I’ve always been drawn to stories of plague. Through the sadness and fight for survival, the characters always realize what really matters in their life. The fragility of humankind in the hands of nature is strangely comforting at times when my own world feels all too heavy. Thankfully, I have never even been close to experiencing serious illness, but I have been sick. Viruses stop us on our tracks, steal our momentum, and make us change up our plans.
My story of fragility started months ago, but I will begin with when I first learned about it. We took off Thursday afternoon before Labor Day to head up to a friend’s cabin in Northern Wisconsin. On Friday morning the doctor called to tell me that I have mono and that I have had it since June. This serious virus that causes extreme exhaustion and flu-like symptoms can disappear and re-surface again if the patient is stressing their immune system. The fatigue can last for months. My world had been feeling heavy for a while, so an explanation was welcomed, but the diagnosis was devastating.
My summer had started out with injury, then turned into racing success. After recovering from SI issues in May, I kicked off June with a 2nd place 20k finish. Then I jumped into moderate training for a 50 mile race in July. In the back of my mind I was planning to win the 50 mile but didn’t want to set myself up for disappointment if it didn’t work out – I had dropped out of my previous 50 for the injury. In the Dances with Dirt 50 mile, I took 1st in the female division and 4th overall. I had no problems during the race and recovered really fast. In retrospect, I could have raced a lot harder. I took a week off, then needed to decide what kind of training and racing I wanted to do for the fall season.
Jesse, my husband/coach, and I decided that it was time to see how I could build on my Dances with Dirt win. I dove into a new training schedule that included back-to-back long runs on Saturday and Sunday (+/-12mile then 20+mile), several moderate paced 5-10 mile runs, and some speed workouts. I was averaging 60 miles a week – almost all on trail. After the long Sunday runs I was usually so wrecked that I had trouble sleeping or eating. I thought that the super humid weather and the new rigor of my training was just taking a little more out of me than normal. I started eating more carefully and getting to bed earlier. But as August went on I felt like I was using more and more energy just to get through my week. The kids felt harder to handle and managing the house became really challenging. Feeding the pigs and cows was such a struggle that I stopped doing it and moving stacks of vegetables took a lot of effort. This was hard for me because I have always thrived on a full schedule and have taken energy from balancing all of the things I feel passionate about.
Toward the end of August, I couldn’t even carry Mischa (21 months) up the stairs without being winded and I needed to sit down while getting dressed. Somehow I ran about 20 miles that last weekend When I finished my 12 mile run, I was shivering. My biggest fear in the decline of energy and running performance was Over Training Syndrome – a condition that afflicts endurance athletes. There is a little research on OTS, but plenty of anecdotal stories to scare me, it has been receiving a lot of press lately. If I was suffering from OTS, I was worried about my chance of competing on a high level in ultrarunning, because my training was not very intense or prolonged compared to elite runners. It would mean that I just wasn’t cut out for the sport.
I went to the doctor last week to plead for an answer that could bring me back to my former, vibrant self. I had an achy neck and back, inability to stand for more than a few minutes, a terrible headache, nausea, and chills. We talked through every possibility from iron deficiency to pregnancy. I gave so much blood that I didn’t think I could make the 30 minute drive home. Two days later, I paced back and forth in the bedroom of the up-north cabin listening to the doctor list off all of the things that weren’t wrong with me. But, you did test positive for mono. I’m really sorry. I pealed the phone off of my clammy cheek and sat on the bed. Denial, anger, frustration, and sadness passed through me on rapid fire causing my heart to flutter. When I put the phone back to my ear she continued on to tell me that I have had the virus at least since June. I had visited the clinic earlier in the summer to ask about painful lymph nodes in my groin and gave blood samples. Mono wasn’t tested for at that time so I carried on without recovery. My recent bout of illness was my body’s response to the stress of running. My current instructions are to rest for at least two weeks then return slowly to my activities. If I come back too fast, my body can’t heal.
Ultimately, I think this missed diagnosis in June was actually a good thing. If I had known I was sick, I would have taken several weeks off of running and probably not competed in Dances with Dirt. If I had taken time off or not raced, I would be done with the sickness by now but I would not have the same confidence I found over the summer. Also, knowing that I can be competitive and train really hard while my body is battling mono is awesome. What is important now is to actually let my immune system rest and fight off the virus so I can continue my training as a strong, healthy athlete.
Getting sick is such a waste of time. But I need to be open minded and flexible because this will not be the last setback I experience. I am missing a 3 day trail race this weekend that I have really been looking forward to, Rock Cut HOBO Triple Crown: 10k, 25k, 50k. I still plan to race The North Face Endurance Challenge Wisconsin 50 mile on October 3, but I have adjusted my expectations. I had two other 50 milers on my schedule for October then December – the December one is still possibility. In addition to going for podium finishes at races, I had speed goals set for myself that will likely have to wait until I’m healthy. Setbacks happens for a reason and I will try to enjoy the down time. My family has rallied around me to help me get through this stretch of illness. Ultrarunning is just a sport and it’s going to be there next year.