Author: Altra Ambassador Johan De Klerk
Before I became a runner and as an outsider looking in, the sport seemed like a very simple and affordable way to get your daily dose of exercise. The “affordable” part falls apart when you start talking about the shoes in your rotation (because it turns out you need more than one shoe per foot to be taken seriously), and the “simple” part disappears in the rear-view mirror as you dare not lose focus on the monstrous climbs and treacherous descents in front of you, which you willingly sign up for as a supposedly “chilled long run over the weekend”. The wonderful thing about this sport is that when you realize this, you find that all you are left with is the joyous pursuit of movement and the development of the ability to endure for longer than you ever thought was possible. It is an enormously addictive feeling to chase, as it inevitably spills over into other parts of your life. It fosters routine, promotes other healthy habits, and is a great way to meet like-minded people.
Hurt is never far away. Runners love to talk about their journeys into the pain cave, which refers to the darker patches in a difficult race when the body seems to be giving up. With a smile, the story usually ends with “and then things just started to flow, and I managed to finish with a smile on my face”. We wear black or lost toenails as a badge of honor. We limp into the office on a Monday, a weekend warrior triumphing over his weekend foe (the long run). Our close relationship with pain equips us with the skillset to deal with problems in our everyday lives, as we scoff at the idea of an annoying colleague ruining our day, having dealt with a crippling ankle for three hours that one time and still managed to finish! Even if it does get to us, we lace up our running shoes and clear the mind by running it off. For the first three years of my running life, I convinced myself that the above was 100% true. Running led to routine, led to focus, led to a career that has allowed me to pursue the sport of running. It was a chain that made sense, with any break in the chain being easily fixed by a new race, a new adventure or a new shoe. That was until I was confronted by the hard truths when I contracted a nasty virus in the autumn of 2019.
It had been an incredible year up to that point. I was representing a brand that I loved, as an ambassador for Altra, my training program at the hands of Erin van Eyssen at Flat Rock Endurance was starting to pay real dividends with some decent results in a few local ultras and my career was benefiting from all of this as the pursuit of self-improvement spilled over into my working life. Group runs were (and are still) my lifeblood. It was on one of these runs, recceing the Roi Du Mont Rochelle course in the Franschhoek Mountains that this all started to take a turn. I had recovered from what felt like a mild cold the week before and felt fine on our first climb. Two hours into the run I noticed that my body was hurting more than usual, but wrote it off as a bit of fatigue still hanging around post-sickness. On the drive home I started feeling dizzy, and as I parked my car my vision was blurred and I was shivering uncontrollably. It was scary, but at that moment I thought it would be just another great story to tell about embracing the pain that comes with running. Over the next few days, my condition deteriorated and I hauled my tired body to the doctor. She immediately diagnosed it as a nasty viral infection that had also caused some temporary asthma. I was given an inhaler, told to rest for another week, and then slowly started exercising again.
Injuries and the management of recovery periods are all part of the sport, so I was not too fussed about resting up and slowly finding my feet. I was however not prepared for what was to come, as a week of rest turned into three months of blood tests, x-rays, lung tests, and expensive medical bills. I found myself slipping deeper and deeper into a ‘pain cave’. Only this one did not have a numerical finish line, a DNF option, encouragement from a passing runner dealing with the same course, or the option of running it out. At this point, it only took one flight of stairs to be pushed to exhaustion, and I woke up every morning with my legs feeling like they did after an ultra. Without sounding overdramatic, the inability of three doctors to diagnose my symptoms brought my mortality into focus daily. I had convinced myself that I could run myself out of any emotional pain cave, but at this stage running was he trigger of the worst of the symptoms which I in turn could not run off. My commitment to becoming a stronger runner (and that idea in itself would lead to a fuller life) had left me utterly unequipped to deal with anxieties that could not be shed on the mountain.
At this stage, I need to point out the obvious, that I have lived a pretty sheltered and privileged life. I was diagnosed with a mild case of general anxiety disorder at university, but my angst was related to nothing more serious than my studies and the dilemma of finding a suitable career path. Through the use of medication, I managed to get this under control, with exercise being a key tool in my cognitive-behavioural change.
Three months down, I finally made an appointment with a pulmonologist. For me it felt like a last resort, hoping that it was viral rather than physical issues with my lungs or heart. As I talked through my situation and symptoms, it felt more like a therapy session than a heart and lung check. I found myself finally sharing my experiences of struggling at work, breaking down during the day and crying behind a bathroom door. This started to make sense to me as my doctor concluded the session saying “I have no reason to believe that you are sick, or that there is anything wrong with your heart or lungs”. In three months, my brain had decided to turn a nasty viral infection (that probably left my body after about two weeks) into a psychosomatic shadow that left my body in pieces every time I tried to do any moderate exercise. The way back was not straightforward but started with me getting rid of the inhaler, gradually start moving again, and finally, get back to a place where I could run for an hour with a clear mind and what felt like healthy lungs.
Running had lulled me into a false sense of security, as I believed that as long as I remained injury-free, I could use it as an outlet for whatever threatened to mess with my day. The cold hard truth is that this is a myth, as many things can and will come in the way of a run. More importantly, it can become the very thing that lays bare the issues you are currently dealing with in your personal life, as you are left with no real-life tools to deal with it. Before this episode, I would have considered myself a well-rounded individual, who found a perfect balance between work, life, and playtime. Afterward, I found that every time I bailed on sleeping in, seeing close friends or staying out just a little bit later because of a scheduled run, I was messing with this balance up to a point where I was way too reliant on a selfish activity that would not always be around.
I haven’t found a way forward yet, but the pursuit of finding a better balance has so far been a big enough motivator to put any stumbling blocks into perspective and find a healthy way to overcome. Following my problems in the winter of 2019, I was forced to manage my expectations and instantly saw the positive effect it had on my wellbeing. I opted for activities that would allow me to engage with my community and even took a giant leap into the forbidden arts of cycling. Surprisingly the second half of 2019 included two of my biggest achievements in endurance sports to date, including a second-place finish in a memorable relay race with a close friend of mine, and a magical day on the 65km UTCT course where I managed to finish 10th and a full hour under my target time.
Whether you are thinking about diving into the deep end of endurance sports or just contemplating lacing up for the first time, I hope my experience gives you some insight into the darker side of running. My intention is not to promote fear, but rather point out the (now) obvious fact that this sport won’t give you any answers in black and white. That is perhaps the point: never make the mistake of believing that any one hobby will equip you with the necessary tools to deal with the unpredictability of life, but rather use it as a means to connect with more people, learn more about yourself and your limits and perhaps even lay bare your shortcomings. Acceptance is after all the first step in improving the relationship you have with yourself.