A Good Place To Be

It’s been some time since I’ve stated much publicly about my health as it pertains to my running. This is in part because I gradually became sick (pun intended) of talking about it, but also because there hasn’t been much new in this regard over the past year or more. I have continued to feel better and better on average, but it’s still been at times a frustratingly slow process in which I seem to take one or two steps back for every two or three steps forward. Slowly, this is leading me closer and closer to feeling healthy and strong, but I’m certainly not yet back to the health I would like to have.

Some quick back story so those of you that don’t know what I am referencing: in August of 2012,, I began an acute phase of undiagnosed systemic health issues that have generally improved over time, but have greatly compromised my health for the past 30 months. In the first 12 months I went through an exhausting process of trying to figure out what was “wrong” with me. Every possible lead created several questions and few answers. Eventually, I came to a place of no longer being willing to put consistent energy into finding a diagnosis. As long as I continue to improve, I have come to tell myself, it doesn’t really matter what the root cause of all of this has been. In making this choice, I fully understand that I could be turning my back on a finding that could greatly help me regain my full health, but at some point I needed to draw a line. After seeing dozens of health care professionals, taking hundreds of various tests, and spending tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket, I decided to draw this line sometime in the fall of 2013. My mental and physical health have both been much improved as a result of doing so, and I find myself in a significantly better place now than I was 18 months ago.

I am, however, still compromised by my health every day. Most days, it doesn’t limit me to any large degree, but even on the best days I can feel that something isn’t quite right. It’s become slowly easier to ignore, especially when I am busy or on the days that I am feeling better, but there is the definite reality that my physical health is somewhat compromised every day. Because of this, I have been unwilling and unable to run with any kind of focus on pushing myself to get faster or stronger. In part because it’s not enjoyable to do so, and, in part, because there is a chance that over training is part of what caused these health issues in the first place. As a result, I have been in a prolonged phase of running for nothing more than the simple fact that I enjoy being out running. When I feel decent and I’m able to do some consistent volume, then I am willing to do that, but I have been unwilling to push myself through stretches of elevated fatigue or other symptoms.

On the surface, this might all sound like an unfortunate and frustrating place to be, and I suppose at times it has been, but more and more regularly I have moved into a place of not only acceptance, but also contentedness with all of this. Certainly, I would welcome my health of three years ago back with open arms, but I’m not certain I would be eager to also have back the relationship I had with running at that time. I don’t have any regrets about the seven years I spent putting the majority of my focus as a runner into working to become the most capable racer I could be, but I do feel certain that ill health or not, that is not where I would want to be at this point in my life. Initially, it was frustrating to have been forced into “retirement” from racing due to poor health, but now that I am a few years removed from this drastic change, I feel very comfortable with where I am. In certain ways I think I am actually closer to where I want to be now with my running than I would have been had I sustained my previous ability.

As early as late 2010 or early 2011, I was beginning to feel that I only wanted to try to race at a high level for another two or three years. I was never of the mind that I wanted to race as effectively and ambitiously as I could for as long as I could. Instead, I made a very conscious choice in 2006 to put huge amounts of focus into my running for a handful of years, knowing that this would be something I was hoping to do for five or ten years, but certainly not much more than that. This approach allowed me to put much more energy into running in that time than I would have been able to if I was hoping to race at a high level for as long as possible. I hoped then, and intend now, for running to be a large part of my life for years (or decades) to come, but I never had a long-term plan of racing being my primary focus in running. In taking this approach, I think I was able to achieve more in racing and get more out of my racing than I would have been able to had I intended it as a longer-term habit.

As I already said, it was difficult to be forced into not being able to run in the way that I wanted to, but now a few years removed from this and I find myself in the place with my running that I was planning to be anyway. This wasn’t the path I envisioned to get here, but it nonetheless feels good to be right where I planned to be. I even feel somewhat fortunate to have been able to avoid needing to make the choice to walk away from racing while it was something I could still easily do. I know it can be hard to give up something that we are good at, and something that has been such a huge part of our day-to-day life for several years. No matter how certain I was in 2012 that I only wanted to race in that way for a couple more years, I am very aware that making that change in a clean, healthy, and decisive way would have been much harder had my health not forced it upon me. I feel fortunate that I didn’t have the chance to continue the racing-centric relationship that I had with running, because the momentum that I had in that direction would have likely kept me dabbling in it for longer than I knew I wanted to.

None of this means that I don’t still have ambitious aspirations in running, or that I will never try to race again, but I am nearly certain that racing will never again be my primary focus as a runner. Certainly, it’s possible to walk the line between training/racing and running for other reasons, and to get substantial value from both sides of that line, but when you are trying to race at your highest potential there is a simple reality that you need to put so much energy into doing so, that for better or worse you must make large compromises in other areas of running and other areas of life.

Moving into to the place I am now has allowed me to become much more aware of how much substance and satisfaction there is in running that has nothing to do with racing. For most of my life running and racing have been essentially one and the same. I have never put large amounts of energy into running without also putting large amounts of energy into racing. Now though, running is still a large part of my life, but racing is a nearly non-existent part. I feel like I have always run in large part for the simple pleasure of getting outside and moving through beautiful landscapes, but there was also always a component of wanting to run to get into shape to be able to race as effectively as possible. Now that the racing aspect has been completely stripped away, it has become easier for me to deeply understand and focus on all the non-racing aspects of running.

This isn’t to say that I think one is better than the other, but that running without any focus on racing is a completely new thing (to me) that I feel fortunate to have found. This is exactly where I envisioned myself being with my running at this point, but I’m not sure I would have been able to figure out how to get here had my health been more cooperative over the past few years. I know for certain that my path would have been much less direct and much less definitive. I’m sure, if my health allows, I will find myself with a bit of the racing bug at some point again in my future, and the pendulum my swing a bit back in that direction, but, for now, I am really excited to have this opportunity to continue to discover more and more about the non racing aspects of running.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • Have you been forced to step away from racing or running, even for a time? How did you react?
  • Have you or do you intend to step away from racing at some point if that’s previously been a focus of yours?
  • Has your approach to or focus of your running changed over time? How much of this change was voluntary and how much of it was involuntary?

There are 2 comments

  1. @frumioj

    I'm sorry you had to go through the health issues that continue to plague you. But I'm also glad that you have been able to adapt, and continue to enjoy running for what it actually is for you, as opposed to what it might be. And thanks for sharing your journey so eloquently – much appreciated!

  2. northacrosseurope

    Wow… what a great post Geoff, full of depth, honesty and subtlety… and, as usual, wisdom.

    Given your rare ability to take a step back and look at your situation with clarity and without regret, and your even rarer ability to clearly express your observations and experiences in writing, I sincerely hope there will be a book from you one day? Your writing is so clean and powerful; so heartfelt and evocative. Your 'journey' would be a worthy addition to running literature. I suspect it would become a classic…

    I'll keep my fingers crossed that one of your ambitions lies along that path!

  3. RunningStupid

    It's great to read that you can run simply for the love of running!! Running is definitely a part of who you are and I'm very happy to read that it still brings you enjoyment! You're definitely welcome to join me for some long and slow mileage any time you're in town!!

    All Day!

  4. pedinger

    Geoff, I appreciate all your insight into running and aspects of life. I had a great relationship with my racing that came to a halt after a terrific effort at Badwater in 2008, although not nearly at your level of racing, I still loved competing. There has been multiple health issues that kept me from running completely and outside of 1 recent race, absolutely no racing. Your perspective has helped me allot gather my thoughts and understand exactly why I love running. I know it is not about competing, but running for the love of what it is.
    You won't remember, but for a short while at HURT, we ran and had a short conversation before you decided to run MUCH faster than me. Your perspective and writing is greatly appreciated.

  5. senelly

    Thank you for sharing an important aspect of your life, the sharing of which can benefit anyone who has achieved a high personal level (in running or anything) and has had to "move on". It seems many high achievers have some difficulty adjusting to stuff like chronic injury or illness, getting older and slower, etc. Some champions have simply quit in the face of diminished abilities. Certainly, in ultra running at least, "staying the course" is an intrinsic lesson of the sport. For those lucky enough to keep moving despite diminished ability, that very continuation of running is the cure for any career DNF'ing!

  6. _jgs_

    Hi Geoff, noting that you've moved on from intense diagnosis of your situation, I still couldn't stop the thought of Lyme's disease crossing my mind and wanted to check you'd eliminated that possibility. It can be very difficult to diagnose and longer term leads to generalised symptoms such as you describe. This is a good summary:

    Not a high risk generally but trail runners are more at risk than most other groups.

  7. Mike Anthony

    Geoff, you were the person who inspired me to take up ultra running and adopt long distance running as a part of my lifestyle. I had never heard of the sport prior to 'accidentally' coming across the film Unbreakable but since that day I have changed my life to accommodate the passion that grew for the sport. As it was only a year ago it was sad that just as I found this sport and inspiration I looked you up online knowing the film was released years prior and found out you had since found yourself in a place of ill health and the guy I looked up to was no longer racing.

    Looking back it is strange as my story is kind of the opposite to yours as back when I first found ultrarunning I was really unwell and it ended up that ultrarunning was what effectively got me back to a state of mental and physical health from which i have never looked back. That was about a year ago now and I still see you as a big inspiration in my running life and in some ways life moreover given how influential the story of your western states race was in pushing me to gain back my own life through the sport.

    Anyways, just a short message to say thanks for all you do for the sport, you have been a great example to many runners out there, some like myself probably wouldn't be running today were it not for your contribution.

  8. olgav100

    Geoff, for entirely selfish reasons I wish you had figured out what you had/have, because I have the same thing. For the last ear and half I am "running" same symptoms, went through extensive testing, and while I improved from the "not able to jog even a mile" to running up to 3 hours at time (granted at very slow pace for what I am/was), I can't push, and more often than not get wiped out from an hour of running. Yet, in a weird way thanks to you publicly speaking of your problems, I, too, came to peace with what is, and run because I love it. Thank you for keeping it real for us.

  9. robertcrussell

    Geoff, an interesting, insightful read. I was especially interested by your thoughtful contribution since I'm in a relatable (although less extreme) situation myself. After my first top-5 finish in a 50-miler I have come down with a gluteal tendinopathy which means I haven't been able to run since the start of February. I've never been so long without running, and I've discovered that I value myself as a human being by my ability to cover long distances efficiently. Without the ability to run/race as a means of allowing myself to "feel okay about myself", the realities of my current situation have really sunk in and I've been forced to confront some hard truths.

    The upshot is; I've quit my "successful" city job, and am now focusing on developing a career in something which interests me and that I can maintain without the need to run 100s of miles to numb the self-hatred. Thus, by not being able to run – running/walking/exploring has become something wholly enjoyable instead of just a medicine to get me through a terrible, lonely existence.

    Not bad for a 24-year-old, eh?! Hats off to all the non-running runners out there!

  10. bayleafmo

    Thank you for sharing that Geoff. I was struck by your focus and attitude when I watched a documentary that followed the Western States I think. I think your story is one that many can identify with and it is a reminder that as a result of illness, injury, circumstances, etc, our relationship with running can change and that's not always a negative thing

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