Survival Guide for OTS & Injury

I was thinking about the phases I’ve gone through of OTS, it’s a lot like having a long injury. If we can talk about what we go through, it won’t be so scary, and I have tons of tips to help you get through it, because none of us are alone. Here are the five stages of grief:

  1. shock/denial
  2. anger
  3. depression/detachment
  4. bargaining
  5. acceptance

The five stages of OTS/injury are:

  1. bingewatching Netflix
  2. obsessive attachment to every new/funny/interesting thing. see: Strange Planet or that time I got obsessed with seamounts and polar cyclones
  3. the furor: I was reading a book during this time about developing a healthy psychology around your sport, and they said it’s natural to feel angry when you’re injured, and one idea for coping is to assign yourself an amount of time that you can be as angry as you want, then after the time is over you must let go. They suggested 2-14 DAYS, depending on severity. I had been angry at that point for about THREE MONTHS. Needless to say, I never picked up that dumb book again.
  4. watching sports movies/reading about others rad pursuits etc and weeping [in related news, Kilian Jornet has a new book, and Nolan’s 14 has seen at least eight finishes already this year, including new men’s and women’s FKTs][less than 24hrs after I published this, Megan Hicks set yet another women’s FKT, amazing]
  5. the epic search for a new identity: experts and most regular folks agree, if your identity is intertwined with one endeavor, and it’s taken away from you, you will probably have a breakdown. Which is why you should suddenly start applying yourself to OTHER endeavors. Perhaps you’ll spend days making a new resume and applying for a job, sign up for college courses online in grant writing or physiology, write a novel, blog endlessly, or start your own nonprofit.
  6. the final stage is obviously just when you’re better again. This isn’t the Great Riddle Gate in the Neverending Story, where I expect that we’ll all have supreme confidence in ourselves and can walk through unscathed. Maybe you will have a healthy relationship with the thing that’s holding you back by now and you can call it acceptance, but maybe not, and that’s okay. btw, I recommend a lot of stuff in this post and NONE of it is sponsored in any way.
From Mt. Abrams this year, a day I made it up something but felt particularly bad physically

So how to survive? The most helpful thing to me was understanding specialization, and how that was never going to make me happy. When Steve House says, “Avoid this at all costs, because you will lose everything,” I at first was like “F***! THAT IS THE TRUEST THING EVER.” But upon months of reflection I’ve realized, what’s so f***ed about it is that if you can lose everything so easily, you didn’t have enough to lose. And THAT is the key to it all, my friends. Here’s a couple thoughts on specialization that I’ve gleaned from all this reading and thinking:

If you spend all your time trying to be the best at something, you will probably fail, and that won’t make you happy. If you succeed, which if your sights are set that high, you probably won’t, the fulfillment you feel will be fleeting. And one more really important thing, by nature it is almost impossible to specialize in something and not let it become your identity. If you sacrificed everything else for running, and then you’ve lost it, WTF do you have? Nothing. I’ve been working on building an identity outside of running basically every day and it is not easy but it is WORTH it. So here are my thoughts on making it through this shitty time.

It is completely okay to veg for a while. You probably need to, and you definitely deserve to, and right now I’m absolving you of any guilt. Bingeing Netflix seems to be America’s pasttime of choice, but you could also spend this time playing Candy Crush, sleeping, reading, daydreaming, or staring at the wall. Actually that reminds me that sleeping is the best way to spend your time now, as it is the absolute best way to heal whatever is wrong with your body and if you have OTS, you’ll be sleeping excessively for a while anyway.

Once you’ve distracted yourself for a suitably long time, you might start feeling more energetic and be ready to focus on other things. You might start devoting yourself to other pursuits, or your might need to spend some time in a gray area of slightly more stimulation than rewatching Avatar but less than starting a college course. Here’s an list of ideas to cover the spectrum of not completely mindnumbing to pretty interesting and involved:

  • Google Science: I’m not going to recommend staying up on the actual news because you’re probably already too depressed/stressed/fragile but the latest in science and technology is generally pretty exciting and mostly positive.
  • Take a deep dive into the Semi-Rad archives. Friday inspiration will give you all sorts of things to do, plus it’s somewhat outdoorsy without drowning you in FOMO. usually.
  • Learn a new language. This might not have fit in the fun/not overwhelming category before they made all this game-based app languages stuff. Now with sites like Duolingo, it’s free and easy and fun. I’ve been working on Spanish because as soon as I’m better (and the world isn’t on lockdown) I’m buying those plane tickets to Mendoza for Aconcagua! In a similar category, I also was hooked on Lumosity, which is like brain games that are also fun, so you can at least imagine you’re bettering yourself while playing free, addictive games.
  • Watch documentaries that aren’t about sports. Even if it’s not your sport, I promise it will make you feel tragic, so hold off until you’re really ready for that phase. I was going to recommend some but the internet does a good enough job of that on its own.

I also want to tell you that during the other phases, I reverted back to the veg phase a few times, and I think that’s okay because it was apparently what I needed at the time. Once I got hard into this app game Animal Restaurant? It was weirdly fulfilling (until it wasn’t) and I have no shame about it, and you shouldn’t either.

Nourishment: It’s not exactly a distraction, but I think it’s the right time to mention that you should also take really good care of yourself, that can only help you. Remember when Kilian posted that his broken leg healed miraculously fast and he was back to racing in like two months or something and it was all because of spirulina? For folks with OTS, adrenal supplements to help your body regulate especially cortisol production is super helpful. Mushrooms like cordyceps are great for healing. I went to an acupuncturist in the winter and she was like, “You BADLY need nourishment!” And prescribed me this Chinese medicine just to help my body get back to homeostasis. While it’s on my mind, acupuncture helped a lot. There’s no one size fits all recommendation here, just a jumping off point for you to look into how best to take care of yourself when your body is maybe undernourished and could use some extra support. And it’s not just what you consume, it’s a good time to do things that make you feel nourished, like spend time with friends and family, have rituals that make you feel taken care of, maybe think of some affirmations that make you feel good, sleep tons and tons.

I had one of the best runs of my life this day, but it unfortunately caused a minor relapse that I’m still dealing with weeks later.

The furor phase. Two things: I don’t think everyone will go through this. My friend was recently hit by a car while biking and broke both of his femurs, and I don’t think he ever felt any anger about it, because that’s just not his way. He also recovered in record time, blowing everyone’s minds, because science tells us that hope and optimism, after sleep, are the best things for healing. The other thing is, I do think if you enter the furor phase, it’s only fair to let yourself be furious, at least for a certain amount of time. I let mine go on for WAY too long. I actually think I agree in retrospect with that book I mentioned earlier, but I wasn’t ready to hear that yet. Assign yourself a certain amount of time and just let yourself be pissed. Yell and scream about it, be super obnoxious, get it all out, burn it all up. Then move. the fuck. on. I saw another friend go through a long term injury who got stuck in self pity for too long, and that’s not going to help you either. Pity and Anger will prolong your recovery, that is proven, it’s science. No shame about going through these phases, but you MUST move on at some point. That’s coming from someone who really knows, you can sabotage your recovery this way. I tried a variety of types of meditation to help me with stress and attachment, but ultimately I think you just need to soldier on to the next phase.

Feeling the tragedy. You can definitely skip over this one, but I included it because I feel like it’s inevitable that you will do it, even if you’re not trying to. [And it can happen at any time. Currently, the morning after I posted this, I’m mid-tragedy spiral after deep diving Ryan Hall’s IG. There’s more hope now than sadness, but I’m still crying my eyes out]. Like one day you’ll be three hours into a loop of those mini docus that Salomon and North Face and everybody make, and you’ll be soaked and all hoarse from the sobbing and you’ll be like, “Dammit! Why am I doing this to myself?!?” The real worst part of this is isn’t even wallowing, it’s that you’ll get to the end of the Barkley: The Race that Eats its Young or Running for Good or Made to Be Broken or whatever and you’ll get all stoked and inspired and be all, “I’m going to start training for the Barkley!” Then you’ll remember that you can’t, and that will be the worst. THE WORST. [if you can’t help yourself, watch Emelie be the happiest most adorable mtn runner in the world here]

The best side effect of OTS is spending way more time with other people since I wasn’t buried in serious training. This was two days ago, when we rode our bikes Ouray to Purgatory (supported), PC Dan Chehayl

Now this is finally the fun part, when you start looking for other things to work on and use your energy for self betterment and good in ways that hasn’t occurred to you yet. Another thing I did wrong that resulted in tons of suffering and probably prolonged my recovery is, I vehemently believed for at least six months that I was like, almost better and on the verge of being able to start training again and would be back to my normal self any second now. Then I would feel slightly better and be like OMG I CAN HAZ TRAINING! And then I’d feel terrible and realize that was a dumb mistake. Then I’d do it again. This is a difference between injury and OTS, if you have OTS your training will never be the same again, and the sooner you realize that the better. And it doesn’t have to be bad, I’ve come to terms with that I might be healthy enough to train and run hard again some day, but when I get there, it’s going to have to look a lot different. And that’s okay!

So maybe not everyone had their entire identity wrapped up in their running and can use their newfound time to devote it to all their other existing endeavors, work or hobbies or whatever. But I’m guessing that a big part of how you got here is that you were specializing, like I was, and with all my research into specialization psychology and just plain seeing it in my friends, I definitely think finding a healthier connection to your identity and sense of self, and building a life for yourself that’s rich in lots of different things, is going to be how you not only feel better NOW, but prevent this in the future.

I used to be heavy into yoga, and my old teacher would always say, “You are not your body, you are so much more than that.” And it helped me build a healthy identity. Then all sorts of other things happened in my life and I lost that. Say this with me, I am not my running, I am so much more than that. I am not my running, I AM SO MUCH MORE THAN THAT. [here’s a fun and related read if you want to get scientific about it that I found by accident] That said, this is the perfect time to find other things you care about and devote some of your energy to getting good at other things. Remember, being the best at something was never going to make you happy anyway, it’s the endeavor that gives you a sense of fulfillment. So what else can you get up to that’s meaningful to you and will help you feel fulfilled?

  • Play and practice an instrument. This IS the right time to finally learn how to play ukelele or violin or harmonica, and music is a very satisfying hobby that you can see progress in quickly.
  • Take courses online in basically anything. There’s websites that are totally free, like Khan Academy, and ones that charge you to hop in on actual college courses in exchange for certification like Coursera (you can still audit on Coursera for free), there’s job sector sites like Nonprofit Ready with tons of free courses in fundraising and management and grant writing. I had a multi-month injury a few years back and I wrote a book about Pet Sitting that still sells decently on Kindle, and took a bunch of graphic design courses, and both of those things still serve me regularly.
  • Start writing your novel, or children’s books, or YA fiction, or blog, or journal, or memoirs, or nonfiction about some obscure snake in the Amazon, or lists of streaming movie or TV recommendations (the world NEEDS more of those) or whatever.
  • Explore new ways to get involved in your community by volunteering or starting a book club or just spending more time with your friends (safely, OBV). This is a great idea for so many reasons I couldn’t possibly list them all. I’ve been thinking about putting together ski lessons for kids this winter, and maybe some kind of girl-focused outdoorsy nonprofit since we don’t have any of the big name ones here in Ouray, and I’m only just starting to investigate those things but it feels great to be investing my time in something more meaningful than *myself*.

Was this stuff useful? What helped you get through? Calling for comments, let’s get through this together. XO

finishing off with Pips being massively stoked, running alongside the bike

AZ (can you see the end?) pt 2

The day before the race I went to the finish line so I could visualize it when things got rough. I packed a drop bag for the first time that would wait for me at mile 37. I filled my vest with the same things I had been eating on my runs all week: cucumber slices, blueberries, avocado, and Larabars. My legs felt tired. I hoped a good night of sleep would change that.

At 4:45 I boarded a bus that would take us to the start in Mayer. It was full of runners, and you guys, sometimes I’m disparaging about runners but it’s because most (not all) of us are self absorbed assholes. Mostly they were posturing; talking PR’s and saying things like “a marathon is a really honest distance” and comparing toenails lost (which, ok, that is a fun pastime among us). There was a lot of buzz before the start, and especially at the start line, which has always been one of my favorite things about racing.

The very moment I started running, both of my calf muscles seized up (gastrocnemius, if you’re wondering), and not only would they stay that way, but my other leg muscles would follow suit over the course of the very long day. I don’t race much, but I have cultivated a long practice of staying rational when shit goes wrong, and this was no different. I Scott Jureked the sitch: what is wrong? My calf muscles hurt and are barely working. What can I do about it? Run anyway. I put myself in a solid 5mph pace and stayed there.

I’ve heard other runners say they race to experience community, which is missing from our long training runs, even when we’re out with a running buddy. But I’ve said it before, runners are assholes, and they will literally push you off the trail if you don’t let them pass you quickly enough, and nobody spoke a word to each other besides “on your left” for almost the entire day.

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There was a 4 mile stretch or so that my legs started to feel strong between mile 23 and 27, but that was the only 4 miles that I loved running that day. My hip flexors began spasming, which sucks (besides being painful) because if they’re not working well it’s very hard to climb. My thighs seized. By the time I made it to the 37 mile aid, running on my legs had escalated to the worst pain I had ever been in. I’ve never had problems with my legs cramping, and this was so far beyond cramping. I have no explanation other than putting in too many miles that week. While I was getting some food in me and repacking, a girl was checked out by the medic, complaining of dizziness and nausea. The runner next to me leaned over and said: “dizzy? Nauseous? Welcome to ultras.” I checked the time, I was still looking at 5mph, and if I had managed this far, I didn’t see any reason I couldn’t keep it up. I was still eating and drinking fine. I looked at my phone. My dad had texted “Sarah take it up a notch, you can do this.” I tried, and I did.

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The 9 mile stretch to the next aid station contained the biggest climb of the day. I powerhoused up it, ascents being my strength, and when my hip flexors failed I pulled my legs up by my pants with my hands. My left knee had been hurting on descents for a while, but now my right knee started throbbing in the PCL area on ascents. I didn’t see anyone for a long time. And I thought, human relationships and support are good, but I must be able to overcome the worst by myself. The worst pain, the worst fear, the worst day of my life. Nobody can be in my head and fix this but me. Then the nausea started, and let me tell you, once you start vomiting the fun don’t stop (I had a lot of time to think about what I did wrong and I’m going to go ahead and bet it was the salt tabs someone suggested for the cramping). I finally staggered into the remote aid station just as twilight gave way to full dark.

And what a motley crew I found there. Nearly everyone at mile 46-47 was miserable, and while the wonderful girls working tried to bolster our spirits and pump me full of ginger, we all discussed dropping. “I’ve just been so miserable for so long, I don’t remember what it was like to be happy” which sounds melodramatic NOW, but at the time we all thought “that’s exactly how I feel!” It was 4.5 miles to the next aid station, 5 of us set out with the hopes and dreams of dropping if we could just make it there.

It’s funny (or terrible) how misery makes you so apathetic. Earlier in the day, I would not have considered dropping. I was thinking, Sarah if you can just make it to the finish you never have to run again. But suddenly, I couldn’t bring myself to care about finishing (or anything), I just wanted this terrible day to be over. We staggered in to aid, mile 51.2. Here again was an unbelievably supportive staff, rushing around trying to help us as much as possible. Two of my dropping compatriots had a mental turn around and set out on the last 11 miles. I sat next to a 4th. Finally, I asked the crew what the process was to drop. They weren’t hearing it, and said all sorts of encouraging things, including lies about how far the next aid was. They lent me a jacket (as I had forgotten mine 14 miles back), and just as I was gearing up our 5th came in, shouting “I’m done! I’m dropping! Enough!” I left, and the 4th not too far behind me.

Very soon I realized, I had gotten my feet wet after dark and they were starting to burn. My spare shoes were back at mile 37 with my jacket, neither of which I needed at the time, in the daylight my feet had dried quickly. The burning intensified into crazy sharp pains: the formation of about 40 blisters (that is not an exaggeration). On the tops of my toes, between my toes, all around the perimeter of my feet, all over my heels. I don’t generally get blisters, so I faced another new but major problem that I didn’t know what to do about. At about mile 55, the weeping started, and by 58 I had
a. Gotten slightly lost
b. brushed a cactus that stabbed my foot with spires (which are like FISHING HOOKS) that sliced right through my shoes and deep into my feet
c. Taken more than one weeping break

I wasn’t vomiting anymore, but I hadn’t eaten in 20 miles and my body felt like very painful metal. Rather than pass me, a very nice man convinced me to pick up the pace and stay with him, and having company pulled me just enough out if my misery to keep on.

When I staggered across the finish line, I just wanted this day to be over. Another very nice man, the official finish line greeter and hugger, congratulated me with great enthusiasm and sincerity. He hugged me and said “you did it! You finished! You did a great job!” And I realized, I DID finish. It wasn’t how I thought it was going to go, but I DID do a great job. I sat down with my new friends, 4/5, and we talked about how we would have dropped if it weren’t for the rest of us and those wonderful aid station crews. And some insane number like 100 did drop. As we were eating our finish pizza, number 5 crossed the finish line. All 5 of us had picked ourselves up and carried on to finish. I was so miserable that I wouldn’t have been ashamed to end it by dropping. But it wouldn’t have been me.

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I couldn’t have imagined how bad the recovery was going to be. It subsided after several days, at which time it became obvious that something is actually wrong with my left knee. It’s a repetitive motion injury, probably from the cumulative week of overdoing it (including the race, I ran at least 130 miles). I’ve wondered over and over, when is enough, enough? Sometimes I’m psyched to get back into training and redeem myself. Mostly, I think it’s time to give it up. Long distance is the best and worst thing I’ve ever done. I’ve justified pushing my body so hard because I believed I was making it stronger. But am I? Really? Naysayers tell us we are destroying our bodies. Are they right?

In Kilian’s book he says you have make running your whole life. Every other part of you has to work together to support it. I know I can do this right.

Obviously it is not time to give up yet.
I identify as a runner not because I have nothing else, but because I know it’s who I am.

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