The more I’ve learned about my own excessive tendencies, the more I’ve been able to see them in others. Specifically, I most often see them in the running community, because there is a certain draw to athletic pursuits which feeds off our need to test the waters, push boundaries, and hit walls. Couple this weird drive for progression with enough civilization induced free time to take things to the extreme, and you have a recipe for both unbelievable accomplishments as well as tremendous burn out, crashes, or general exhaustion.
I can’t speak to what separates the drives to excess in some with the more reserved approach in others, but I’m glad that separation exists to keep things in a relative state of balance. It would be an exciting moment if we were all extremists, but only a moment. Conversely, we’d live in something of a calm, peaceful world for quite some time (maybe) if we were all most reserved, but at what quality of life? The push and pull defines our relationships and general stability. It keeps us from the tipping point.
But on a personal level, where the extremist individual doesn’t have either an internal or external force of reservation, we often find ourselves constantly on the edge. Our running is always seeking a new horizon, a new accomplishment, a new boundary, which is noble in it’s pursuit, but dangerous in it’s execution. There is a very tenuous degree of reservation that must be placed upon the runner with extremist tendencies lest they run themselves into the ground, sometimes quite literally.
I’ve struggled with “injuries” (or issues as we call them) since the period after my first marathon and, where I could have paused for reflection on those warning signs, determining what they meant and what went wrong, my drive took over and compelled me to push through, seeking an answer in more mileage, more intensity, more speed. I simply didn’t want to stop. I had very specific competitive goals and I didn’t believe I could reach those goals without increasing everything. If a certain weekly mileage got me to a 2:25 marathon, then more weekly mileage would get me to a 2:19. If a certain degree of intensity got me to my PR, then the next degree of intensity would get me to another.
It should also be mentioned that none of this was a “chore” to me. The idea of “more and more” fed into my extremist drive, my specific personality type, my pursuit of a full, rewarding life. But that doesn’t mean my drive was going to overcome my physical body.
What I failed to consider in that naive period of early competitive running was just how close to the edge of my physical abilities I was running. Where I periodically fell off the cliff and became injured, I didn’t scale back and readjust, but kept running towards that edge hoping for a different outcome. As you can imagine, the process repeated itself.
In the midst of 90, 100, 110 mile weeks with multiple workouts of significant intensity I would hit incredible milestones, unforgettable breakthroughs, and moments where I would feel superhuman, invincible, on top of the world…only to be sidelined with an injury a day or two later. I never felt anything during the run, but almost without fail, I would feel something a couple days later, sending me plummeting off the top of the world. It was so incredibly aggravating, because it was hard to see it coming. I just knew I was pushing for certain progressions and when I’d hit them…I would also have inadvertently run off the edge.
It was only when I started to compare my personal training plans to the training plans of professional elites that I gained some perspective on how close to the edge I was running. When I looked at the backs of elites during my two marathons, sometimes watching those backs fall behind me as I passed them, it made sense that I would be training at their level too. Running 90, 100, 110 mile weeks consistently and consecutively was the norm, even if I wasn’t getting paid to run. Even if I wasn’t doing extra strength work. Even if I didn’t have the additional time in the day after my full-time job to get massages and rest. It didn’t matter, because my body was holding up and I was progressing…until I wasn’t.
And in that repetition was when I finally started to learn my lesson…sort of. It’s hard to see through the setbacks when your main focus is on a seemingly attainable competitive goal, whether that is the Olympic Trials Qualifier, some absurd distance, or any specific PR. You tend to just wait out the injury before getting back to the plan and towards your goal.
But we all have our limits, and after inadvertently finding mine again and again, then doing a considerable amount of reading on the latest sports science related to mileage and training, I’ve really started to learn my lesson. At this point, I’m firmly convinced that with the goals I have (had) for my running, I should be very wary of hitting / surpassing 80 – 90 miles a week. I don’t think it’s problematic to run those weekly totals, but to CONSECUTIVELY reach them with the addition of 2 – 3 speed workouts is going to nudge me off the cliff of my abilities and into an injury.
That, however, is what I’ve determined from myself, based on my previous efforts, and within my own genetic abilities. We all, of course, have our own limits we need to determine and hone within those parameters. Annoyingly, I’m excited with this conclusion, because I think it offers me a new set of parameters to run within, to really hone and see if I can take my running to a new level as this point in my life…but I have surgery coming up. I’m not writing to focus on this aspect of my life, but it is there and it’s frustrating because as compelled as I am to train within these parameters and really see what happens, I can’t. I’ve run out of time and will be running out of ability again.
With that said, surgery will pass and although I’ll be back to zero, I can start over and push towards these goals, experimenting with my abilities and use that information for others. As a running coach, I’m continuously researching training methods and making sure I’m enacting best practice with my runners while also pushing their limits..but not too far. Admittedly, one of my high-performing runners (going for a 2:30 marathon) tipped over the edge recently, but fortunately seems to have saved himself from a run stopping problem and will be ready to go at the start in a week and a half, but it was touchy there for a bit. I felt awful, as we were running on the edge of his abilities and although I thought we were in safe territory, we obviously were too close to the edge.
That’s the danger of our extremist running tendencies, always pushing against our non-visible boundaries until we’ve hit the physical ones. For those with more ingrained (or sensible) reservation, they make the most of their efforts, balancing the progressions in their bodies instead of pushing one or the other too far.
It’s odd to admit this to myself, and openly, that I went too far, but I hope it offers some perspective should it apply to others. It’s not to say there are hard and fast rules to our limits, obviously. Some have more inherent genetic strength, are able to execute the important ful-body maintenance details, restrain their progression on an extended timeline, etc., but that’s definitely not the majority of us.
Ultimately, I’ve come to understand the value of my limits, how to hone them in order to get back to my utmost abilities without injury, and rein in my extremist tendencies to a balanced state…I hope. I guess I’ll find out after surgery. I so appreciate the value of extremism, but that’s not to deny it’s dangers as well. Now I just look forward to the time when I can put that perspective into practice.