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The Case of the Hampered Harriers

October 15, 2009

Below is an article I wrote for the October 2009 issue of Northwest Runner. It’s essentially a revision of a blog entry about my “seven-week slump” last year.

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THE CASE OF THE HAMPERED HARRIERS

What can you do when your legs go dead for no apparent reason? Be patient, stay hopeful, keep training, and keep trying to figure out what’s going on!

by Greg Crowther

In the spring of 2007, Seattle ultramarathoners Brian Morrison and Ralph Pooler are busily and happily preparing for the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run. Their fitness is great, and they have hopes of exceeding their previous Western States efforts. (Ralph placed 34th in 2005 with a fine time of 20:42, and Brian almost won the whole thing in 2006 until collapsing less than a quarter mile from the finish.)

A few weeks before the late-June race, training becomes a struggle for both Brian and Ralph. They don’t feel sick, overtrained, or unmotivated; they just can’t run fast anymore. They drop out early at Western States, a huge disappointment. But a little later, about seven weeks after their slumps began, they both feel better and start running fast again. At the end of July, both clock personal-best times at the White River 50.

My friends’ bizarre tale arouses my curiosity, but I don’t know what to make of it. Then the same thing happens to me the following summer, and I get really curious. All of a sudden, all of my runs — easy jogs, time trials, intervals, everything — seem to have slowed by about 15 to 20 seconds per mile. As with Brian and Ralph, there’s no obvious cause. I’m not ill, as far as I can tell, and there have been no important changes to my training or diet. I’m not injured, sleep-deprived, or stressed out. Blood tests reveal that I’m not anemic or hypothyroid. I have not recently broken a mirror, walked under a ladder, or crossed a black cat’s path. What the heck is going on?

In the absence of an explanation, I find myself overanalyzing every easy run. Did I feel better today? Am I getting back to normal? To avoid driving myself crazy, I settle into a pattern of doing a speed workout roughly every third day. If and when I’m really improving, I’ll know because my times in these standardized workouts will get faster. The recovery jogs in between will be kept as stress-free as possible.

Weeks go by. My times don’t improve, and neither does my attitude. What if my condition is permanent? Will I still be able to derive some enjoyment from competing, or will I turn into a non-racing “fitness jogger”? I’m not sure.

As the first week of October approaches, it occurs to me that I’ve now been slow for about seven weeks. Could I have the same undefined malady that Brian and Ralph had? If so, will mine go away soon? I do a workout, and it goes surprisingly well. Is this a placebo effect? I do another one a few days later, and it goes even better. This isn’t just the power of positive thinking; I’m cured!

What exactly it is that I have been cured of is still unclear. Conversations with a couple of physicians suggest that I (and Brian and Ralph) may have picked up some sort of sneaky, long-lingering virus — one that doesn’t make you sniffle and sneeze but saps your energy just the same. It’s as good an explanation as any.

Meanwhile, the lessons of this trying period start to sink in. I ponder the fact that the gift of speed can be revoked suddenly or gradually, in increments large or small. I should be grateful that, as I enter my late 30s, I haven’t lost much yet. For the moment, I am grateful.

I also look back with incredulity on the despair I felt just a short time earlier. Why did I feel so hopeless? It must have been because I was battling a problem that I didn’t understand. I guess I forgot that, sometimes, inexplicable problems go away inexplicably. A lack of understanding need not dictate a lack of hope.

Finally, I note that my seven-week nightmare has given me a new appreciation of what Brian and Ralph and perhaps many others have gone through. When Pam Smith, a college running friend now based in Salem (Oregon), emails me to say that she’s been struggling lately and to ask whether she might have the same thing I had, I am ready with examples and ideas. As a physician, Pam is somewhat dismayed to learn that my only “symptom” was slowness — not much of a basis for a differential diagnosis. She wonders whether she too has the hypothetical virus, or whether she’s simply overtrained.

She finds her answer a few weeks later. It turns out that her muscle weakness is a side effect of the Claritin she’s been taking for her grass allergies.

Ah, running — such a simple sport, but with such an abundance of mysteries!

6 comments

  1. Good post. I have also heard "adrenal gland fatigue" lumped into these down periods.


  2. I've been a quiet follower/fan for a while.It seems like pro runners and cyclists often are diagnosed with "viruses", although we are rarely told what virus it is. Certainly, there are countless viruses we don't test for so, empirically, you could write off slow times as a "virus". However, it's often in the news that so and so was diagnosed with a "virus" and this has always baffled me a little. I have immunosuppressed patients come in all the time; often, we test for everything we can think of and nothing comes out positive. I don't know whether these team doctors have some secret test.How do you know they/you weren't overtrained, I wonder? Seems like a perfect setup: training for a big race, underperforming, and then rebounding afterwards.Let us know if you find the answer!


  3. George: I don't know enough about the adrenal gland to rule that out, though I don't know why mine would have been "tired."Runningdoctor: I agree that, in the absence of a confirmatory test result, my self-diagnosis is unsatisfying. It's simply my best guess based on the circumstances. I can't speak definitively for anyone else but am pretty sure overtraining was not the culprit in my case. To go back to last summer, I tapered for the White River 50, ran pretty well there, took it very easy for two weeks, then ran a good 3.7-mile time trial that showed I was recovering well. My seven-week slump began shortly after that, and in the weeks that followed I did no long-and-hard runs, which are the kind that take the most out of me. Since my slump coincided with a period of lighter-than-normal training, I'm confident that I was not overtrained.


  4. I'm a semi-regular follower (and regular admirer) of your blog, Greg, and am moved to add my $0.02 (maybe it is just $0.01) regarding this post.I suspect in many such cases for the situation you describe, that the answer has to be overtraining – and that the body, too tired to continue doing what the runner wants it to, but realizing that the runner isn't about to stop running (because, really, that's just not what runners tend to do) – applies a "speed governor". It basically lays down the law, capping intensity, and after the forced slowness has allowed for a more comprehensive recovery of bodily tissues, structures, and systems, it finally lets you run faster again.Now, in your case, you describe running White River; and, since you did well, you must have trained pretty darn hard for it, over a long period of time, and then run pretty darn hard in the race. A taper before the race and only two or so weeks after the race for recovery is not necessarily sufficient.The encouraging 3.7 mile time trial you mention certainly means that you recovered some, and that you still had fitness, neither of which should be a surprise. But whether a very easy two weeks is enough time to allow for recovery from intense training lasting over months and a hard 50-mile race is another question entirely. It seems entirely possible that your time trial awakened the 'sleeping tiger' of your body's forced recovery mode. It basically, said, "F*#* this, Crowther! There's no way I'm ready to start running hard again. So, if you're going to make me run, I'm going to make you go slower for a little while."This is, admittedly, armchair analysis – and with a blindfold. But I'm skeptical about the virus explanation.Anyway, good luck with your running, and thanks for writing one of the more well-written, intelligent, and interesting running blogs I've come across.


  5. dale: Thanks for the comments. You are correct that, for me, two weeks is not enough to make a full recovery from a marathon or ultra. However, I _often_ do a time trial or similar fitness test two or three weeks after a big race, and that has never resulted in a prolonged slowdown of training/racing pace except in this one instance. That indicates to me that the training load itself was not the problem.


  6. nice post. thanks.



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