Vermont was a total bust. I felt flat from the start and was completely empty by mile 45. I walked for 15 more miles and then unceremoniously pulled the plug. Beyond sad, beyond defeated, beyond frustrated, I was hollowed out. Utterly finished. Sick of feeling like shit, sick of being in pain, sick of not being able to run and race like I once could. In that moment, I resolved to stop pushing this string and figure out what the heck has been ailing me. What the hell happened to this guy who was at one point a decently mediocre runner?
The Short Story:
I’m in a ditch, have been in it for a while, and have finally decided to stop digging.
The Long Story:
My intent is not for this to be some sort of melodramatic “Woe is I” story. I share this not for your sympathy, but more in the hope that what I have learned over the last two years might resonate and aid others who have experienced similar frustration. In general, life is great and the ensuing story firmly belongs in the category of First World Problems. And so be warned, this isn’t a short story, but I hope it’s one to which you or someone you know can relate.
Outside of one major injury setback in 2009 (sacral stress fracture), my ultra running career had followed a steady and respectably improving trajectory, peaking in 2011 with 4 wins and several other strong races. I was feeling strong, building miles and learning how to mange my body effectively. Along with this, Maggie and I were growing our family and I was working toward my doctoral degree. The stress was consistent and non-trivial, but it felt manageable. Let’s face it, life was good and sure there was stress, but it was positive stress. We were working hard at what we love and making steady progress.
2011 closed with the birth of our second daughter, Charlotte. Charlotte was named in honor of Maggie’s father, Charles, who had been suffering with dementia and other associated ailments. Shortly after Charlotte’s birth, Chuck was diagnosed with stomach cancer and passed away 9 days later. The family rallied around Ruth, Maggie’s mother, and for a few months we were spending several nights a week going back and forth to Mercer Island from our home in Seattle to be with family, mourn together, and heal. Through these unstable times, I dove into training. It was something I could control, something I could escape in.
As endurance athletes, we exist on the edge of sustainability, pushing ourselves to the limit, and then relenting just enough to recover and push again, extending that limit further. Sometimes we go too far and there are normal mechanisms designed to clip our wings: overuse injuries, sickness, malaise, etc. Through the spring of 2012, I was managing a lot, but seemed to be handling it well. My dissertation was on schedule for a successful defense and publication, the kids were doing well, Maggie was wrapping up her work at Swedish, I secured a faculty post at the University of Montana, and was prepping for our move with the sale of our home and the purchase of a property in Missoula. Through this I maintained a respectable training load of 80-100 miles per week, along with some solid early season results. I did notice, however, that I was I slower to recover than in previous seasons. What I dismissed as the effect of age, I should have recognized as a warning sign.
If at this moment I could have stepped back a bit – zoomed out – and examined my life holistically, I would have seen the Wall approaching. That Wall being the limit of my limits.
In May I defended my dissertation, completed our real estate transactions and ran a to a strong 2nd place at the Sun Mt 50-miler. In retrospect I was now right at the base of that Wall. 3 days after Sun Mt, I travelled to Bend for two days of Patagonia product development meetings and associated trail runs, followed immediately by Scott’s bachelor party in Las Vegas. After a day of transition at home, I left for a 2-day Patagonia video shoot deep in Olympic National Park. After a first day of running back and forth in 45-degree weather wearing very little, I started to feel impending illness. See if you can detect it here, in my voice over for the video we produced…
The shoot wrapped and I travelled home, stuffing myself with every homeopathic, anecdotal and superstition-based remedy I could find. No way I could get sick now! Graduation was approaching, as was the meat of my Angeles Crest 100 training. But the Wall had other ideas. I tried to climb it, but it knocked me down – flat on the couch for 2 solid weeks. The doc thought it was mono, but since I had had mono in high school, he said it was probably something similar and would run its course in due time. “Tincture of Time” was his catch phrase; something I now realize foretold my current reality.
Graduation came and went - too sick to enjoy it and in too much of a rush to celebrate in any meaningful way. Maggie pushed to have some sort of celebration, urging me to recognize the significance of the accomplishment. But there was no time for that…I had to get back to training…AC was just around the corner and we had to get ready for the move. I felt like the additional stress of scheduling, planning and executing a party - a party for me - was just too much. Think about that for a moment. Sure, I really don’t like attention and any recognition I do get makes me a bit uncomfortable, but the fact that I couldn’t step out of my downward spiral long enough to celebrate the completion of a 7-year project, a project for which Maggie (emphasis on Maggie) and I had made significant sacrifice, should have been troubling.
Once I thought I had kicked the bug, I stuffed my schedule with as many miles as I could, cramming for the impending exam that was Angeles Crest. I felt pretty crummy, but I figured I had to work through the setback of the illness in order regain form. The schedule for race week was crazy tight, but seemingly (naively) manageable: pack the house, fly to Boulder for Scott’s and Jenny’s wedding, then on to LA for Angeles Crest, race, then back home for a going-away party, followed by the move to Missoula. It didn’t take me long to realize the absurdity of this plan and describing it now feels ridiculous. What on earth was I thinking? The wedding was a blur, AC was a disaster from the start, and I went into the move deeply fatigued. Again, the Wall had stopped my feeble effort…
Once in Missoula, I thought I had hit the reset button. New town, new job, new training buddies and running on fantastic trails every day. Not learning a thing from the preceding months, I took off to Japan just two weeks into my first semester for the Shinetsu 5-mountains 110k. Another disaster. 5 days away from home with 48+ hours of total travel time. Not a formula for success, at least not for me. The Wall won. Super smart way to start a new job, my first as a university professor.
At that point, I said enough was enough. I took a few weeks of rest and resolved myself not to race again until I was ready. I checked in with the doc, got some blood work, and everything looked pretty good. A bit of rest and I should be fine.
A few weeks later, I began to run again and felt pretty terrible. That said, I was now running regularly with an insanely talented tribe of great guys: Foote, Wolfe, Swanson, Yates, Kollar… Whenever the trail tilted up I was instantly under pressure and could not hold the wheel. I didn’t give in to this feeling of getting my ass kicked daily. Sure I felt flat, but maybe that was just because I was chasing some elite dudes. But I also ignored the fact that I felt pretty bad whenever I ran alone. Before too long, feeling crummy morphed into the new normal. Endurance pursuits are about dealing with discomfort and I was caught in this mental limbo of wondering whether I was tired all the time from too much training, or just older, out of shape and in need of more training. I chalked it up to transition, family, work, and sleep deprivation - all reasonable and important ingredients in the cocktail of my malaise.
In spite of this, I managed a strong day at Chuckanut, a 3-min PR. I followed that with a respectable 3rd place at Pocatello. In the late stages of that race, however, I could feel that Wall again. After about 6 hours I really began to struggle. And were it not for the fact that after 40 miles the rest is pretty much all downhill, I wonder if would have finished. Fumes and gravity got me to the barn. This late-stage weakness was troubling and felt eerily similar to how I felt approaching the halfway mark at AC, as well as throughout my short day in Japan. With Vermont quickly approaching, I decided to back off the training by 15-20%: fewer miles, but more quality. The intervals and tempo work were a struggle, but I figured my clumsiness at pace was just another thing I needed to push through. “Sluggish” had become an all too regular adjective in my training log.
I was set up for success at Vermont, arriving at my folks’ place in NH a full week before the race. Plenty of time to adjust to the climate and catch up on sleep. As race day approached, the normal pre-100 mile nerves were there, but I was having trouble getting excited about the race, perhaps a manifestation of eroded confidence. After walking from mile 45-60 I dropped. I had no interest in walking 40 more miles; I didn’t want to do that to Maggie and my family. I’ve stared deep into the abyss in a few 100-milers and found a way out. This was not that. This was a sense of disturbing emptiness. I couldn’t summon the energy to care and that felt really shitty.
But in that moment of weakness and failure and humiliation, I resolved to stop digging. Figure out this Wall, whatever it is, and find a way over it, whatever that takes.
In the weeks since, I’ve been seeing some docs and running some tests. Two complementary theories as to my struggles have emerged, one from a naturopathic doctor and one from an MD.
Naturopath: Dr. Jamison Starbuck is a naturopath in Missoula who has been practicing for many years. She comes highly recommended from several people I trust. Dr. Starbuck thinks I probably never quite killed off the virus that I caught in June of last year, and that that virus is likely Epstein-Barr. Apparently Epstein-Barr can linger and thrive in a body under consistent stress. In periods of acute stress, whether a result of intense training and/or life stress, the resultant depletion of immune system resources gives the virus the green light to multiply and preserve itself. This constant pressure on my immune system explains my fatigue and the fact that I seem to have a head cold about 2 out of every 6 weeks. Dr. Starbuck also ran a saliva-based cortisol test. We took samples 4 times in a day to measure how that system was functioning. Cortisol is a stress-management hormone and under normal circumstances the body should produce it in a pattern that tracks the stress we encounter in a typical day. The normal curve of cortisol production usually spikes in the morning, calms down as the day progresses, and often has another smaller spike in the afternoon before calming down again in the evening. My cortisol levels are well below the normal range at all times of the day, and perhaps more concerning is the fact that there is very little change, if any, in my levels over the course of the day. These results suggest significant dysfunction in the adrenal system. The system has simply been overloaded for too long and is shutting down. Not good. The long-term effects of low cortisol can include some bad stuff – autoimmune diseases and a host of other things I don’t want. Furthermore, the accumulated stress has caused my gut to produce less acid that it should, leading to suboptimal digestion of proteins and fats. This has led to elevated liver and kidney enzymes as well as rising cholesterol, not to mention the effect of associated mal-absorption of nutrients on my recovery and performance.
Sports Med Doc: I’ve also been seeing Dr. Rob Amrine, an excellent sports medicine and family practice doctor in Missoula. Dr. Amrine is my primary care doctor and the one I saw initially back in September when I was feeling run down. He is concerned about the cortisol, although pointed out that since we only have a single test, albeit with multiple observations, we don’t really know what normal is for me. He agrees that the blood work is suboptimal but wasn’t quite willing to connect some of the theoretical dots that Dr. Starbuck was linking. On the prospect of Epstein-Barr virus, he was open to the possibility, but pointed out that testing for it is problematic because most adults have had some exposure to it (it’s the virus that causes mono) in our lifetimes. In sports medicine, Epstein-Barr has become a bit of a catchall diagnosis for the cocktail of overtraining/overstress. This makes good sense. Although I can track my demise to that severe illness of last year, perhaps this is just a mental construction. Maybe the virus is in there, maybe it’s not, but the reassuring news is that the treatment for my condition is the same either way.
On balance Dr. Starbuck and Dr. Amrine might differ in the specificity of their diagnostic views, but they agree that I am pretty fried and in need of significant rest and regeneration before I can return to any sort of training. The prescription: 3-6 months of rest, with limited (< 60 min/day) activity. Eliminate caffeine, which I have already done. This was actually easy since caffeine was having no effect on my non-responsive adrenal system. Reduce life stress and prioritize sleep. Eat more. Dr. Starbuck prescribed some hormonal and liver support supplements and though Dr. Amrine pointed out there was no hard scientific support for their effectiveness, he conceded that they couldn’t hurt and might help.
So there you have it. I’ve found the bottom of the ditch and am now digging my way out. I can see the ladder over The Wall and now just need to rebuild the tools to climb it. The few folks with whom I’ve shared this little sob story have been very supportive. The frustration with ending another lost season is overwhelmed by my excitement in the prospect of coming back strong again, regaining – no, exceeding, previous form.
If you read this far, there is likely something in this story resonates with you. Perhaps you have struggled with consistent flatness or have arrived at some sort of plateau, unable to move forward. With the proliferation of blogs, social media, Stava, irunfar, etc., there seems to be a glorification of the mountain ultra lifestyle. Big miles and big vert day in day out in the big mountains. It’s easy to feel like you aren’t doing enough. What those external influences do not account for, however, is the reality that each of us has our own set of life stresses, our own career-family formula to balance, and –perhaps most importantly – our own individual capacity for handling all of it. Mine is a story of continuing to push my training and racing to new levels while the demands on other areas of my life were multiplying exponentially. It was a formula for failure and that’s exactly what happened. The cliché is true, however. Our failures teach us more than our successes. Now I just have to learn from the failure of the last two seasons and come back stronger and smarter. Time will tell…