I’ve been getting a lot more attention through our website than usual, likely because of Alex's triathlon adventures, and with it a lot of inquiries about my racing. Most people are surprised when I say that I stopped training a year and a half ago, and then without fail they ask when I’m going to race again.
I’ve wanted to write about it before, but I didn’t want it to come across too emotionally. This week when Laurent Vidal passed away, I thought of how he had been such an influence in my life even though we’d never met. I admired how positive he was about having to stop racing despite his huge talent, and how he chose to remain such a massive and influential part of the ITU. I wanted to be like Laurent. I want to be like Laurent.
I would love to race again, but elite triathlon doesn’t work that way. It’s all or nothing. I was fortunate enough to put triathlon first for a very long time. I am no longer capable of getting to my peak fitness, and wouldn't be happy racing at a quarter of the fitness that I know I am capable of, even at a less competitive level. Getting to a quarter fitness is still a shit-ton of work! It’s early mornings, and late nights, and rainy cold Saturdays fit around an exhausting work week. I coach many age-groupers, and I know I don’t have the energy resources, or the drive, for that lifestyle.
I never went to the Olympics obviously. I
was never making a living out of ITU triathlon. I was never as single-minded as I should have been to be a great
triathlete, since I have always had other passions. Still, getting over the sport that I had dedicated my entire life to (so far) was challenging! There were many steps involved in the 'getting-over-it'
Step 1: Cowboy Up
Deciding to quit is easier said than done. I knew from the day that I re-triggered my Overtraining Syndrome in May 2014, that it was over. However for the first time, I wasn’t fighting for people to believe in me, I was fighting for people to let me go. I dragged it out. Big goals to just turn your back on.
Step 2: False Hope
In an effort to make “retiring” less real, I clung to the idea that I would get healthy, and then begin a gradual more realistic return to racing. I knew that I would never be capable of training at the same level as all the other ITU athletes again, but I also had acquired an understanding of my physiology that had previously been untapped. Unlike most of the aerobic-beasts in ITU, I knew I didn’t need as much intensity in my training to be fast. I wanted more than anything to try a training approach revolving around technique and volume, with small episodes of perfectly timed intensity. I wanted to try training in a way where I was completely in control. I had only had one small period of training throughout my career where I felt like I was training to make myself faster, as opposed to training the way ITU athletes are expected to train. I wanted to find that zone again.
Let's be real - I would have never been an Olympic gold medalist. I have seen the physiology required to be truly great at ITU, and I don’t have it. That said, I could have raced a hell-of–a lot faster than I ever did. I don’t have the aerobic engine that is typical of most triathletes, but when I’m healthy, I cover breaks that no one else can, I draft like a genius in the water, and I’m tough. Big goals to just turn your back on.
Step 3: The Exercise Addiction
This part isn’t just specific to me!!! I’ve seen it in many training partners: serious anxiety around not exercising and being outside a least a couple times a day.
How I got over it:
I actually found my happy by re-triggering the overtraining syndrome for a third (maybe 4th or 5th if you look far enough back) time. It was this past February. I wasn’t training anymore. I was still in step 3 (the addicted to exercise phase) a little bit. I was trying to get back into running for real, so I was doing little 30- 45 minute jogs. I was trying to learn to surf. I went on adventure rides, and I was doing super fun gym workouts a few times a week. I wasn’t pushing myself, I was just doing what made me happy. Then one morning I woke up and my Heart Rate Variability (which I had been tracking regularly) was really bad. I figured that I must be getting sick, so instead of going for a longer run, I decided to just go for a little jog. It felt terrible. I turned back up the hill to my house and instead of my heart rate increasing as it should when you run up a hill, it went down. Intrigued, I pushed a little harder. Full body pain. Like the last 100m of an 800m on the track. That was interesting… as that usually only happens when I have overtraining syndrome, but I wasn't even training anymore!
And then I was knocked out for months. Brain-fog. I couldn’t hold a conversation. I could barely stay awake until 7pm. Getting off the couch to make dinner or do the dishes would make me want to cry. After a few weeks of body aches and exhaustion like the flu (worse than mono by far, I know), and knowing that I had a good 4 to 6 months ahead of me (from previous episodes), I took advantage of no longer being in the testing pool, and self-prescribed some cortisol boosters. Immediate relief. Like a light switch going on in my brain. I could function again, although any exercise would set me back for a few days. Easy walks would still be exhausting. From experience, I knew that not doing anything physical was my only hope of functioning as a human, so I broke my exercise addiction once and for all. I didn’t drag it on like I had previously, when we thought that I should at least keep doing light training if I planned on making a comeback. I was way healthier doing absolutely nothing. It was also neat to feel the hormone aspect of my moods. I always knew that I was in a good place and happy overall , but if I did too much in a day it would throw off my hormones enough to make me quite depressed and brain-fogged. I knew that I wasn't really sad, and that it was just a function of my health, but it was still annoying to wait it out each time. I couldn't believe how stupid I was to have pushed through for as long as I did during my episode the summer before.
I finally came to terms with the fact that getting healthy was going to take a lot longer than I had planned. I let it go. I’m happy. But of course I’m still in the 4th step.
Step 4: New Lifestyle
The last step is finding new goals that can compare to the all-consuming, borderline impossible goals that you dedicate your life to as an athlete. Clocking hours to make money is extremely unsatisfying in comparison. Not having enough time to both sleep and exercise (because of work) is super annoying. That said, I love being free to make my own choices. That was what broke me down the most in high performance sport. I have never lacked other interests or goals. I love that I can go climbing or surfing or adventuring as much as my financial situation allows. I want to study overtraining syndrome since the medical and scientific understanding is definitely lacking. There has been some sweet new research done on an inhibition of glycolysis that may potentially reduce the provision of adequate acetyl-CoA for the citric acid cycle found in chronic fatigue patients (aka: blocked energy availability for exercise), as well as partial peripheral glucocorticoid receptor resistance in people with chronic stress (reduced fight or flight capability- aka: What you need to be able to do to exercise). I know there are a large number of factors that accumulate to create a rare situation like my own, but with that said, I can name at least half a dozen triathletes who have experienced career ending chronic fatigue. It would be cool if I could do this type of research in my masters degree, but if I can’t find a program to support this, I can work on it later down the road in my academic future.