Crash and burn

“Without a doubt in my mind I can say the year of 2012 was equivalent to putting my entire being through a gauntlet – the goal was to make it out alive.”

If you missed part one: the leading up to a crash, please do check it out.

Before I begin with this post let me just preface the following by saying that it is extremely difficult to accurately recap four races in one post – but for the sake of not stretching this series out longer than three or four posts I am going to do my absolute best. Also, the point of this series is not to recap races, it is to explain the agony I placed upon myself and how I ended up finally removing myself from a walking time bomb.

Disclaimer: if you have or are currently struggling with exercise addiction and/or an eating disorder, please read this post at your own discretion.

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The first event to be accomplished was SERE Boston back in March 2012. Going into this I was nervous, my only experience in the world of obstacle course racing/adventure challenges was the 2011 Spartan Beast. With the nerves there was an unexplainable amount of excitement as well. I wasn’t sure what to expect – how long would it last, how many miles, what to pack. The afternoon of the event I met up with fellow participants to ride into Boston with. A few of us were new to this style challenge, a few had experience which I was thankful for.

The challenge itself lasted about 15 hours, covering 20 miles. There were three teams, on my team I was the only girl which ended up working out to my advantage I would say as my awesome team-mates really helped out come hours 13-15. Each team had the same end goal, come in first. What did coming in first consist of? Accomplishing all tasks, which consisted of navigational skills throughout the city, load carrying, determining intel: who, what, when, where, why – from Bunker Hill and the USS Constitution, a puzzle during a rainstorm behind Old North Church, taking a dip in the duck pond (reminder: this was March), tactical skill use: knot tying, first aid, and a fair amount of pt drills.

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Needless to say the event in and of itself was phenomenal, and hats off to the instructors over at SERE for making these challenges possible. This event was ultimately about being part of something bigger than yourself, working as a team, and appreciating everything you have. In terms of me and my physical and mental health – the outcome of this event was positive. I felt that I was part of a group of amazing individuals. I left excited and feeling that I had learned new skills, and experienced such a great opportunity. I was also craving more.

There were still a few months before my next event and I wanted to ensure that I was physically capable. At this point my mental wellbeing was placed on the back-burner. I cared about what I was capable of doing – how fast, how much, how often. All the while my health began to deteriorate and while I was consciously aware, I wasn’t concerned. I kept pushing, taking maybe one day off per week. Over training, under sleeping, under eating, working two jobs, and seeing absolutely no issue with any of this. Physically I managed to stay fairly strong through this point, how that is I’m not entirely sure. Come time for my next event I was in a place that only a higher power could bring me out of, and I didn’t turn to that. I kept going.

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This brought me to May 2012, time for the Peak ultra marathon. This race is located in the mountains of Pittsfield, VT. I’m just going to add in here that prior to this event my longest “race” was SERE at 20 miles, recapped above. I was told that it would be a fun race, we would run/walk it as a team (a group from SERE Boston and myself) not competitive, and just for the experience – which for the most part did hold true. I signed up for the 50-mile distance on a whim because it sounded fun.

The race started at 6am, immediately headed for the mountains. There was a water/food stop located approximately every 8-12 miles which required for us to carry enough on our person to get by. The first 12 miles were primarily rolling hills throughout the woods and the town of Pittsfield. After this we began reaching higher elevation and my legs began to feel the terrain but it was manageable. The was a lot of what we called “shuffling”, which consisted of running the flat/downhill parts and walking/jogging the hills/steeper elevations. The mile 12, 18, and 37 water stop was the same place because of the way the course was set up – only so many locations for a water stop when a race is in the middle of the woods. After reaching mile 18 racers were told that the following 12 mile section was a loop that was not to be messed with. It included a 1 mile, 1000 ft. elevation increase up Bloodroot, along with a handful of other steep climbs, marshland, bushwhacking, and quite the downhill portion when heading back to the beginning (which was around 8pm and dark by the time we reached it – glad we decided  headlamps were a good idea!).

I stopped at this checkpoint. During the Bloodroot loop I experienced pain more than I know how to describe. For one, my back was bothering me, a location of previous injury. Second, it felt as if my insides were coming out. Lovely, eh? I’ll avoid going into detail other than I’m not sure I physically could have handled those last 14 miles.

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All this race did was abuse my body to an even higher degree than before. I left feeling defeated, a failure. Not only did I not finish but I didn’t finish because I wasn’t capable to take care of my body, something that nobody could know, because it wasn’t an issue. In my mind I was aware of just how much I had accomplished: completing 37 miles, supporting those fellow racers I signed up with and relying on them to pull me through, but most importantly listening to my body shutting down and making the call to stop. I knew this all was true but all I could focus on was the painful feeling of complete failure.

Looking back I see that this is when I needed to call it quits. I needed to gracefully withdraw from my upcoming 60 mile ruck scheduled a mere three weeks later and the Death Race quickly following two weeks after that. I didn’t though – something about pride, ego, failure, needing to prove myself, the eating disorder, my exercise addiction, and type-A-perfectionist personality. I’m not sure what I was trying to prove at this point? That I could run myself into the ground faster than just about anybody I know? Success.

Then came Memorial weekend and Ruck to Remember, a 60 mile ruck starting in Harpers Ferry, WV, and ending at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day. This was to benefit the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.

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For this event there was a larger group, about 30 of us participating. The first portion of the trip was 20 miles on the Appalachian trail, starting at 9pm. That portion of the AT is not easy, especially at night and adding in the fact that West Virginia climate is completely different from Southern New Hampshire where I am from. This was 20 miles of hard breathing, having to constantly catch up because I was shorter than everyone else, watching each footstep, and being covered in spiders and other ridiculously sized insects. For some unknown reason insects tend to be attracted to hot, sweaty people with headlamps… We finished this portion around 4am reaching checkpoint #1.

A few miles prior to the checkpoint I had started feeling sick. My body was just off. I didn’t want to stop, I didn’t want to seem like a weak link so I told myself to just keep going and deal with it. The second and third portions were both 20 miles on the W & OD Trail, which unlike the AT is minimal elevation – it’s a bike and running route primarily. As the day went on temperatures reached around 90 degrees and we decided as a group that frequent breaks were necessary to keep everybody nourished, hydrated, and to avoid heat injury. I ended up at the point where I was looking forward to each break because it allowed me the time to get sick which was my body’s way of reacting to the situation it was in. By the time mile 40 came I was still getting sick, my back was in pain, and I knew something was wrong with my leg but was unable to explain that at the time. The remainder of this event was primarily identical to all I just described so I am going to refrain from recapping the remainder with the goal of not making this post much to long.

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All in all, just like the Peak Ultra, this even just abused my body to an even higher degree than before. A pattern that has an ending but I still wasn’t seeing the problem. I kept pushing harder. There were only two weeks until the Death Race. I had been training over a year for this, an article was published in the local paper regarding my participating in the event and I wanted more than even to just simply finish. I wanted to finish the race than in the first place has a finishing rate of about 10%.

My nineteenth birthday came around, as did the Death Race only a day later – what a way to celebrate that was. Now if you’ve never heard of this race before the goal of race directors Joe and Andy is to break participants mentally. Tasks are designed to find participants weak spots and push you harder than anything you’ve ever experienced. Before the race even officially began we had hiked a small mountain with our packs (each weighing in around 40-60 pounds) to collect pieces of animal food that we needed to keep with us throughout the race in order to finish. Racers are not even told when the race begins, it’s a full on mind game.

DR

Some of the tasks racers were told to do: chop wood, carry through a dark culvert, an absurd amount of burpees, sew race numbers onto t-shirts using whatever materials you had packed, carry a slosh pipe, carry a kayak, read and record miscellaneous signs posted throughout the woods, and run with the other racers all while carrying our packs and being yelled at to quit.

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Death Race bib

I dropped at hour 9. I ended up on the side of the trail, curled up in a ball unable to move for a period of time. My body was done and I wasn’t capable to push anymore. I cried. I had wasted the past year putting my body through the gauntlet which inevitably led to my having to drop the single race I really was focused on. I’m very thankful that one of the race staff members was a close friend who had stayed with me the weekend of the race and supported my decision to drop one-hundred percent. He told me that I needed to do what I needed to do, that I wasn’t a failure, and that I had the guts to even start which was all that mattered. I knew he was right. Deep down I knew that even just starting this race meant something. I wanted so bad to believe it but I couldn’t. I assured everyone I was ok, that I just got sick and would feel better soon. I told my friends and family I was fine, that I would take some time off to allow my body proper resting time and that I would take care of myself.

I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t able to allow myself rest. Before I knew it I found myself doing multiple training sessions a day, killing my body. I was exhausted, sick, in pain, and always a second away from a full blown anxiety attack. After meeting with my sports doctor regarding my leg and back pain I was informed there was a double stress fracture in my left tibia and I had probably re-injured my sacral, I needed to stop all weight bearing activity. I tried doing only non-weight bearing activity, I didn’t want to give up training. I didn’t want to rest my body for an extended period but ultimately that was what needed to happen and I decided to go with that. For a while it went smoothly, I was feeling good physically and working on my mental health. I kept telling myself that I would get back to racing. I would regain the strength, and I would come back even stronger. I told myself that the stress fractures would heal, I would get my period back, regain bone-density, put the weight back on that I needed and go back to training only after that was accomplished.

Now I look back and see that at that point I wasn’t ready to let go. While I knew my body was struggling I wasn’t aware of just how much. I wasn’t aware of how much change needed to happen in order to heal myself. I was not capable of letting go of my past and working to create a stronger and healthier future. I relapsed.

Stay tuned for part 3 by early next week at the latest!

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6 thoughts on “Crash and burn

  1. Wow Sarah, this was even better than the first part. So emotional, heartfelt, and painfully true. It’s amazing how the mind can brainwash (pun not intended haha) us to do things we can never accomplish. Our brains can be a twisted place, and it sounds like yours decided to take over and shut out all sense of reality. I think it’s awesome you’re able to look back on these events and not dwell on the negative, but rather realize the manipulation your own mind took part in and make a change. You’re SO incredibly strong–not only to have attempted these races BUT to have survived and realized what you had to do to stop staying on the path to destruction. You inspire me so much Sarah, youre truly truly an amazing gal! I’m stoked to tune in for the next chapter!!! 🙂 Love you!!!

    • Awh Zandra – I appreciate this comment. It is absurd actually how our brains can fully brainwash us into thinking maladaptive behaviors are actually good, or even beneficial. Love you so much and thank you for your support. xo

  2. Wow, this is intense. I honestly had NO idea you went through all of that. I knew about each one of those races, and I knew they were tough, but I guess I didn’t realize how hard they were on you mentally and physically. I am so sorry that you’ve had to go through so much lately with injuries and resting and anything recovery related, but you ARE a fighter, and WILL come out stronger in the end. I can’t wait to read more!

    • Thank you for the comment, Allie! I definitely kept it quiet for a long while as I wasn’t sure if I was ready to share or even how to share all of this. This series is definitely providing closure for one. Working on part 3! And now heading over to “Allie’s Life” blog 😉

  3. Pingback: Identify your situation and change it | The Pursuit of an Outlier

  4. Pingback: Relapse and the beginning of a recovery process | The Pursuit of an Outlier

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