Usually, I love this weekend each year–the last weekend in September. This is the weekend that Augusta is flooded with 3500+ triathletes for the Augusta 70.3 Since I moved here in 2009, I’ve participated every year except for 2010 when I was still recovering from Ironman Wisconsin. It was my first half-ironman. It is my favorite half-ironman. It is my hometown half-ironman.
But this year, it’s just painful. Tomorrow morning, thousands of athletes will take to my streets and I won’t be among them competing.
All week, friends and acquaintances keep asking me if I’m competing this weekend. They expect it. In the courthouse and in Augusta, I’m known as the triathlete, the ironman, the athlete. And, not being able to participate this weekend is just a painful reminder that I am so far from where I’d like to be. I’m so far from where I’ve been.
I’m struggling to cobble together a new identity that doesn’t include being a peak performance athlete and each time I have to answer that “no, I’m not racing in the half this weekend.” “Well, I needed a break this year.” “Yeah, I fell on my head twice.” “Nope, can barely run 3 miles in a row…,” It is just painfully clear that I’m still figuring that out. I’m still figuring out how to get back to where I was and how to get to where I want to be. And I’m still seriously angry that this year was a complete wash and backslide.
So, tomorrow, instead of pulling on my spandex to leave it all out on the course, I’ll pull on sweats to go marshall the swim start, be the best volunteer ever, and cheer my heart out with a bloody mary in hand. It’s not ideal, but it’s this year’s reality. I want this weekend to be over so I can move along and get on the road to a comeback without the constant reminders that I’m in need of a comeback.
It’s been two+ months since I recognized my burnout and I’m happy to say, folks, that sparkly Pen is back. I think back to how I was living this spring/early summer and it just makes me sad. I remember being on the verge of tears constantly. I remember sleep-walking through the days until I could get home at 5 to nap. I remember being constantly stressed that my training was going so poorly and yet still didn’t have it in me to invest more into my training.
My two weeks off really did the trick. During that time, I travelled to Western NC and didn’t swim, bike, or run once. Instead, I filled my days with reading, eating great foods, hiking with the dogs, and occasionally relaxing out by the pool. It was wonderful.
I returned back to my life after the 4th of July and was noticeably more myself, but I was not fully healed. It has taken another two more months of not training, not stressing about training, and focusing on self-care to get to the point where I am on the mend.
Does this mean that I’m back to “normal?” Heck no. Right now, my “long” runs are 4 miles. My run pace is 1.5min/mi slower than I was running in June…which itself was already 30 seconds/mile slower than I used to run. I haven’t been in a pool for 2 months and I’ve ridden only maybe 100 miles since that last post. 60 of those miles were part of a charity ride that I entered on a whim and just enjoyed being outside on my bike.
But, all of this time off means two things, (1) I’m out of shape. I’ve said to people that I’m out of shape and they always give me the same reaction. They look me up and down and say “you don’t look out of shape.” But the thing is, in-shape-ness is not determined by weight. I may look close to the same as I did in June (perhaps because, well, I didn’t look particularly ironman-fit then either), but I am not sure that I could comfortably complete a 10K if I wanted to right now. And honestly sometimes, being “in-shape” is relative.
(2) I found a life outside of Ironman. I have a tendency to be extreme. I pretty much live balls to the wall.* I like to be busy, I like to do be productive, and I pretty much run my life in constant fear of being lazy. This means that there is little time for down time and relaxing. And we all see where that left me before. So, I’ve been actively trying to find “non-productive” things to enjoy during my free time now. I think part of the reason that I was so drawn to ironman was that I could have a hobby that required me to be productive during all of my “free” time. So, I’m changing that. The pups are getting lots of dog park time and I’m doing a lot of cooking. Brennan has become a whizz at frisbee catching. He is less of a whizz at giving the frisbee back sometimes.
I’m happy and relaxed, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little unmoored by the current loss of my athlete identity. And I would be lying if I said I don’t feel pangs of jealousy and insecurity when I see all of the wonderful things that my triathlete and runner friends are doing. I want to be back training, but I want to keep the balance. So where does this leave me? Rebuilding. And I am kind of excited. There are no expectations except the expectation that I continue to have a life in addition to work and training. I’m planning on getting back into running–my very first true love and I plan on fashioning goals for next year that have absolutely nothing with being fast but instead test other limits of mine. Next year, I’m going to start by focusing on running a healthy and smart half-marathon and then move to attempting an event that I don’t even know if I can even complete: The Assault on Mt. Mitchell.
But first, before all that, I’ve got to get back at it.
*Did you know that this idiom actually originates from the position of a throttle lever in going full power?
Don’t let my silence fool you into thinking that I am deep into the busy ironman training season. I am not. Lately I have been doing a lot of sleeping. This post has been a long time in the making, but unfortunately, the subject is the prime reason that I can rarely get myself to sit down and focus on writing. The big bad B-word: Burnout.
Like many other professions, my particular career carries with it a very unique predisposition to causing burnout and compassion fatigue (see here and here). I thought I was burned out in 2010 and 2011. But it was nothing like I feel now. After the crash happened in February (and again in March) and I was forced to take a step back from training, I lost my primary stress outlet. I think that is when things started to unravel. My lack of training led to poor management of stress which just increased my stress and made me more tired so that when I could start training again I didn’t have the emotional/physical/psychological reserves to put in 14 hours of training per week. That made me feel guilty AND continued to mean that I was lacking in a stress outlet, which in turn compounded everything. By this spring, I was coming home to nap during my lunch hour and napping again when I got home from work. I was skipping workouts, key workouts, right and left.
Ultimately, in May, I found myself sitting on the curb during a number of runs with my head in my hands because I was so unhappy and tired. It was during a run on Memorial Day weekend, that I sat down on the curb and crafted an email to Jen saying that I just couldn’t do a full Ironman this year. 3 mile runs were difficult and I just did not feel like myself. And with that, I essentially wiped out all of my plans for the rest of the year. And I just didn’t even care.
I thought that I might be depressed. I thought that I might just be over triathlon. I thought that maybe I was just a lazy and apathetic person. But, it wasn’t until two weekends ago, though, that I figured out what was happening. For a while I just thought that I was dead inside because my attitude to almost everything in my life became one of callous indifference. I was becoming someone who is not me. But while at a PD conference, when everyone was talking about how inspired they were, I turned to a coworker and started to cry. And all I could do was say that I realized just how tired and numb I was. I realized that always taking home all the immense sadness in my job was making it so that I was too tired to do anything. I didn’t care about anything. Not a goddamn thing. And especially not training for an Ironman.
So, I got home and I looked up burnout. And every single symptom was me to a T. Chronic fatigue, but insomnia at night? Check. Increased Illness? Check (so many GD colds…). Anxiety? Check. Loss of Enjoyment and Pessimism? Check. Anger? Check. Feelings of Apathy, Helplessness, and Hopelessness? F yes. I started looking back at the last few months and I think other people noticed before I did. I had a number of people who I work with on a daily basis ask if I was ok because I had lost my sparkle. I struggle with being burned out because “why me?” And not in a plaintive “why god, why me?!” kind of way. But, in a “why am I the weak one that falls to burn out and not anybody else?” or “why am I the weak one?” And I feel incredibly guilty that I have ended up this way…because I should be working harder; I should be making a bigger difference.
I realize now, that I haven’t taken a legit vacay since October of 2011. I have taken time off to race but not taken time off from the world to relax. And I’m not good at relaxing, which is probably a big part of my problem. I’m also empathic to a fault, so I take home all the burdens of all of my clients. I honestly spend a lot of my free time thinking about the sadness associated with my clients’ lives and my job in general. It is difficult not to get burned out as a very sensitive person in a job that is only filled with sadness and where you so often feel absolutely impotent. I think I was self-medicating with all the triathlon hours I was putting in. And, to a degree it worked. But, I also believe that I was headed into burnout even before the crash, the crash just hastened it’s arrival.
And so, after work tomorrow, I start a two week impromptu vacation. I had two weeks leave of court for Ironman Coeur d’Alene that were not going to be used when I cancelled my IMCdA plans, so I just decided to up and take them. I have some sketchy plans, but mostly, I just want to find my, as one person called it, “bubble” again. That person said that when I’m happy and myself, I just bubble. And I apparently haven’t been that way for a few months. I know that is not the case now. I need to find that again, but I’m just not sure how.
But, that’s where I’ve been–in the middle of a burned out apathetic haze. I feel more out of shape than I have felt in my entire life. I attempted a sprint triathlon and DNF-ed yesterday because my HR was above 185 the entire time and I couldn’t get it below (another side effect of the revved up nervous system I’m dealing with). I’m just here. I would like to get back in shape so that I don’t feel so uncomfortable in my skin, but now, I’m in a mindset where I don’t know if it will ever be possible to train like I used to–to want to train like I used to, even. And I know it is the brain completely clouded over by burnout…but, still. Right now, it feels like my life will never return to its normal, like I will never be able to crawl out of this.
I am going to start doing the things that I know should help me, even though all I feel like doing ever is sit on the couch. Hopefully I will do more yoga, disconnect my work email from my phone, enjoy my runs, eat healthy, and get good sleep. And hopefully as I piece together these things that I used to love, I’ll start to love them again and I will start to crawl my way out of this hole. And then when I get done with vacation, I can return to work and take better care of myself.
As I settled into Ironman Louisville (IMKY) training with 22 weeks to go, I struggled with the mental drive to keep up with training. After almost two months of non-ideal (or non-existent) training because of “catastrophic” ice storms and crash(es), I had forgotten how to hurt. And I forgot why I did all this training. In fact, I am still struggling with that right now. It’s been months and months and months since I’ve raced and I just don’t have that fire lit under my butt right now (maybe because I feel so out of shape). So, week 1 was a mental battle every day between taking a nap or training. Or sitting on the couch watching Teen Mom 2 (yea, no shame) or training. Finally by the end of the week I had a little fight back in me and I got in my first legit long run in months and had a pretty solid brick workout (still on the trainer).
While I was starting to get my training groove back, I had a figurative anvil dropped on my head and week 2 was plagued with the typical extreme Georgia spring pollen showers. I honestly have never had horrible allergies…until this year. I was so incredibly miserable (and probably very unpleasant to deal with). I only starting feeling better(ish) when I took allegra AND zyrtec AND sudafed AND nasacort (yes, I might have been a bit woozy too). And that was after 5 days of wandering around carrying a box of tissues and whining to anyone whowould listen. Just for reference, 100 ppm is a high tree pollen count. Last week, we had steady 3200+ ppm readings. That is 32 times what is considered “high.” I now associate the smell of new spring flowers with misery.
As the week ended and I was still miserably battling allergies, I was *dragged* kicking and screaming to the beach with some friends. I tried to back out a number of times (the introvert in me always thinks trips with a large group of people are a great plan until it actually comes time to do them. Then I freak out). But,as they prepared for drinking and relaxing on the beach, I prepared for some solid beach training. We took 2 cars and a truck, and the back of the truck was primarily devoted to my bike and trainer and other such training essentials. I was pretty much a space hog. But, once I got to the beach, I was thankful to be able to do a beachfront trainer ride (still benched from riding outside) while my friends relaxed and then join them once my 2.5 hours were over with. I was less motivated by the time sunday came around and did another hour on the trainer, but flaked on my long run. The pull of breakfast and watching bad movies was too hard to overcome. I began this week beating myself up about that willful skipping of an important workout, but in the end, I decided that I had to move on from it and use the experience to remind me not to do that again.
Week 1 (March 24 – March 30):
- Total Hours: 7 hrs 42 min
- Swim: 1:51/5600yds
- Bike: 2:30/??miles
- Run: 2:51/20miles
- Strength: 0:30
Week 2 (March 31 – April 6):
- Total Hours: 9:01
- Swim: 2:24/7600yds
- Bike: 5:54/??miles
- Run: 0:49/5.5miles
And now, my car is packed up (mostly) and I’m headed to Florida for the first “race” of the season.
Two weeks ago, I was supposed to have a recap all about how I was feeling better and I had committed to Ironman Coeur d’Alene training. I was all in. I had lined up at least 7 different 70-100 mile rides that had 5000-10000′ of climbing each. I was passing on stuff with friends because I was going to spend the next 17 weeks focused on one thing: ironman.
And so with that in mind, I had a good first training week back. I was a little rusty when I started back on Monday after a two week concussing-fueled hiatus. But, by Friday, I was getting back in the groove and I had decided that I would drive to Spartanburg for an organized Assault on Mount Mitchell training ride that would be 86 miles and lots of climbing. So that Saturday morning, March 8th, I woke up early and headed out of town for a 2+hr drive north to Spartanburg.
All was going well when 30 miles into the ride I came down a hill and my aerobars moved. Apparently I had not tightened the bolt tight enough when I fixed them after the super crash. So, I looked down to shift them back up because I had a good 100 feet between me and the group. But, by the time I realized what was happening, the entire group had stopped because the road was washed out. I slammed on my brakes, but I had to brake so hard that I wiped out. Ugh. Again.
The fortunate thing is that the brunt of the fall was absorbed by flesh wounds…though I did hit my head again.
I never lost consciousness and I def didn’t hit my head nearly as hard this time. But, this still scared the crap out of me because a higher frequency of brain trauma can exponentially increase the negative effects of the trauma. I didn’t get another concussion this time, but the crash did set me back a week or so in the recovery from the bad concussion. After this second accident, my doctor (ok, my triathlon bestie/emergency medicine doc with specialized concussion training) benched me for a month, which means absolutely no riding outside for a month because I cannot risk hitting my head AGAIN while my noggin still heals.
When I realized that I wouldn’t get back out on the road until 12 weeks before IMCdA, I realized that trying to race a full Ironman by the end of June would be a recipe for disaster given this spring’s miserable start. And, because of that, I took advantage of the new WTC transfer program and transferred my registration to Ironman Louisville. With Louisville, I’ve opened myself up to a different set of challenges (hot hot hot) but have managed to give myself an extra two months of training and a location close enough that my family will come and cheer!
This spring has been less than ideal with training and I’m now 22 weeks out from Ironman Louisville. I haven’t had a legit long run since my last half-marathon at the end of January, and I’m solidly twenty pounds above my ideal race weight. I’m a little scared. But hey, it can only go up from here, right?
I’m still amazed by the fact that the only part of my body that I managed to damage in this crash was my head/brain. No road rash, no real bruises, no broken bones. While I don’t remember the impact, I can only imagine that somehow, I initially and primarily made contact with the ground solely with the back of my helmet.
Here’s what I remember from that ride on Sunday 2/16:
Finishing up one 25 mile loop on my ride and trying to decide if I should do 30 mile loop or a 35 mile loop. Getting hit in the head with head-level ice-storm debris that extended from the shoulder out over on the road. Being surprised and knocked off-balance by that and then as I tried to correct, seeing more debris in the road. Thinking “oh expletive, I’m going to crash.” Thinking “oh expletive, I’m crashing.”
Waking up with a car pulled over on the side of the road and two guys that were already holding my bike. Trying to get up to get to my bike. Briefly standing up, blacking out, falling back down as I passed out again. Pretty much crawling to the side of the road as I tried not to vomit. Remembering to stop my garmin (priorities, people!). Telling the guys from the car “oh, I’m totally fine, I’ll just ride home, you can go on.”
Deciding after they left and I was alone on the side of the road that I totally could not ride home. Deciding that instead of calling my friends, it was a good idea to send texts (or even smarter, GroupMe messages) to my friends to see if they could pick me up. Thinking a good GroupMe message was: “crashed my bike, can anyone pick me up on the side of the road in SC.” Calling my bff’s husband and saying that I was somewhere over the river in SC and giving the following directions: “cross the river at that road by the place, and then turn right and keep going.” Knowing that I was incapable of giving coherent directions to anyone who didn’t know where I was. Thinking “oh I should totally instagram a picture of the debris that made me crash.” Not instagramming said picture.
Getting picked up by a cycling/triathlon friend who would know where I was without me really having to explain. Driving home and having said friend suggest he take me to the ER. Refusing, saying I was “fine!” Getting home and texting my bestie, who then told me to “go. to. the. ER. NOW.” Relenting, finally, but ignoring her advice to have someone drive me. Being a dumb stupid moron and driving my own GD self to the ER with a head trauma. Not realizing how f-ing stupid that was.
Continuing to tell all the doctors/nurses at the ER that I was totally fine (incorrect). That I never lost consciousness (incorrect, though at the time, I had no idea). That I had no pain/injury other than my goose egg on my head (incorrect–I couldn’t move my neck and had given myself whiplash). Being seen by a doctor/nurse for a total of 2.5 minutes. Not getting a CT scan. Being handed discharge instructions, but not being told anything about what to do. F-ing driving myself home. Going to sleep. Occasionally waking up and Groupme-ing my friends that I was, in fact, still alive. Emailing my boss and judge that I (naively) thought that I would be in for a half day tomorrow, but just that.
Things stopped being fuzzy around Monday afternoon when I finally read the discharge instructions that no one went over with me. Apparently, I was not supposed to be alone for 24 hours (oops) and supposed to be woken every 2 hours (oops). I was also not supposed to drive (oops again). You know what is great medical treatment? Telling someone with a head injury that they shouldn’t read, but only giving them discharge instructions in written form without going over them. Either I will have to read them. Or I won’t know. Some of us are crazy dog ladies that live by ourselves, Mr. Doctor.
Day 1 (Monday 2/17): I actually felt ok-ish Monday, but I stayed home from work. I have, unfortunately, extensive experience with Post Concussion Syndrome after a crash four years ago that had lingering effects for 6-8 months (spanning a time that included my last Ironman, an experience that was miserable courtesy of PCS). That time, however, I didn’t realize I had a concussion and continued to work and train for days until someone said something about me being spacey (and maybe a little mean with marked personality changes). That time, I also didn’t slow down. I tried to power through it. I think I took a half day off from work and maybe missed one workout. For a concussion, the most important thing you can do is rest your brain: don’t think, don’t read, don’t watch tv, don’t text or play on your smartphone. And in fact, recent literature shows that it is resting in those first few days that really impacts the speed at which you recover.
The effect of not recovering last time was so not worth those extra few days at work or hours of training. So, I committed to taking time off from training and time off from work this time. I spent all of Monday on the couch. I couldn’t do anything to keep myself entertained, so I tried to sleep as much as humanly possible.
Day 2 & 3 (Tuesday 2/18, Wednesday 2/19): By Tuesday and Wednesday, the headaches began to kick in and I was walking around my house like a drunk person. On Wednesday I decided to try going into work, but when I got there, I was greeted by a friend saying “oh god, why are you so pale?” I attempted 10 minutes of work and then I was promptly sent home. The majority of both days were spent on the couch listening (not watching) the Olympics. Tuesday and Wednesday looked shockingly similar:
Day 4 (Thursday 2/20): Again out of work, but I spent a great deal of time stressing that I was missing a court session where I had cases on the docket. Not that I wouldn’t have been straight up ineffective had I actually tried to be a practicing lawyer while seriously concussed. The headaches continued to get worse and I continued to be plagued by the feeling of being a stumbling drunk that got dizzy and nauseated when standing. I attempted to make a doctors appointment with my GP, but she couldn’t see me for another week and a half (WTF). So, I called around at the suggestions of a family member in the medical field here, but no one (seriously, not one freaking person anywhere) could see me. I live in the city of the largest public medical school in GA. There are very few benefits to living here, but access to decent medical care should be one of them. Apparently, it is not. Soooooo, back to the ER I went.
There was a general consensus that it was ridiculous that the treating physician didn’t order a CT scan on Sunday at the ER, but that the window of dying from a brain bleed had already passed, so I was probably safe without a CT scan now. I was diagnosed with Post Concussion Syndrome and told that with my history of a previous lingering concussion, there was a good chance that I might have symptoms for quite a while. I was further advised that for prime brain healing, I should (no shit) sit in a dark room and do nothing. I asked for ambien to sleep away this incredibly boring time of not being able to stimulate my brain. Apparently, that is not a medically proscribed use for such drug. Sigh. Back to a dark room with no stimulation.
Days 5 & 6 (Friday 2/21, Saturday 2/22): Things started looking up around Friday. I made my debut back at work for a lunch with an interviewee (though, I was still not driving) and managed to do about 1 hour of work in the afternoon. I felt good. I wasn’t 100%, but I was feeling at least 85%. I began to have great ambitions to start training hard again on Monday after I went back to work.
Day 7 (Sunday 2/23): It was a bittersweet Sunday morning as I spectated the Augusta Half Marathon. I was sad to not be running like I had planned, but I always enjoy spectating races and cheering on the athletes of all shapes and sizes…especially when I can do it with the two loves of my life.
Days 8 & 9 (Monday 2/24, Tuesday 2/25): I returned to work yesterday and unfortunately had an 11 hour day ahead of me. By 2pm, I was worthless. I only made it that long because I didn’t really use my brain for the first hour or two of work. Working is hard, y’all. For real. Today was more of the same struggle to get through a normal 8 hour work day. Around 3:30 today, I had my first PCS-induced temperamental semi-melt-down as I hit an all time energy low. I was supposed to have an hour trainer workout, but I couldn’t get out of bed before 9 am and as soon as I got home from work at 6:15, I was in pajamas.
Obviously, I’m not making a quick recovery. I was told to take 2 weeks off from training, which is less than ideal with an Ironman 18 weeks away. I had hoped to start back with light training this week (slightly shy of the 2 weeks), but I’m not sure that is going to be possible, as I can barely now make it through an entire 8-hour work day without succumbing to bone-tired exhaustion and an inability to formulate complex (and sometimes simple) thoughts. I know that some of this is normal and probably could be expected since generally concussions take longer to resolve with each passing instance. But I’m now starting to really worry that I will be able to make a quick comeback, particularly with my history.
The question becomes, wtf do I do about CdA. I’m not sure yet. I have lots of thoughts, but do not have the brain power currently to do any more thinking tonight (or proofreading, sorry if you are reading this Randy :)). And, anyway, I promised Jen that I wouldn’t make any decision about CdA until at least March 1.
And now, time for a, hopefully, 10 hour night of sleep!