You had so many great races and big wins in your career, and although I’ll never win an ultra, after a big race that goes well, I sometimes hit a real low because the training and excitement of the event is gone. How did you deal with that sort of let down and what advice do you have on this?
I always thought one of the hardest things to deal with was the post-race blues. Gradually I learned how to manage the mental letdown and deep physical fatigue that begins when the race ends. I loved to run – whether social runs with friends or the solitude of the trails. It was so hard to suddenly shift my focus from the whirlwind of training and racing to the calm of recovery. And boy did my running passion lead me to some great “learning opportunities” of what not to do.
I think one of my biggest wake-up calls was the year I had an invitation to race in Davos, Switzerland, three weeks after Western States. I had long dreamed of testing myself at that mountain race. I knew I would be really fit going into States, and figured I could build off of that for the fast mountain running. So rather than decline the offer, I decided I would make a quick jump from ultra training to mountain training. It was only a few days after States when I went for a 30-mile training run in Desolation Wilderness – steep, rocky trails with 9,000 feet of elevation. But… I had not considered the post-race blues. I just didn’t have the mental spark or physical reserves. My run ended up taking all day and the last 12 miles were miserable. I had a tiredness that would not go away. The outcome: A bad race at Davos.
I tried to grit my teeth and grind through the race, but the snap was gone from my legs. I could not believe how physically wrecked I was. It took a surprisingly long time to get my speed back. I had cement legs for six months. After that I vowed never again to get overtraining syndrome. My goal was to be out on trails forever, not be a flash in the pan.
I’ll share with you some of my other “learning experiences” too (I never call them mistakes unless I don’t learn from them).
Three days equals a week. I learned that if I felt flat for three days in a row, I needed to take an entire week very easy. I didn’t want to. I wanted to run harder to make up for the three off-days. But I knew I needed to. So I did. There were days when I went out for a run, knew it wasn’t productive, stopped, turned around and walked home. I’m proud I was tough enough to do that. I’ll never know how many bad races or injuries I avoided. I do know that I had a pretty consistent career over the years. Those “lost” training days may have added years to my running career.
I thought of a race as the final exam in a really hard class. After finals week my brain was fried and I was tired from the long hours studying. I was in no shape to open a text book and start to study again the next day or week. That’s why school has spring, fall and summer breaks, just like we need real breaks after big races.
Another tactic I learned for post-race blues was to take on a big project I had been neglecting. One year it was my garbage disposal. It was broken for months while I focused on training. As soon a Western States was over, I grabbed some how-to books and started tearing into the sink. I’m embarrassed to say that another time one of my big post-race projects was to match all my socks. If you knew how many socks Nike had sent me year after year (drawers and baskets full in varying states of wear and nostalgia for me), you’d be impressed with what that project entailed. Projects like these kept my mind and body busy.
Another way I would keep occupied during my post-race down-time was to reflect on my past races and then dream of my next goal and plan how to prepare. I knew that if I let my body recover it would absorb the stress from my big race and rebound to be stronger than ever. Except when I was doing the Grand Slam as a single goal, I always took two weeks after Western States for recovery with no long runs. Exercise physiologists call this “super-compensation.” It’s the basic principle behind training cycles. Too little recovery, and the body is not able to respond to the stress by building muscle or up-regulating metabolic pathways. Since I often had more than one goal race each year, I planned multiple training cycles so I could peak when I needed to. I always built time for post-race recovery into my training calendar. During post-race recovery I loved to plan and do hikes or backpack trips all over the Sierras. I might go weeks without running. I would come back refreshed and raring to go.
I had another secret post-race indulgence: all year during training season I’d hear about interesting new movies and this was the perfect time to see all those movies I’d missed!
I turned my post-race blues into something to look forward to. So, Dave, I’d love to hear about what you plan for your next post-race adventures.