Recovery and the Boston Marathon: Part I

The body does what the mind tells it to do... that is, until it doesn't.  

Athletes spend years building, bolstering and nurturing the relationship between mind and body.  Repetition to the point where once alien motions become second nature. Practice to the point where when the body responds to the mind, it doesn't just do what the brain tells in to do but it does it with strenght, power, grace and finesse.  Fine tuning to the point where the body is allowed to lead the brain, where reflexes, far faster that conscious thought, are trusted enough to be allowed to guide instead of being relegated to "last resort" status. We devlop ideas about what our potential is and spend every single day trying to maximize it. Expectations are built. Expectations of what your body can do, how long it should take to do it, and how your body will feel and recover after those actions are taken. When those expectations are left unfulfilled, when the response of the body leaves more to be desired than what should fall in the margin of error of expectation, that is when an athlete, or in this case myself, begins to face the hard questions.

Shortly after my roller coaster of a week, described, mostly, in *In Stitches* parts one and two, I got the stitches taken out of my side and was given the green light to resume training. After two weeks of outpatient surgery, a funeral, three countries, and four cities, I was finally able to train again. Now came the tricky business of recovering; the art of letting the body ease its way back to the form it was once in, while maintaining a positive mental attitude and overlooking the blatant evidence that you are in far worse shape than where you were before your setback.

The body is tricky. After a lifetime of training I thought I had figured mine out. I've been through two major surgeries, forced time off after a blood infection, and bouts of overtraining and have found my way back to higher and higher points each time. Your body does not always respond the same way to the same inputs. It needs to be tricked, coaxed, and coerced into doing exactly what you want it to do. The one advantage with your body that you have, however, is that the options are limited. You either do the training and put in the work, or you don't.

The mind is trickier. Your body can do nothing without your mind. While jumping into a lifetime of positive training habits will guide the body back to peak condition, there is no guarantee that the mind will hold pace. In the recovery process it can be hard for your mind to rectify the fact that the potential that once existed for your body in each training session has been compromised. When the stopwatch is stopping on larger numbers than you are used to seeing, it can be very difficult for your thoughts to focus on the small gains your body is making in recovery and not jump to comparisons with the increasingly shrinking numbers the stopwatch was stopping on before the setback. Your potential has temporarily shifted, and it is a hard thing to come to terms with. When your mind loses confidence in the potential of your body you've lost the race while sitting at the start line.

I began 2016 in impeccable shape. Refreshed from an easy December after a hard year of racing I put up my fastest January performances ever at a track meet in Canberra, Australia. When the cyst on my side got infected I anticipated it would be nothing more than a minor setback. A few days of antibiotics and I would be good as gold. When the cyst kept getting infected and I had to have it removed I still shrugged off the thought of recovery. Ehhhh one week of compromised training before I was back to full strength. Easy. Every minor setback I've had in the past took one to two weeks to bounce back from.

That's when my sense of invulnerability got me punched right in the ribs, literally. A two-week forced suspension from training in the racing chair, coupled with a few days missed prior to surgery because of the infection, international travel and a few days of sick training while I battled the flu my first week back, and i was out. It hit my body much harder than what I anticipated after a self-described "minor" procedure to remove a cyst.

In two-and-a-half weeks I stopped moving fast. My racing chair felt awkward and a sharp pain emanated from the former home of my cyst. There also seemed to be a drastic discrepency between how hard I was working and how fast I was going. The potential output of my body was much lower than what it had been a mere month prior.

At first this didn't phase me. I knew my body, and I assumed it would take me a week, maybe two, to snap back and begin feeling like myself and for my body to begin fulfilling the expectations of my mind. When the days of my second week began to tick by without signs of improvement, however, the chill of doubt began to crawl up my spine. When the third week began with a drop in performance my mind went into overdrive. My self-inflated sense of potential was beginning to deflate and questions beginning with the term "What if," kept sneaking their way past my defenses and into my central cortex.

I talked out loud to myself more in that third week of recovery than I have in my entire life combined. I had begun to lose confidence in my ability and potential and it was time to use every trick I knew to get it back. A sports phsycologist once told me that your mind focuses better when there is a physical action in conjuction with a thought; if you speak a mantra while you think it, for example. This trinket of information must have lodged itself in my brain, because i have never forgotten it, and certainly began abusing it. After every effort I did on the track I was mumbling and talking to myself. Anything positive that had happened, no matter how miniscule, I would latch onto and discuss...with myself. I would mumble, mutter, and occassionally shout at myself (i'm sure I looked nuts), repeating mantras and trying to grab positivity by the balls and force it to sit still and stay a while.  

Then, two weeks out from the Boston Marathon, my last week training in Australia, I woke up in the morning, went to the track, and went faster. The next morning results were the same. Slowly, in that fourth week back in the chair, I began to remember who I was and my body once again made sense.

The sense of relief hit me hard, like when you finally resurface after being pummeled by a giant wave. With my confidence slowly creeping its way back up, at least I began to feel at home in my body again. And not a moment too soon. It is time to race.