Big’s Backyard Ultra: Just What I Needed

Running Big’s Backyard Ultra was a gamble for me: it’s not exactly an easy race to return to as my first ultra in over a year since injury, undergoing eating disorder treatment, etc. I knew that. It would have probably been “wiser” to do some shorter trail races, and slowly build back up confidence in my body. But then again, taking the traditional route has never been my M.O.

So why run it? 

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Let’s Talk About Our Feelings

I was a colicky baby. A temperamental child. I was prone to tantrums, and expressed myself violently through a wide range of emotions. I felt, and I felt HARD: fits of anger, hours of crying. I felt, and I let everyone know that I was feeling.

I was an anxious and fearful child, and I expressed that.  But somewhere along the way, I learned that explosive feelings weren’t a good thing. That to be “normal”, I needed to mask these feelings. And considering I didn’t know how to appropriately express them in a socially acceptable way, I tried my best to bottle them up. But bottling them up did nothing to alleviate what was going on internally.  

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Where Do I Go From Here? The Ever-Evolving Relationship with Sport

September is a month that brings up a lot of feelings for me. It’s the start of the championship season for obstacle racing, with Spartan Race World Championships kicking it off. 

It’s a month for me with a lot of memories, most of them really great. But it’s a month with a lot of painful ones as well – years of being paralyzed by the fear of not winning, and years of being sidelined not being able to compete. And this is the first year where I’m voluntarily not running it – not due to injury, but out of choice. While I shifted my focus from obstacle racing to trail and ultras a few years ago, I always kept one foot in the obstacle racing world. For the first time, I feel like that foot is slowly letting the door close, and I don’t know quite how to feel about that. And this feeling isn’t limited to obstacle racing: I’ve been out of competing long enough now at…ANYTHING…that I’m aware of the thought that I’m sheepish to even call myself an athlete. The idea that I no longer know my place is unsettling for me, and my mind has been pummeling me with questions and insecurities and doubts surrounding it.

What would have my path been like if it hadn’t been riddled with stress fracture after stress fracture? Was I ever really that good, or did I just get into the sport early on? Where do I fit in now in the athletic world? Do I want to? And what’s my path going forward?  

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Our Bodies, Our Responsibility, and the Media

(Content warning: This post contains my thoughts and feelings around my body and pictures of me. There are no numbers, behaviors, or weights.)

In early 2017, Men’s Health reached out to me to feature me in a story about obstacle racing. As part of that, there would be a photo shoot. I internally cringed a bit. I’d had a tenuous relationship with photo shoots for years, but a different kind of guilt was emerging this time. I knew that I was in a rough patch with my eating disorder, and I was aware that I was not comfortable in my body at the moment. Namely, I thought I was too lean. While the story wasn’t about my body (it was about tackling your first OCR), I felt a sense of guilt that my image would be attached with the story – that I could be projecting an unhealthy ideal. 

I almost backed out of the shoot, but I tried to remind myself that the responsibility was on the magazine, not me, to vet its images. But is it? Where does the responsibility lie? 

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The Recovery I Needed

In March, after sustaining my fourth stress fracture in the past three years, I wrote that it was time to take a step back and re-evaluate – to stop “fighting the water.” I’ve fought like hell these past few years to try and keep myself healthy and running like I love to do. And while I was tired of fighting for many reasons, internally I knew I had one big fight left in me. Because there was one thing that I hadn’t tackled head on in a very long time: my eating disorder. 

I’m not dense: I’ve known for a long time that I’m the living, walking example of RED-S (also known as “the female athlete triad.”) I’ve known that probably a huge reason that my bones keep breaking is because I have a 20-year history with anorexia. But I wanted to be that person that could right the ship on my own. I’d been in and out of treatment so many times in my life, I wasn’t ready to admit that, in my mid-30’s, I was STILL battling it. There’s an awful sense of shame in feeling helpless to fix things when you pride yourself on being self-sufficient and able to do hard things. There’s a paralysis that comes with the cognitive dissonance of KNOWING what you need to do, but continually falling short of that.

But the hardest things to fix are the things that we don’t want to admit to ourselves. And I finally admitted to myself that I couldn’t do it on my own.

So in April, I took a leave of absence from work and headed to Seattle, where I’ve spent the last three months at Opal Food & Body Wisdom, an eating disorder treatment facility. 

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Don’t Fight the Water

When I first started swimming, I couldn’t understand why it was so hard. I knew there were probably a million reasons for it (my last swimming lessons being at 8 years old, super long limbs and short torso, a runner’s mobility), but every swim felt like I was thrashing against the water – it was so exhausting. 

When you have a best friend who is an Olympic medalist swimmer, you clearly go and ask her what is wrong. Of the many things she told me, number one was “don’t fight the water. Let the water guide you – work with it.” It took me a bit, but at some point, that notion clicked, and swimming became much easier (though I still liken myself to a drowning porpoise and regularly get passed by 70 year olds).

I’ve taken that simple phrase, however, and taped it above my desk at work: “Don’t Fight the Water.” Because, unknowingly, over these past few months, I’ve been fighting the water in so many ways in my life, and I’m realizing it’s a battle I can’t win.

A few days ago, at the end of a run, I felt a sharp pain in the back of my heel. With a big race “out there” looming, I shut it down, rested, and prayed it’d get better. Frankly, I thought I had majorly effed up my Achilles, and feared the worst – months and months of tendon rehab. An MRI told a different story though: my Achilles is pristine (yaaaay!). Unfortunately, however, I had an early stage bone stress injury in my calcaneus.

Frankly, I’ve never been so relieved to have a bone injury – compared to an destroyed tendon, bones are WAAAAAY easier to deal with, and we caught it early enough. But the gutting loss of a season that was just about to get started cut deep – deeper than any loss of a race before. 

I shed my tears, spent a few days on the merry-go-round of self-flagellation, and then, like I’ve done so many times before with every injury/setback/failure – took stock of the situation.

This one was clearly on me. After coming off injury in the fall, time was short in order to be semi-race ready. I felt the mounting pressure every day, the growing despair of being nowhere close to where I was a year ago at this time. I pushed, perhaps a bit too aggressively, knowing that I was riding a line, and taking a risk. But the passion was so strong to get back “out there,” it was one I was willing to take.

Sometimes risks pay off. And sometimes they blow up in your face.  

Unfortunately, this calculated risk resulted in the latter. But if I had to do it again, would I do it any differently? If I’m honest with myself, probably not. 

I think the hardest part is that I learned this lesson once before: after breaking my femur, I pushed aggressively trying to get back for the Spartan Race World Championships in 2016. That also blew up in my face, resulting in the sacral stress fracture. I’ve been beating myself up these past few days, telling myself that I should know better. That, for better or worse, I have a history of bone injuries, and that trying to “outsmart” my body a second time was a recipe for disaster. 

Currently, I’m working on giving myself grace. I don’t really think this was a “mistake,” but more arrogance that I thought I could escape unscathed. But sometimes we make the same mistakes twice. Sometimes we have to learn a lesson over and over again. Sometimes we throw caution to the wind in spite of the risks, and that’s ok. 

As much as being sidelined again for a short bit sucks, I’d rather be here than not having attempted to race at all. As I said last year: “failure is not giving myself the opportunity to try.” I tried – unfortunately, it resulted in me not even getting to the start line. There are some passions in life that are worth it, and this was one of them. (let’s be honest – I imagine I’ll have to learn this lesson again at some point. I think most athletes do.)

All that being said, what’s become crystal clear to me is that, just like fighting the water in swimming, I can’t fight my body and win. The body will always have the last laugh. 

Frankly, it’s exhausting. Worrying about race deadlines and readiness and every ache and pain is all consuming, and I know there’s a better way, because I’ve done it before: when I started training and racing after my sacral stress fracture, I cleared my calendar. I went really slowly in build-up. I was ok letting things flow. I didn’t set artificial timelines.  And I made it back and started racing happier and with more passion than I ever have before. 

I’ve taken my risk, and I failed. So it’s time to take the foot off the gas pedal. To slow down in order to speed up. To heal my body, and get rid of this injury cycle once and for all. And with a history of bone injuries, a key part of that is going to be getting my hormones figured out. Letting my body rest. And honestly, gaining weight and body fat. I’m not dumb, so let’s talk about the elephant in the room: I’ve known for awhile that I’ve been hanging onto a muscular, lean physique that, while it might have worked for OCR, is not compatible with ultrarunning and multi-day endeavors like I want to do. I thought I could be the exception, but once again, the body has the last laugh. As uncomfortable as it may be for the vain part of myself, I’ll likely be more resilient and injury free with extra body fat and weight. Maybe not, but considering I’ve done all the other work (strength training, rehab, Vitamin D levels, etc) and I’m still suffering from bone injuries, it’s worth a try.

I’ve had multiple people tell me that I should hide this latest injury – that multiple bones injuries like this are shameful, and that I’m opening myself up to criticism. I understand many athletes hide injuries, but that’s not me. Maybe at one point in my life I thought I was invincible, and I thought admitting injury would make me be less of a “badass,” but that’s no longer me. This is my life, and my story, and I will own my mistakes and shortcomings, in all their full glory. It’s true to who I am, and the type of person I want to be. And if I can help others along the way in their journey, and let them know that “hey, we all struggle in our own ways,” even better. 

As scary as this all is, I’m actually excited to tackle it.  I’m excited to get back to racing healthy, and in due time (this summer most likely, but I’m not setting any firm plans). What’s funny is that, as tough as this injury cycle has been, I’ve never let go of the unwavering belief that my best running and racing days are still ahead. I’m so excited just thinking of it. 

Life is pretty grand when you let the water guide you. 

As always, a HUGE thank you to my sponsors who have stuck by me through the ups and downs: HumanN, Ultimate Direction, Altra, Sufferfest Beer, Big Spoon Roasters, Rocktape, Goodr, and Pete & Gerry’s. As a sponsored athlete, being injured is one of the worst feelings when you think about telling them (especially when you’ve JUST signed on…sorry Altra…). But these companies are rockstars, and I’m so thankful they support me in every aspect of my life. And to Dr. Brink at Premiere Spine & Sport, who has served as an invaluable resource in learning about movement and my body. And, of course, to Coach David Roche: he’s always tried to rein me in (sometimes I don’t listen…and look what happens), but more importantly, he’s been the biggest advocate of me as a human being, not as a runner. I can’t imagine a better coach to have in my corner.

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2018: The Year of Letting Go

Several months ago, I had a long conversation with one of my best friends from law school. 

“Amelia,” she said, “You are really good at holding on to ropes. And you excel at making sure you don’t let go of one rope until you have a firm grasp on another one. But sometimes that rope is cut from you – how do you handle the freefall?” 

Hmmm. “Not very well” would be a gross understatement. 

In looking back over these past 12 months, I’ve faced that freefall a few times – some in splendid ways, others in heart-wrenching ways. I don’t really believe in defining our lives based on 12-month periods (“oh, that was tough year,” or “that was a wonderful year!”), but I do believe in the end of a year as a natural time to reflect back on reoccurring themes and lessons in our lives, and how those shape our progress forward. 

And if there was one mantra I repeated to myself over and over in 2018, it was “let go.” 

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The 2018 Barkley Marathons: Confidence through Failure

My training log entry the day before the 2018 Barkley Marathons read: “Once that cigarette is lit, I’m going to race my little brains out. Give it all my all, and give it hell.”

I’ve never been one to write race reports, but then again, I’ve never raced something like the Barkley Marathons. I’ve spent the past week trying to wrap my head around my experience, and hoping to find the words to convey its enormity. Just like so many things in life, I realize that I’m never going to be able to do it justice through my words, so this is the best you’re going to get.

So sit back, grab your MoonPie and RC Cola, and prepare for a novel (brevity has never been my strong suit, especially here). It’s broken up into chunks, so feel free to navigate to what interests you – there’s an account of my prep, of the race itself, along with my reflections, and then the very end contains gear/lessons and bullet points for those of you (wise ones!) who just want the bullet points nitty gritty.

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A Year of Return to Running Logs

Several months ago, I promised that I would share my return to running logs for those interested, not thinking that anyone would actually want to see them. Heh. Apparently, some folks were interested.

Extremely belated, but here they are (embedded below, or you can follow this link): Amelia’s Return to Running Log

Before you take a look, an important personal note:

I struggled mightily with whether to keep in the “injury notes” comments. I use this column with my coach to communicate any issues, etc., and I’ve made a point to OVERreport any niggle, in case we need to stop and readjust. Reading back through, I realize how absolutely scared I was to run. From a third person reading in isolation, you may think “holy shit this girl is a hypochondriac.”

And that’s fine if you do. Ultimately, I decided to keep the comments in there to keep it real – to show the mental anguish of coming back from injury. Coming off a year of not being able to run, EVERY ache and pain struck the fear of God into me. Reading back through the comments now is pretty hard – I can see HOW scared I was. I was paralyzed by the fear of reinjury, and had absolutely zero trust of my body. I spent most of this past year simultaneously being grateful to be able to run and being scared spitless that it was all going to be taken from me again in an instant. The mental block of being constantly broken was haunting. So I left the notes in there to show this dark side, to show that what we see through the highlight reel of other’s social media isn’t what is going on in our head.

I write this all to say that if you are coming back from injury and feeling all the feels, you aren’t alone. Freakouts are normal. But learning to rebuild that trust is critical. It’s only been recently (a year out), that I’m beginning to feel “normal” again.

You’ll notice in the logs that I had several various freak outs about different injury scares – (foot, tibia, femur, etc – you name a body part). Each one of these required 5-10 days off from running. But you’ll notice that early time off made it so these never progressed into anything worse. So my return to running was ANYTHING but smooth. It was also for this reason that I decided to include an entire year of the log – while the initial “return to running  ” ramp up only lasts a few months, that doesn’t mean the battle ends.

A few procedural notes:

  • For the first few weeks, all runs were done at no faster than a 10min/pace. As Coach David Roche said, “we are not running, we are getting the bones, tendons and muscles used to pounding.”
  • I started with 10-15 minutes of barefoot walking a day – some on grass, some on an incline treadmill
  • Pretty much all my running was done on dirt – I rarely hit asphalt.
  • For the first few weeks, I stuck on a dirt track where I made a lot of loops – makes it easier to abort and not be an idiot if need be.
  • A few weeks after return to running, I was knocked over by two dogs while running and ended up with a tibial plateau bone bruise and torn lateral meniscus, which required 3-4 weeks off from running. So I pretty much started over (again!) from ground zero in February. (hence the large chunk of XT (cross-training))
  • ONE FULL REST DAY A WEEK NO MATTER HOW MUCH I KICK AND SCREAM
  • Coach uses minutes, not miles (except for long runs), and we made that switch partway through the year. I didn’t request it, but it works well for me so I don’t fixate on mileage
  • Log doesn’t include my strength work, which is generally 2-3x week and includes squats, deadlifts, lunges and other single leg exercises in addition to upper body and grip work for obstacle racing.
  • I only included until end of November this past year because…I’m lazy and you get the gist. Since November 2017, I’ve been hitting 60-70 mpw, with one big week at 90 before taper.
  • First tab of the log is the day to day, and I added a second tab which shows you weekly mileage totals
  • Yes, it would be much easier if I just posted you all to Strava to see this. I understand the log is probably not the most user-friendly to read. But to ward off the “why are you not on Strava” questions – I know myself well enough to know, at this point, I too easily fall into the comparison trap (which led my down the past to a broken femur in the first place). I don’t care about people seeing my stuff (I’d actually love to share!), but I’d need to prevent myself from looking at other folks..like the only drunk goggles on gmail to prevent drunk emailing (oh…college)

Some  stats:

  • Highest mileage week (through November 2017) was 65 miles, but the bulk has sat around 35-50 (after the gradual ramp-up). Since the end of the log, I’ve been at 65-70mpw consistently with one week at 90.
  • I didn’t hit a 20 miler until December 23rd, 2017, over a year since I started running   again (which may surprise some folks). Up until December, longest run was the Spartan Race Word Championships in Tahoe. We’ve focused on getting consistent lower mileage 5-6x week versus long “epic” runs (which is ALL I used to do pre-case of femurs)
  • For those interested in my pace, “easy” in logs means MAF, which is around 148bpm for me. It’s difficult to correlate that to pace since I rarely run purely flat and most of my runs have a fair amount of vert. Hence, using HR as a guide.

Every runner’s journey back is going to be different, and I imagine there are a lot of you out there being like “wow she’s still so low mileage!” or “she took it WAY too conservatively.” Sure, perhaps. I know plenty of other runners who have ramped up much faster and been just fine. For me, getting over the mental block of rein jury and the fear of high mileage probably made me more conservative than we needed to be. But I also was off from running    for almost a year, and, therefore, we had to treat me like a brand new runner. If you have a shorter layoff (3-4 months), you may be able to return to mileage much quicker (general rule of thumb is that if you are off of running  for over 9months, maybe even 6 months, you are pretty much starting over from ground zero. Sucks, I know).

Feel free to reach out with any questions you may have – as always, I’m not a doctor nor do I pretend to play one, and I can only speak to my unique experience. Every runner, and every injury is going to be different.

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/e/2PACX-1vRWfTWxs-XPJCJq9FCeuhOmClDFtR5OvAfwTVdi7_htcJvC4WjxXk78A3XAmYCdgdJBnHfI-fTGZtZS/pubhtml

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2017: A Year of Rediscovering Joy

I’ve talked a lot how I do a lot of my runs to a single song on repeat – past favorites include everything from Smashing Pumpkin’s “Tonight Tonight” to BabyMetal’s “Karate” to NEEDTOBREATHE’s “Keep Your Eyes Open.”

In 2017, the most played song-on-repeat has been from the musical, “Hamilton” – Aaron Burr’s theme song, “Wait for It.”

Not because I should want to end up in Mr. Burr’s position, but I found the lyrics particularly applicable to the current state of my athletic journey. Throughout the year, I wanted nothing more than to be back out with a full race schedule, competing in epically stupid events, but my body wasn’t there yet. So on run after morning run, I sang the words over and over again: “I’m willing to wait for it.”

Last year, I originally titled my 2016 year-in-review post “A Year of Injury,” and, after writing it, quickly changed it to “A Year of Healing.”

To keep a tradition running , I originally titled this post “A Year of Patience,” but as I wrote, realized that it really was a “Year of Rediscovering Joy”: both in racing and in life. Yes, there was a fair amount of patience involved, but by embracing that patience, I was also able to find joy.

A year ago at this time, as I slowly started my return to run program (whee one mile!), I sat there, making grandiose plans for my 2017 season. Surely, I thought, starting with that one mile “run” in December, I’d have plenty of time to get back up to speed by the time the season was in full swing come April.

HA.

I apparently underestimated the length of time needed to rebuild as an athlete after a year on the sidelines. But in this gray zone of “training but nowhere close to peak readiness,” I found an opportunity to rebuild not just my body, but my relationship with racing, from the ground up.  I’m not a resolution person, but I do like to take stock of what I have learned in the prior year (what worked/what didn’t work), and see how I can apply that to the coming year. So here are my biggest takeaways from the year:

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