“Trained more hours than ever”. “PR-ed by 30 seconds”. “Set a new record in the race”. “Felt awesome in intervals”. These are all common statements by cross-country skiers throughout their summer and fall training—whether said in-person, at practice, or on social media. These statements reflect gains in fitness, strength, and technique: steps towards fulfilling the goals athletes set to eventually achieve peak performance during the season. But what happens when your summer is filled with slower times in time trials/races, feelings of tiredness that persist even with rest, interval sets where keeping up with your teammates and training partners is impossible? These intermediate measures reflect moving further and further away from your goals, and eventually those goals seem unattainable and ridiculous to even pursue. What does a fulltime athlete do when this is their reality?
As you might have guessed, currently I fall in that second category. Whereas many athletes have tracked progress on an upward trend this summer, my trend has been increasing downward, or at least all over the place. Some training days have been awesome, but the majority and, in particular, hard efforts in intervals and races, have been brutal and well off the mark I personally hold myself to. Starting in July and continuing throughout August, I found myself unable to train with my normal training buddies, feeling tired, confused and overwhelmed at why I could not keep up. I was training similar amounts to my teammates (which I’ll admit is not a small number) and focusing on recovering as much as possible, but I just couldn’t handle it. During workouts that I count as a strength of mine (uphill threshold skating), and being far behind everyone else, started to kill my confidence. By ranking myself behind, other types of workouts that always are a bit challenging for me (speeds, short sprint-pace efforts), turned into a brutal mind game that translated into questioning my potential to be a top-level racer. All through Alaska’s rainy, cold dreary August, I fell deeper into a negative feedback loop. The topping on the cake came in the last week when first, I developed a cold, and second, likely did not take enough time to rest and get healthy. And then less than a week later I jumped into a three-day time trial series with an uphill run, skate sprint and classic hill climb. Instead of setting PRs in these races, I was more than two minutes back from my personal records. The first day, in the uphill run, I thought I was going to simultaneously pass out and have my head explode from the pressure left over from my recent cold. Things did not improve from there.
My parents’ own a coffee mug that is from Rock Bottom Brewery and its slogan, “You’ve Hit Rock Bottom” echoed in my head after that first time trial. Now of course, I didn’t lose a loved one, I didn’t contract some terrible illness and overall, my life is running pretty smoothly. But when your day-to-day lifestyle revolves around training and your performance during those hours, it really feels like the bottom when things keep heading south.
It took a major wakeup call to drive through my stubborn head that something is not going well. After finishing up the time trial series, it did not take a genius to point out that I have to change my training and on a more personal note, my approach to skiing, if I want to reach the goals I set for this coming season. Now what made this realization so hard? It seems perfectly doable to train really hard, push yourself to exhaustion and overwhelm yourself with training load, intensity, summer races, lots of work hours and school when everything is going perfectly. As my teammate Chelsea Holmes put it, “when you are having good results, you are PRing and training tons, AND working to pay for all of it, you feel like a champ. You have this little muscle man angel on your shoulder screaming in your ear “YOU GOT THIS.” But when your results start to slip, your performance, or even your perceived performance isn’t up to par, all of a sudden that basket that you put every single last egg in…just fell apart.”
I have spent most of my athletic career working hard, then working even harder to get to where I am at. However, the top racers are not necessarily the hardest workers—in the literal sense of the term. Top performers are people who listen to their bodies and work really hard when the moment is right. And sometimes what is really hard is not driving yourself into the ground, but figuring out a way to rise up from the ashes. Acknowledging that you are not in a good place is really hard; it feels like you are acknowledging that you are weak, and in turn, that challenges part of your identity as an endurance athlete. Even harder is setting aside your pride enough to do what you need individually, especially if that is much less than everyone else. This is where I am at for the month of September.
The road back includes less training, less life stress and focusing on the positive. In truth, I’m not much of a concrete goal-setter, but this month I set goals that include less tears and breakdowns, slower training or taking more time off, and most of all: no comparisons—against my teammates, my personal records, my “competitors”, whomever. This process isn’t a temporary fix; it’s a long-term perspective shift. There will always be pressure to overdo, and consequently, times where we give into that pressure. When the consequences hit we simply need to adjust and figure out how to find balance, balance in training, in work, in relationships and in life.
Maybe my September plan will not work, but once you’re at the bottom the only place to go is up, right?
Some photos from the last month (including an awesome visit with my little sister; first time anyone in my family has been to Alaska!):