From Grief to Depression to Ultras

If you’ve read my blog over the years, you know that I lost my dearest friend years ago – 13 years ago tomorrow to be exact.  I try not to bring it up too often.  I know it can be a subject that makes people feel uncomfortable and helpless and I totally understand why.  I don’t want to be that person…the one that can never move on or process their feelings, constantly reminding everyone of her sorrow.  But sometimes, I need to process and work through emotions for myself.  And that is the real reason for today’s blog – so I can hash out and work through some of these emotions that have come flooding back to me today.

This morning, within the span of minutes, I found myself in a funk.  All of a sudden, I felt like I had a great weight on my chest, my stomach was nauseated and hurting and I felt incredibly anxious.  At first, I blew it off as nerves for my upcoming 50k/13.1 race weekend but as I considered that, I didn’t believe the anxiety was race-driven.  And then it dawned on me.  Thirteen years ago today was the last day that I would spend with Allison.  We had been sponsors at church camp and after driving home had decided to go wash our clothes  at the laundromat.  It was there that she would have an episode that would lead to her being carried by air ambulance to the hospital where she would later pass away.  Even though it has been 13 years, it is still incredibly difficult for me to think about the events of  that day.

One of my favorite pics of Allison. I can still hear her laugh.

Losing Allison was obviously a terrible tragedy for everyone involved, especially for her family.  It was the biggest devastation that any of us had ever faced, and with it came a loss of innocence about the world.  Where I had once embraced life with joy and anticipation, I could no longer find the joy in living.  I’ve often said that the light in the world dimmed the day that Allison died.  I think it is still true today, even after years of coping with the grief and finally finding ways to feel joy – it will always be a hollow substitute to what I felt before she died.

The grief was so huge and overwhelming, at first.  Just trying to process the enormity of that loss was nearly impossible.  As the days and weeks went by, the loss was hammered home and I didn’t handle it well AT ALL.  Soon, my grief turned into depression and instead of being constantly sad, I felt like I was living in a black hole, void of all emotion.  I did force myself to continue going through the motions of life.  I wasn’t really vested in it, but I tried to be.  Looking back at that time in my life feels like I was trapped in a nightmare.  I don’t really remember much of what I did, but I remember everything just feeling gray.  Thank God that my husband and children survived that era.  I was completely checked-out.

I practiced this going through the motions for years.  YEARS.  I slowly began to have more moments of joy.  Real joy.  Where, for a few moments, I began to actually feel happiness again.  Those moments starting coming more often, but I was still trapped in the fog of depression.

I’ve mentioned several times about how running gave me my sparkle back.  Allison was a runner.  I believe with all my heart that this is no coincidence.  Allison was always trying to convert me to running in life – why would it change in death??  Anyway, the more I ran, the more I began to feel joy again.  I never run without thinking of Allison, so I think running has helped me continue to feel close to her as well.

The reason I’m detailing all this now – today – is because of a running documentary that I recently watched.  This film highlighted ultra-runner Nikki Kimball and her attempt to break the MEN’s FKT on The Long Trail in Vermont.  She missed the men’s record by a day, but went on to set a new women’s record by 2.5 days!  Anyway, she was very candid about her struggle with depression – intense depression.  When I heard her say this in the movie, it stopped me dead in my tracks.  I knew immediately that this was the real reason I’ve been drawn to ultra-running.

“I think that depression is my secret weapon.  When things get really, really bad in an expedition or an ultra race, I can look back at the pain I was in at the worst of my depression and the pain of an ultra race isn’t that bad.  ……..One of the things about depression, you know it’s not that you just feel sad – you feel nothing.  And I think one of the reasons I do ultras is because it gives me the highest highs and the low lows.  But I can handle acute, strong lows.  That juxtaposed to feeling nothing is fantastic.”     ~Nikki Kimball

First of all, the feeling nothing within the framework of depression is SPOT ON.  And as far as feeling pain – I have felt some pain in my racing and training.  I’ve been tired and hurting and all I want to do is stop.  But when you keep going through the pain, it is such a victorious feeling.  But I haven’t felt the pain enough….

I don’t have a lot of ultras under my belt right now, but I truly believe the lure of the pain is a big part of what makes ultras so enticing to me.  Getting to that place where you don’t think you can continue.  Getting to the place that you don’t want to continue.  Yet you do continue and you prevail and you feel something and it is a reminder to you that you are still living.  Maybe I’m crazy, but all of us distance runners are.  And most of us have pain in our past that pushes us to keep doing the crazy things.

This weekend is going to be tough.  I signed up for a 50k on Saturday and 13.1 on Sunday…on a trail….in the Hill Country.  I knew it was a stretch when I signed up, being only 5 weeks out from Galveston.  I didn’t give myself time for a proper build.  But I’m going to welcome the battle.  I want it to hurt.  I want to fight for it.  Because I will prevail.  And because it’s that time of the year, I will be fighting in honor of Allison.  I know she will be right beside me.

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It’s 70.3 race week and taper madness is in overdrive!

The thought occurred to me recently that I NEVER post training updates anymore.  And I rarely do.  I was at the point that I felt like I was saying the same thing over and over and over….and the last thing I want is to remind people of the movie Groundhog Day.  So I took a break.  Another {valid} reason is that life was a whirlwind and I legitimately couldn’t find the time or the energy to devote to a post.  But Spring is here and with it a renewed spirit.  Oh, and its TAPER WEEK!!

Galveston is here and I completely lost my mind in taper AGAIN. 

I signed up for Galveston THE DAY registration opened last July.  In fact, at the time I had not even participated in my first sprint tri.  How smart is that?!?  LOL!!  I became nauseated when I hit that “Register” button, but that didn’t last too long because Galveston was SO FAR AWAY that it didn’t seem real.  My training hasn’t been as conventional as most since the timing of Houston delayed the start to tri training.  And I threw that 50K in there right in the meat of Galveston training….Brent definitely earned his money on this training cycle.

I wigged out last week. I wouldn’t describe the feeling that I had as being nervous….at this point I am actually feeling pretty confident.  (Qualifying for Boston has calmed my nerves A LOT.  I know I can do it – I will just need to manage the day well.)  But I had A LOT of energy and I couldn’t get a handle on it.  So I signed up for not one, but TWO upcoming 50Ks.  Brent is going to earn his money again because one of them is just 4 weeks after Galveston.

My mantra: Survive the swim

Even with my sparse posts the last few months, one thing should still be clear: the swim was my biggest fear (biking and running are just a matter of managing endurance, and I know I can do that).  I took a SIX MONTH BREAK from the pool.  I swam (that term is used loosely) at my sprint tri at the end of August and I didn’t get in the pool again until after I ran Houston Marathon in mid-January.  The encouraging thing is that I could hardly tell that I had taken a break!  I haven’t had one bad swim (aaaaand I probably just jinxed myself) since starting back.  The turning point was the day I set out to swim a mile: without a warm up and without stopping.  I swam 2,300!  I was 275 yards in when a guy asked to share the lane.  I stopped only long enough to hear his question and to respond with a yes.  My mistake was pausing my watch because it ended up lapping my Garmin.  I was SO UPSET about it that I decided to swim my 1,760 yards but when I got there I wanted to hit 2,000.  And because I was at the opposite end of the pool when this happened, I have one lap of 275 and another of 2,025.  It wasn’t fast by any means, but I didn’t panic like I usually do in the warmup (remember…I had NO warmup) and I freaking did it!!!  OK, OK….I know that I will likely panic when I jump off that pier and find myself surrounded by hundreds of other swimmers, but I also know I just need to settle my nerves and just keep swimming.  I wouldn’t say that I am looking forward to the swim, but I am ready to get in the water and do what I now know I can do!

Bike: Don’t get blown away

If you had asked me how I felt about the bike two weeks ago, I would have told you that I would be lucky to finish in four hours.  My rides had all been on the trainer and I just don’t trust the trainer.  When I am finished with my workouts, I always feel like I should have pushed harder.  I haven’t mastered that killer instinct on the bike that I have on the run.  I can get myself to that place and maintain it much easier on the run than I can on the bike, BUT….

That is slowly changing.  Even though I was never able to do the long, long rides outside, I have been doing rides outside the last couple of weeks.  I can tell that I am much stronger than I was last Fall and that is encouraging.  I had to fight wind on most of these rides and I was able to keep going – not always as hard as I wanted, but I kept going.  Typically, Galveston has a very windy bike course, since it is right along the sea wall so managing the headwinds will be the biggest challenge.  I must keep in mind that a good bike equals a bad run.  I have to remember to hold back on the bike to keep my run from going South.  I hope my ego listens on race day.

Another BIG announcement is that I FINALLY named my bike!  I’ve spent all this time with her and I couldn’t settle on a name.  All the names that were suggested or that I thought of just never fit.  So I waited for the right timing and inspiration.  A couple of weeks ago, an idea for a name came to me and I just knew it was perfect!!  (It’s kind of like deciding on a tattoo….you just know when it is right.)  I named her Brienne, after Brienne of Tarth on Game of Thrones.  Brienne of Tarth is loyal, brave, noble, dependable, and a little bit quirky.  🙂

Run: The jam to my peanut butter

Obviously running is my favorite – it’s the discipline in which I feel like I excel.  I have NO CLUE how my legs will react after pedaling for 56 miles.  Then there is the added challenge (for me) of running in the heat of the day (although the current forecast is thunderstorms, so rain AND CLOUDS!!).  I don’t even know what to expect to be able to do on the run.

I can say that I am able to get my legs under me a lot more quickly now than at the beginning of training.  I noticed after Sunday’s bike that they didn’t feel nearly as heavy as they normally do. (That is likely related to the fact that the wind was at my back on the last half of my ride….)  I’m trying to go in with a generous time goal in case my legs just scream NO.  🙂

Race nutrition 

I don’t think it would be an understatement to say that race nutrition has given me more anxiety than the swim.  I generally use UCAN for running.  I can actually tell a difference in my sustained energy when I use UCAN, but it isn’t the best tasting substance.  I can handle it for marathon distances or less, but I just can’t face the prospect of drinking or taking UCAN gel every hour for 6-7 hours.  I JUST CAN’T.

Plus, the remainder of my year is going to be about extending my ultra distances and it doesn’t seem feasible to me in those situations either, so I have been making the transition to Tailwind.  Tailwind is a lightly flavored elecrolyte/carb mix that you add to your water, so I felt like it would be perfect on the bike.  And it has worked for me on the bike.  As I sit here typing this, FIVE days out from the race, I am STILL unsure how I am going to fuel my run.  I know how dangerous and stupid that is.

I am seriously considering making a UCAN gel just for the run, then carrying an emergency gel in case I get in trouble.  The big question mark here is: how will my GI tract handle those two substances at once in an endurance event?  You have to be careful what you take in while on UCAN because the sugary stuff can intensify the stomach upset.  I am going to take it all with me and decide by Saturday night.  Maybe I’ll flip a coin!  LOL   If use both and it goes South, I will chalk it up to training my stomach for those upcoming ultras.  Speaking of….

Why can’t I just focus on one thing at once?

In the weeks after Houston, I took some time to simply enjoy what I had accomplished.  I wasn’t stressed in the least about Cowtown 50k and I didn’t really have any goals to speak of.  I just wanted to have fun and finish and I did exactly that, plus some!  I became so chill about everything, though – even Galveston – that I wondered if I had lost my drive.  I wondered if qualifying for Boston could have been more of a curse?  When you’re hungry, you work a lot harder and achieve a whole lot more.

I should have known better.  I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER.  As soon as my last big bike and last big run was done, so was my chill time.  I became restless. Plus, I had just returned from a volleyball national qualifier in St. Louis – a roller coaster weekend of INTENSE games where we found ourselves in the final and walked away with 2nd place AND a bid to nationals.  And the leftover emotion from this bid to nationals was the pebble that turned into an avalanche.

It all started like this: My teammate Tim was planning to run Wildflower 50K the first weekend of May.  I promised I would run it with him IF Alli’s team qualified for nationals.  If they didn’t end up with a bid from a national qualifier, we would have to attempt a bid at the Region tournament which is the same weekend as Wildflower.  So I had started the taper, Alli’s team battled it out for a bid to nationals and I realized that the May weekend was now open – I could run Wildflower!!!!!  Of course I signed up immediately!  That night, I literally woke up at 2AM in a cold, panicky sweat, at that moment realizing (for the first time, really) that I had just signed up for a 50K one month after Galveston.  One thought was, “JEN….that is LONGER than a marathon!”  *sigh*

So how did I deal with this stress of adding this longer-than-a-marathon 50K to my race schedule??  The VERY NEXT DAY, after I asked Twitterverse for help finding a race around the time we will be in Minnesota for Nationals, I signed up for ANOTHER 50K.  And, AGAIN, I had a complete shutdown of all rational thoughts along with a complete brain disconnect.  Some people get drunk to do damage on Ultra Signup.  NOT ME.  My brain shuts off, ADHD impuslivity takes over and when I come to my senses (I imagine this is how people feel who get drunk, then wake up in an unfamiliar bed the next morning.), I realize what I have done.  Let me say, first, that this race is PERFECT.  It is a 50K and is the day after Nationals wraps up.  I can send Alli back with teammates to be picked up in Dallas by Bobby so that I can stay an extra couple of days to get a run in while I’m in another state.  However, at the moment I signed up, 9,340′ of total elevation gain and 9,340′ of total elevation loss didn’t seem that difficult.  But when I came out of my Ultra Signup, ADHD-induced coma, I went into full-blown panic mode.  I know what downhill does to your quads.  One only needs to utter the name, Rochester, for me to shudder and curl up in the fetal position in the nearest corner.  Rochester was the hilliest race I had ever done and I was not mentally prepared, nor were my quads.  I now have a plan on how to strengthen my quads and I’ll be finding hillier routes for my longer runs – I’m sure it will be OK.  The BEST part of this is that my friend, Pood, lives in Minnesota and he is driving down (I assume he is coming “down” the state) to run it with me!!!  Pood was part of the St. Louis Rock n Roll group and he ran that race with me.  We make a GREAT race team!!  And I can honestly say that he is one of the most genuinely nice and caring people that I have EVER met.  We are going to slay those downhills!!

 

Basically, nothing has changed in my life since I’ve been posting less.  I’m the same ditzy, crazy runner that digs herself a big hole to climb out of.  But that’s how I function best and I love it!!

I’ll be updating next week with a full Ironman Texas 70.3 race report!

Jen