and push forward. I had this problem for most of my life despite years of academic success.

Reversing the Cycle

Why does running reverse this cycle for me? It is a concrete manifestation of competence that is unencumbered by what others believe or feel. Running is about what I have trained my body to do over time and the course that I traverse under my feet. Despite a running shoe and apparel market that is tens of billions of dollars, buttressed by many millions more in nutrition and training products for tens of millions of runners, how I perform during a race distills down to how I train my body to adapt to different stress over time. There is no magic pill, diet, or shoe that will give me such a dramatic improvement that I can skip out on training. Rather than get down about a cramping problem, I am setting out to fix it. The next step is to get my brain, so muddled as it is with intrusive thoughts, to transfer what I’ve learned about running to other areas of my social and professional life. It has already done just that in numerous ways. I think more sharply, I am less prone to avoidance than I ever was, and I am more motivated to finish the things that I start. But there are other places where I would like to improve. I’m fairly certain that not meeting my expectations during a running event will help me meet them elsewhere.


Andrew Tatusko is one of six Still I Run ambassadors for 2018. He is an academic administrator for online teaching at Penn State University. Running became a central feature of his program to manage both long-term recovery from alcohol dependence and bipolar II disorder. In 2017 he ran 2112 miles and finished the year with PRs in the marathon, half marathon, and 5K distances. Andrew has two boys, a wonderful girlfriend, and an aging but young at heart black lab.


By Andrew Tatusko

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