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When to take a break

Burnout is a black hole that every athlete dreads. A wall so impervious, that forced rest and reset is the only way back to their passion. Sometimes the warnings of burnout are ignored for too long, and the way back is frustratingly slow, to the point where many give up. How will you know when it is time to bow out for some time out, and how do you do so gracefully, with full intention to return?

Athletes are trained to push past barriers, both psychological and physical. If we stopped every time it became difficult, we would never fulfil our individual potential. The final 10km of an ultra is notoriously run on heart, not head, and certainly not on human legs. The last set on a track, the one where your lungs are on fire and you know your tank is on empty; that’s the set that really matters and we’re coached to make it count. We’re conditioned to know that in order to progress, we must find that extra gear, but we aren’t always conditioned to know when to slow.

Mimmi Kotka is a professional ultra-distance runner from Sweden, and a global inspiration for many athletes. She has taken top spot at races such as the 101km Ultra-Trail Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix (CCC), the 121km Ultra-Trail Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie (TDS) and the 91km Marathon du Mont Blanc. Mimmi visited Cape Town in 2018 to race the 100km Ultra-Trail Cape Town, where she placed third. 

At 39, Mimmi has many strong running years ahead of her, but on 24 August 2020 she used her Instagram feed to share her powerful truth. “It’s time to take a break. I’ve poured my soul in to ultratrail for the last years. But I don’t race ultra well right now, my body is empty, a dry shell. My inability to run Echappee 87km showed me that, again, I know social media is all about inspiration and those shiny golden moments, but I also feel I need to talk about my problems as an endurance athlete. I’ve been struggling with my body since late 2018. I finally connected the dots between my low immune system, anemia, fatigue, gut problems, lack of period, inability to push in racing and the body running in power save mode; its RED-S. Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport, and I’ve dragged myself deeper into this condition.”

Mimmi went on to explain that loading more training hours without adjusting calorie intake is at the heart of the problem. She recognizes that many of her ultra-trail heroines disappear after shortened careers due to thyroid dysfunction, anemia, stress fractures, hormonal imbalance but she believes these are mostly manifestations of energy deficiency. Starvation of an athletic body. 

As Mimmi has high muscle mass, her weight did not drop to alarmingly low levels. However, her body fat ratio was too low. Her body responded with a mutiny that involves lowering the resting metabolic rate to put on fat mass as a protective mechanism. This is part of RED-S. In subsequent conversations with us Mimmi added, “This can be anyone, I have a super healthy relationship with food and a sound body image. I just could not keep the balance. I aim to resolve the issues and get back to high level racing too.” 

There is a well-known saying amongst runners, “Run far, run fast, but never outrun your joy”. In some instances, athletes hit an emotional wall. Their relationship with running may reach unmanageable levels of anxiety to perform, or a boredom that sucks the pleasure right out of it. 

Florens Decken is a runner originally from Munich, but no stranger to racing across Europe, with a particular love for Cape Town and both our road and trail events. In 2015 Flo was in fine form, studying at UCT and preparing to improve on his marathon PB in the upcoming Cape Town Marathon. 

“I got really frustrated with the plan and repetition each week. One day, after classes, I decided to hit Table Mountain. It was my first time, and I had no clue what was waiting for me. I took a week off the structured road running training and explored the trails instead. It restored my joy of running.” 

Flo was aiming to break 2h42min in the marathon, but completed the race in 2h54min. His true gain, however, was a newfound love for trail running, and an overall reset. His running and coaching career is now in full flight, in Berlin, Germany. 

It is not just podium hopefuls that hit a wall. Any athlete who has gone through the rigorous preparation for a major event will know the sacrifice in terms of time and focus, not to mention gear investments. It is a journey that consumes physical hours, but many more so mentally.

Sean Tickner was a Cape Town local, who has made New Zealand his home for the past year. His preparation for a grueling race left him wondering if he would ever want to lace up again.  “I spent months invested in training for the (100km) SkyRun 2018; hours on the mountain and getting all my gear ready for the varied conditions. A route change just before the race (due to protest action) meant a 60km out and back with the final 40kms to the original finish. I travelled all the way to Lady Grey, camped out on the field, prepped everything and ended up suffering through nearly 30kms of gut blasting searing heat, minimal water points, altitude issues and finally I was put on a IV drip and pulled from the race. I spent over a year getting out of my head, trying to find the happiness in running again and only in the last few weeks have I even thought of entering an Ultra again. That race blew all my passion for running an Ultra out of my mind. I had no drive to run and turned my focus to MTBing instead. Now with the move to New Zealand and the beautiful array of new trails, I have been finding that passion again with my perfect trail partner and wife, Helen. Tarawera is on my doorstep, maybe it’s time to start training again!” 

We put ourselves under a lot of pressure to maintain our best performances throughout our running careers, without realising that we’re ultimately in a dance with running, and we don’t always have to lead. 

Lucy Bartholomew is an Australian ultra-distance runner, and no stranger to the Cape Town running community. Lucy has taken a calculated break from competitive racing, after incredible podium performances as events such as the Western States 100-miler, Ultra-Trail Australia, Marathon du Mont Blanc and Ultra-Trail Cape Town. She has consistently promised her passionate fan base that she will be back. In the interim, Lucy shared the following exceptional advice with us, applicable to every level of runner. 

“I like to think of running like surfing; we paddle so hard (train) and we take some waves (races) but its okay to sit on the beach or just let the current take you wherever it goes. The human body, mind and spirit needs rest and if you don’t take it voluntarily, it will find ways to make it your only option. Trust the process and the ebb and flow that comes with making running not just your passion, but your lifestyle.” 

Words: Kim Stephens