Thursday, July 11, 2013

Raw honesty & a decision

Raw honesty & a decision

I've been struggling quite a bit recently. This is never an easy thing for anyone to admit, let alone an athlete and a highly competitive person who relies on their self-confidence and positive outlook to see them through life's struggles. These challenges have come in various shapes:

I've been struggling physically
I sprained my ankle badly on February 20th, a second/third degree sprain, and although I have an incredible support network of therapists at Gastown Physio & Pilates, and have been treating it diligently, ligaments can take a while to heal and there can be lingering effects for months. 

At the moment, I can run, but it's inconsistent and awkward. I'm certainly not putting in the mileage that I'd want to be putting in, nor am I running entirely pain free. Aside from a limited range of motion while toeing off, my subtaylor joint seems to become displaced quite easily and also has a limited range of motion. Once again, I can manage it through therapy, but it will frequently give me issues while running. This in turn causes my peroneal,  my soleus & my gastroc muscles to seize up. 

It's all quite frustrating, because I'll go through pain free periods, I'll ramp up my mileage & intensity at what I think are a reasonable rate and then things will start to fall apart. I am probably a bit hesitant when running at the moment, especially on technical terrain and definitely compensate at times, which can lead to a separate host of issues. I may also be asking a bit too much too soon from my body.

I'm someone who believes that a lot of injuries are psychosomatic, caused by physical and emotional stress. We change our gait quite a bit when we're stressed, holding tension in strange places. For me, this often manifests itself in illness or, more recently, muscular-skeletal breakdown. It can become a bit of a nasty cycle if you let it, because while injured, you also lose one of your stress relieving outlets.

One thing I've become aware of over the years, is that I don't like thinking about races when I'm injured. I find that it leads me to make bad, emotional decisions and often just leaves me frustrated with my training. When I'm injured, which I hadn't experienced much until this past year, I much prefer to focus on doing what I can to heal and then I worry about performance. Health is the cornerstone to performance, but true high performance is rarely healthy, it's a very narrow edge to ride. The pressure to race, unless it's a major goal, is an unnecessary stress that I find often hinders my healing and I'm not someone who likes to race injured. I enjoy running and competing too much to do it sub-optimally. 

As a professional and a recognized name in the trail running community, I feel an added responsibility to compete and perform at the highest level. This makes it harder not to think about races. Aside from having contracts based around my performances (my sponsors don't pressure me at all, in fact, they are all incredibly supportive, it's a responsibility that I feel when I sign a contract/make an agreement), along with other professional responsibilities, I also feel like I represent a community when I toe the line and I want to be putting my best toe forward and I want to be at the major races.  I've worked hard to be recognized as one of Canada's leading trail runners and I consider myself an ambassador for the sport. I don't take that lightly.

Being an ambassador and a moderately public figure comes with it's own pressure. This has been made clear to me recently as people around town have been asking me whether or not I'm racing the Kneeknacker this weekend, a wonderful local 30-mile mountain race that is highly regarded in Canada, or the UTMB at the end of the year. I don't mind people asking, I decided a while ago to take on what I think of as a leadership role and a public life in the trail community, but I do feel the expectations at times. I normally wear the  responsibility proudly,  in fact I've actively adopted it, it's just easier to feel like I deserve that recognition when things are going well.

Aside from that, despite feeling fit and excited to race at the time, I was very sick at my first race of the year in Transvulcania and had one of the single most miserable experiences of my life. I'm still not entirely sure why I finished, it was mostly because I'd gone all that way and had had a lot frustrations going into the race, nor am I sure if I'm proud of myself for plugging through it it, but I did. It certainly sapped me on a variety of levels. I felt the effects for a long time after. I don't think I can read much into what happened on the day, other than perhaps I should have flown in a bit earlier, but that didn't make sense financially, which is a significant consideration as a professional. 

All of these things have left me questioning my physical ability, along with my decision making. I know that when I've trained hard and feel fit, that I can compete with the best in the world, I just haven't been able to feel that way yet this year and frankly, that's a little frustrating. 

Sport is ultimately about problem solving, figuring out what you can do daily and over a period of time to be the best you can be, given your life circumstance and choices. So it's up to me, with some guidance from my many friends, family and team of professionals, to figure out what I can and need to do. That's quite empowering, but it can be a challenging puzzle to put together at times, because the end picture isn't always clear and the puzzle pieces are often hidden, or scattered. Perhaps it means changing how I train, taking time away from competing, re-evaluating my competitive goals, or looking at sport in a different way. I'm not one to repeat the same pattern for too long if I don't like the probable outcome.

All that said, I'm still getting out to see beautiful places, I can run and do other activities and if I didn't have ambitious athletic goals, I probably wouldn't consider it an issue. As with most things, this will likely just require patience, diligent and continued therapy and hard work and maybe a reevaluation of my goals.

I've been struggling emotionally
Once again, as an athlete, this one is hard to admit to. Since a lot of my running is painful and compromised, I don't get the same sort of joy from it that I do when things are going well. Yes, there is a lot of ego involved in sport and my athletic successes, whether in training or competing, feed that ego. I've found myself stopping to walk on a lot of runs and I don't have the same sort of day-to-day drive that I usually do when I have a big goal that I'm zeroing in on. 

Once again, I'm not saying that I get no pleasure from running. I love the sport and the way I feel when I'm moving light and fast over natural terrain, it's incredibly liberating and empowering to me. I see amazing things daily that fill me with awe, I continue to explore my backyard with the same curiosity and wonder as always, I get to run with some great friends, cementing bonds and meeting new people along the way and I have had some some great days of running hard and fast, something I enjoy doing almost above everything else. It's just not coming as easily as it often has in the past and I find myself struggling with that at times.

What this means is that I'm trying to readjust my expectations and approach to running. Once again, I realize this is all a temporary blip, I'm lucky to be able to do what I do and I am doing what I need to do to get better, it all just requires patience, but I can admit that some days are harder than others.

I had a hard time emotionally last year. I decided to take a break from the practice of law to pursue a full-time running career; my wife, and partner of over 10-years, and I separated shortly after that. Although it's clear in retrospect that the relationship had run its course, it is still a hard thing to deal with emotionally at the time. It takes a lot of energy and it changes your entire life. 

You find yourself doing a lot of self-reflection during those periods of emotional grief. Unlike a lot of people, I have a hard time training well when I have a lot on my mind. I need to train with a group during these periods, or else I end up spending too much time alone with my thoughts. I also often feel too physically drained from stress to really be able to train hard. Some days you don't feel a thing, moving efficiently, but almost in a numb way and other days you feel like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders and you have to muscle your way forward. I lose sleep when I'm stressed and, once again, I hold a lot of tension. I like to exercise during these periods, I think it's important to keep moving, a coach once told me "motion is lotion", but it's definitely not training. 

As with my injury, you can sit and dwell on things, hoping they will change, or you can take things into your own hands and wrestle your way forward. It won't always be be pretty, but it is empowering and making decisions and moving forward is always better than stagnating.

I moved cities, leaving Victoria for Vancouver, British Columbia, to be closer to the mountains as well as for a change. I have met many incredible people along the way. I've started a relationship with a wonderful woman who I met since moving here, I've been doing different activities and I've been enjoying exploring the city and its surrounding areas. I have an incredible support network and I have a lot to be thankful for, my running included. 

Despite all that, it's a lot of change and my routine can feel uncertain at times. I left a lot of friends in Victoria and Vancouver doesn't feel entirely like home yet. Not being able to compete, which basically means not being able to do one part of my profession (professional athlete involves a lot more than just sport, it means managing a personal brand and all that that entails), is frustrating. Once again, it's left me contemplating my choices, life and career. This is not a bad thing, but my training has suffered a bit for it recently, which, compounded with the injury (the two may be related), has definitely meant that my self-confidence and identity has taken a bit of a hit as of late. 

Training and racing, while enjoyable, are hard for me. I have to be emotionally engaged to perform well and recently, I have found my emotions pulled in directions away from racing. Once again, it's temporary and racing is far from the most important thing in life, I know that, but it is important to me. I miss performing optimally. I realize that it's up to me, along with my amazing support network to have a bit of patience and figure out what I need to do to move forward. 

What's next?
In light of my recent feature in Impact magazine, talking about my decision to become a professional runner, this may seem a bit strange, but things change. I've decided that I'm going to go back to work a traditional job with a more secure income. Although I love the freedom to run and train where and when I want, I've been struggling with where I see myself going in sport, as well as my life and feel like I'm missing some stability. I feel like it's time to move on and approach my life slightly differently. I believe my running will be better for it too. I'm lucky in that I have an excellent fall-back plan, having a law degree from a good school, a diverse skill set, a broad network to reach out to and an extensive and interesting work and life history to tap into to give me some amazing options. 

Perhaps I haven't handled the pressure of being a professional well at times, perhaps I've made some bad choices along the way that have held me back from my ultimate goals, perhaps the timing just wasn't right, or maybe I'm being too hard on myself and I've done a good job of things, it's just that the reality of success in high performance sport is very narrow at the top. I'll never really know. Regardless, in no way do I regret making the decision to pursue my sport and my passion full-time. Very few people can say that they've had the opportunity to do that, nor have they taken the risk to do it and I'm proud of myself for what I've done and what I've made happen.

I'm more than willing to wear my choices and accept them, both good and bad. I've learned something and grown each time I've had to make a decision, no matter what the outcome. I've had amazing opportunities and I've embraced them fully. I've made some amazing things happen for myself, I've met some incredible people and had some of my most memorable experiences through sport. 

Ultimately, I'm not willing to dirtbag it and give my everything to sport at this stage of my life and that's what's required to be a full-time athlete, especially a mountain/ultrarunner where the endorsements and paychecks aren't huge.  I imagine I'll ultimately find work within the outdoor, or recreation industry, based on my interests and connections, but I'm open to any and all opportunities. It's a bit of a luxury and is quite exciting. 

It's funny, I've had a few high profile/successful athlete friends tell me that when it's time to move on, you'll just know, they were right. Although I know the transition won't be easy, nor will the process of trying to find work, the decision to start looking for work has been easy and I'm in an enviable position to be able to look for something that feels right.

I still plan on competing and training at a high level, the sport means a lot to me and I love the community, as well as the places my feet take me. I also have some things I still want to accomplish. A lot of top athletes work full-time jobs and handle it well. I've worked bloody hard at sport, and I love training, it will always be something I do and I think I can continue to compete with the best on a different schedule. While it required some time-management skills, I believe I enjoyed running more when I had something else in my life and to me, enjoying my running, as well as living a life that I'm proud of, are more important than anything. 

What does this mean for the rest of the season? I'm not entirely sure at this point. I am focusing on getting my body back in order at the moment and am looking for work. That may have an impact on what I can and can't do race wise, I'm okay with that. I am planning on racing, but not until I feel ready and excited to toe the line. Most importantly, I plan on continuing to explore my backyard, sharing that with as many people as possible and getting back to enjoying my running and, hopefully, running long and fast! 


Ben Dicke said...

Thanks for your honesty. That took as much guts as finishing any ultra. Keep at it and here's hoping the changes are all for the better.

Justin Mock said...

Great post.

I often wonder if the guys trying to make it as a professional runner, whether trail/road/ultra, think about the stuff they're giving up in pursuit of professional running. The lifestyle is really glorified you know, and we're all jealous of it - running a different trail/mountain/national park every day, seeing the world, total freedom, that stuff is awesome. But so are other things.

So do these runners miss not having a girlfriend/kids/house/stable income, or at least think about it and wonder "what's next?" For you, you did and it's great to see a post like this. But for everyone else then, is it an easy choice or a hard one, or something that's never considered? Obviously they don't have to answer, but thanks again for sharing some genuine thoughts.

Sara Lingafelter said...


I never took the professional step myself (I'm not that talented :) but I can related with a LOT of what you've just written. I remember a day very clearly, when I was in Squamish with a new climbing partner, a few months after my own divorce, and we'd spent a couple of days climbing hiking climbing hiking climbing hiking climbing and as we approached our next objective he asked, "So - what do you do other than climb?" And honestly, I couldn't come up with an answer. I climbed through emotional and physical injury; through marriage, separation and divorce; through job and career changes; through geographic moves, across continents, with passport stamps. And then, I found myself without a next objective planned, my body a wreck, the instinct that I needed some rest strong, paralyzed by the fear of what and who I'd be if I stopped climbing (or, as I thought about it at the time, took a break from climbing).

Anyway - I don't want to write you a novel here, but as I read your blog post, nodding to myself at each turn, I just kept thinking: there's so much more to you than running, Adam.

Sending love and comfort your way. Take care of you.


Ryan Day said...

This post is extraordinarily familiar! Fall 2005- post World Half Champs and Summer 2008- post dropping Ottawa Marathon for me. Less so the injury piece, more so the evaluation of the running portion of my identity (and crisis in '08). Hopefully we can catch up soon. I'd like to run Wedge in september maybe.

Troy Shellhamer said...

The raw honestly and humility with which this piece are written deserve applause. A lot of us have struggled with balance. Its hard to see the forest through the trees sometimes, and it is refreshing to hear someone else write from the heart and see themselves objectively in their situation...I totally get it.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

I have no doubt you will be on top of the ultra scene in the future once that balance and peace are found.

Best wishes in your journey. Enjoy it!

GZ said...

Adam, excellent post. A rare post in a sea of posts where we see the other side of it ... and it feels much more real, human and appropriate to me.

Your got a good head, a good heart, good legs ... you'll navigate through these times and others equally or even more trying, and be all the better, stronger for it.

Keep on keeping on man.

The Fool said...

Fascinating and honest insight into what it's like being a professional athlete. Sounds like this decision to go back to work makes perfect sense for you.
Good luck with the search and really hope it helps you rekindle that love and excitement for racing.

mtnrunner2 said...

Seeing a slice of trail running over the past few years has made it clear to me that life -- and running -- are not "one size fits all" deals.

There are countless motivations and balances of personal choices for what people do, and if this is what will make you happy, it's what you should do. More power to you.

Plus, most of us run before/after our jobs, and still have all the bliss we can handle.

LukeD said...

Thank you for sharing so much about yourself, from so many different angles. I know those are tough things to share with close friends, let alone the watching world.

If you haven't already seen this post on irunfar, I think it partially applies to most of "us":

I also found myself nodding, for better and worse, at many of your points.

Hope to run into you sometime on the North Shore trails...

Olga King said...

Wishing you all the best. Thank you so much for sharing details and emotions.

galengray said...

Thanks for sharing such a thoughtful insight into your life as a professional athlete, and ultimately, a human with wants, needs, and emotions. Many new adventures await, and at least you get more vacation time up there in canada than us poor American saps. Hope to cross paths soon my friend! Heal well.

Musings said...

Thank you so much for sharing this! I really really hope that everything will work out as you wish! All the best and much healing energy for body and soul!

Dean said...


Thank you for sharing. I'm hearing the same kind of thoughts, reflections, questions, doubts and hopes from MANY PEOPLE - doing all sorts of different things in life - at a 'high' level.

I cannot help but wonder if, perhaps as a product of our times, there is a cadre of people who throw themselves into something they love 100% (whether that be running Ultras or running a business)... But then realize that giving 100% effort doesn't mean giving all of yourself to this one thing.

Thank you for letting us hear this from an athlete's perspective. If other people's results are an indicator, a year from now you will find yourself thriving again as a runner, man, friend...etc. And your life will have reached a new level of excitement and satisfaction.

jameson said...

thanks for posting this. while I am not a "professional" athlete I have competed at a high level for years in many sports... in the past 18 months I have dealt with very similar things... separaton/divorce, running injuries, getting hit by a car on my bike causing more, very serious injuries, and it's all affected my life.... I know those ups and downs all too well and like you I find getting out the door and on the trails when times are hard have helped, but it's definitely not training.

i am just now coming back to the good side of things and think I am truly in a way better place than I as 18 months ago. A lot of that has to do with a wonderful woman, great friends, and a new perspective of what I want out of life.... my body on the other hand is still coming around.

I hope you find what you're looking for... good luck... and please keep posting the the epic photos of the BC trails and mountains on instagram!

Dawn said...

Sad to hear about your marriage. But just the way you say it, that the relationship had, "run its course" sounds a bit strange. Did you have traditional vows or just until it ran its course? I hope the next person you are with understands that it is not a forever deal. Just saying.

Unknown said...

Nice one Dawn.
Now I know who to go to next time I'm looking for a kick to the nuts.

Candice said...

Dawn's comment is completely inappropriate. Choosing to judge someone's written words without knowing them or their situation is callous and foolish. Kudos to Adam for sharing deeply. Hopefully people will not be so fast to judge.

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Kurt said...

Cheers. I think regardless of having the tag as "professional mountain runner" or not, the likes of you, Joe Grant and many others that promote exploration of self and the world, as well as community, are amazingly inspirational. Your decision to "step back" is also just as meaningful as your decision to go for it, and I feel you can continue to be as big as inspiration and leader...

I wish I had read something like this months ago. I broke my ankle trail running in early April. It was dark, the trail sketchy, and I was fumbling with my headlamp while ineloquently moving down a hill. It was poor judgement, but the 'pop' still gives me shivers and knowing I should have just sat on a rock to fix my headlamp didn't help the mental recovery. I was in the best running shape of my life. I think I was covering as much vert as possible in Austin, Texas on a daily basis. My confidence to run my first 50 miler a few months later was through the rough. I cried on the couch that afternoon not from pain but from frustration of going back to zero.

The next day, however, I realized it was an opportunity. One, my healthy leg was my weak leg. It always felt pathetically weak compared to the left leg, to the point where I had doctors look at it with no answers (in soccer growing up, I learned to just swing my weak right leg quite effectively at the ball instead of actually kick it). So, the day after the break, I bought a balance board. Left leg booted, emergency crutch in hand incase I lost balance, I worked my right leg as long as I could. Progressing time and then progressing to eyes closed. Other 'boring' glute, etc. exercises included. Fast forward to the first week of August, I had put in only a few weeks of real running (maybe 15 miles/week), but I found myself in the Dolomites for five days. I pulled a lot of energy from the incredible mountains and ramped up more effort significantly (read, way too much too soon). The running/hiking was amazing and my legs felt more balanced than ever before. I am convinced being in these natural places lend themself to healing, but I know a lot of it was the compounded hours I spent balancing blind folded in my living room jamming to tunes while my dog stared at me confused. I did 'reset' my endurance for the worse and had to give up some goals, but a few more months from now I'll be a stronger runner from it. Ironic that it will all stem from a broken ankle.

The other opportunity I took was to get closer to my friends in town who I too often turned down invitations to hang out with because I wanted to go run (or I wanted to avoid temptation to drink too much, too late in the night to go run early in the morning) or I was too tired from running, etc. I learned a lot from my friends in that time and I think/hope I became a better (less selfish?) friend, too. It also freed up time to sit down with a very good friend and for us to start sketching out how we are going to reach our dream opening a business. And it is now going to happen, and I think a lot of it is from inspiration from you aforementioned runners, and you all having the guts to live your life and make decisions that will take you to where you want to be. Still a long way to go for me and the dream, and like trying to progress as a runner in the wild, I will have to put myself in some unknown and uncomfortable positions where I will have to figure things out for myself in order to succeed. Your decision to get to the edge and turn 180 degrees in order to see progress again is an extreme honesty that gives me comfort and that I hope to have internally as I find myself trying to live my dream or continuing to trail run. So, thanks for sharing...

Sienna Christie said...

First off, reading your thoughts and learning how strong you are mentally, physically, emotionally, and psychologically is truly amazing. Though you might slip sometimes, being able to judge most of the things with level-headedness indicates that you are an amazing person, so please stop feeling bad about not being able to compete and perform the way you would want to because of your injury. Give your body enough time to heal. Before you know it, you are well on your way to recovery, covering those miles again. Good luck!
Sienna @ Fort Lauderdale Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine

Tania Abellan said...

Hi ,
Thanks so much for your post and sharing your thoughts with us. I think it's empowering to run and strive but also to recognize that there are moments and places when we just can't be what we want or wish, can't just " run it off" because the problem still there. When I've been injured, I've noticed a lot of te injury is mental, it's emotional, and it lingers. It teaches patience, acceptance and a different kind of challenge. It takes a lot to listen to our bodies, and let the healing begin, as much as it takes.
Life is a lot, and I've a feeling you're about to discover some more. By the way, I really admire your tenacity.
Hugs from Costa Rica,

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