I ran my eighth marathon in Millinocket, ME two months ago. But that’s how the story ends.
To set the scene from the beginning, I have to rewind the clock one year to December 7, 2016, the day I had two of my parathyroid glands removed in what turned out to be a pretty significant surgery. That also coincided with the week I got my WHOOP.
The two years leading up to my surgery had been filled with athletic frustration. Every workout was a struggle and my mile times were nowhere near what they’d been prior to getting sick. Even though I knew it was the result of my body reacting to hyperparathyroid disease, it was still easy to get down on myself. Judging by my stopwatch and how challenging even the slowest of workouts was, I felt like a weakling. I questioned my inner strength and my ability to just work through the pain and run faster–I questioned my commitment to pushing myself.
As a coach, it was a brutal self-image to contend with, nevermind as an athlete. I’d never allow any of my clients to get down on themselves in this way. But, we’re always harder on ourselves than we are on others, right? I also think, as athletes, we can be unreasonable in our expectations of what our bodies can do. This can be a beautiful thing when it pushes us to new heights, but also a major hindrance when the body is in disfunction and in need of self-care and patience.
So here I was, surgery day. It was the day all of my problems were going be solved. In my mind’s eye, I’d wake up after having two little tumorous glands removed from my neck, give it a few weeks of recovery, and ‘POW!’ I’d be out there running stronger than ever, feeling renewed and rejuvenated like I’d never been sick.
All I can say about this expectation is “Thank God I had my WHOOP.”
The first thing that woke me up to myself was the Recovery metric. My body was all but screaming at me for rest. I could clearly see that I was doing a better job of healing when I ditched my prescribed pain meds (unsurprisingly, opioids were doing me more harm than good). And alcohol? Forget it. Talk about something that ruins my sleep! Despite my newfound self-awareness, it was still months before I saw Recoveries consistently “in the green.”
I returned to exercise two weeks post-surgery, but because of my WHOOP, I didn’t try anything extreme. My body was sending clear signals that it wasn’t time to go all-out yet (that time didn’t come for nearly three months). Using my WHOOP data as a guide, I scaled back my workouts. I purposely kept my max heart rate down in the 145-150 range, even when running.
And I waited.
While it was a practice in checking my ego at the door, I could clearly see that I was slowly getting stronger. Most importantly, I had no pain, no muscle cramping, and no setbacks. By March, I knew it was finally “go time” and I hit the track for the first time in years. It was amazing. I felt incredible!
After that, I ramped up my workouts and began to make some real progress in terms of strength and stamina. I finally felt like my old self again, only there was one major difference–I was now carving out much more time for sleep, rest days, and recovery.
My WHOOP was very clear about this, after each ramp up or tough workout my body needed sleep and recovery time that I never used to give it. Now I had actionable data (often in the form of a bright red Recovery graphic) staring me in the face every morning, and I was forced to listen.
The results? I got faster. A lot faster, in less time than I ever imagined. And I did it by training less and resting more. Who would’ve thought?
When summer hit, I advanced to a marathon training plan and added some serious tempo runs to my schedule. Inevitably, a day rolled around when a workout I expected to be able to do was entirely out of my grasp. Every footfall was difficult. I took a lot of walk breaks. I felt so slow! Once again, I questioned my inner governor’s ability to make my legs move. Cue the internal beat down!
I got home, angrily chucked off my Garmin, and a few minutes later my WHOOP notified me that it had calculated my workout. “Great,” I thought sarcastically, “I can’t wait to see what an easy run I just sucked so hard at.”
But when I opened the app, suddenly my whole perspective shifted. High Strain! WHOOP gave me an “all out effort” rating. It was like divine confirmation, “Yeah, that was freakin’ hard! You worked your butt off, be proud!” Suddenly, the time registered on my watch didn’t matter. I was clearly a badass for even getting out there and working at that rate for as long as I did.
The notion that my body doesn’t operate exactly the same from day to day, that there are genuine “bad days” that have nothing to do with inner strength (or even outer strength) was completely novel. Now, instead of feeling defeated on my “bad day,” I felt totally encouraged.
Using my WHOOP as my adjudicator and modifying my training plan accordingly, I navigated my way through the season. I hit new PRs for 5k, 10k, and 20 miles, something that, at 37 years old, I never thought could happen. When I started training for the marathon, I had no real expectations other than to complete the race pain-free, and perhaps finish in under five hours. But when race day finally arrived, I matched my second-best marathon time ever (4:35) and loved every minute of it.
As I sit here in the new year, plotting out my training and race goals for 2018, I’m thrilled with the progress I’ve made in the past 12 months. It was truly a comeback year for me. What I appreciate most, however, aren’t my race times, my PRs, or my pace data. What I truly appreciate is the perspective I’ve gained on my body’s performance and recovery. In particular, that “bad” days were reframed as “seeing my own strength come through when my body wasn’t giving me optimal circumstances.” I love that. I’m proud of that.
It is that perspective that will guide me as I aim for a sub-two-hour half marathon this year, and strive to complete an Ironman triathlon before I turn 40. For the first time in years, I’m excited and confident for the next chapter in this story.