This was supposed to be a fun adventure-run day. I had summited Humphrey’s peak (the highest peak in AZ) earlier in the day, and was making my way around the loop created by Weatherford and Kachina trails to arrive back at my car parked at Snowbowl. The scenery was beautiful, and the weather was perfect compared to the 114 degrees I had faced the previous day in Phoenix. And…I was completely miserable. I moved slowly around the loop, hiking large parts, and yet even the slow pace felt draining. All I could think about was how much longer until I was finished. I love trails and running and mountains – what was wrong with me?
I had faced a growing exhaustion for weeks. A visit to my PCP and a wide array of blood work showed me to be in obnoxiously good health. Even levels like Iron, Vitamin D and Vitamin B12, which can be problematic for vegan athletes and would definitely cause exhaustion, looked excellent. It was good news, but at the same time it didn’t change the fact that I felt like I was falling apart.
The only other thing I could think was overtraining. I did some online research and mentally ticked off the symptoms on the list: exhaustion, insomnia, irritability and a general dead-legged feeling despite rest days – all things I had been struggling with lately. All season I had felt slightly off, maybe this had been building all year and I failed to see it until it reached critical mass. Or maybe it was the recent series of additional life stressors I had been dealing with that pushed me over the edge. My training load was normal for me, but perhaps I hadn’t appropriately balanced it with life in general. There was no major event, just a bunch of little things that piled up, creating a frog in a boiling pot of water scenario.
I would love to say here that having identified the probable cause I happily gave my body the rest it needed, but that would be a lie. My runner brain started overanalyzing everything, picking apart all the reasons this shouldn’t have happened. How could I be so dumb? I was a running coach, I should’ve seen this coming. And how could I overtrain anyway? I should be able to be tough….able to handle anything. That’s what trail and ultra running is all about right? It certainly didn’t help I had Run Rabbit Run 100 miler coming up in a matter of weeks. In my 25 years of running I had never dropped from a race before – ever. I finished what I signed up for.
I decided to take three days completely off, and spent the weekend sleeping in, taking extra naps, and hanging out with my kids instead of pounding out miles on the trails. Then I started doing only easy runs – conversation pace and nothing more than an hour. I was still focused on making a rebound for my race. About a week out from the race I visited my chiropractor who also does muscle work, dry needling and magic for what I hoped would be a tune-up. As she started to work on me she asked “So, when did you say your race was?” I knew by the tone of her voice it was over. There were no injuries, but I had massive inflammation, and as she worked on me, the distress signals my body had still been trying to send came through loud and clear.
We agreed that while I could soldier through the race, and probably finish, the outcome would be a time I was unhappy with and digging myself a deeper hole to get out of afterwards. There were tears, but in the long run I knew this was the best thing for my body. I love running, I love challenging myself in races, I love moving by foot through beautiful places. No one race was worth putting that at risk.
I think my ultra running mindset was both my downfall and my eventual salvation. My ability to push myself past the point of exhaustion and suffer through hard things certainly let me get to the point I was at. However, my ultra experience also helped me recognize that a self-berating, negative mindset was counterproductive. I allowed myself a day of wallowing, and then it was time to take the lessons and move on.
Those lessons I’d like to share with you are this:
- Know yourself. I read a great quote in Training for the Uphill Athlete during all of this to the effect of if you’re reading this book, you are clearly motivated. If you feel unmotivated it’s not because you are lazy, it’s because you need rest. Boom.
- Surround yourself with people who understand you and can give honest feedback. Through all of this it was helpful to have running friends to talk through things with, and to witness people – even elites – going through similar struggles on social media. It was also of utmost importance that I had a professional who understood our sport and my legs and could give advice I trusted.
- Be gentle on yourself. I would’ve never pushed a client the way I do myself, and if they had to drop from a race my only reaction would’ve been sympathy and encouragement. I owe the same respect to myself.
- Life, like ultras, is messy and rarely works out the way it’s supposed to. If this had hit earlier in the year I would’ve had time to correct it and still run. If all the life craziness hadn’t hit at once, I wouldn’t have been as stressed I was. The best I can do is keep an eye on the long term prize and roll with things as they come.
- Identify the best way for you to make sure you’re actually taking a break. For some people this might mean disconnecting from the running community for a while. For me it meant crewing at a friends race that allowed me to spend time outside with my kids, see some of my running friends but do so without any pressure. I also made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t even think about the next race until I was feeling the bounce in my step once again.
Remember, even though running is a great form of stress relief, there are times when it also adds to the stresses on your body. Be gentle with yourself and keep the longview in mind. As I write this I’m still in the midst of my do whatever and just enjoy being on the trails training block – because recovery is training. I know I’ll be back to racing and push myself because it’s one of the aspects of running that I love, but I also know that there’s no need to rush that and the only pressure I have is that which I put on myself.