I have just come to the realization that I have been suffering for quite awhile from a serious case of runners burnout. Luckily I have made it to the other side and have learned so much along my excruciating journey. I have decided to share what I have gone through in the hopes that this might help someone else out there going through the same thing. Or maybe it will help someone to catch themselves before they fall. The further you fall into the abyss… the tougher it is to climb out and be whole again.
I believe my fall began after I returned from a race in Oman. It was a 4 day event that began at the end of January, 2014. TransOmania was a 200 mile non-stop footrace through the desert. It began on the north coast of Oman… took runners up and over a mountain range…and then descended down into the desert to end up on the east coast of the country. Half the race was through deep sand that sapped the strength of everyone competing.
As I wrote about in a previous blog… I contracted dysentery before the race even began. I have a very sensitive system… and I seem to pick up dysentery wherever I travel. But this time it was different. It was worse than I had ever experienced. This time it felt like my body was swelling up like a balloon, and there was no way to make the swelling go down. I was full of gas, and for however much gas escaped…the swelling didn’t ease up. I had what seemed like non-stop diarrhea. My body was wracked with pain. It felt like someone had shoved a knife in my guts…and was twisting it in. There was no relief from the pain.
I had trained for a year for this event and I was not going to throw it all away to just stand at the start line and wave goodbye to everyone. I had spent too much time training, too much money, and had travelled a long way to get here. I was going to start this race… despite the fact that I was just not capable of doing it in my condition. The event began with a huge climb up the side of a mountain range. ….. By the time I got to the top of that climb I knew it was over. I had made it about 20 kilometers. I was dead last. I had been stopping every few minutes to relieve myself of gas and diarrhea. I was weak and dehydrated. I knew all of the signs from having gone through this before.
I was out of the race and it was devastating. I spent the rest of the event encouraging the other runners as they made their way from Checkpoint to Checkpoint. The last couple of days I stayed put at the finish line… and waited for the runners to come in. One-by-one they started trickling across the finish… exhausted, but elated! It was such an amazing athletic achievement for each and every one of them.
After the race... Jim and I travelled to Turkey and spent some time recovering in Istanbul. I enjoyed my time there and I was able to spend some time thinking about my bad experience. Being on a brief vacation helped to keep me occupied so that I didn’t get too negative about how the race had transpired for me.
I arrived back in Florida in mid February. And then my life just started to slide downhill. Little-by-little I began to spiral downwards. I think the problem with ultrarunners is that you don’t realize you have a problem, and that you will just muscle through anything you are dealing with. We have a very high pain threshold and just keep going… ignoring any signs and symptoms of pain. This applies to physical, mental and emotional anguish. Just keep going and it will work itself out. Only in this case, I wasn’t able to come around. I just kept sliding down a very slippery slope. Weeks turned into months and I was just getting worse, and not better.
SIGNS OF BURNOUT…………
Burnout doesn’t just suddenly happen. It is much more insidious. It creeps up on us over time, which makes it difficult to diagnose. But we are given warning signs. The signs of burnout can vary from runner to runner, but there are many common elements. Here is what I went through over the last 8 months.
- Sleep disturbances… I was sleeping too much or rarely, not enough. Most nights I would be getting in about 10 to 12 hours of sleep. But I was constantly waking up to nightmares and so I started taking sleeping pills on a regular basis. I didn’t want to dream.
- Drowsiness and apathy… I was always tired. Maybe from the regular intake of sleeping pills. I just didn’t care much about anything anymore.
- Quarrelsome… I was always irritable. Everything just seemed to annoy me.
- Chronic Fatigue… I just lacked energy all the time. I was always tired and sore. I felt physically and emotionally exhausted.
- Anger and Hostility… My fear of whatever it was I was going through was starting to make me afraid which caused anger and hostility. What was happening to me?
- Impaired concentration… I was having trouble focusing and I was becoming very forgetful.
- Loss of enjoyment….I just didn’t want to run anymore. It wasn’t fun. I would force myself out on weekends to do long runs… but for the most part it was a chore.
- Detachment… I started to feel disconnected to other people. For those of you who are Facebook friends with me… you may have noticed that I just dropped out of sight from Facebook over the summer.
Frequent viral illnesses… I was catching the flu, and when I came down with it… it seemed to last for weeks. I had to get antibiotics to knock it out of my system. I would be sick in bed for days. This had never happened to me.
Chronic Fatigue… Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a condition that is defined by very low levels of energy for extended periods of time. It is more commonly seen in highly competitive athletes and in long distance runners who push their bodies much harder than they should.
OTHER PHYSIOLOGICAL SYMPTOMS TO WATCH FOR…
I did not monitor myself… but here is what else to watch for…
- Higher resting heart rate
Higher systolic blood pressure
Delayed return to normal heart rate
Elevated basal metabolic rate
Increased cortisol levels
Here in Florida we experienced a miserable summer for running. It was extremely hot out every day. Now, I can take the heat, but when you combine that with the high humidity… it was terrible. The state had the second rainiest summer on record. It rained pretty much every day and it was extremely humid. I would go out for a run for an hour, or 8 hours, and come home soaking wet. When you are constantly soaked in sweat it just feels like bacteria and mold is starting to grow on you. I couldn’t take it anymore.
I narrowed my running down to two choices. I could force myself to go out in the sun, when the humidity was lowest, but the temperature was high under the sun. Or I could get up at midnight and go running in the dark when the temperature was at its lowest, but when the humidity was at it’s highest. Pretty soon, I just stopped running on any kind of regular basis. It just was not fun…
Looking back on it, there was no question that I was going through burnout… but no one recognized it in me… I didn’t see it in me. I went to a number of doctors to get tested and every test came back negative, There appeared to be nothing physically wrong with me.
I went to see a psychologist… because I was concerned about my loss of interest in the things that I have loved doing for most of my life… like running.
My recovery seemed to involve quitting my daily runs and just sticking close to home. I just took time off. But much of my time was spent worrying. Am I done running? Is this it for me? The idea really scared me. It has been apart of who I am for pretty much my entire life. I started running in my teens and was an athlete on my high school track team. I took time off for awhile when I pursued my career as a television reporter, but then running called me back again.
I started training for my first marathon 20 years ago. I am celebrating my 20th Anniversary this year running events of marathon distance or longer! How crazy is it that my 20th year was marked by a major crash-and-burn! Wow! I have now competed in 58 Marathons and 37 Ultramarathons. That works out to 94 races of marathon distance or longer. Not bad. As you know… that has involved thousands upon thousands of miles of training. Training in all weather… through all conditions… through all sorts of injuries. And yet, here I am … still running. Thank God!
Despite all my worry, and all the time off… I think I have made it through to the other side of my burnout.
Along the way I have tried to reduce my life stress as well. There were other things going on in other areas of my life… and I think talking to the psychologist helped with that. So right now I am just taking one day at a time… and finding a way to make it work. I am keeping everything simple, and I am putting effort into being grateful for the simple things in life.
The last couple of weeks I have been putting in pretty consistent runs and I have been enjoying it! I am feeling pleasure again in planning my runs and enjoying the feeling of relaxation that follows. So I guess my message is to hang in there. If you have always loved running… if you have always had a passion for what you do… give yourself some breathing room. Take a step back or take some time off, if what you have always loved has deserted you. Have hope that the passion will return. Try not to worry. And know that if one door closes, another door will open. You need to have faith in yourself. Everything will always work out if you don’t give up.
You will… FIND A WAY… Now I am preparing for a race in Jordan…. TransArabia. It is a 200 mile non-stop race that will be taking place in February, 2015. It is a massive undertaking so soon after my setback… but I am just taking it one step at a time. See you in the desert!
Sandy McCallum is an athlete, motivational speaker and writer. Read more about her at www.saharaodyssey.com