Old habits die hard
From the Archives (November 25, 2022): For years I have built much of my self-identity as an athlete around the belief that I can work as hard as anyone. Defining myself in this way reinforced a belief that it was only through constantly pursuing more: more mileage, more workouts, more weight, more days/weeks/months without rest, that I would continue to progress. I eschewed days without running as an option of last resort and even in the final preparation for key competitions battled nagging doubts that I was losing fitness with every additional day of tapered training. Intellectually, I understood that rest was necessary for performance while subconsciously I framed it as a luxury afforded only to athletes more talented than myself. When my competitors backed off, I would press on and only then, I thought, would I be able to compete in a league where I didn’t truly belong. This narrative led me to go many, many weeks at a time without planned respite from training. Too often, days off felt like a punishment, a forced removal from training after a failed workout or niggling injury signalled to my body that I had gone a bridge too far. I had become greedy in my training and resentful of anyone or anything that tried to intervene with my pursuit of more.
If my last post was an acknowledgement of an issue that has been the spectre of my career thus far, and a hopeful message to myself for a new chapter ahead, then this post is an admission that leaving a performance-based identity in the past is not something so cut-and-dry as I would like it to be. Welcome back to over-trainers anonymous, my name is John.
When I last wrote, I felt things had changed for the better with regards to my approach and overall attitude towards athletics: I’d incorporated more rest days, felt the positive effects of giving my body and mind time to relax, and—seemingly—reaped the benefits of this new approach while avoiding the drawbacks I feared (turns out taking a day off and getting into race shape are not mutually exclusive choices). My fall season was at solid (one race, ACXC, 2nd), and good enough to earn me a spot on the senior men’s team for the World XC Championships in Australia in Mid-February. With my ticket down under booked, I set about building out an extended itinerary to capitalize on the Southern Hemisphere summer; if I was going all that way I might as well make it worth my while with some added races and a nice block of warm weather training.
From late November through early January, I worked into the type of rhythm where I feel most comfortable. No races on the calendar meant I could plow ahead with training unencumbered by my hyper-analytical tendencies. I was listening to my body, training within myself, and building great momentum ahead of an exciting racing block in Australia. When I returned to Vancouver after Christmas the idea was floated of putting a low-key race into my training plan ahead of my trip. CJ and I decided an indoor Mile in Seattle would be a great chance to “get one under my belt” and set a baseline. While I hadn’t done much in the way of specificity, the race itself would serve as a great training boost and I’m now at a point in my career where getting torched by college kids in January is a blow I can take on the chin and move forward from without spiralling into a crisis of confidence.
While the torching was unavoidable (getting outgunned in the home straight by someone born in 2003 doesn’t feel normal yet), I surprised myself by popping off a 3:58, virtually tying my PB in the middle of a 170km week after a block of long tempos, hill repeats, and grinding thresholds in the cold and snow. I was stoked. With a week until I left for Australia, I’d surprised myself by the type of fitness I’d stitched together and proven I was ready to get to warmer weather and give my other personal bests in the steeplechase and 3000m a scare.
Knowing I was in great shape and confident after an unexpectedly strong race result, I could now ease back on the volume of training and allow my body an opportunity to absorb all the work I’d put in over the past two months. If there was ever a time to proceed cautiously then the week after a good race and before transoceanic travel was it, especially with my new guiding ethos of more rest and less hammering. I stepped on the plane refreshed and energized, arrived feeling healthy, and, within a few weeks, had fully capitalized on my trip down under with stellar race results across the board.
At least I wish that’s what happened.
As you’ve probably already guessed, my experience from thereon out was not quite so rosy. In reality, the race in Seattle had the opposite effect on my psyche. If I could run so well in the midst of such heavy training, I thought, then imagine how well I would race if I kept pushing the needle just a little further for a while longer. With the mile on Saturday January 13th and my flight to Australia departing Friday the 19th, I decided to cram as much work the 6-day span as I could… the international date line was going to rob me of a whole day of training (!) so it was paramount that I outsmart it by squeezing that extra day into the shortened window I had available. In the seven days up to my Friday evening departure I ran ~205km (including the mile, two long runs, and three workouts) and did everything in my power to ensure I was sufficiently exhausted to “earn” myself the 48-hour forced abstention from training that awaited me. I think my final training log entry before departing sums up how I felt nicely:
Hindsight is 20/20. Unfortunately for me, the races were all ahead and I felt no need to look back for several more weeks after this point. In fact, whether thanks to the glorious warm temps or simply the novelty of being in a new place, I landed in Melbourne and felt reenergized, diving straight back into training. Within hours of landing, I’d already gotten in 10 miles to cap off the week and staked my name on the Strava leaderboard for the famous TAN Loop. While there’s a lot I would change if I did things over again, the resounding highlight of the trip was the opportunity to live and train with Ben Buckingham (and his wonderful fiancée Amanda), who took me in and made me feel like a true Melburnian from day one. Ben and his On Athletic Club teammates were incredibly accommodating of this pale foreigner and from track access to therapist recommendations and great running spots, I wanted for nothing during my stint. I picked up in Australia where I’d left off back in Canada and my first 10 days or so of training were all that I could’ve hoped they would be.
And then the fatigue started setting in. Almost imperceptible at first, I noticed my easy runs didn’t feel quite so easy as I would like them to. Shrugging it off as part of the job I pushed ahead. In workouts the feeling persisted and while I was still hitting the splits I hoped to, nothing seemed to be clicking; had running always been this hard? Reckoning that a few easy days in the lead up to my first race in Adelaide February11th would set me right, I kept pushing. For every day I felt good there seemed to be several where just getting out the door was a slog. I convinced myself this was normal and prepared as per usual for my first of three races, a steeplechase at the Adelaide Track Classic. Less than a month earlier I had seemed to be on the cusp of an all-time fitness high, despite how I’d felt I convinced myself that the fitness I’d accumulated would show through. I told myself that if I played it right a PB could be in the cards.
By a kilometer into the race I was already straining, I felt disconnected from my body and for as hard as my mind was working to stay focused it seemed my legs just couldn’t keep up. The top Aussies, Ben and Matt Clarke, made a move at halfway that I had no response to and I drifter further off the pace in the latter laps, coming home in 8:39, slower by a wide margin than any time I’ve run in years. Frustrated and discouraged I tried to burn off some steam in a post-race workout, but again felt I had nothing more to give. Not the start to this competition trip I’d hoped for.
While I was down on running, I fortunately had the chance to take my mind off things by spending a lovely two days in Adelaide with relatives (having a big Irish family means no matter how far from home you go, you probably have a cousin there!) Some home cooked meals, time in the countryside, and reconnecting with family old and new was just what I needed after a downer of a race. From Adelaide I would fly to Sydney and then onwards by bus to Bathurst, NSW for the World XC Championships the following Saturday.
Unfortunately, my downward spiral had yet to play its final hand and shortly after boarding my 5am flight to Sydney I began to feel a churning in my stomach that grew through the duration of the flight. By some miracle I was able to hold myself together just long enough to deplane and find a bathroom, and then the violence of food poisoning reared its ugly head and set about wiping me out for the next 48 hours. I retreated into a shell of myself while waiting what seemed like an eternity in the Sydney airport for the remainder of the Canadian WXC team to arrive and spent the entirety of the bus ride to Bathurst curled up in the fetal position. I slept 15 hours straight upon arrival and much of the following day sleeping and trying to get some food down. If there is a proper way to cut down before an important race, this was not it.
By Thursday I was able to get some light running in and do a course inspection with the rest of the team. Despite the tumultuous events of the previous few days, I liked what I saw and began gaining back some hope that I could salvage a decent showing if I played my cards right. The course at Mt. Panorama Motor Speedway was quite possibly the most “fun” XC circuit I’ve ever encountered. The local organizing committee did a wonderful job incorporating a great mix of natural and man-made features as well as some fantastic themed highlights like “Bondi Beach” and “the Billabong”. Unsure how deep I could dig after my bout of sickness I decided that an ultra-conservative approach was my best bet if I had any hope of actually making it through 10km. With hot weather in the forecast for race day and plenty of challenging hills in the 2km circuit, I hoped the course would do most of the heavy lifting for me by wearing down those who went out too hard.
The weather ended up changing dramatically in the final hour leading up to the Senior men’s race, dropping 10 degrees in that span. The blue skies were quickly overshadowed by a broiling thundercloud, prompting the organizers to bump the start time up a whole 30 minutes (on about 50 minutes notice). Despite the dramatic drop in temperature, I stuck fast to my initial race plan and hoped the other elements would wreak enough havoc ahead of me in the field. Still very unsure of what I’d have in me to give after my draining week I planned to run the first 8km at “threshold effort”, trying to keep myself from ever venturing over my redline. The plan worked and I was able to move steadily through the field, going from mid-80s to high-40s over the first three laps. With 2k to go I felt there was still plenty left in the tank and began pouring coal on the fire. I was able to roll up a few more athletes to come home in 44th and lead a very tightly bunched Canadian team.
A week prior to WXC I would have hoped for a more heroic effort from myself. After the happenings of the previous 6 days just to finish the race without self-imploding (or exploding) felt like a victory. With one race left to go in my tour down under I was salvaging some confidence and convincing myself that my rough patch was behind me for good. Unfortunately, it took one final knock to convince me that something was truly wrong. Another drastic blow-out in the 3000m at the Maurie Plant invitational in Melbourne put the final nail in the coffin of fatigue I’d been steadily building during my Southern Hemisphere summer. While Australia had been wonderful in many ways (new friends, family reunion, koalas and the beginning of a tan to name a few) a successful competition sortie it was not. I flew home defeated, demoralized, and, above all, exhausted.
My first few weeks at home took place under a general sense of malaise, I had trained harder than ever before and had nothing to show for it results-wise. A bad race would typically galvanize my resolve to double down and push ahead, but my recent experience had sucked the wind out of my sails in such a way that I began to question whether I would ever run well again. Blood work showed no serious issues, leading to a conclusion that I’d simply succumbed to good old fashioned burnout.
It was during this bleak period that I finally began to realize just how self-absorbed I’d become. When things were going my way it was easy to tell myself and others that running didn’t define me. I’d calloused myself to the struggles that other people faced, feeding a narrative that my success was an outworking of an identity grounded in Christ; that if others could let go of their own self-absorption, they too would finally be free to reach their potential. It took losing control of my trajectory and the success I’d come to enjoy for me to realize that was where I’d actually been putting my faith, giving glory to God for the outcome but trusting only myself to actually see the process through. I’d been living a caricature of true relationship with Jesus, one where faith in the spirit became a convenient narrative for my own false humility while faith in the flesh remained my daily heart posture.
This epiphany broke me and a period followed where to continue on a path as inherently self-serving as full-time athletics seemed misaligned with any pretensions of a life lived in service to Christ and others. By God’s grace it was during this time that was able to receive great teaching on a life in pursuit of Christ. As an athlete it has always been easy and convenient to co-opt verses like Philippians 3:14 (I press on towards the goal to which Christ has called me heavenward…) as justification for selfish ambitions: pressing on towards goals that are of my own design and in service of self rather than Christ. For the first time in my life I’ve begun finally learning to weigh the here-and-now against the promise of Christ’s kingdom that is yet to come, to rightly view eternity as the true goal and prize, and to rest in the grace of His salvation, something I cannot earn for myself by any measure of hard work. To be open handed with something so dear to me as my career is to acknowledge that whatever joy I may know in this life is but a glimpse of the perfect joy that comes from knowing God and seeing him face-to-face one day. I continue to struggle against my selfish pride and yet have discovered deeper peace and joy in the grace that is promised me through the work of Christ. As I’ve chewed on these hard truths and lessons I’m gradually shifting my posture, learning to centre my life on Jesus and allow love for Him to inform and dictate the other loves in my life. I will forever be a work in progress but have begun now to feel the alignment of my spiritual need for rest and peace with that of my physical body. Both provide an opportunity to point myself towards the Cross and rightly give glory to God for the many blessings I have received.
I write these final words from the exit row (yay!) of my flight to Arizona, where I’ll spend the next 6 weeks in Flagstaff putting the final touches on my preparation for outdoor season (take two). It’s now been nearly two months since I crash landed out of my last training camp abroad and it brings a mixture of relief and joy to say that I finally feel excited and ready to venture towards the deep end of training once again. After allowing myself the time to rest physically, mentally, and spiritually I’m now into the mid stages of a rebuild. Yesterday marked a milestone in that process as I accomplished what is possibly my longest-standing goal in this sport: winning the Vancouver Sun Run. To do so surrounded by family and community that blesses me with their Christ-like love—a love unbounded by performance or circumstance—was a joy that reiterated God’s grace through the good seasons and the hard. I don’t know for certain what the future holds but whatever may come I know that Christ is with me through it all.
12Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
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John Eamon Gay