Lessons Hard-learned

We will be more successful in all our endeavors if we can let go of the habit of running all the time, and take little pauses to relax and re-center ourselves. And we’ll also have a lot more joy in living. –Thich Nhat Hanh

“Have you been to California recently?”
“No,” I replied.
“Then that’s probably not poison oak.”
After 3 weeks of a swollen eye and blisters on my skin, I finally went to a doctor to see why I still wasn’t recovered from my encounter with poison ivy/oak. He sent me to an ophthalmologist. I was in for a surprise that day.

I am the kind of person who prides myself on my health. My once-a-year physical usually results in my physician saying something like “You are my healthiest patient,” or, on my last visit, “Don’t worry about coming back to me for a physical for 3 years. Seriously.” On the rare occasion I have a cold, I let it run its course and I’m back to normal in a few days. I seek medical help for running injuries more than health issues. Even with those, I am the kind of person who will self diagnose an injury and decide whether or not I can take care of it without professional help. So when my eye became swollen, I consulted Google and saw pictures of people with poison ivy/oak on their face. They had a puffy, shut eye and little blisters. That’s what I had. Even Emily was convinced it was poison ivy.

The only problem was that I know I’m not allergic to poison ivy. So it had to be poison oak! (I don’t know if that logic even makes sense, since, if I’m not mistaken, both plants produce the same oil.) But I don’t remember running into any poison oak with my head… And what about this pain above my eye? It must just be the swelling pushing on a nerve. Why doesn’t it itch? Even with some unanswered questions, I thought, what else could it be? So I did what I always do, searched Google again; this time for treatment of poison ivy/oak. I ate Benadryl and put witch hazel, jewelweed and aloe on my skin. I took anti-inflammatory supplements. I did everything that I could find to treat it, but it seemed like it wasn’t healing. Three weeks went by and the swelling finally went down and the blisters were fading. But now it started itching. Its not supposed to start itching when its going away, is it? Then it felt like my eye was starting to swell, again. I decided it was time to seek professional help.

After seeing a physician and a specialist, it was determined that I had – shingles? In my eye? I didn’t even know that was a thing. Since it was in my eye, it was a serious condition, that needed to be addressed weeks ago. I came to learn that the chicken pox virus stays in your spine after you think you are cured as a 9 year old. Then if your immune system becomes significantly impaired, it can resurface as shingles. But wait… hold on a second… impaired immune system? I thought my immune system was strong. I thought I was a healthy person. It was time to look back and re-assess my situation.

Beyond Over Training

When I think back over this past year, it’s now clear to me that I’ve been burning the candle at both ends, and then stomping around in the wax. I was ignoring all red flags and was borderline delusional. In the months of July and August I was running, cycling, scrambling, hiking, weight training, mobility training, running marathons twice in one week and traveling a lot. I thought I was keeping track of it all, but my Strava account didn’t accurately represent what I was doing every week. My mileage was usually under 50 miles per week – but that was just running. Sometimes I would record an outing on my bike, but not half the time. I was judging my output on that mileage data alone, not considering all the cross training i was doing, ignoring my body’s repeated cries for cessation. I kept asking it to go ever more each day. It finally broke.

I should have known something was wrong when I was rolling my ankle every week after San Juan Solstice 50. I should have paid attention to the fact that I couldn’t sleep – but I just took some Valerian root every night to make me drowsy, justifying that I just need it until after the next race.  I was always completely worn out, but I justified it – isn’t constant fatigue normal for ultrarunners? Still, I pushed hard on my runs, continued to cross train and ignored all warnings. I was even skipping my daily meditation practice. My only focus was getting faster and stronger, even though I was going in the complete opposite direction. My performance had plateaued and then dropped. This is what led to the collapse of my immune system.

Looking Back on Myself as a Runner

I am now looking through the 20/20 vision of hindsight. I am ambitious, to my own downfall. It’s ironic that my last running injury was my Achilles tendon, as if to exclaim that my hubris was going to be my downfall. I was stuck in a mindset of where I wanted to be, not where I am. So where am I exactly?

I have only been running for about 3 years now. Before that, I was a gym rat, mostly focused on building muscle and running was just “cardio” that I would skip regularly. So how the hell did I get into running 50 miles at a time? It began when Emily and I had started dating. She was going to run a 5k and I agreed to run it with her. While training, I found an inner peace when I was running on trails in the Virginia woods. After the 5k I basically dropped out of the gym scene and spent all my time on the trails. A few months later my cousin, Nick, asked me to run a 50 mile race with him. For some reason, I thought it was a good idea and started training.

Now, here is my first mistake: I literally went from an occasional jogger to attempting a 50 mile race in less than one year. This, as crazy as it sounds, isn’t even that unthinkable. My second mistake, was listening to my ego. For whatever reason, I had this crazy notion that it is possible for me to place high or even win my first 50 mile, in my first year of running. Sounds stupid. I trained too hard for a beginner. On race day, I stayed in the top 10 at the Lake Martin 50, until about mile 25. I burned out hard and dropped at mile 30, with major injuries to my IT bands and plantar fascia.

So what did I do then? I took a couple of months off and then signed up for Mountain Masochist 50, with the intention of just finishing a 50 miler. (I still had yet to run even a 10k race.) I trained hard, again. During that training block, I visited Boulder for the first time and hit the hills with a passion that I had never felt before. Returning to Virginia I ran the last 25 miles of the Masochist course, without recovering from Colorado, and a week after I had planned to do my last long run over 15 miles. I showed up to the race over trained and inexperienced. I finished, but barely. I had aggravated my IT band again and this time I wouldn’t recover for almost a year.

Here I was, only two years of running and ultra-marathon training, less if you count the months off for injury, and I move to Boulder. The delusion sets in. I attempt, non-stop, to run up these 8000 ft mountains on a daily basis. I see improvements at first. I DNF at TNF 50 in December. I again take time off. Starting in January 2016, I start slowly hiking/ running. I take it easy and see good improvement. Then I desire to see improvement every run. I know this is not possible, but subconsciously I try anyway. I am dealing with acclimatization to the high elevation, I am still the newb-est of newbies in the whole running scene and I don’t care.

I signed up for San Juan Solstice 50, a high elevation mountain race in July. I figured I would be in amazing shape by then (😑). The months of training that followed were some of the best times of my life. I was in love with being out in these Colorado mountains, I met and ran with amazing people and enough was never enough. My passion and ambitions led me into the mountains almost daily. Mentally, I was feeling better than I had ever felt. Physically, I was falling apart. I was bonking on at least half of my runs. I didn’t do more than a handful of easy runs. I treated every day like a workout and convinced myself that I wasn’t going too hard. After San Juan, I should have rested. I wanted more though. I hit the high country every weekend and started training for Steamboat Stinger. I started cycling. I added more strength training. I agreed to pace Tim Olson for 24-25 miles at Leadville 100 a week after I ran a marathon. This cumulative hard-headed, ego-driven approach has taken me to the lowest point I’ve physically been in my entire life. Now I am going on a month of not even being able to step onto a trail, in the peak of beautiful, late summer weather.

Moving Forward

It took my immune system completely abandoning me, to make me stop and look at what I was doing. The mind-body, emotional connection to disease is that eye problems can indicate you aren’t looking at something clearly, or don’t want to examine something. That seems dead on. I am now on the road to recovery (finally treating the right illness!) and will be back in action soon, although it will be a toned-down approach to action. I need to accept where I am, that I am still new to this and need to allow my body time to adjust. It’s easy for me to go overboard and I hope this experience has taught me to step back and assess my situation from time to time.

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