My eyes would pop open at the same time each night. I would turn over to grab my phone and check, but it was almost always 3:30. Laying there with the moonlight drowning the redwoods outside my window, I could feel the hunger begin stirring in my stomach. This was no belly gurgle, but a deep aching groan of a thing. Since I had become used to this nightly suffering, I knew I had two options. I could make a futile effort to wait for sleep to come knowing it was being kicked out by low blood sugar or get my butt up and into the kitchen where I had the chance to put the fire out and get back to sleep.
This was my reality almost every night in the last year before having to walk away from my ultramarathon training. If I knew then that my insomnia was triggered by low blood sugar due to the vast amounts of stress hormones that were pumping through my body, I might have had the sense to get up and eat some crackers. I might have had the sense to skip my run the next morning to allow my body to recover from my run earlier that day. I might have thought twice about the 50 miler I had planned for a few weeks later. I did none of these things. Instead I continued to tell myself that I had to suck it up, try to go to bed earlier the next night, and nail the run anyway. After all, ultra people don’t stop when they’re tired, they stop when they’re done. Or at least, that’s what I thought.
My first sign that something was wrong was that I stopped getting my period. It was sort of fitting that I got my last period before an almost five year hiatus on New Year’s Day; like a resolution in reverse. Hypothalamic amenorrhea (HA) happens when the hypothalamus stops producing the hormones necessary to start the menstrual cycle. While not always associated with overtraining in women, it is a sign that the endocrine system is producing stress hormones like cortisol in great measure. This is due to either exercising too much or not eating enough, resulting in a deficiency of energy in the body. The excess of these stress hormones have been found to be positively associated with the onset of overreaching and eventual overtraining syndrome. Instead of paying attention to this, I assumed that it was a normal part of being a “hardcore athlete” and practically congratulated myself for leveling up. I wasn’t thinking of the fact that I was setting myself up for potential heart and neurological problems in the future, let alone osteoporosis. I only added miles and hills as my ultra dreams grew bigger and bigger.
At this point, I may have been verging on overreaching, a situation of excess training without adequate recovery that can be managed relatively quickly. Taking a couple of weeks off might have done the trick at that point. Overreaching escalates into overtraining when adequate recovery is abandoned for…in my case, being a darned fool. It didn’t happen overnight. Over the years following the onset of amenorrhea, I kept my rest days to a minimum and didn’t periodize my training…at all. I was living in the Bay Area at the time, a place where there doesn’t seem to be any off season to speak of and trying to prove my mettle by keeping up with the crowd. Who could say no to an early morning fun run at one of the country’s top running stores, a training camp weekend, or a self-supported 50K right over the Golden Gate Bridge? Not me.
As I got farther down the rabbit hole, the signs that something was wrong were continuing to mount. I failed to see how they were connected and found ways to explain them all away. The pain and heaviness in my legs was another clue. All runners are used to that glowing sensation in the legs that comes after a hard effort, but my quadriceps started to feel like they had been whacked with hammers even days later. I blamed it on the amount of vertical climbing on the run and hit my foam roller.
The blood sugar fluctuations due to the massive amounts of cortisol in my system not only disturbed my sleep, but turned me into a moody bitch. My disposition would swing from sunny to downright nasty in record time, a madness that even threatened the stability of my relationships with people around me. I blamed it on not having snacks while on a trip to Ikea and bought boxes of protein bars.
Despite the amount of hours that I spent running each week, I had noticed a bit of a “muffin top” over the waistband of my running shorts. I blamed it on too much chocolate and responded by “tightening up” my diet and dropping carbohydrates lower. I had no idea that the weight gain was also due to the stress hormones that I would be increasing by dropping those carbs. Still, none of this was enough to get me to cut back.
Bone-crushing exhaustion set in and I had no choice but to cut mileage. Those free and easy twenty-mile runs that I would blast out, back-to-back, each weekend started feeling like death marches from thirty minutes in. The twenty milers turned into ten and would still take me two days of naps to recover. A person who never gets sick, I was absolutely leveled by two bouts in a row of a ferocious flu. Finally, I am embarrassed to admit that it was a photo of myself in which I could see definite signs of hair loss that made me wake up. I needed vanity to show me what my poor legs had been trying to say for almost a full year: It’s time to stop.
I wish that I’d had the presence of mind to recognize that all of the things that I was experiencing were not random, but a specific set of clues to warn me of the damage that I was doing to my body. I wish I’d understood that if I really loved running, I had to do less of it. If I could go back to those first sleepless nights, I would eat the crackers, skip the next day’s run, and blow off the 50 miler. I only hope that if you are heading down the same road, that you seriously think of doing the same. Stop when you’re tired, before you’re forced to be done.