Overtraining: The first few months

I was climbing Hope Pass from Clear Creek. I had wanted to put up a hard effort in Missouri Gulch, but while riding my bike from camp to the TH, a Subaru stopped me to ask if I had happened to see their bikes anywhere, or anything related to them getting stolen off their rack in the parking lot while they were hiking. I hadn’t seen anything, and it put a sour taste in my mouth for MO Gulch so I kept riding on to the Sheep TH and hid my bike in the woods there instead.

I could see the top of the pass, I was on that last long switchback, and I was feeling like I really might’ve pushed it so hard that I might actually explode this time when I looked at my watch for my heart rate. I had put on a heart rate monitor today finally, in an effort to find more data that might explain why I felt so bad. I had felt bad for over a month. It read 201. I finished the final steps and collapsed. I had put up a solid time, but at a price. Later that night, I was relaxing and watching TV. My heart rate monitor read 110. Something was really wrong, and I had the evidence now but no actual understanding. This was one year ago.

I actually had a photo from that very night on Hope Pass

Once again, I’ve done a poor job of lightening up this experience and this post is not very funny, but I think it’s important to get more information about OTS out there for anyone who needs it. Check your heart rate, people! It’s preventable.

My first clue was when I arrived in Provo, Utah the day before the Speedgoat. I walked Pippa around the campground and went for a short swim. I was exhausted. After a three week progressive taper. I knew something was wrong then, but it was easy to explain it away. It’s just that heavy feeling after taper, I told myself. I didn’t keep it sharp enough this week. It’s from the drive. I’ll be fine. Once I get started, I’ll be fine. The first steps off the start line, I was exhausted. The first mile ticked by, I was exhausted. I descended and was exhausted. By the time I got to the second big climb, I wanted to give up. I wrote about it after. I said I wasn’t strong enough, that I didn’t train hard enough, that I didn’t want it badly enough and I mentally gave up. I told myself every disparaging thing I could rather than getting curious enough to look into that something was really wrong with my body.

Pip modeling how I felt

This is a common problem with OTS and it’s how it goes so far so fast, that you start underperforming, you start feeling bad, and instead of backing off and looking into what might be wrong, you push harder. You blame yourself. You train harder, you try to dig deeper. Is that cultural? Dig deeper, dig deeper. Show your soul. What are you really made of? I am made of blood and bone and skin and muscles controlled by a failing nervous system, but I don’t bother to look into it, because the only reason I could fail is that I didn’t try hard enough.

Random picture from this year actually

I arrived in Jackson and I didn’t want to run. I was depressed. I assumed it was because I failed at Speedgoat, coming in 10th. It is not a natural state for me. Actually, depression is a symptom. I slept 12 hours every night, also a symptom. [bingeing Netflix and Lofthouse cookies is not a symptom though, it’s an American pastime] I half heartedly tried to train, but I felt so bad. I raced Rendezvous and slipped back to 8th, running five minutes slower than the previous year. I felt like I was losing my gears, like I couldn’t push. Like an ’89 trying to drive up Teton Pass. I had run 1,400 miles in 2019 by the end of July, and I thought I still must be undertrained.

Shadow Mountain, I did some running in the Tetons in ’19 but a lot of biking to get Pips out

I went back to Leadville and tried to run twice a week. I was aware that I wasn’t recovering between runs, and I guess I thought that would be enough time to make it up. It wasn’t. I felt worse every day, whether I ran or not. One day, I slept all day and woke up in the afternoon at like 3pm, I saw my sister had texted and I started tapping out a response, but I couldn’t hold my phone up with my arm long enough. I collapsed back onto the couch and slept through till the next morning. I hadn’t learned the difference yet between like, tired from running versus full body fatigue. Fatigue makes your fingernails and your ears feel tingley and brutally exhausted, along with every other piece of your body. I put a heart rate monitor on.

When I got back that night from my Hope Pass run, I pulled out Training for the New Alpinism. There was something in there, I knew it, I had read it, about heart rates and if your heart rate won’t go down between runs. What was it? “Avoid this at all costs, you will lose everything.” It said. I would eventually get confirmation, but I knew it the moment I read it and reread it and reread it. The parasympathetic nervous system symptoms, the heart rate, the sleeping, the depression, the underperforming. He said overtrained runners would try to compensate for their underperformance by training harder and pushing more. He ain’t kidding.

Nez Perce and the South Teton group from the lower saddle

Later I would learn about the hormone production imbalances, particularly that I would have no cortisol in my body, then suddenly my adrenal system would just dump it and my heart would rush like it was really going to explode and I would suddenly feel this whole body tightness. And what a relief to find out what was happening because it happened for about the first three months and it was TERRIFYING! I would be watching a rom com and suddenly my heart rate is 185, and it comes on like a wave in your whole body. Like something is definitively happening, but wtf is it?

Hope Pass was my last run until November, I think it was. Steve House said the only cure is complete rest until your nervous system sort of resets itself and everyone and everything else I could find agreed. It was hard to believe I might ever feel better. I would wake up every morning and my resting heart rate was in the 90s, then the 80s for a while, then eventually got stuck in the 70s. After a few months, it got back down to the low 60s, and that was around the same time the other symptoms started going away. I could feel the depression leave like an evil spirit peeling out of my body.

Looking for pictures for this, I realized before I was fully better I tried to go ice climbing bc Lincoln Falls was in on Oct 15th. The 500ft hike up just about killed me, but the morale boost was probably worth it (photo by Chris Jewell)

I progressively slept and ate less, [inflated appetite was also a symptom, and since I was filling in at the coffee shop during that time, I had no shortage of quiche and scones available]. After a couple months, I was basically eating and sleeping like a regular person, even dipping below eight hours naturally sometimes. The full body fatigue went from being constant and pervasive to in and out, and that would continue for another six months or so, fatigue being a definite signal that I had overdone it either physically or stress-wise.

I say I was on complete rest, but I was walking and biking w/ Pip still to get her out, just taking it EXTREMELY easy and only a couple miles here and there.

I had read things that had hinted that you would wake up one day and feel better. I had been tracking my symptoms and noting such significant improvement, then one day in November I did wake up and feel better. They say to stay on complete rest until you suddenly have the strong desire to go out and do something, and I did suddenly have the desire. I went for a short, easy skate ski. It was amazing to move again. A song came on by Tokyo Police Club that I’d never heard before, “And I’m still amazed you made it out alive, after what you did / It’s good to be back, it’s good to be back, it’s good to be back.”

It’s good to be back, says Pippa