This past July, I completed my first 100 miler at the Vermont 100 Endurance Race, on the hottest weekend of the year in New England. I honestly had a blast, and even enjoyed the heat. I felt strong during the day, kept well hydrated and ran over 80 miles with some of my best friends. I slowed as the sun went down, but then picked up my crew who pulled me through to the end. We leap-frogged with other teammates, commiserating with and encouraging each other. I spent the final eight miles watching the sunrise and savoring the experience alongside two close friends. I wanted this race to feel like a celebration of my running community, and it turned out to be exactly that. For me, it was the most perfect experience I could have asked for.
I’m a mid-packer at best, peaked at 65 miles/week, took plenty of rest days and did not encounter any injuries during training. I work as a nurse in our local emergency room, so I was careful to back off from mileage if I was having a tough week with work. My training was fun for the most part, peaking with all-day adventures in the White Mountains. Even looking back on it now with some perspective, I don’t see any signs of overtraining.
Yet, three months out from the race I’m rarely averaging more than three miles or a couple runs a week. I’m not injured. I don’t feel excess fatigue. I just don’t want to run.
Following the race, I gave myself the requisite couple weeks of downtime, and instead of jumping back into training or running when I thought I should, I decided to let my body and mind get back there naturally.
My ultra running friends seemed to flow back into running and training effortlessly. As I watched their mileage creep up, I felt a twinge of guilt. Am I being lazy? Should I be getting back out there and running 5x/week? Am I going to lose all my fitness?
My coworkers would ask me how running was going post-race, and their jaw would almost drop when I told them I wasn’t. I had become “that crazy runner” and they were surprised to learn that I didn’t continue running long miles. If I stop running long distances, if I don’t ever have the desire to run another ultra, who am I?
I tried to get back into it, but there were still clues telling me to continue my break. I would go out for a run, and by less than two miles in, I would feel overwhelming anxiety settle in. When I had a run on my schedule, I would start feeling a sense of dread early in the day.
It quickly became clear to me that while I felt physically recovered within a month or two at most, there was another element at play. The mental and emotional toll that a hundred can take on a runner is so individual. Regardless of your personal goal for 100 miles, you often spend months to a year mentally preparing and focusing on training plans. Every waking moment of my day, aside from focused time at work, was filled with thoughts of Vermont. Starting with whether or not I was ready to train, then to how I was going to fit training around my work schedule and my dog’s needs, and on to logistics for the big day. My vacation time was centered around my peak mileage weeks and the race. I had zero time for much else. It’s no wonder that I needed a break.
So, instead of forcing myself back on a training plan, I decided to welcome the break. I started looking back to my life before running took over — how had I filled my time? What did I want to accomplish? What did I unintentionally ‘lose’ in the process of training? What else drives me?
I know that time in the mountains feeds my soul, so I’ve spent time hiking with my dog and my friends. I’ve found my way back to a yoga practice, baking and outdoor photography. I’ve even started learning bass guitar! I’m exploring things that I didn’t have time or energy for while training. I’m even running short distances — but only if I want to, which means it’s usually in the woods and with friends. I’m still finding joy in the trails, but it does not look the way it did this past spring or last year. Instead, I’m focusing on balancing trail running with the rest of life — and I am 100% OK with it.
I am still a runner. That will never leave me. Nothing I do now will take away the races I have completed. I also would not change a thing about my training, and do not regret my 100 mile race even slightly. Ultrarunning has brought so much joy, freedom and friendship into my life. It has shown me strength and grace. But even positive things sometimes require moderation.
Since I started distance running a handful of years ago, the question has always been “what’s next?” Both from others and myself. The next longest distance. The next gnarly course with increasing elevation. But at this moment, the answer is: a hiatus. For how long? Who knows. What I do know is that I trust my body and my mind to know when it’s time. I know it will, because it has already started. I’m getting excited for a winter filled with summits and short, snowy runs. I’m just not ready to train. And until that happens, I’m going to embrace the rest of what makes me happy.
Feature Photo: Liz Collins