When I first told my family that I would be retiring from full-time cross country skiing, both my brother and my father had the same piece of advice:
“Don’t fall out of shape, it’s really hard to get back in.”
After spending most of my life chasing elite athleticism, and surrounding myself with people doing the same, I didn’t really know what it meant to be out of shape, but I sure as hell didn’t want to find out.
So, in classic fashion, I signed myself up for a series of really hard athletic events at the end of summer and early fall, the Snowbird Cirque Series, Rebecca’s Private Idaho, and the New York City Marathon.
“That way I’ll have a goal to work towards all summer,” I thought.
“That way I’ll keep in shape,” I thought.
As I experienced last weekend, being in shape as an ARP (Athletic Regular Person) isn’t exactly black and white.
My journey into fitness rediscovery started with the decision to sign up for the final Cirque Series event, an 10-mile soul crushing loop up the face of Snowbird resort, over 3,000 feet of vertical, across two different peaks, and back down (see feature photo by Steven Vargo @mr.vargo). As I type this, I can imagine every cross-country skier in the audience shivering with delight, because this event truly is a Nordie’s dream: steep uphill sustained effort with a volume focus and altitude boost.
Talk dirty to me, amiright?
Truth be told, for the masochistic endurancy folk, it. was. awesome.
The course took us up a service road onto single track that lined the spine of an incline, dropped down a dusty path back up another rocky ascent, through a boulder gully, A TUNNEL, and then back down the front face of the mountain to the finish. While I hadn’t exactly trained for the event, I figured that a decade of V02 max training would give me enough residual fitness to survive. It’s science.
Once I was out there, I felt all the fuzzy, athletic feelings that once drove my chase for glory in skiing. I tested how many sections I could jog, not walk. I chose targets to push to, put in hard efforts to pass people, and pushed over, around, and through pain in order to go faster.
I hadn’t felt like that in a long time. I hadn’t felt that energy, that fire, that allows you to throw caution to the wind and go for it, for the simple exercise of feeling competitive, confident, even invincible.
As I soon found out, I should have been more cautious. I am, and always have been, vincible.
After struggling to descend with the fire with which I had climbed (sidenote, anyone who has suggestions for running downhill, I am all ears), I crossed the line and immediately felt that something was wrong. I had the overwhelming feeling that I was going to pass out, felt pulsating and tingling all over my body and my muscles felt too weak to sit upright.
I did the usual elite-exercise-so-hard-it-hurts checklist:
- Had I been hydrating taking in electrolytes? Yes.
- Had I taken in enough fuel before, during, and after the race? Yes.
- Did I have to go to the bathroom? No!
I took my horizontal place in the dirt and began to contemplate my fate. “Is this what it’s like to be out-of-shape? No wonder people hate exercise!”
After a long while of writhing, it became clear to me that what I was experiencing was NOT normal. I asked a guy I had just met to help me to the med tent, and we proceeded to work our way across the venue, stopping periodically so that I could lean over and projectile vomit while gripping his Hawaiian shirt for balance (not all heroes wear capes).
In the med tent, we circled through a slightly altered list of exercise-so-hard-it-hurts items:
- Had I been hydrating and taking in electrolytes? Yes.
- Did I have to go to the bathroom? No.
- Did I know what time it was, remember the race, remember the last hour? I don’t remember.
We (by ‘we’ I mean the EMTs, I was connected to oxygen the entire time, but was determined to be part of the conversation) determined that I was exhibiting the signs of altitude sickness. Being born, raised, and having a blog with the phrase “at altitude” in it, I was incredulous. I communicated as much through my oxygen mask.
In order to appease my snobbery, the EMTs rephrased their diagnosis to hypoxia. I wasn’t getting enough oxygen to my brain and my body was starting to shut down. The symptoms could be as much because of a swift change in altitude as they were because of the simple fact that my body wasn’t able to keep up with my mind.
After a decade of training myself to push through pain, to go harder longer, ignore the burn, I had finally pushed myself too far. Because, turns out, when you’re not spending 5+ hours a day conditioning and resting your body to respond and recover to extreme stress, that’s relatively easy. After committing myself to a summer of exercise (not training) my mitochondria simply could not respirate at the rate that my brain was demanding, which led to a systematic deficit in oxygen. The pain I gleefully pushed through was actually a warning sign.
Put simply, I am not a professional athlete anymore. This was a growing pain of that transition, a little hypoxic bump in the road.
At first I felt embarrassed that all this had happened, but it’s given me a chance to think about how I can organize my athletic future in a healthy way. Can I still be active, fit, and enjoy epic events like the ones I’ve signed up for? Absolutely. Can I still consider myself a community member of the spandexy-endurancy clan? Always.
Must I change my expectations of myself as a result of my new lifestyle? Yup. And that is super, duper ok.
It’s taking some time, but my entry into society is coming along. The whole experience has given me a new respect for all that I used to be able to do, and excitement for the new experiences I’ve yet to have. My next stupid-hard event is this weekend. So. I’ll let ya know how that goes.
X’s and O2