Sunday, August 21, 2011

Post-Race Blues: How to deal with depression after crossing the finish line

After more than 15 years of racing, I realize that crossing the finishing line is still not the final step in any athletic event. I have a post-race phase to move through before setting my sights on the next event.

After training and competing comes post-race depression.

For me, post race depression seeps into the downtime I’m supposed to enjoy between events. It’s that feeling of letdown after something big happens—much like returning from a vacation or actually getting a promotion that you worked hard for. It leaves me asking answerless questions like: What did that really mean? Did I do my best? Now what?

And what makes this kind of downer so intense is that we are in recovery mode. When we pull back the reins on exercise, perhaps taking several days off from our primary sport, our bodies miss the endorphin high. In a survey I conducted for Hot (Sweaty) Mamas: Five Secrets to Life as a Fit Mom, I learned that many women (and men too) rely on the antidepressant effects of exercise. Take it away and many of us feel pretty hollow.

So what should you do?
1. For starters, if you know you are apt to feel depressed after a big event, listen to your body and recognize the triggers and patterns in your mood. You will eventually be able to step outside of the feeling and realize that mood doesn’t define you and the sadness will pass.

2. Keep positive energy alive by talking with others about the event and perhaps taking time to journal about your experience and reflect on your accomplishments. Acknowledge the magnitude of your efforts as well as your feelings surrounding them.

3. Eat a healthy and balanced diet. This is especially true if you participated in an endurance event that requires sugary supplements to keep you going. Gut rot may haunt you for a day or two, so be sure to consume healthy, whole foods to keep your spirits from bonking.

4. Get lots of sleep. Extra rest will help bring back your ability and desire to train hard again.

5. If you are feeling the effects of endorphin withdrawal (that is, you simply cannot fathom taking a few days off), commit to cross training in new or enjoyable ways. In order to allow your body time to recover, consider less strenuous exercise, like easy cycling, walking or relaxing laps in the pool.

6. While this may be a bit counterintuitive, do not schedule another big event right away.  Learn to enjoy the unstructured time in your life.  Your aim is to have longevity in your activity, and going from one big race to another is a prescription for burnout. 

Post-race blues are real, but thankfully they last only a short time. Follow these steps and the symptoms of situational depression (that’s the real terminology) won’t prevent you from basking in your post-race bliss!

Laurie Kocanda will complete her Master’s in Counseling Psychology in spring 2012 and is co-author of Hot (Sweaty) Mamas: Five Secrets to Life as a Fit Mom. Despite her predictable post-race blues, she has completed over 40 marathons and ultramarathons.

This post recently appeared in Inside Dirt, an online publication distributed by Trail Runner magazine.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Rites of Passage

“You run marathons? Wow! Have you ever pooped your pants?” If I had a nickel for every time someone has asked me that… Seems like some people think uncontrolled bodily functions go hand-in-hand with long distance running. (Hint: They don’t! And I’ve never pooped myself on a run!)

I’m not immune to similar ignorance. For years I’ve watched other runners lose toenail after toenail (including my husband, who lost all 10 after running the Western States 100 miler!). Somehow, I saw this loss as a badge of honor, a mark of commitment to the sport. My internal dialogue kept reminding me, “You aren’t a true ultra runner until you lose a toenail.”

Well, after running the Voyageur 50 mile a few weeks ago I’ve had a sudden change of heart. I endured over ten hours of heat, humidity and hills. I had existential moments I thought came only with a Timothy Leary experiment. My husband has a pithy little saying he heard somewhere: “If you make friends with pain you will never be alone.” I suffered. I made friends with pain, and as it turns out, I got my wish granted. I am going to lose a toenail.

Now I would like to unfriend this particular insidious version of pain. It’s there constantly. I rub my toenail on the sheet and it hurts, I stubbed said toe on the dresser and it sent a scream out of my mouth that brought the whole family running into the room. I thought that draining it might reduce the pressure and make it feel better. It turns out that my Dr. Oz moment may have just got it infected. It’s not the glamorous party I thought it would be.

I gave birth to my two kids without drugs.  What I wouldn’t do for an epidural right now.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Why Run 50?

It was mile 25 and my daughter heard my plea: “I’m so tired. I just want to quit.” I was exhausted from four and a half hours of trail running in the Minnesota Northwoods and felt nauseous thinking about running the course again in reverse.

At 9 years old, Cady didn’t quite understand why, when I had just said I wanted to stop, I was about to turn around and head back. “Just stop, Mom.” Simple logic.
My husband, on the other hand, pulled me up out of the chair I’d just crumpled into and got me turned back toward the finish. “We’ll see you at the next aid station!” Somehow he’d tricked me into moving again.

The Minnesota Voyaguer Ultra is a 50-mile foot race on some of the most beautiful and rugged trails I’ve ever run. It’s rocky, rooty, hilly, and muddy with a few stream crossings, scramble-on-your hands-and-knees ascents, and slide-on-your-butt-descents. For the first 25 miles, it’s more fun than anything else. But at the turnaround it becomes a test of wills, an exercise in mental toughness.

So as I started to climb the trail out of the Duluth Zoo, I began thinking about why I was running this distance. What it was that was keeping me going. I came up with a few reasons that, even in my post-race return to sanity, sound pretty compelling:

My kids had fun, but the day was mine.

  1. As a mom, there are few things I do that are JUST for me. This race, this weekend, was all about me. Like it or not, it’s something my kids need to experience. They need to see Mom as an individual, her own person with goals and aspirations. Hopefully it’s something they’ll remember (and replicate in their own way) when they have children of their own.
  2. Self-confidence isn’t always easy to come by for me. Running 50 miles reminds me that I am worthy and capable of much more than I sometimes give myself credit for.
  3. There is a sense of community I feel when running these races that is unmatched anywhere else. It’s not like a quick trip through a water stop during the marathon or 5K. It’s people taking the time to figure out what you need and get you back on your way. Each individual’s finish is really a group effort. I love that.
  4. Trail runs are beautiful. There is a sense of peace when running in the woods that I don’t get anywhere else. Trail runs are the perfect excuse to run through mud, and splash through puddles and streams. I get to “wear” the beauty that surrounds me, and that is pretty cool.
  5. I enjoy the solitude of the run. It’s fun to start out with a group of runners, but I really enjoy the alone time offered in the middle and late portions of a trail run when there isn’t anyone around me. It’s a great time to think, or as is sometimes required, to turn off my mind and just focus on what I’m doing.

As the day wore on and I got closer to the finish, I grew increasingly excited to see my husband and daughters at the aid stations along the way. My body was tired, but knowing they were waiting for me kept me moving at a steady shuffle. Maintaining that slow jog helped me catch and pass a number of runners, all of who offered enthusiastic words of encouragement.
Coming into an aid station, excited to see my hubby and the girls.
 I crossed the finish line with my daughters in 10:27:54 (6th woman, 1st masters woman). I’m a little sore, but feel much better than expected. Big thanks to my husband, Tony, who pushed food on me at each aid station (who knew potato chips on PB&J would taste so good!), and kept me going with salt, fluids and his amazing smile.

Crossing the finish line with my girls, who wouldn't hug me because I was too sweaty!