my story with overtraining

Nobody sets out to overdo it. Part of becoming the best you can be at anything involves testing your limits. Going farther or pushing harder than you imagined you were capable of. It’s necessary for growth. Most runners know this intimately, and I am no exception. I was running at a level I didn’t know possible for a long time, in a two and a half year period taking my personal best time in the marathon from a 4:35 to a 3:11. All along the way as I pushed myself, I would also check in regularly – thinking I was being careful and smart and in tune with my body. I took recovery seriously, had regular appointments with my chiropractor to keep things in check, was dedicated to my Pilates practice, strength training routine and daily foam rolling sessions. I had an annual physical with my doctor, monitoring my health through check ups and blood tests. My weight decreased significantly during this time, but there were no red flags. No injuries. No disruptions to my menstrual cycle. No issues with my standard blood work, blood pressure or heart rate. I developed food sensitivities and allergies (I even have an Epi pen now for wheat, shell fish and peanut allergies), but in my mind that wasn’t necessarily connected to my running. I had always been plagued with GI distress related to my running, for as long as I can remember, and it didn’t seem to matter what I ate or how I fueled when I raced, so I sort of just accepted it as being a part of my story. So many other runners deal with it, too, which somehow justified my own issues to me.

I thought I was fine. I was racing faster and running farther than ever! How could anything be wrong? I wasn’t worried. Despite the concerns from family members and the dearest of friends, and despite the fact that deep down I was really suffering underneath it all.

Looking back, it sounds so foolish to me now – but I have learned to give myself some compassion and to find grace and forgiveness for that past self. It hasn’t been easy, I will be honest with you. It has at times been excruciating. But awareness, while it is hard and can be so incredibly painful to wake up to, is also a blessing and a gift. One that empowers us to make changes and to live our lives differently moving forward.
Ultimately I am grateful for my journey. I have worked very hard over the last couple of years to heal and to rebuild strength from the inside out. It has been a lot more difficult than achieving any PR ever was or will be. That comparison is laughable to me! My hope now is that by sharing my experience, maybe I can help someone out there avoid causing themselves, and their loved ones, the same kind of pain and suffering. Or if you are already in the throes of it or know someone who is, I want to extend my heart and let you know that you’re not alone. That you CAN turn it around.
It’s better to be late than too late.
I am living proof.
I want to tell you that I am going to share this from the perspective of my running, because that’s what this blog is about, but I also feel it’s important to point out that nothing is ever one-dimensional. Health is not just about blood work or heart rate or what is happening with the physical body. During the last several years my heart and spirit and mind – my relationships with the people that matter most to me as well as my relationship with myself – have undergone major transformations – to hell and back! – just as my body has.
You are not healthy just because you are fit. In fact, I am a firm believer now that some of the most fit people out there are actually the least healthy.
About two years ago I started to wake up. It was a slow, gradual undoing. I was working with a new coach and excited to have his expertise to guide me and help me reach my potential in running. I wanted to take a season away from the marathon and focus on shorter distances for a while. The goal was a half marathon in the spring. All winter though, I was training at an incredibly high level still. Putting in 80 miles a week at times and long runs up to 18 miles – for a half marathon. The race came and I didn’t feel like running it. It was cold and raining, I know that was part of it. But the truth is that those conditions are usually ideal for me. I just didn’t have it in me. Something was off. I ran that race 7 minutes slower than I had on the same course a year prior. And I didn’t care.
I talked to my coach about how I was feeling. He didn’t seem concerned with overtraining at all. I went to my doctor and told her I was feeling depressed and heavy, and that I was having a hard time motivating myself to do things that I normally loved. She ran some blood work and called me back a few days later, telling me that my ferritin was “on the low end of normal” at a 14. Ferritin is the body’s iron stores. I had never heard of it before, but when I looked it up I saw that “normal” was this massive range of numbers from something like 7 all the way up to 130. I remember thinking that was nuts – how could a 14 be normal-ish if a 130 is also healthy!? After more than 20 years of eating primarily a vegetarian diet, and a good two years of just not eating enough at all, I started to try to eat meat again to get more iron in my diet. I also went to see an acupuncturist regularly for a while (at first a few times a week, and gradually over time my visits became more spread out as I got better) and he helped me tremendously. After a few months I was feeling so much stronger, had put on about 10 pounds, and began training for my first New York City Marathon. I was also going to be running the Chicago Marathon with my Saucony cadet as a 26 Strong coach.
My training for NYCM was solid from a numbers standpoint. I was hitting the paces and mileage with ease and wasn’t experiencing fatigue like I had in the winter. There were no signs of injury or anything. Chicago was a few weeks before New York and my cadet and I were on our feet for 6 hours that day. I was surprised by how well my body recovered from that race, but I went into NYC with some apathy that really wasn’t normal for me. It was then that I decided I was never going to do marathons so close together again – even if one of them was “for fun.”
My coach had me running New York fast from the get-go. I was on target for a 3:05 for the first 20 miles of the race. My family was there cheering for me, it was a beautiful day and the course was electric and alive with amazing energy. I was happy and felt strong through the halfway point. Somewhere around mile 18 though, I started thinking about my plan to race the last 10k, and knowing that it was going to hurt. There was no negotiating in my head though – I knew that I didn’t want to do that. When I saw my family at Mile 20, I literally stopped to hug them. It was a moment that felt frozen in time for me. Pivotal. From that point on, I knew it was time to slow down. For the rest of my marathon, and for a long while after that.
I didn’t know when I would want to race hard again, or if I ever would.
My passion for marathons and for running long distances was being threatened, and my health was too. I had had enough.
A few weeks after we returned from New York, my husband started his new job in North Carolina and moved down here into an apartment. He would be living in Raleigh 5 days a week while the kids and I stayed back at home in Virginia. The holidays were approaching and our lives were changing in a really major way. I emailed my coach and told him I was going to coach myself for a while. With our move, and me being a single, working mom of three during the week, I just needed to take the pressure off. Reduce stress. I had already signed up for Boston and wanted to be healthy and happy for that race. THAT was my goal.
Robert came with me to Boston and we celebrated the weekend with wonderful friends. I ran the race with no watch and enjoyed each and every step with no stress, finishing in 4:09 – almost an hour slower than I had run it two years prior. This was a huge achievement for me – running the Boston Marathon with no pit stops for GI issues, smiling and high-five’ing kids along the way, stopping to hug my husband, and crossing the finish line holding hands with a dear friend I had serendipitously caught up with in the final miles of the race. It was fantastic and my heart was happy.
That weekend I started to think that maybe I was ready to train to race again. We had a contract on a house in NC and would be moving and beginning to build our new life here soon. I felt good and hopeful and I felt healthy and happy.
But I knew that I would need to ask for help. That doing this alone was not for me anymore.
Robert and I sat down with coach James McKirdy for a couple of hours in Boston and I told him my story. He listened intently and I had this feeling that he understood me and that he would be a good fit for me as a coach. He seemed to have the perfect combination of an incredible depth of knowledge as well as a very caring spirit – I felt assured that he would put my health first. Having my husband there was extremely important to both of us.
After Boston, I spoke with Jonathan at Inside Tracker. James thought it would be a good idea to get my blood tested before embarking on the next phase of my running journey. In early May I had all of my bio markers tested with the Ultimate Test. I was most curious about my ferritin because going into it, it was the only area I was aware of that had been low when I wasn’t feeling good. I was so happy to learn that my ferritin had more than doubled since my doctor tested it and had gone from a 14 to a 29! I knew it was still low, but it was progress. Slow progress is true progress in my mind, and this was a good starting point. I began to train with James, gradually adding back in mileage and eventually some light speed work – which I had not done in about 9 months. It felt good.
My passion and joyful spirit in running was returning to me, but I was skeptical because I had been here before and didn’t want to do too much too soon and wind up right back where I was, or worse. I decided at this point that I wanted to invest in getting help from a nutritional and holistic standpoint. Being an avid Endurance Planet listener, I reached out to Tawnee Prazak to see if she could help me. Tawnee is an incredibly smart and awesome woman who has been very open about her own journey and experiences with overtraining, disordered body image and eating patterns. I pretty much adore her and before even talking with her I knew that she would be someone who would “get” me.
Working with Tawnee has taken me in a whole new direction, and has breathed a new life into not only my running, but truthfully my whole understanding of how to take care of myself – body, mind and spirit. I will write a separate post soon to share all of the details of the work we have done together thus far. Essentially it has involved a whole lot of waking up to unhealthy patterns and behaviors – letting go of certain ways of thinking and doing, and embracing and trusting totally new ways of nourishing and moving my body.
In the last three months of working with Tawnee and with James I have decided, with their advice and incredible support, that it is NOT time for me to race just yet. This was a hard decision at first, but I know that there is still more healing to be done and strength to be built. I want to race Boston this coming spring and to be healthier than ever when I toe that line. And I want to love running for the rest of my life.
So I am going to be patient and stay my course. 
Last week I had my blood tested again with Inside Tracker. I was astounded to learn that my ferritin is now a 102! In the last four+ months, with a lot of hard work and at times making very tough choices, I have taken my ferritin to an optimal level – from a 29 all the way to a 102. I feel better and stronger than I have in such a long, long time. As James says, “you can’t track what you don’t test,” and having this knowledge to know the areas I need to work on has been so very valuable.
Because of the path that I’ve chosen and the work that I am doing, I believe that my best running is ahead of me, and that it will come from my healthiest, happiest, strongest and most honest self. I’ve evolved and expanded my definition of what it means to be my best self as a runner and beyond.
There are a lot of details that I am looking forward to sharing with you now that I am writing again. I want to write a post all about Inside Tracker, how it has helped me and how I think it can help you too. I want to share with you the ins and outs of what Tawnee has been helping me with, and how much I have been learning about gut health and stress and nourishment. I want to talk openly and bravely about body image issues and disordered eating behaviors and how that can really mess with our health, while also making us think that we are running better than ever … a dangerous combination. I hope to be sharing this all with you later this coming week, and just wanted today to get this ball rolling…
Thank you all for reading, and for following along on my journey here. This community is so incredible and I am as grateful for all of the people that make it what it is as I am for the sport that we all love so much.

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6 thoughts on “my story with overtraining

  1. Amazing work towards recovery and so admirable! I have just decided to drop from the Philadelphia marathon. I have Crohn's and while I am in remission I felt off for a while. Turns out my anemia is back with a vengeance (my ferritin is a 3 at it's worst was literally 0 undetectable). Rather than run myself ragged I am stepping back. I've learned it is just not worth it. Plus I only respond to iron infusions so recovery takes some time. Health, happiness and longevity running come first.

  2. As I read your post I felt like I was reading something my future self could be writing. Overtraining is silent and gradual and it's easy to overlook it in the midst of seeing such an improvement in performance. It's like we get tunnel vision. We take care of our legs but we forget about the rest of our bodies. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Wow, what a powerful story! I flirted with over training when I trained for Boston too soon post baby and have been unsure if marathons are for me… I don't know how many more I'll do, but I completely agree with you that you can be super fit but very unhealthy! I'm glad you found a coach and people around you that get it and are about true health- not just chasing a number. Your story is so important!

  4. Pingback: my choice to share | pace of me

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