This piece has been a long time in the making one way or another. I was inspired to write it all down, finally, after reading an article about long-term overtraining/overstressing and the affects it has had on others. The article was highly validating for me as I have spent many hours ruminating if the weird and wonderful afflictions I have had over the past few years are just artifacts of my overactive imagination. I recommend reading it (linked above) and I hope I do it justice with my own cautionary tale. Some times you need to slow down to speed up, and that’s okay.
I read a while ago it takes about 10 years to develop as a long-distance runner. That is why, traditionally, so many people come in to their own in the sport around 30 or older. Of course, there are talented youth coming through now but they all probably started training for track in high school at 14. I was 21 when I started trail running, rogaining, and adventure racing.
In my first race, Avalanche Peak in 2013, I ended up vomiting for 6 hours after I crossed the finish line. During the latter half of the race, I had suffered some of the worst stomach cramps I have ever had to this very day. This did nothing to deter me from the sport. I just amplified my feelings of having so much to catch up on if I was going to be the next Sophie Hart (adventure racing and multisport legend). I had to learn to ride a mountain bike. I had to learn to kayak. I had to be fitter and stronger than I ever had before and I had to do it all yesterday.
I assumed I just needed to try harder than everyone else. I knew I could. It’s how I got my engineering degree. I just put in more hours. I reviewed lecture notes before and after class. I always handed my assignments in on time and attended every lecture. I worked 14hr days to make sure I was prepared for exams.
As my undergraduate degree ended and I started on my PhD – running and multisport began to take the front and centre in my achievement driven mind. I wanted to compete. I wanted to be better. I came up with a slightly insane idea to run 12 races in 12 counties in 12 months while I was completing a year of my PhD in Belgium.
I was a wonderful year filled of new places, new friends, new adventures and challenges. I learnt so much about myself. I was so proud of being able to push through so much pain and adversity. At the end of that year, I had visited 24 different countries and raced in 12. On average I raced 47km per month with 1700m vertical metres. I slept on airports floors so often I lost count.
I also pushed my body to the extreme. I suffered through swollen knees, infected blisters, IBS issues. I couldn’t seem to get my nutrition right – I experimented with low carb diets and fat adaptation to vegetarianism, to just eating everything and anything. I was in an off-and-on long distance relationship that was an emotional mine field.
Once I got back to NZ, I was sane enough to know I needed a break from racing. However, I had invested so much time and energy to become fit and strong it was terrifying to think that it all might just slide away. I had this cumulative fear that with every day I did not run I would become fat and unfit. All my efforts would be wasted. 1-2 days off running or some form of exercise would be the maximum I could achieve before the pressure built up to breaking point. I had to keep moving.
Running was also a gateway drug to other ways to push myself. I started my first and last proper mechanical engineering job in 2017. I managed to broker a deal with my manager that I could work 4 10-hour days to get my 40 hour weeks done. I started work at 6am and worked to 4.30pm. I would be up at 5am every morning – running or cycling to work. The 3 days I then had off were spent chasing snow at Temple Basin – working 10-hour days as a volunteer ski patroller and helping in the kitchen in the evenings.
Eventually I quit my job and moved in to a station wagon for the summer. I couldn’t stand sitting still at a desk for 40 hours a week. Perpetual motion was the only answer. It was such an adventure. I was so happy. However, there was no excuse not to train, and no limit on how many hours I could spend on my feet. I trained myself into the ground and staring down the barrel of 107km race, I realised I had “over-trained” as my body refused to recover. I put on the brakes in remaining days leading up to the race but it was all too little too late. The race went terribly, I couldn’t stomach anything, and I was lucky just to finish.
As the summer disappeared, I travelled to Japan then Taiwan then Vietnam, and on to Nepal where the altitude totally obliterated me. It was my first insight in to what full body mental, physical, emotional fatigue could feel like. Altitude made me want to stop, to lie down, to never move again. I had to dig so deep within myself just to do basic tasks some days or to stay awake past 4pm. Even on the day which should have contained the most celebrations and excitement – crossing a 5416m pass – was a disaster for me. My stomach gave out in all directions, my heart raced, panic gripped me. I didn’t want to stop and enjoy the view or the achievement – I wanted to get the hell out of there.
After Nepal and a terrible stomach bug incident on the trans-content flight and days after. I moved to Chamonix, France. I started working nights at a restaurant. My job was terrible. The employers were awful, the pay was minimal, my hours were stress filled and late into the night. My boyfriend at the time wanted me to quit because he could see it was wrecking me but it was the only security I had. I had dropped all my savings on my student loan and we were committed to paying rent until the end of the summer season.
The masochist part of me also enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the restaurant. I loved being needed and having purpose. I liked learning new skills and being challenged. It was like a high stakes game of memory during service – having to organise and prioritise rapidly while dancing around the other employees in the kitchen.
So, I blamed running for destroying my body. I couldn’t bend down at work without pain. My feet ached every night. In reality it was the job destroying me. But I couldn’t see it. I gathered more and more resentment. I ran my last race, 101 kilometres with 6100m of vertical through 3 countries over 21 hours and then was expected back at work the next evening. I prepped vegetables perched on a stool while my bosses enjoyed the UTMB after party raging in the restaurant.
During and after this time I turned to climbing as a different way to move through nature without the swollen knees and constant exhaustion which had crept into my bones. Multipitch climbing was incredible, just like vertical running. However, it wasn’t the activity that was destroying me it was my attitude. I threw myself into the deep end with climbing – ending places a novice like myself I had no right to be and scaring myself endlessly in the process.
Then winter came and I turned to skiing with the same audacity. I expected to be able to ski like the best in my first season in the Alps, skin like the best, never be scared, always keep up. I failed at all of these things a flagellated myself for it. And I still kept working in that shitty American diner. The winter season was worse, less staff, more customers, and more stress. I had the worst Christmas Day of my life when I and one other, actually qualified, chef had to serve 150 dishes from an unnecessarily complicated menu. Food went out an hour late. I cried once I made it home at 2am in the morning.
Eventually one particularly stressful day in March – I started crying as I finished work and didn’t stop until nearly 24 hours later when I had to go to work again. I finally quit wanting to enjoy my last few months in France but the damage was done. I was so tired all the time. I had wanted to do the Haute Route at the end of the season but didn’t feel confident my body would cope.
I also had persistent UTI symptoms and started to get the most debilitating period cramps I had ever had in my life. I had been to a French doctor who dismissively my told me I was fine (you stupid english speaker). But I didn’t feel fine, I felt like I had a UTI.
Despite all this I still managed to fit 6 years of ski touring/mountaineering in to 6 months. I skied all but one Col on the true right of the Argentière Glacier, I skied nearly all the Cols into La Berarde Valley, I skied classics like Pas de Chevre and Breche Puiseux and I skied La Vallée Blanche more than 10 times. I even skied my first (and only) 4000m peak – Gran Paradiso. The fact that I was a novice ski tourer when I arrived in Cham makes this even more unbelievable and I was lucky to have experienced people around me to keep me safe from the imposing terrain. It was, however, impossible to keep me safe from myself.
I knew about overtraining but I thought that was a short-term thing – I wasn’t racing or even training anymore so how could I be “over-training”. I had heard of the term “burn-out” but that happened to other people in high powered jobs, not me. It looks so obvious in hindsight that my immune system and body was beginning to fail me as I had thrashed myself physically, emotionally, and mentally, expecting the impossible, never allowing enough recovery, never being still. It was screaming at me to slow down after the past 7 years of self-induced suffering but I didn’t know how to get off the roller coaster.
I was losing my work visa at the end of May and had to leave France. I packed up, again, and moved my life into a van. We went straight to Italy climbing 400m lines in 30-degree heat after not climbing all winter. You guessed it. I cried. But it was meant to be a big old “adventure” so I kept my head down and kept trying to be a “mountain person” – whatever that meant.
It very quickly dawned on me I was not in a good place when a really big rock tried to end my existence in the Dolomites. Not too long after, I crash landed back at my parents’ place in the middle of nowhere rural NZ. Once removed from the toxic environment I had created for myself I tried to recover and heal. I got the antibiotics I need for the unusual bacteria I had growing in my bladder. I stopped running and climbing and skiing. At least for a little while.
But it wasn’t before long I relapsed like a drug addict – addicted to the hustle. I tried to look after everyone else first and expected to pick up where I had left off physically. I crashed and burned. Fatigue returned and brought with it her friends, nausea through which I struggled to eat my breakfast, and heart palpitations which made me fear I was developing a familiar heart condition. I felt like I was living at altitude, my brain was slow, my body slower. I couldn’t cope with making decisions, in my free time away from the farm I would dissolve in to a puddle of tears trying to make the “tough decision” of where to ski on the weekend.
My solution was another temporary Band-Aid. I left the farm for 3 months holiday before starting an office job. I hoped in part the office lifestyle would be a way for me to regain my energy but I still wasn’t willing to address my attitude. Unfortunately, “It’s not hard work that exhausts us, it’s meaningless work…”. I was not wired to work for a marketing company. Nor was I wired to deal with those who work at marketing companies.
After a three-month holiday and plenty of afternoon naps and meditation apps I was starting to regain my energy but after three months of a disagreeable work environment I was heading back in the direction I started. Nausea awaited me on my 15-minute bike to work. I would arrive home from work lie down on my bed and cover my eyes with a pillow needing the world to slow down.
Around this time, I had a confirmed diagnosis of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), likely brought on by chronic inflammation, as I tried to work through my irregular and painful periods and lower abdominal pain. I also came to realise I likely hadn’t been ovulating for years. Ovulation is how women make hormones. While men make testosterone every day, women don’t. Instead, we create hormones as a surge of estradiol leading up to ovulation and an even bigger surge of progesterone after ovulation. Estradiol promotes muscle gain, insulin sensitivity, and bone health. Progesterone reduces inflammation, regulates immune function, and supports thyroid function. My hormones had likely been flat lining for years – it was no wonder I felt as though I had hit a brick wall and buried by it.
Another turning point came for me after a failed ski touring attempt on Mt Rolleston. My skiing buddies and I had been talking about it for weeks. I really wanted to be on the trip but fatigue seemed to be kicking my ass particularly hard at the time. I agreed I would come and see how far I got – but would turn back if it all got too much. Sure enough, by the time we hit the snow line and after 10mins of skinning I knew I was cooked and was only going to be a burden. I turned around while the boys carried on.
I sat watching the clouds for another 5hrs waiting for them to return. I tried to appreciate that it was a beautiful day, in a beautiful place. How lucky I was just to be alive. But when they returned, filled to the brim with excitement at their successful descent, a part of me snapped inside. I dug my nails in to my palms and stared at the ceiling of the car often on the 2 hour drive home.
It seemed childish and pathetic to be so upset about missing one ski touring objective. But my distress was really due to the realization of a fear I had been denying. The fear that maybe I would never be better. Maybe this was my new normal. Maybe I would never achieve a ski touring objective again. Maybe I would always feel this tired. When we got home, I closed the door behind me and the waves of anxiety consumed me. I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. I was lost in a sea of my own self-pity.
But the next morning when I awoke, I was ready to address my issues and my attitude a little more directly. This had to be temporary. I had to get better.
There were some small things I had control over straight away. I changed my diet – removing gluten and dairy. Two known inflammatory foods especially with my PCOS diagnosis and my history of IBS and low iron levels. I started paying more attention to my protein intake. Something I had often neglected through environmental guilt and being too tight with money. I started supplementing zinc and magnesium to support my immune system.
And there were some big things that took some time to change. Eventually, I quit my draining and dissatisfying position to take on a role I was really excited about in the new year. I have been so lucky to move from the busy suburban hell hole of Ilam, Christchurch to the quiet and soul filling shores of Lake Hawea.
But the biggest and most difficult thing I have to constantly wrestle is my attitude. I have to find the dial control on my driven nature. I have to learn to slow down and I have reframe rest and recovery. I have to find different ways to make the mad monkeys in my brain quiet – I can’t just run them in to submission anymore.
Now 7 months on from that day on Rolleston I’ve found the energy to write this down. I am running again. A couple of times a week and I know without it I would not have even had the head space to write something as complex and important to me as this. Exercise helps me check out of my busy brain and order my chaotic thoughts. I run to relax.
Without running I feel lost and lose faith in myself. If I no longer have my super power of suffering. Who am I? If I can’t trust my own body to do what I tell it then how can I do anything? I have become worried about agreeing to trips and adventures unless I can justify specific bail out points where I can turn around while others go on in case my body just says no. I need running to help restore my faith in what I am capable of.
I have to run. I have to explore. I have to try hard. I have to know my limits but I also have to return the favour and allow my body the rest and time it needs to recover. It’s fine line that means my recovery is not just consistent improvement – it’s an irregular sinusoidal wave on a slightly upward trajectory. Sometimes I do too much, sometimes I do too little.
I am learning to deal with uncertainty better – making plans but not always sticking to them. If I feel tired, I go back to bed rather than still pushing myself out the door for the run I told myself I was going to do the night before. Uncertainty used to stress me out because I wanted to plan to fill every moment of my day. I didn’t want to waste a second. Now it’s hard to think I wasted so many seconds being so tired and rundown.
I passed up some of the best years of my life. It will be 10 years since I started racing next January. If I had slowly and methodically worked my way forward perhaps now, I would be achieving some of my best race results. Perhaps now I would be racing Godzones and other adventure or trail races internationally. I may not be physically gifted enough have truly “made-it” but I still mourn for what I could have been.
I also feel remorse for not listening to people who told me along the way to stop or slow down. Friends, fellow athletes, partners, family. I was arrogant. I knew better. I had to prove myself and prove them wrong. I couldn’t see that they were just genuinely concerned for my well-being while I was stuck in over-drive. If you’re still reading, I am still sorry.
But would I take it all back? I also achieved some amazing things and went to some of the most beautiful places on this planet. And now the universe has taken pity on me – allowed me to have a fulfilling job and live in a beautiful place. Now that I have it all… most. Would I take it back knowing I might never make it here to this point in time – knowing what I know, learning what I have?
Maybe? But regardless, it is not an option.
Right now, for the most part, I felt awake and alive. No longer rushing between commitments too busy to look up at the sky. I like to notice the bird song and the way the trees catch the light when I look up from my computer at work. I am learning to say no and how to deal with disappointing people – I am trying to be better at asking for what I need. I still hope to all hopes that I can build back up to the levels of endurance I once had. But for now, it’s just nice to breathe.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Strive to be happy.”
Desiderata, Max Ehrmann, 1927