I can be a slow learner.
I have been running long distances for 20 years. Throughout this time, I have run countless marathons and dozens of ultra marathons. Like many who are reading this blog, I likely have read more running theories and listened to more opinions from other runners than helpful over the years. And no matter how many times I have learned and re-learned the lesson, I continue to be smacked in the face by the one thing that will never change: Recovery is not something you can shortcut, and the more we ask of our bodies, the more we have to back down and let the body do its thing to be ready to do it all over again the next time a start line beckons. If we ignore this dire need to rest, our bodies will get our attention sooner or later, and eventually, we have no choice but to listen. And often, when we wait too long to hear the body’s messages, we are forced to take even more time off from doing the things we love due to digging ourselves into a hole we could have avoided. With recovery, you pay now, or you pay later. This post highlights the challenges many of us face regarding this essential training phase. As ironic as it seems, it is often harder to truly recover than to do the intense workouts we are used to grinding through to reach that next level of training.
It’s been over two weeks since I had my hard day at Black Canyon 100K, and I am still not quite right. For those days when the race goes according to plan, and we empty ourselves as planned on the course, it is sometimes easier to sit back and let ourselves coast for a while as we reset our bodies and mind. However, when the race doesn’t quite go as planned, it can be very tempting to jump back into it before we should. While I didn’t run to my potential that day, I did run with all I had and that meant many hours of crawling through that pain cave. My race schedule for 2023 included three goal races. Black Canyon was the first, with a handful of other fun adventures sprinkled in as part of my training. I signed up for the Lake Sonoma 50 miler with a couple of friends as a fun way to sneak away for a girls’ weekend in Northern California. It didn’t take much to convince me to run a beautiful course at the end of a long Colorado winter, and after planning with Mike, we realized the timing could be perfect for other goals. Coming off of Black Canyon with some initial disappointment and a whole lot of pain, we spent some time trying to figure out the best way to have a proper recovery before ramping up again to be in good enough shape to run a solid 50 miles on undulating trails.
The desert crushed me in many ways, most notably my feet. It was a perfect storm of unlucky factors for my hard-working feet for over 11 hours. I will spare the readers from sharing my self surgery processes and any photos (I saved those details for close friends who have had no choice but to open a text message unknowing that pictures of my dead toenails would accompany it). This condition left me unable to put on socks initially and woke me up throughout the night, reaching for Advil. I’ve run many races with unhappy feet, but this was something else. As soon as I could wear socks, I chose my most oversized shoes and climbed onto the treadmill to complete my easy hour-long run. I naively believed I was back on my training plan.* My body felt good enough in terms of energy, and my mind felt refreshed. I had taken the usual amount of days off that I would always take, and I was excited to get back at it. Two days into my restart and the toes screamed louder. I took a few more days and stuck to walking the dogs and doing strength work. During this time, I also started to have the typical cold symptoms I get after pushing my body, which no longer causes me to worry. Running long distances takes so much out of us, and by now, I find myself waiting for that immune system reminder. Sleep more. Eat more. Slow down. I backed off again with sore feet and what seemed to be a common cold. I went to Urgent care to ensure I did not have an infection in my toes and walked away with a prescription for antibiotics in hand, “just in case.” I did the only thing I could do to heal. Wait.
Things that only runners understand- the relief that comes when a dead toenail finally falls off. Gross. And yet I finally had hope that I could wear shoes again and get back to doing what I do so that Sonoma didn’t also hit me in the face in a handful of weeks. Mike shifted some of my runs, and I believed I was ready to go. After two good days of running, I woke up last Friday with a raging headache and a violent 12-hour stomach bug. OK- I get it. It is only this kind of sickness when I cannot even argue with myself whether an easy run would be OK where I genuinely listen and finally get the message. It was clear that my body was screaming at me, and no matter how much I tried to justify things, things seemed to keep worsening until I had no choices left. While I know Mike hates to see me sick, I also know that he could finally breathe out and take a break from trying to get me to do the right thing with my training/recovery, as now I had no choice but to sleep and stop fighting him and myself to get those damn shoes on.
So here I am three full days after the stomach bug and a couple of mellow runs over the weekend, and I feel almost normal. As energetic as a working mom of two kids and two wild dogs can feel when trying to make it all work while also trying to prioritize ultra training. I know that without a doubt, had I just let those feet (and the body and mind they are attached to them) recover while listening to the knowing guidance of my husband and coach and focus on the right things; sleep, eat, rest I could have avoided this unnecessary stop/start cycle. Some things we learn over and over.
This post may seem ironic, given I recently wrote a piece on the dark side of grit and knowing when to pull the plug when racing. However, this post is about how we often need to listen more closely to what we must do to reset and be ready for the next round. When we are injured or huddled over a toilet seat vomiting, there are no real choices but to back off. It’s that grey area when we shut off our brains and somehow get amnesia around that all too essential part of the puzzle we must pay attention to if we want to perform well next time and stay in the game at all.
Yes, I’m a therapist who spends hours of her workday reminding clients of the necessity of listening closely to what our minds and bodies are trying to tell us to move toward growth. It can be easier to remind others to do the hard work of taking care of themselves than it is for us to apply those same lessons to ourselves. If you are reading this and see yourself in this cycle, I hope you take a minute to reflect on ways to switch it up next time and allow yourself to soak up the rest that you need and deserve. Not only so you can stand strong on that next start line but, even more importantly, so you can continue to show up and do the things you love for years to come.
What gets in your way of true recovery? Do you find it harder to rest than to do the hard work of training? Any tips to share with others who struggle to slow down?
*Mike’s training plan was designed for a healthy Christy who was in the normal phase of recovery, not for the Christy who could barely walk, let alone lace up a pair of shoes and jog. Another public apology to Mike for being a stubborn and frustrating client.