I realized it when I was carrying groceries in from the car; I was so weak that I was out of breath walking the five steps up to the house. Once I start running again, I need help, I thought, feeling one part relief, three parts disappointment. My bright flash of self-awareness came to me in August, but it was long overdue. I had lost all touch with what feeling good, sick, tired or healthy even felt like. Over the last year I had two states of being: can-run or can’t-run. On the can-run days, I was a wild animal making up for all of the can’t-run days.
In August 2015 I was diagnosed with mono (Epstein Barr virus) and I haven’t been the same since. I have had some decent results, a 50 mile win and a 50k podium, and some glorious weeks of running. But I haven’t been able to sustain training for more than two months at a time. Viral relapses knock me down so hard that I have considered quitting running altogether, but the thought of not having an intense sport in my life keeps me coming back for more.
My training has always been intuitive and unrestrained. I have done my best to avoid scientific and analytical considerations. Not that I feel I can outsmart numbers, I just prefer a more natural approach to suffering for speed. My running has consisted of setting a goal peak mileage that crests three weeks before the race, then tapers off for the event. The content of those miles has been a mix of perceived low intensity with a mix of tempo and fartlek-style intervals. Running, trail running in particular, brings me to a primal place of survival. I get so energized by my runs that I loose track of what effort I am putting out and can’t sense how much recovery I need following training sessions. Being forced to take breaks from running only perpetuates my excitement for pushing myself. This behavior is dangerous for someone recovering from a serious illness.
My post-mono running had become more of an expression of my moods and emotions than an organized effort to reach my running potential. Excited, frustrated, inspired, bored, pissed off, content – my running was a way to indulge all of my feelings. What I really needed was to separate running from my internal discourse, and the only way I could do that was to get some structure from an expert. I found my coach, David Roche, through Trail Runner Magazine, where he is a regular contributor. He is also an elite trail runner with incredible race results. I remember reading a column of his about running easy to increase aerobic strength. In that story he discussed how his wife had mono last year and he trained her past the infection and how she is faster than ever now. In my most recent episode of fatigue I had reached a new level of desperation and finally got over my commitment to my unstructured running style.
I was excited when David told me that I would be actively recovering from my recent bout of malaise. My first assignment was to get a GPS watch with a heart rate monitor. I have an old Garmin that I used in races to know where I was on the course and how long I had been running. A new and improved watch was definitely in store to celebrate my adventure into structured training. I settled on the Suunto Ambit 3 Sapphire. When I started my new running program with David, I was healing a sprained pubis in addition to being recently very sick. I decided to stick to a flat, soft railroad corridor turned bike path a few miles from our house. On the first day I was supposed to run for 30 minutes at or below 135 heart beats per minute (bpm). While I trotted down the gravel path I got familiar with all of the data reading out on my watch. As I settled into a comfortable clip, I saw the bpm figure rising up to 150. What the fuck is this shit! I whispered loudly. I stopped in my tracks and waited for the number to fall back down to 130bpm then started running again. I knew that I would be starting easy, but this painfully slow pace made my entire body boil with frustration.
My pace quickened as the weeks rolled on and David raised my easy-effort heart rate threshold and started to add in intensity intervals. I was running real miles again – and my pelvis was healed so I was cleared to run on my beloved trails. But I still felt unsatisfied, like I wasn’t working hard enough and I didn’t feel my runs deep down inside. One night over dinner I told my husband, Jesse, that I wasn’t excited by my new, responsible training. He looked me dead in the eyes, You want daily excitement? You’re in the wrong sport. You know what’s exciting? Doing more than two ultras a year. Being able to train for more than two months in a row. Not constantly being in physical therapy. You know what’s exciting? Running down the last descent at mile 57 at Sean O’Brien [100k]. You’re not even going to get to that race if you need excitement every day. You want excitement? Go get a mountain bike. Dammit, he was right. In my low times I had conjured healthy running into something it isn’t – an action packed thrill. Sure, there’s some of that, but there are a lot of days where it’s just calm running. A peaceful process that I need to accept in order to get to the exciting stuff.
As I continue my training plan, a loud conversation is constantly rolling in my head: have discipline, commit to the process, embrace the grind, stronger each day, zero limits. All of the inspirational endurance phrases that I had come to think of as fuel for pushing super hard are just as meaningful for grinding out the boring, unremarkable days. Each week that passes that I am healthy and injury free are like winning little races. My instinctual running style and disregard for pain will bode well for me when I put my training to the test in real races. If I can be honest with myself about my limitations in training I should be able to keep building my strength without making detours for illness. Now I have goals that aren’t just about my next race, I have goals that are about being healthy this week, being fast 10 years from now, and all of the moving targets in between.