My Biggest Challenge Yet!

FIFTY Screengrab Images Flashworks Media-2The article ‘Breakable’, which is reproduced below, was recently published in Kiwi Trail Runner Magazine. I wrote it some 9 months after finishing the High Five-0 Challenge, when I believed I was finally recovered from the ravages of that epic adventure. For the three months that followed I cautiously got back into regular running and even threw in a few long ones, the highlight being the Old Ghost Ultra just a few weeks back. I was delighted with how well I came through that beautiful 85 km run, but just when I thought I was, if not totally out of the woods, then at least close enough to the edge to see daylight, the wheels fell off again. Catastrophically.

Out of nowhere the symptoms described in the article came back to haunt me and with them came some dark days as I struggled to comprehend what this latest setback might mean for future plans. I quickly booked in to see my doctor (who knows a thing or two about endurance sport athletes and the mentality that drives them) and after extensive blood tests gave the all clear on any other possible explanation he gave me the news I was at least half-expecting, but nevertheless dreading. He spelt it out in 3 letters… CFS… Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

His prognosis was that within 1-2 years (years!!) I would likely have a 65-75% chance of complete recovery. But if I ignored the obvious and continued trying to push through it I would increase my chances of being beset with a permanent condition. Needless to say this was pretty grim news and did nothing for my state of mind, no matter how hard I tried to remain positive and think of “all the things I CAN do, not what I CAN’T do”

Now, a week or so on, I’m coming to accept that this means my adventuring may have to take a rather different direction, and adopt a rather slower pace, for the foreseeable future. But I am NOT about to give up on the idea of a complete recovery and a return to the epic multi-day fundraising adventures that have been my lifeblood for some 7 years now. I will explore every option and make every change to diet and lifestyle that might be necessary to maximise my chances of a return to the rude health I have always previously enjoyed, but central to the process – the one non-negotiable – is the need for Rest. For both my body and my mind.

And so is a born a new kind of challenge – the challenge of not running for at least 3 months! From obsession to complete withdrawal will mean going through some pretty hard cold turkey. And this is where I’d love to get the help of the trail running fraternity to provide me with the motivation to resist temptation and turn this adversity into an opportunity to do a little good…

In two days time (April 7th) I turn 56 and this will mark Day 1 of my 100-Day Non-Running Streak for Mental Health. If I know that my enforced rest is helping to raise money for the cause so dear to my heart, then it will give me no end of motivation to slow down and mend a little. If you’d like to help with this rather unusual fundraising project then please send me an email to pledge a contribution of at least 1 cent a day for each day I resist the urge to run. After a maximum of 100 days the Challenge will be done, I will notify you of how much your pledge amounts to and will ask for that to be paid as a donation to the Mental Health Foundation. And I may, or may not, go for a wee jog.

Old Ghost finish
NOT the end of the road!

Thanks for whatever help and support you can offer. And here’s that Kiwi Trail Runner article…


Breakable (from ed. 5 of Kiwi Trail Runner)    

It was none other than Anna Frost who told me just a few weeks before the High Five-0 Challenge began that I needed to “do very little for months afterwards or risk suffering from chronic fatigue”. Wise words from someone whose advice I value. I only wish I’d heeded them more carefully.

After fifty days straight running/walking/crawling for an average of 8-9 hrs a day over mountainous terrain, on top of two years of flat-out training and before that a 4-year spell of pretty much unbroken long-distance running – in total, some 27,000 kms on my feet over 6 years – it should have been bleeding obvious. But I’d become myopic. More foolish still, I’d come to believe I was unbreakable. But I was about to find out I wasn’t.

In the 9 months that followed the great adventure that raised some $514,000 for the Mental Health Foundation, I experienced a roller coaster journey that at times saw me plummeting into a pit of despair. Yes, I knew the initial euphoria would fade. Yes, I knew it’d be a tough mental battle to fill the void left behind by a project that had consumed me for two years. But I never expected what came next.

So, what happened? How did it leave me feeling? And most importantly, what did I learn?

What happened?

At first my recovery seemed to go to plan. I thought I’d given myself enough down time and that I’d only gradually eased my way back into running. But it’s only with hindsight, and a look at my training log, that I can see how naïve I was and how blatantly I’d ignored Frosty’s advice.

In the first month (April) after finishing I see I logged a sensible 60k (15k a week, mostly just walking.) But then in May I averaged 50k a week and rather ridiculously hatched the plan for Chasing The Dragon, a 1,700k run around the perimeter of Wales! By June I was averaging 70k a week and continued this into July. I started trying to get some speed back by doing faster, flatter runs but just couldn’t understand why I was feeling old, slow and stale. Try as I might, anything under 6 min kms seemed a real struggle. I told myself that I was out of practice; that I’d been doing only long, slow runs for so long, so no wonder I was slow. The answer I believed – oh how stupid this seems now – was to push harder and just get my body accustomed to the rhythm and pace of speed work.

That’s when the wheels really started to fall off. My body gave me a warning shot across the bows – what seemed like a torn hamstring. I took a couple of weeks off. But another problem that had been niggling away in the background – really stiff, painful neck and shoulders – just escalated. Still, getting on a plane to Europe towards the end of July, I was convinced I’d soon be bounding over Alpine trails and back to full fitness.

It was not to be. From the moment we arrived in Chamonix for UTMB week, I started experiencing dizzy spells, pins & needles and numbness in my arms and legs, severe neck pain, headaches and nausea attacks. I tried to run a trail. It felt terrible. I tried to walk instead. It felt no better, and even this seemingly pedestrian pace over short distances was leaving me feeling exhausted. I grew irrational and started to panic that something very serious was afflicting me.

Over the following three weeks – in the UK and a few days in California on the way home – I tried running occasionally but it felt terrible. Walking was little better. Whatever I did just felt ridiculously hard and left me exhausted, dizzy and nauseous. My worry levels went through the roof, becoming pretty much full-on panic attacks. Visits to three doctors did nothing to put my mind at rest and the words they used, like ‘chronic’, ‘degenerative’ and ‘arthritis’ only served to darken my mood further. At one low point I’d even convinced myself that my running days were over.

More than anything it was the uncertainty, the not knowing what was wrong with me that was really getting to me. So I wasted no time once home getting a specialist appointment and, after a frustrating wait, an MRI. By the time the results for this came through (early November) I was starting to feel a little better and a bit more in control of my thoughts. They showed a minor disc bulge at the base of the neck but nothing that could explain the still ongoing dizzy spells and nausea.

Greatly reassured that I was not seriously ill and didn’t need surgery, I could at last stand back and look at the situation objectively. And it was only then that I finally accepted what I had for so long been denying, both to others and to myself – that I was deeply, deeply fatigued. I finally came to accept what my body (and so many well-meaning people) had been trying to tell me for months – that I was not invincible.

How did it leave me feeling?

The physical symptoms, painful and debilitating as they were, were actually the least of my worries. The real battle was going on inside my head. I hadn’t realised just how intimately my self-identity and sense of self-worth were tied to the idea of my being ‘unbreakable’. Foolishly, I had come to believe in my more public persona – the one that had unwittingly and unintentionally built up as I knocked off consecutive big running goals with seemingly minimal physical damage. But with that sense of invincibility now so well and truly shattered, I found my confidence in who I was, not just as a runner but as a person, crumbling too. My mental resilience was proving to be as fragile as I now realised my physical resilience was, and a very nasty downward spiral of emotions was sucking me into some very dark places.

For several months I lost my sense of belonging. The tribe I had come to feel so much a part of and that was central to so much of my life – the wonderful people that make up the trail running community – now felt like an alien band from a distant land; they spoke a language I vaguely remembered but could no longer speak; I felt like an imposter in their midst, the spare prick at the wedding.

I’m clearly a slow learner, for throughout these dark weeks and months, I still hadn’t come to accept that I was suffering from some kind of delayed onset chronic fatigue. But then one day, after all the medical diagnoses showed I wasn’t dying and I wasn’t going to lose the use of limbs or imminently disintegrate into an unfixable crumpled heap of skin, bones and fat, the penny finally dropped and I accepted what so many people had tried telling me. I was tired. Very, very tired. Chronically tired. I needed to back off, stop beating myself up for not being unbreakable, be kind to myself, take it easy for a few months and give myself a rest from chasing big goals.

And that was the day I started to recover. Really and truly, it was that same day. From the moment that I finally accepted my ‘weakness’ I started to feel stronger physically, mentally and emotionally.

What have I learned?

Deep fatigue is a real danger for all runners, especially those at the obsessed end of the spectrum such as myself – and quite possibly you! I hope you never have to go through it, but in case you do here’s three hard-learned lessons that I’ve benefitted from:

  1. 1. Listen to your body. The relentless pursuit of goals can deafen us to the loudest screams of our much-abused anatomies. Nobody is unbreakable. Don’t ever fall into the trap of thinking that you are. Stay attuned to what your body is trying to tell you and always be open to the idea that there’s a deeper reason for the persistent niggle or loss of mojo.
  2. 2. Listen to friends. What’s not so obvious to you is often screamingly obvious to others. Friends may well detect changes in movement and mood that we are blind to or unwilling to accept. So if someone suggests you’ve been overdoing it and should consider backing off for a while, stop and give it some serious thought. They may well be right.
  3. 3. Listen to experts. These may not necessarily be medical professionals but people who have experienced the same levels of deep fatigue. Frosty’s advice to me included taking a break from coffee, regular stretching, deep belly breathing exercises and weekly lymphatic massages. These all helped.

And three more things I’ve come to realise through some introspective musings while feeling down and out:

  1. 1.The importance of balance. I can see now that my fixation with running long distances had tipped over the crumbly, ill-defined edge from passion into obsession. Time out was, on reflection, not time lost but a great opportunity to rediscover some lost joys – walking, working in the garden, looking at stars to name but a few. If we put all our eggs into one basket and that basket breaks then things get pretty messy pretty fast. Keep a diversified portfolio of interests!
  2. 2. Take nothing for granted. Appreciate each and every run that you go on for what it is – a remarkable gift to be rejoiced in; the ultimate freedom – because one day you won’t be able to run any more and you’ll want more to look back on than a bunch of Strava records.
  3. 3. Plan ahead for what will fill the void when running is no longer a part of your life. In my darkest moments I really did wonder whether I’d ever run again and I became painfully aware that I’d need something to replace it. That something for me, all being well, is a continuing love affair with mountains and wild places, albeit at a much slower pace. For I understand now, better than ever, that it’s not the mechanical act of running that matters to me, nor even the physical benefits that it bestows on me, but simply the wonderful places it takes me. And there’s more than one way of getting there.