On Finishing Weak, Rejecting Post-Race Recovery and Other “Sins”

It has been four and a half days since I ran a 17-mile virtual trail race on the Metacomet Trail in northwestern Connecticut. In all honesty, I’ve been seriously slacking of race-running and recovery since around mile 13. I’m a firm believer in transparency, especially when talking about accomplishments, and Sunday’s race was a massive accomplishment for me. But none of it has gone as the running gods would have advised.

So these are my confessions.

First of all, I neglected to “finish strong.” I used a lot of different physiological devices to get through the last four miles, and strength was not one of them. There was some downhill stumbling, some uphill mumbling and a fair bit of flat ground bumbling. And as goofy as that nursery rhyme might sound, I specifically wanted to avoid all three of those things.

I made a few promises to my alter running ego, which was my first mistake. She’s insufferable and I hope none of you ever have to deal with her. I promised her that even if the final miles involved driving hail and hurricane-force winds, angry wild boars, wrong turns or (worst of all) sports bra chafe, I would maintain three standards: good downhill form, good uphill mentality and even the slowest of trots on all flat trail. Due to my enthusiastic and egotistical pace in the first two-thirds of the race, I failed at all three. So when I reflect on my finish, the word “strong” doesn’t exactly come to mind.

I didn’t cross my original finish line. As I was plotting my route, calculating elevation change, perfecting my directions and printing them off with colored maps for the uber-preparation my parents insisted on, I managed to design a race that was almost two miles too long.

You don’t have to be an expert to know how large and glaring of an overshoot that is.

My addled brain could barely comprehend how far away from the “finish line” I was when I hit mile 16. My family and friends had just intercepted me, cheering me on for what we all thought would be the final push. But that push was almost entirely unnecessary, since I had less than two miles to go. So I decided to turn around and run back towards them instead of plunging into the woods again. I crossed the finish line on a gravel driveway next to a water treatment plant and walked the rest of the way, almost puking my empty guts up in front of an esteemed elderly couple.

I didn’t do much celebrating. No photos were taken, no banner was broken. I was alone, save for two teenage girls taking photos of the reservoir to our right. Only the treatment plant bore witness to my triumphant moment. My friends and family saw me fifteen minutes later, on the verge of collapse after staggering three quarters of a mile with the gait of a drunk flamingo.

But my most severe infraction as a runner, the one thing that would force me to turn in my membership card if such a thing existed, is my complete inability to give myself the recommended recovery period. Crossing a finish line after a milestone race should mean resting and relaxing in the days and weeks that follow. I should eat everything that isn’t nailed to the table or floor. I should make time to walk or hike. I should stretch morning noon and night, and somehow I should drink even more water than I did before the race. And I am supposed to bask in these recovery strategies. I should soak them up like some luxurious week-long spa retreat for my legs and lungs.

But truthfully, I did very little basking before lacing up again.

The first 24 hours post-race were fine. The rules were easy to follow. I walked my dog and went antiquing with my mom – which are practically the same thing, since both involve moving at the pace of a paving truck and doing lots of stopping and exploring. I stretched a little bit, and I made sure to wince and groan when going down the stairs. I inhaled pasta and sandwiches with ferocity that would scare the Pillsbury Dough Boy. My recovery was exactly as the Internet advised.

Then Tuesday lured me away from that recovery by dangling seven hours of outdoor manual labor in my face. In an attempt to learn more about sustainable agriculture and spend some time around horses, I recently signed on for a few weeks of part-time work at a local farm and produce stand. I started on Tuesday, and after picking squash and tomatoes for five hours and grooming and riding for another two, the Post-Race Relaxation and Recovery Spa was left in a cloud of dust in my rear-view mirror. Good riddance.

Wednesday morning brought five hours of bent-over weeding in the pepper and eggplant gardens. Wednesday afternoon brought a particularly goofy horse who needed lunging and bathing. And by early Wednesday evening, I was out for a four-mile tempo run, keeping one of the fastest paces I’d ever recorded on our paved rail trail.

So since stepping off on Sunday morning, I have followed the exact opposite of standard criteria for properly finishing races. I have turned any and all advice, customary practices and recommendations for personal health and safety upside down. I ran myself into the ground too early in the course, struggled to finish, and then completely rejected the recovery process.

I can practically hear more experienced runners tsk-tsking in my head. I can see the magazine articles and blog posts when I close my eyes: you’re going to hurt yourself if you don’t discipline your race routine better. But am I really launching myself into injury-infested waters? Will the KGB agents of trail racing break into my bedroom in the dead of night? Will they haul me off to bad-runner prison where the warden regulates water intake and poor stretching form could land me in solitary?

Every hobby or activity has an elite class that influences norms and best practices for the rest of us mere mortals. As someone who started road running while living in Boston, I can confidently say few are more familiar with sharing a sidewalk with elite runners going twice as fast and twice as far than I am. It can be defeating at worst, and intimidating at best. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t look to the elites for guidance; their opinions and experiential knowledge should be trusted and wholly respected because there is a high likelihood that it’s accurate.

But to take their word as gospel puts the rest of us at serious risk of setting unrealistic goals or writing off our long-term incremental progress as a total lackthereof. It could also lead to overemphasizing things like finishing strong and forcing a week of recovery.

I didn’t really need to finish strong because I considered my completion of the race to be a baseline for strength all on its own. And looking back at my splits, I started really strong. So while physical strength might have been absent from the last four miles, substituted by stubbornness and concentrated power of will (around 15%, any Fort Minor fans out there?), my strength showed up at the starting line when I really needed it.

And as for my choice of recovery tactics, I refuse to feel bad for how little time I gave my body before exerting it again. I won’t make myself spend cumulative hours stretching and walking. I’m not going to hydrate until I grow gills. I have neither the time nor the inclination for any of that. Maybe that means I didn’t run hard enough or far enough, although if you asked my knees on Sunday, I bet they would have told you otherwise.

The first experts we should consult during post-race recovery are our own bodies, and we shouldn’t force ourselves to go searching for second opinions. That needs to become the standard for all solo endurance sports. The massive population of runners who require two or three weeks or a month of recovery shouldn’t feel gaslighted for taking “too long,” and those who are back on the road and trail two days later don’t need advice against it. If we all felt more comfortable trusting our own expertise, we wouldn’t push ourselves to the point of frustration or injury while trying to apply the advanced knowledge of the elite to our own circumstances.

And maybe my alter running ego wouldn’t be so insufferable.

I’ve never confessed sins before, and I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to do now, since I basically concluded by telling the worshipped deities of running to shut up and leave us alone. But my New Balances haven’t exploded into inferno, my Garmin watch is making the same inexplicably loud noises and my legs still want to get out before the sun goes down. So I guess I’m ready to start strong again.

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