Leave It Behind

So you like feeling as though you’re being hunted down? Does primal fear excite you? My heart rate quickened as I flashed back to my last good race: in the lead, alone at mile 4o-something, running up a craggy, exposed assent, out of water, temps pushing 90, trying to reach the aid station at the top of the mountain, feeling deeply afraid of being caught from behind, and in desperate pursuit of the male racers ahead of me. Yes, I suppose it does, I retorted. The naturopathic doctor looked concerned. And you compete in these races for over 9 hours sometimes? That’s a long time for your adrenal system to be sustaining your state of survival. You know, I think you have too much yang. I darted my eyes toward him. He was right – and all along I thought I had too much yin. You are compulsive with your athletic training. You have a strong drive for competition. This is hard on your adrenal system following an illness like you had. As I sat across the desk from my new health practitioner, I was amazed by how he could tie aspects of my character to my current state of health.

Sean O'Brien 50 mile. I won the race half on athleticism, half adrenaline. It was a great race but an important lesson that I can push my body beyond it's breaking point. I'm still not sure if that is a strength or weakness.

Sean O’Brien 50 mile. I was so under-trained for this race. I won the race on one part athleticism, one part adrenaline. It was a great race but an important lesson that I can push my body beyond it’s breaking point. I’m still not sure if that is a strength or weakness.

After being diagnosed with mono last August, I just haven’t been the same. For at least a week each month I have deep earaches, sensitivity to noise and light, inability to get warm, fevers and intense physical fatigue. Worse, I pick up any virus that I come into contact with. On hard days, I can’t wait for the day to end so I can go to bed. I do have stretches of great energy and normalcy but some days I am a shell of my former self. My patience for this pattern of malaise has worn thin. Two weeks ago when a strong headache was brewing and my temperature crept up to 101Β° I lost my temper. I stormed away from Jesse in a fit of frustration and I slammed the bedroom door. What the fuck! Why do I even bother [running]?! I’m not racing again for like half a year. Truly, my fear was not missing my next race, it was never returning to the spontaneous, energetic person I was before I got sick.

I had a strong 50-mile race in February and decided to follow it up with a 100k in April. I dropped out of the 100k and came home burned out and injured. I realized that I wasn’t healthy yet so I should focus on my health instead of racing. We were approaching the finishing stages of our new house on a gorgeous chunk of land just a few minutes from the farm. This new house is the culmination of a 7-year search for the right space for our family – a big enough house close to the farm, with some acres and a stream. Entering this new part of my life healthy, felt symbolic to me. I decided that transitioning into a new home was a good cause for declaring war on my mysterious inability to be healthy.

I still run - and get quality miles. I have have a really fun time taking running selfies with my friends.

I still run – and get quality miles. I have a really fun time taking running selfies with my friends.

After explaining my endurance pursuits and pattern of viral infections, my naturopathic doctor determined that my body was so depleted by the Epstein-Barr (mono) virus, that I wasn’t able to recover properly after stressful events. All stress is created equal to our bodies – work, kids, lack of sleep, sports, building a new house. Even though I like most of the stress in my life, my body can’t recover quickly enough, and I become symptomatic. When I am worn down, my body skips the tired phase and goes straight to sick. I feel this is why ultrarunning is a natural sport for me – I don’t have a strong internal gauge of fatigue. I suppose it’s good in the short term but it could be my ultimate undoing. In a race setting, this results in over reaching for me. I race beyond my training, resulting in exhausted systems. I didn’t realize that there is a such thing as racing too hard. I thought my body would only go as hard and fast as I was capable of – little did I know that I was draining the vitality from my body in ultramararthon races.

I left my first appointment with a short list of supplements and activities that would work to heal my fragile body. More importantly, my practitioner told me that healing was a process that may take months and that I should think of it as a lifestyle change. I could still run, and even race, but my life would need to look different if I really wanted to get better. By addressing the stresses in my life I could save up my adrenaline for races. I can’t not be responsible to the farm, I can’t not take care of my wild toddlers, and I can’t not be accountable for all of my commitments – but I can change the amount of intensity I use to go through my day. My doctor reassured me that if I could chill out in general, that I would have enough reserves to sacrifice myself to a race. I am drawn to running because it makes me feel wild and vulnerable. Overcoming my imaginary danger empowers me as an animal in nature. I learned that it can still be healthy to race with all my heart, as long as the rest of my life is balanced and healthy.

Our new home on our new land.

Our new home on our new land.

Endurance running can be a real two-faced bastard. The billowing, lofty highs of solid training and strong races contrasted with the devastation of injury and burnout is enough to make even the heartiest runner wallow in self-pity. Every serious runner has a personal story about a bad season or hard year. I now feel like I’m passing through a rite of passage. Transitioning from a carefree, blissful runner into a wiser, smarter version of myself who knows frustration and loss. In the scheme of the world I know that my woes are trivial. I remind myself of this on a daily basis. So much so that going through this roller coaster of illness and injury has made me a more grateful person on every level.

As I lay in bed the first night in our new house, I listened to all of the sounds of our valley – the crickets, the rushing of the stream, even a howling pack of coyotes. This was it, my new home – the project I had planned and plotted for years. I asked myself what I felt and, the answer was content – which is a hard emotion for me to reach. I have fleeting moments of it, mostly I chase it through the forest, over rocks and roots, trying to grab a hold of it for long enough to ask why I am I so restless?. In our new house, I realized that I may not be recovered from my illness but I can leave behind the desperation of needing to be well every day and fast in every race. Now it’s a matter of setting small, actionable goals on my way back to my pre-Epstein-Barr body. I will emerge faster, wiser and with more gratitude for each run.

Feeling healthy and ready to leave it all behind.

Feeling healthy and ready to leave it all behind.

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