The Dark Side of Fitness

Inside the often unfortunate, sometimes weird, and occasionally gruesome drawbacks of fitness fanaticism.

April 2016

—Photography by Tom Speruto

First Person

Playing With Pain

What it feels like to run the Leadville 100. —Dougald MacDonald

I first noticed the twinge in my left calf around mile 25 of the Leadville Trail 100 Run, shortly after finishing a helter-skelter scramble down the rutted dirt track called Powerline. By Twin Lakes, at mile 39.5, my steady gait had become a lopsided hobble. I told my crew—four friends and family members who were supporting my somewhat quixotic first attempt at a 100-mile race—I might have to drop out. But ultramarathons are all about not quitting, despite fatigue, nausea, blisters, and pain. Everyone goes through “rough patches,” and I thought this might just be mine. After gulping some ibuprofen, I limped out of Twin Lakes and began the long climb toward Hope Pass, the race’s high point.

I had not been a hard-core runner for long. Unlike many thousands of Coloradans, I’d never even run a marathon. Rock climbing was my sport. But the summer before my Leadville race, I took a bad fall and lost the confidence necessary for serious climbing. I felt like I needed a big but relatively safe new challenge. Running the Leadville 100, the “Race Across the Sky,” seemed to be the ticket. I gave myself one year to prepare for Leadville’s high-elevation course.

I ran my first half-marathon that October and then a 50K in early spring. In May I finished the 50-mile Collegiate Peaks Trail Run near Buena Vista at the stately pace of 13.5 minutes a mile—exactly as planned. My training was working, and I felt good about my chances of finishing within Leadville’s 30-hour cutoff in August. My wife, however, was not happy. I ran nearly every day, often for hours, and rock climbing—her favorite sport—had largely been abandoned.

Hope Pass was a bitch. On the downhill side of the 12,540-foot saddle, bolts of pain shot up my left leg with every footfall. But at Winfield, the turnaround point halfway through the race, an old friend joined me as a pacer and I got a second wind. This is what a 100-mile race is all about, I told myself. Suffering is just part of the game. Then night fell and I could no longer run at all: I lurched like Quasimodo. In the glow of my headlamp, every pebble seemed like a boulder. I had a blister the size of a silver dollar on one foot, but that was a mere annoyance compared to my throbbing calf. Still, I kept going.

The sun rose at May Queen, the race’s final aid station. It was only 13.5 miles to the finish, and I’d already traveled more than 60 miles since my injury—what was another half-marathon? But my strained calf muscle had swollen to twice its normal size and my will was broken. I begged an official to cut off my wristband, ending my bid at 86.5 miles.

Regret kicked in as soon as I could walk comfortably again, about a week later. If I’d started down that final leg to the finish, could I have made it? I vowed to return to Leadville the following August to find out. However, once I started training again, I discovered a nagging ache in both hips. I quit ultrarunning for good. I had been willing to suffer to finish at Leadville, but I wasn’t going to risk premature hip replacements to go back. I, unlike so many other endurance athletes, couldn’t reconcile the notion that being competitive meant always being in pain. Suddenly, rock climbing was looking like a whole lot of fun again. 

Fighting The Fog

What it feels like to have overtraining syndrome. —MH

The buzzing woke me—again—and I reached over to silence the alarm clock. I’d been hitting “snooze” every 20 minutes for three hours. Sleepiness wouldn’t loosen its grip, and I was grumpy that I still felt the dread of getting up caused by this deep fatigue. It had been two months since my last ultra-distance race, and I hadn’t managed any meaningful training since. My 36-year-old body just wouldn’t respond. Downstairs, I poured a second mug of coffee and wondered how many French presses it would take to kill me. I decided I didn’t care.

I’d been swimming in this milieu of exhaustion since returning home after my first attempt at southern Colorado’s Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run—arguably the most challenging, and definitely the highest in elevation, 100-mile ultramarathon race in the country. In preparation for the midsummer race, I had competed in ski-mountaineering events and finished my off-season training with 100,000 vertical feet of uphill trudging in one week. Instead of feeling primed for the season, I started spring training trying to regain a zest for life. Not yet realizing what I needed was more rest, not more exercise, I began the athlete’s version of cocaine and Valium—coffee and melatonin—to get in the 100- to 120-mile weeks required for a good showing at Hardrock.

Not surprisingly, my Keith Richards–style workout plan resulted in a disappointing go at the 100-mile loop through Silverton, Lake City, Ouray, and Telluride. I was crushed. I resolved to get right back after it. I would train better and harder and, in doing so, keep my dream of being a professional athlete alive. I had left a six-figure tech job to live the meager but adventurous life of an ultrarunner, using paltry stipends from a few sponsors to get by. I quickly learned that being a professional endurance athlete is not exactly like being a pro baseball player; however, I felt indebted to my benefactors nonetheless. I had to perform, win races, be sponsor-able. And to do that, I had to get the fuck out of bed.

There is a pervasive training philosophy in ultra-distance sports that more is always better: more miles, more intensity, more time on foot. And it works—to a point. But when the stress-recovery balance is off for long periods of time, you go backward physiologically and your performance suffers. Life and running post-Hardrock wasn’t good. I would wake up in cold sweats. My sex drive became a distant memory. When I did manage to hit the trail, my muscles would ache for weeks. It wasn’t until my mother sent her 100th text telling me to “Answer the phone!” that I realized I’d been avoiding friends and family because I was depressed—and ultimately suffering from overtraining syndrome (OTS).

OTS is a sneaky ailment. Today, I can see that it took advantage of what made me a good endurance athlete in the first place: motivation, love of training, and ambition. These attributes aided in my demise by making it difficult for me to make a sober decision about whether I needed to frequent the couch or the trail. 

When I finally realized my body was cooked, I spent my days in bed—tired, sad, embarrassed, and feeling like a failure. After a couple of weeks, my hormone-producing adrenal glands rebounded; I felt better, but it was months before I felt any enthusiasm about running, and my performances were (are?) still subpar. Now, at 40 years old, it’s impossible to ascertain if my inability to excel is age-related degradation or the result of unhealthy training throughout my 30s. As I sit here today, sipping maté tea—yes, I had to give up the devil coffee bean—I wonder what my athletic career could have looked like. And I chew on the notion that OTS may have killed my dream. 

What Is OTS?

While researchers have yet to reach a consensus on a mechanism, biomarkers, or treatment (beyond rest) for overtraining syndrome, most experts agree the condition occurs when an athlete trains beyond the body’s ability to recover. In short: Each athlete has a threshold for physiological stress, and when the load exceeds this limit for too long, it can cause a cascade of reactions that can result in hormonal, nutritional, emotional, muscular, and neurological imbalances. Essentially, the body melts down and stops responding. —MH

—Photography by Tom Speruto unless noted otherwise