It was there, finally, in sight…
…the finish line of my last ultra marathon of 2018. Unlike any other event behind me, there was no joy, no excitement, simply an impatient… get. this. over. with.
The season shouldn’t have been like this. The event was in a magical setting: my home turf of Whistler. The weather was nasty: just like I like it. The hills were technical and steep: just like I like it. My favourite Race Director and his Team had struggled against what seemed like impossible roadblocks to bring it on (including grizzlies and incoming winter): and there it was. The dream race.
But…and no good things come from “buts”… but I wasn’t there. By I, I mean my heart, my energy, my excitement. It had disappeared and I hadn’t even realized it was gone. I had been fooling myself. Fake it till you make it…
I’m just starting to process it. The “it” being the whole past year. The way I have been feeling. The results I’ve had. Talking with my coach, it finally all came blurting out: the realization that I’ve been struggling this year: struggling mightily, struggling stubbornly, struggling blindly, struggling under the radar.
Mine is a cautionary tale, one I will tell not because I want or need reassurance, or sympathy or anything else but rather, to help “sort it out”. Writing at the end of a season has always been a reward for me. As a closet introvert, I find putting pen to paper often exhilarating…but this year…well, it’s a different year. Perhaps my story will help someone else. Reflecting on this, that person may choose to, more wisely, change course.
In a way, it was the year that wasn’t.
The previous year in running had been amazing: I kept it to three events, all out of the country. I was out of my league, and dancing along each step. It didn’t matter to me where I placed. I just wanted to experience each event, to breathe in the sweet air, experience the highs and lows of a few good events. The final, September 2017, was the magical Italian Tor des Geants. I was one of 52% of lucky finishers. It was a mind-blowing experience. That year I experienced 550 km of racing plus travelling and training. I had met people who ate events like the TDG for breakfast, who opened my eyes to a big new world.
Not sure when I came off that high,
but fairly soon after returning home I started making plans for the next year. I wanted more. My family insisted I stick closer to home. Travel and events are exciting but they disrupt the “order” of things: kids, spouse, pets, jobs, houses.
“Fine”, I thought, so I simply picked events close to home. Before I knew it, I had signed up for a 2018 May road marathon, a June 1/2 marathon (road/trail) and a hefty trail 100 km, an iconic July 50 km, an August back-to-back 50 miler/50km and a 120 miler, and then…if anything left for late September… a 110 km in our beloved Whistler. Yes, it would be close to home, it would be somewhat repetitive (in that I’d done several in previous years), but it would be easier on all the players, including my MAC (Most Awesome Crew) who had agreed to party in Manning Park. The mileage would potentially surpass 2017, which delighted the hell out of me. I’d become a junkie…and I wanted More.
During planning, if I had been listening – really listening – I would have heard the quiet “choke” in my coach’s voice. But I wasn’t listening. They trusted that I had used good judgement in the past, and that I would communicate if the going got rough with training. The deal was that I was to honestly lay it all out as we went along.
So, with that, I happily went barrelling towards the winter. Winter is usually another big high for me. Snow and skiing: my family, friends and I relish it. Running would be put onto the back burner and left to 3 or 4 days of the week. Shorter runs – usually in the dark of the city, around my family, part-time work, travel back and forth from Van to Whistler and regular strength training. I also took up backcountry skiing, complete with Avalanche Safety training (6 days overall), and started regular uphill grunts with a friend, and had some incredible days of “real” backcountry adventures with a new found – and very experienced – friend.
What I chose to ignore was the other drops in my stress bucket. Our 15 year old son had experienced a concussion in the summer of 2017 (yes – skiing). He wasn’t recovering “on schedule”. By late October, we were advised to pull him from school. He was plagued with headaches, lack of energy, inability to focus, memory issues, spiking anxiety and panic attacks, followed by depression. Life was an endless calendar of appointments, a worrying whirl of concerns, and yes…downright fear on my part. When a member of your family is threatened with health concerns, well…let’s just say it’s just damned tough to be calm. But you must fake it till you make it…
When it rains it pours.
Yes, there was more. Our girl teen was struggling and in some real trouble. Just when there was little energy, or patience, or attention left, there was a truly scary turn in our first born’s life. Endless drama, except it wasn’t a drama. She (hence we) were treading on dangerous ground. It Was Real.
We sought professional help. It would not be an exaggeration to say if an hour wasn’t filled with worry, contention, or some sort of emotional explosion, there was an appointment to be driven to.
Each person copes differently. I began working on all the things I had to do to keep my sanity (cause if Momma ain’t happy, ain’t no one happy)…one of which was running…and skiing…
I did not fully recognize it at the time. The things that normally stabilize and recharge me were starting to fail. I was able to keep up skiing, but didn’t feel my usual “umph” and strength. I ski with the boys, and what I lack in size, I usually make up for in power. I felt no excitement in extra runs, in challenging new terrain, in racing for the first turns. I looked forward to the quiet of the backcountry, but even that was fraught with frett.
It was far more noticeable with my new backcountry experiences. These were hours-long climbs capped off with exhilarating turns and then a rush to beat the dark home. I found myself in an unusual position: I was the one “at the back”, struggling to keep up, thankful for any little break in the day. There was No Way I would reveal this (not wanting to be a pain in the ass and so thankful for the amazing mentorship), but it was tough. I explained it away to myself logically: there were techniques to be learned, constant avi awareness and decisions to be made. These were tough but necessary. I was fighting with new and finicky bindings which were a real PIA. Fake it till you make it.
With running, again, I didn’t recognize it, but my mid-week city runs (which were shortish and not technically challenging) didn’t give me the “hit” of endorphins I had come to depend on. Instead, I was forcing myself out the door. Out into the dark, the rain, the…ugh. No doubt, my training log did not reflect this. Smile, get on with it. There’s much to do so enjoy the time you have away. First world problems. Fake it till you make it.
brings a changeover from skiing to running.
Our son, who had been struggling since late June 2017 with that same damned concussion, was back at school. Since he had lost most of the school year, we were thankful for the support we had from his school, but…he wasn’t out of the water yet and he was anxious about having lost the year. We would take one day at a time and, along with all the professionals, had started to look into his “options” for the following year.
Our other family struggles levelled somewhat, but they had left us frayed and shaken. Thankfully, they were no worse. We were ok. We had help. We were lucky. One day at a time. Fake it till you make it.
The first of my running events was planned for the first weekend in May. Not long to seriously train for a road marathon, but good enough to get the season going. I was a bit disappointed in my result (it was off by 15 minutes) but, hey, I was barely off the snow.
Two events. I didn’t feel excitement for the first and was, in fact, feeling kind of cranky and impatient with training partners for this off-the-grid event. It was what it was, but looking back at it now, I wasn’t me. Just could not get into it. Fake it till you make it.
The other was a shorter event, combined with a family get-away on Vancouver Island. It was ok, but again, I felt that edge of tension that I had not known in previous years. At the finish line I discovered an error in timing. I, gasp, challenged the Director (politely of course). Not “me”: usually I could care less how I place. Usually, I would be grinning so hard at the finish line that the booby prize would have kept me high for a week.
This one I just couldn’t fake. My results were terrible. No…they really were. I was half an hour off previous years. Waves of anxiety had racked me the two weeks before the event. I simply could not pull the power I needed to even try to give what was required. For the first time, I wish I had heeded my fears and not shown up to the start-line.
OK…this was where my running was supposed to get “Real”: two events, both big and within one week of each other.
All things were leading to the first, the 120 Miler in Manning Park. Of all the events I’ve had the privilege to train and run, the “Hundee” was the icing on the cake. I had, previously, done a 100 Miler, a 120 Miler, and a 200 Miler, and these were really where I wanted to be. I loved the highs, the lows, the digging deep, the chance – even with no talent and no youth – to dig into your grit, rise up, and keep plowing forward. I LOVED them. The shorter stuff – really just training runs necessary to get to where I wanted to be. Training for them supplied me with the regular endorphin hits this junky requires.
If all went well, I planned to follow the 120 Miler up – one week later – with a popular and challenging back to back 50 miler followed by a 50 km. A few had done it before…but very few. However, I will never know how it would have panned out as…
…the 120 Miler was cancelled. After a week of changes and revisits, and communications with crew and runners and volunteers, the Race Director was forced to halt the event due to fires. Man, did I fake it through that: revising each new course change and communicating cheerily with my crew, I suffered horrible waves of race anxiety. And then it was Over. Just like that. I may have dodged a bullet.
Hindsight is golden, but my reaction to this cancellation should have been recognized as another red flag: I could have cared less in the end. Other runners looked frantically for other races or attended the park to run where they could, but I just stopped. Dead.
One week later I lined up for the Back to Back. Felt better than I had at any other event this year…which wasn’t saying much. But the extra week had helped. A bit of an “oops”occurred: 60 km into Day One, I attempted a Superman but my knee got into the way. I hobbled to the finish, slept, then lined up for Day Two. Day 2 was tough, but got’r done. Nuff said.
A family holiday in Vermont (my Step Daughter) followed. The knee was swollen and exquisitely sore. I could not run for a couple of weeks and soaked up the time off. Upon our return, I immediately paced (walk/ultra-shuffle) a friend through a heroic (her part – not mine) 100 Mile fundraising event, through the night. My knee was still a little swollen and sore, but… shortly after I was able to run again.
I doubt that the (final) event in Whistler would have happened, if I had run the 120 Miler And the following B2B event. As a matter of fact, now that I am starting to come out of my delirium, chances are 95% that I would not have. But…since I did not run the 120 Miler – and had lost most of my marbles – I put my chin up, got my ass out there and trained for it.
I noticed that I was not sleeping well, “aka insomnia“. That my results were off ,”aka poor performance“. That I was testy with others and my tolerance for normal whining was non-existent. My social anxiety had spiked, “aka emotional changes“. Even heard my doctor mention that my heart-rate was up “aka elevated heart rate“…for me (I usually sit in the 40’s and here I was at 60). However, I didn’t clue in. Weird leg niggles, that I had never experienced before, annoyed me. A pain in a chest bone, “aka abnormal soreness“. “Oh, crap, what now?!” None of it clued in. Of course I didn’t mention this to my coaches: the five signs that I was deep into “overtraining syndrome“. My smiley faces were always smiling. Fake it till you make it…
Well, it all came to a head in Whistler. Waves of pre-race jitters, total impatience driving through traffic to get there after work on Friday. Unable to sleep, unable to focus on the breathing and other relaxation techniques that had served me so well in the past. Made it to the start, somehow.
I knew…within an hour of the event start, that I was in trouble. But I kept on. As people passed, I simply gave up. I couldn’t pull out or believe my mantra. I just told myself that I was going to go on till I couldn’t any longer. There was no power. By that I mean exactly that: like stepping on a vehicle accelerator and “nothing happens”. I stopped frequently to get my heart-rate down. I thought I would freeze at the top (snow, wind) when usually, my firm belief is that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing choices. I didn’t even have the energy to dress appropriately.
Half way through, I whispered to my husband, “I will never make it”, that my first DNF was certain, and that I didn’t give a shit. He ignored me and sent me on my way (apparently I had sung this song before). The truth was that I didn’t know how to stop, so kept going. One foot in front of the other. Fake it till you make it…
Eventually…on the long climb out, I tripped over a friend who was struggling as well. Her reasons were different from mine, but we were both pretty much a mess. At least I had a purpose now. Having lost the desire to finish “for me”…I made a pact with her that we would finish this damned thing together. I saw a picture of us at the finish line: who was that woman looking so old and thin, shrunken, grey and exhausted?
A few days later I had a good heart to heart (yep, cry) with my coach. Everything came blurting out. The conclusion was that I’d been a dumb-ass. Should’ve communicated my difficulties over the past year. Races could’ve been dropped early on, training schedules revamped to accommodate the stresses of my life. It is very real to say that it’s not just training stress – but all additive stresses combined – that break an athlete’s mind and body. He had recognized it with other athletes who had suffered the year following a “Big Year”. Apparently I am not the only stubborn one. Long and short: if I had just reached out for help, things could’ve been different.
I was dealing with it on my own: or so I thought. I sought professional help, practiced mindfulness and other relaxation techniques, was grateful for all our blessings, ate well, followed the training plan. And, in the past, putting my head down and taking care of business, as above, had worked. As usual, in my own introverted way, I went further underground, dug in deeper.
The thing is…the last 7 years have brought loads of stresses (maybe it Was that mirror I broke…?). Somehow we squeaked along through major health issues, the deaths of my beloved brother and mother, along with major career changes, and school challenges. In short: middle age. We all are equipped to handle stress but there can come a breaking point if too much collides at the same time. I had found the perfect storm.
My personal life and running life had come to collide and I realize, now, that I will be lucky if it’s just the running season that’s lost.
Those smiley faces on our training logs, the comments…all intended to capture our state of mind…which is the very first indicator of overtraining or over-stretching into red zones.
My coaches were kind, confident, and encouraging but it left me shaken that I had been so stupid. I mean, who of us have not read about these things – usually with elite athletes – before. Plenty of warnings. But I was not an elite: just a recreational runner who took up competing late in life. Zooming up to 58 this month, I have basked in “success” for the past 8 years. Who would’ve thought it?!
Some medical tests and real rest. A promise to always be honest with training feedback. As for plans: None at all.
Of all the forms of wisdom, hindsight is by general consent the least merciful, the most unforgiving.
May you have the hindsight to know where you’ve been, The foresight to know where you are going, And the insight to know when you have gone too far.