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Post Big Race, Some of the most difficult periods in running

So, there you are on your phone or laptop signing up for that BIG race of the season. Maybe it’s a 5k where you are trying to hit a personal best or your first attempt at an ultra-distance which you are equally terrified and bullish to try to conquer. Or perhaps you are scheduling your race plan for the upcoming year and you are now broke and must work a seasonal side gig just to be able to afford your adventures. In 2019, that BIG race for me was The North Face Endurance Challenge 50k.

The iconic TNF Endurance Championships in Northern California had been on my radar since 2018 when the event was cancelled due to wildfires. Between 2018 and 2019 I decided to bump up from the marathon to the 50k distance based on the fact that I was performing well and really enjoying the longer events (my 25 year old self would never have imagined making that statement). Even though I’ve been ‘running’ for 2 plus decades, I am pretty new to the sport of trail running and am still learning something new every day that I am on the trails and at the start line of every race. One topic I have been thinking about recently is how difficult the days and weeks are following a big race or even just a big effort in some cases. Many times people categorize this period as the “post race blues,” {see this insightful article from David Roche -} but my recent challenges can be broken down into three unique but interconnected areas:

Physical. The immediate days after a big race or effort are sometimes filled with a litany of competing physical feelings. After TNF I felt great for about 24 hours as endorphins flooded my body and caffeine pumped through my veins. Sleep was a challenge as my systems increased efforts to repair themselves from massive breakdowns they had just endured. I was riding high on the feelings of accomplishment and happiness. While, I enjoyed every minute of the 5 solid days of earned NO RUNNING post-race, I loathed every staircase that I saw even if it led me to fun shopping or a delicious dessert on the corner of Mission and 29th.

As I recovered in the weeks and even months after the race and returned to running I was perplexed as to why some runs feel decent or even strong and others (seemingly randomly) have been a complete struggle to get through and feel 20x harder than they should. While a great coach can help you navigate through this confusing rollercoaster, I have found that patience and grace are critical. I tend to feel a deep underlying fatigue in my muscles and overall energy system for up to 6 weeks after I have exerted myself to the max in a ‘shorter’ Ultra. After having raced multiple 50K plus distances in the last year, I am learning that this is just part of the process for me. I try to shift my mindset to one of “this is when the adaptation occurs,” “this is when it’s critical to eat well and a lot and repair everything that is currently in “reconstruction mode”. Even so, it is tough! I can’t help but feel that even though I am supposed to be in extraordinary shape right now, I sometimes feel slow or ‘heavy’. Why can’t I turn over my legs when I just ran some of the fastest splits of my year a week ago? Precisely. I just ran some of my fastest splits a week ago and as many amazing coaches and athletes will tell you - the body only knows stress, not that you’re itching to keep that kind of speed going. Listen to your body. It will tell you when it’s ready to go fast again.

Mental. Physical feelings inevitably affect us mentally. When I feel slow or not like myself it’s easy to lose motivation. Plus, I’ve been building toward something for weeks, maybe months and now there is nothing to build towards. An acceptance of one’s current state is critical. This is the time when my choices – taking it truly easy during runs, instead of overdoing it as well as focusing on some of the ‘other things’ I should do more of when my heavy training weeks get in the way (i.e. stretching, PT, massage, meditation) can make or break my next build as well as my happiness and wellbeing during this time. In a sport where everyone is extremely driven and focused, it can be a talent to take it easy but those who do will benefit in the long run by avoiding over-training and increased injury risk. Life is a marathon (or an ultramarathon) and for me, because I want to run forever I have to remember that a few weeks of taking it easy and being nice to myself when I have to end up having to walk during an ‘easy’ 8 miler are all things that are part of the bigger process. One thing I have learned in this life is that ‘everything is temporary’.

Emotional. Something I was fascinated with after TNF50k was just the realization that ‘life goes on’. My internal dialogue went something like this: “Look at what I just accomplished!” “I’ve been working toward this for so long!” This was a massive race for me and I felt like to had gone into battle and come out with a victory and yet the only people who even knew about it (let alone cared) were a handful of close friends, co-workers, family, and maybe 10 new people who started following me on Strava. I felt like things should have changed – people should treat me differently. It’s not unlike the opposite affect when we lose a loved one or fall into depression yet the world around us remains seemingly unchanged. In reality, the true gains are much more genuine than the superficial ones that may come with external praise and recognition. I can embrace that I am truly proud of an accomplishment that meant a lot to me. No one else – me. It doesn’t matter if you won a race or crossed the finish line during the golden hour before cutoffs. You put yourself out there and did something you can and should feel good about. I sometimes think running for me is a way to constantly work on my self-confidence, something that I never had much of when I was younger. I remember in High School my dad once told me, “Look at what you’ve accomplished with your running! You should be proud of it and celebrate it. No one can take it away from you – YOU did it.” His words didn’t resonate at that time but they ring truer than ever today and now I know what he meant sharing that wisdom back then.

So, realize that when you’re feeling like you’ve regressed or breathing heavy on that little hill that normally doesn’t faze you that it’s all meant to happen for a reason. That’s what faith is, isn’t it. Belief in something, even when we don’t necessarily understand it. It will all make sense a few more weeks from now when you’re body decides it’s ready to go again and you blaze down the trail with all of your new found fitness and the bold self-assurance that you’ll take with you into your next adventure.

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