Raw honesty & a decision
I've been struggling quite a bit recently. This is never an easy thing for anyone to admit, let alone an athlete and a highly competitive person who relies on their self-confidence and positive outlook to see them through life's struggles. These challenges have come in various shapes:
I've been struggling physically
I sprained my ankle badly on February 20th, a second/third degree sprain, and although I have an incredible support network of therapists at Gastown Physio & Pilates, and have been treating it diligently, ligaments can take a while to heal and there can be lingering effects for months.
At the moment, I can run, but it's inconsistent and awkward. I'm certainly not putting in the mileage that I'd want to be putting in, nor am I running entirely pain free. Aside from a limited range of motion while toeing off, my subtaylor joint seems to become displaced quite easily and also has a limited range of motion. Once again, I can manage it through therapy, but it will frequently give me issues while running. This in turn causes my peroneal, my soleus & my gastroc muscles to seize up.
It's all quite frustrating, because I'll go through pain free periods, I'll ramp up my mileage & intensity at what I think are a reasonable rate and then things will start to fall apart. I am probably a bit hesitant when running at the moment, especially on technical terrain and definitely compensate at times, which can lead to a separate host of issues. I may also be asking a bit too much too soon from my body.
I'm someone who believes that a lot of injuries are psychosomatic, caused by physical and emotional stress. We change our gait quite a bit when we're stressed, holding tension in strange places. For me, this often manifests itself in illness or, more recently, muscular-skeletal breakdown. It can become a bit of a nasty cycle if you let it, because while injured, you also lose one of your stress relieving outlets.
One thing I've become aware of over the years, is that I don't like thinking about races when I'm injured. I find that it leads me to make bad, emotional decisions and often just leaves me frustrated with my training. When I'm injured, which I hadn't experienced much until this past year, I much prefer to focus on doing what I can to heal and then I worry about performance. Health is the cornerstone to performance, but true high performance is rarely healthy, it's a very narrow edge to ride. The pressure to race, unless it's a major goal, is an unnecessary stress that I find often hinders my healing and I'm not someone who likes to race injured. I enjoy running and competing too much to do it sub-optimally.
As a professional and a recognized name in the trail running community, I feel an added responsibility to compete and perform at the highest level. This makes it harder not to think about races. Aside from having contracts based around my performances (my sponsors don't pressure me at all, in fact, they are all incredibly supportive, it's a responsibility that I feel when I sign a contract/make an agreement), along with other professional responsibilities, I also feel like I represent a community when I toe the line and I want to be putting my best toe forward and I want to be at the major races. I've worked hard to be recognized as one of Canada's leading trail runners and I consider myself an ambassador for the sport. I don't take that lightly.
Being an ambassador and a moderately public figure comes with it's own pressure. This has been made clear to me recently as people around town have been asking me whether or not I'm racing the Kneeknacker this weekend, a wonderful local 30-mile mountain race that is highly regarded in Canada, or the UTMB at the end of the year. I don't mind people asking, I decided a while ago to take on what I think of as a leadership role and a public life in the trail community, but I do feel the expectations at times. I normally wear the responsibility proudly, in fact I've actively adopted it, it's just easier to feel like I deserve that recognition when things are going well.
Aside from that, despite feeling fit and excited to race at the time, I was very sick at my first race of the year in Transvulcania and had one of the single most miserable experiences of my life. I'm still not entirely sure why I finished, it was mostly because I'd gone all that way and had had a lot frustrations going into the race, nor am I sure if I'm proud of myself for plugging through it it, but I did. It certainly sapped me on a variety of levels. I felt the effects for a long time after. I don't think I can read much into what happened on the day, other than perhaps I should have flown in a bit earlier, but that didn't make sense financially, which is a significant consideration as a professional.
All of these things have left me questioning my physical ability, along with my decision making. I know that when I've trained hard and feel fit, that I can compete with the best in the world, I just haven't been able to feel that way yet this year and frankly, that's a little frustrating.
Sport is ultimately about problem solving, figuring out what you can do daily and over a period of time to be the best you can be, given your life circumstance and choices. So it's up to me, with some guidance from my many friends, family and team of professionals, to figure out what I can and need to do. That's quite empowering, but it can be a challenging puzzle to put together at times, because the end picture isn't always clear and the puzzle pieces are often hidden, or scattered. Perhaps it means changing how I train, taking time away from competing, re-evaluating my competitive goals, or looking at sport in a different way. I'm not one to repeat the same pattern for too long if I don't like the probable outcome.
All that said, I'm still getting out to see beautiful places, I can run and do other activities and if I didn't have ambitious athletic goals, I probably wouldn't consider it an issue. As with most things, this will likely just require patience, diligent and continued therapy and hard work and maybe a reevaluation of my goals.
I've been struggling emotionally
Once again, as an athlete, this one is hard to admit to. Since a lot of my running is painful and compromised, I don't get the same sort of joy from it that I do when things are going well. Yes, there is a lot of ego involved in sport and my athletic successes, whether in training or competing, feed that ego. I've found myself stopping to walk on a lot of runs and I don't have the same sort of day-to-day drive that I usually do when I have a big goal that I'm zeroing in on.
Once again, I'm not saying that I get no pleasure from running. I love the sport and the way I feel when I'm moving light and fast over natural terrain, it's incredibly liberating and empowering to me. I see amazing things daily that fill me with awe, I continue to explore my backyard with the same curiosity and wonder as always, I get to run with some great friends, cementing bonds and meeting new people along the way and I have had some some great days of running hard and fast, something I enjoy doing almost above everything else. It's just not coming as easily as it often has in the past and I find myself struggling with that at times.
What this means is that I'm trying to readjust my expectations and approach to running. Once again, I realize this is all a temporary blip, I'm lucky to be able to do what I do and I am doing what I need to do to get better, it all just requires patience, but I can admit that some days are harder than others.
I had a hard time emotionally last year. I decided to take a break from the practice of law to pursue a full-time running career; my wife, and partner of over 10-years, and I separated shortly after that. Although it's clear in retrospect that the relationship had run its course, it is still a hard thing to deal with emotionally at the time. It takes a lot of energy and it changes your entire life.
You find yourself doing a lot of self-reflection during those periods of emotional grief. Unlike a lot of people, I have a hard time training well when I have a lot on my mind. I need to train with a group during these periods, or else I end up spending too much time alone with my thoughts. I also often feel too physically drained from stress to really be able to train hard. Some days you don't feel a thing, moving efficiently, but almost in a numb way and other days you feel like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders and you have to muscle your way forward. I lose sleep when I'm stressed and, once again, I hold a lot of tension. I like to exercise during these periods, I think it's important to keep moving, a coach once told me "motion is lotion", but it's definitely not training.
As with my injury, you can sit and dwell on things, hoping they will change, or you can take things into your own hands and wrestle your way forward. It won't always be be pretty, but it is empowering and making decisions and moving forward is always better than stagnating.
I moved cities, leaving Victoria for Vancouver, British Columbia, to be closer to the mountains as well as for a change. I have met many incredible people along the way. I've started a relationship with a wonderful woman who I met since moving here, I've been doing different activities and I've been enjoying exploring the city and its surrounding areas. I have an incredible support network and I have a lot to be thankful for, my running included.
Despite all that, it's a lot of change and my routine can feel uncertain at times. I left a lot of friends in Victoria and Vancouver doesn't feel entirely like home yet. Not being able to compete, which basically means not being able to do one part of my profession (professional athlete involves a lot more than just sport, it means managing a personal brand and all that that entails), is frustrating. Once again, it's left me contemplating my choices, life and career. This is not a bad thing, but my training has suffered a bit for it recently, which, compounded with the injury (the two may be related), has definitely meant that my self-confidence and identity has taken a bit of a hit as of late.
Training and racing, while enjoyable, are hard for me. I have to be emotionally engaged to perform well and recently, I have found my emotions pulled in directions away from racing. Once again, it's temporary and racing is far from the most important thing in life, I know that, but it is important to me. I miss performing optimally. I realize that it's up to me, along with my amazing support network to have a bit of patience and figure out what I need to do to move forward.
In light of my recent feature in Impact magazine, talking about my decision to become a professional runner, this may seem a bit strange, but things change. I've decided that I'm going to go back to work a traditional job with a more secure income. Although I love the freedom to run and train where and when I want, I've been struggling with where I see myself going in sport, as well as my life and feel like I'm missing some stability. I feel like it's time to move on and approach my life slightly differently. I believe my running will be better for it too. I'm lucky in that I have an excellent fall-back plan, having a law degree from a good school, a diverse skill set, a broad network to reach out to and an extensive and interesting work and life history to tap into to give me some amazing options.
Perhaps I haven't handled the pressure of being a professional well at times, perhaps I've made some bad choices along the way that have held me back from my ultimate goals, perhaps the timing just wasn't right, or maybe I'm being too hard on myself and I've done a good job of things, it's just that the reality of success in high performance sport is very narrow at the top. I'll never really know. Regardless, in no way do I regret making the decision to pursue my sport and my passion full-time. Very few people can say that they've had the opportunity to do that, nor have they taken the risk to do it and I'm proud of myself for what I've done and what I've made happen.
I'm more than willing to wear my choices and accept them, both good and bad. I've learned something and grown each time I've had to make a decision, no matter what the outcome. I've had amazing opportunities and I've embraced them fully. I've made some amazing things happen for myself, I've met some incredible people and had some of my most memorable experiences through sport.
Ultimately, I'm not willing to dirtbag it and give my everything to sport at this stage of my life and that's what's required to be a full-time athlete, especially a mountain/ultrarunner where the endorsements and paychecks aren't huge. I imagine I'll ultimately find work within the outdoor, or recreation industry, based on my interests and connections, but I'm open to any and all opportunities. It's a bit of a luxury and is quite exciting.
It's funny, I've had a few high profile/successful athlete friends tell me that when it's time to move on, you'll just know, they were right. Although I know the transition won't be easy, nor will the process of trying to find work, the decision to start looking for work has been easy and I'm in an enviable position to be able to look for something that feels right.
I still plan on competing and training at a high level, the sport means a lot to me and I love the community, as well as the places my feet take me. I also have some things I still want to accomplish. A lot of top athletes work full-time jobs and handle it well. I've worked bloody hard at sport, and I love training, it will always be something I do and I think I can continue to compete with the best on a different schedule. While it required some time-management skills, I believe I enjoyed running more when I had something else in my life and to me, enjoying my running, as well as living a life that I'm proud of, are more important than anything.
What does this mean for the rest of the season? I'm not entirely sure at this point. I am focusing on getting my body back in order at the moment and am looking for work. That may have an impact on what I can and can't do race wise, I'm okay with that. I am planning on racing, but not until I feel ready and excited to toe the line. Most importantly, I plan on continuing to explore my backyard, sharing that with as many people as possible and getting back to enjoying my running and, hopefully, running long and fast!