2020/21 Recap: Coming Back to Life

Somehow, somewhere, I forgot to breathe…

It has been a while since my last blog and I don’t really know why. At some point in the chaos that has been the COVID-19 pandemic I lost myself; stuck somewhere between wishing things were how they used to be and worrying about the future. There was no time left for the present. I know, we’ve heard this a million times but, still somehow these things happen.

At the end of 2021 I came to the realization that somewhere, somehow, I stopped and held my breath waiting for things to get better while being frustrated when they never did. My breaking point was Summer of 2020 when I hit a big brick wall of burnout. Nothing I did was “normal” and I just wanted to “feel like myself.” I was finishing up my final year of PT school which was exhausting due to COVID uncertainty and constant last minute changes. It also involved me completely changing my busy routine of going to Toronto to school every day to now being confined to my house mostly alone for the next 7 months. My burnout reached a point where a 30 minute run was exhausting, something I could have done with my eyes closed.

I constantly battled fears of not being able to get back to running, back to the times I used to run. These fears were always in the back of my mind.

I sought out a naturopath who helped get some of my levels up (my vitamin D was low, in the middle of the SUMMER!) and we spoke about gratitude journalling and energy conservation techniques. Great, now I was at the level of activity I would recommend to post heart surgery patients… “plan your day,” or “pick the most important things earlier in the day,” and “don’t go boom or bust.” These things helped but never seemed to grab at the root cause. I barely ran for 3 straight months. I seriously contemplated quitting the sport and had accepted it by this point.

Things improved as I finally was able to start working as a physiotherapy resident. Of course, more anxiety also came from this as pretty much everyone who practices has periods of imposter syndrome wondering if they are doing a good enough job or if they have enough skills, knowledge, experience to be successful. I slowly built up over the next few months when my energy levels improved and even got back up to an 80-kilometer week. After the first 6 months, the initial shiny new bow that was starting a new job started to wear off and those feelings of fatigue crept back in.

I’m sure part of this was the constant lockdowns in Ontario which took away every glimmer of hope that things would return to “normal”… that I would return to normal. I just wanted to feel like myself again, why was I tired all the time, why did no amount of rest help, why was I so unmotivated even when I had ample time to do all the things I needed to. Laundry was exhausting, cleaning was exhausting, I just didn’t want to do anything. One of the best things I did during this time was jump feet first into climbing. Rock climbing has been such a blessing to find during this whole process. When I climb, I don’t think about everything I’m worried about, I have to focus on what to do next. I also found a great group of friends who know nothing about me as a runner which helped me let go of that sense of identity, that sense of having to be the best. We spent many beautiful weekends climbing at the Niagara Glen, which was a big step for me as I fear driving long distances alone and on unfamiliar roads.

As summer approached, I really wanted to get back to some racing. I was skeptical that road races would run with all the precautions and constant open/close state of Ontario. Instead, I signed up for a trail race, the Haliburton Forest 50k. Surely a run in the woods would be safe to actually proceed. This was going to be my first distance past the (road) marathon distance, a perfect way to ease my fears of returning to running. I still feared about my eventual return to “real racing” but knew a 50km was more about finishing than anything. I made it through a pretty consistent training cycle including two 4-hour runs and many back-to-backs (a long run + medium long run on back to back days) relatively unscathed. I rarely felt any of my pre-workout anxiety that plagued me since 2017 in road training.

As you know from Instagram, the race was a great success with help from Mitch Free as my coach for the trails. I hit all 3 goals A) Win B) Top 3 female C) Finish the 50km. I ran 5hr 16 minutes over 50km of trails and also won the race overall (no males finished ahead of me). I finished that race with tears in my eyes knowing that I was still in there somewhere, that version of myself that I knew so well was still there.

With much stress, my final licensing exam for physiotherapy was delayed last minute (some students writing the very next day) and I had to watch the chaos unfold with pure astonishment. There were no words for how deeply this impacted all of this (and me personally) as this was the 4th time it had been cancelled in the period of 7 months. With that expected time dump now gone (for some unknown time frame could be weeks or months; still remains largely unknown to the present unfortunately) I had time to train for another race. I signed up for another trail race, this time the Beav 25km (Happy Trails Racing). I called back Mitch out of retirement from my training program (by 1 week) to coach me again. Unfortunately, those few weeks of excitement eventually wore off and the fatigue started to creep back in.

I was annoyed to say the least. I had the motivation but just felt so exhausted all the time, which clearly made no sense as I just ran for 5 hours yet somehow a 1hour training run was too overwhelming for me. Mind you, fall is our busy season and I was working more hours than ever since I had started the previous November. I knew I had been helping a lot of people get better yet simultaneously felt inadequate like I wasn’t doing enough, didn’t know enough. Additionally, I agreed to help coach the Laurier Brantford XC team as assistant coach. I was really excited to help out but I constantly was overthinking what kind of coach I SHOULD be or needed to be. I felt like it was taking too much time, yet I also felt like I wasn’t giving enough of my time to it; I didn’t feel like I was that helpful or saying the right things. My energy levels were spiraling, my mind was negative… all of these things I was acutely aware of yet felt as though I had no control over. My training for the Beav was spotty, I would get overwhelmed for 2-3 days then get back on track, several times. I had terrible pre-workout anxiety for my second last workout and I couldn’t run more than 500meters…this was new.. usually it goes away once I start but not this day. I barely made it to the start line. During the race I was passed by one female which made me reevaluate my perspective. In the first 5km I had constant thoughts of dropping out, not training well enough, not feeling good enough on that day which at some point I gave myself over to gratitude, thinking: “you know what, today might not be my day which is fine, I’m just going to do what I can and run hard, not worrying about pace or placing.” I am very lucky I was able to turn my headspace around and pick up my pace. Really, I had 15 years of run training in my legs to fall back on. Of course I was excited to win but knew I was ready for time off.

>>> Fast forward to December with a week off from work (while also having a chest cold to deal with). With an unexpected additional week off of running while also being off work I think I have finally learned to breathe again. I read a lot and spent time watching real-life awe-inspiring movies that ignite that adventure fire within me. The books I have read have been “out and back” and “the practice of groundedness”. Of course each one of these could be a post in itself but, I moreso want to reflect on what  they meant to me.

OUT AND BACK: Hilary, after a near-death experience falling down a cliff while mountain running, was so fearful to begin running again. She was worried about getting back to being the kind of runner she once, which kept her from even starting. Obviously this drew direct parallels for myself. She also dug deeper to discover why this fear existed in the first place; a lot of it grew from not feeling adequate with herself, always trying to prove how good she was, prove it to everyone and to herself. True healing could not occur when she was chasing happiness from something so far outside of herself and not connecting with who she was.

THE PRACTICE OF GROUNDEDNESS: Of course, somehow I chose 2 books that overlap so unbelievely you would think it was done intentionally. Groundedness speaks of how people feel exhausted all the time, are chasing the next win with short lived happiness when they do win, and other common feelings from burnout from chasing perfection. Brad speaks from a more scientific perspective about how to achieve that feeling of being grounded and happy with life including accepting where you are, experiencing all things even bad emotions, and practicing being in the present. In working with athletes as a life coach he speaks of a paradox; the more you want something (to win etc), the further away you will be from it. In other words, constantly worrying/thinking about something in the future will take you away from the present so much so that you will certainly be a detriment to you performance. Rather, relaxing and focusing on the process and finding enjoyment in that will lead you to your best performances. Those feelings of burnout? A lack of connection with yourself and your deepest values.

After 2 years (I would argue probably 5 as I have had progressively building anxiety since then) of battling my mind, I realize I am the problem. Having the goals of “feeling like myself” or “getting back to the runner I was” are impossible asks of myself. Of course I cannot get back to some previous version of myself, that time has passed and I cannot be that same person, as I am not. People grow, experiences shape us. That doesn’t mean I cannot be better, but inevitably, I am going to be different. I have so desperately clinged to a fear of not being as good of a runner as I once was that I have made it impossible to live in the present, to accept myself where I am now. The stronger I focus on being that runner, the further I get away from actually doing so. In order to move forward I have to accept the past and the present for what it is and focus on what I can change, my behaviour. Now I wouldn’t say focusing on being positive will fix everything, as I think that is also a big part of my problem. Instead of accepting my fears and stress I tried to run away from them or ignore them. This just let them grow infinitely until they sucked all my energy. I need to feel every emotion as it is, without judgement. It is okay to feel inadequate, it is okay to feel upset, the day doesn’t need to be perfect to be a good day. I guess it’s just hard to practice this as everyone only wants to see positivity. Most of all I need to be happy with myself and what makes up my identity. No matter what I do I am going to be stubborn (just ask my climbing friends), relentless, authentic, dedicated, caring, passionate. These traits are with me no matter how I perform, what I do, how much I do. Of course I do still have goals, but I need to do a better job at making time for myself. Sitting and watching Netflix isn’t good enough, ive tried that. I realize especially since covid I have lost so much of myself: my creativity (returning to artwork), my relationship with myself (I think writing is a really important thing for me to be able to truly put words to my emotions and give them time and space and I have not writing a blog or diary or anything during these times), meditation (I have not made time to just breath and truly be calm – instead I try to fill the time with a bunch of things yet never get anything done, too much multitasking) and lack of presence (im usually OK at work with this but at home and when I’m running I have been distracted).

I think that’s why I had hated running so much lately, I haven’t been taking time to actually enjoy the run.. always thinking about what I need to do for the day instead. I hadn’t been routinely running either which makes it hard… action begets motivation not the other way around. Of course I won’t feel like running when my current default was to not run.

All these things are a work in progress and I just need to consistently give myself headspace to put these thoughts down and give them life. I am so much more than the epic shit I like to post, the mountain would not exist without the valleys and it’s important to give awareness to that.

For now, this is a start.

The biggest take away is… of course I can’t be the runner/person I used to… I’m going to be so much better, just differently.

I will be writing blogs much more consistently this year my plan is one for month. I’ll be adding a race recap post this week as well! Follow along with the journey to 50miles this year.

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