Moving on from the Atacama Crossing

Atacama aftermath post

It’s nearly a week after the Atacama Crossing and I still can’t find the words to tell my loved ones about the time I spent in the desert. I’ve cried a lot. I’ve drunk too much wine. I’ve consoled myself with the fact that I’m travelling around Chile for two weeks, before returning home to a dream job and people whose love and support is unconditional.

There’s a marathon in Los Angeles, 12 hours south of Santiago by bus, a week after Atacama. Jon’s running and I want to join him. My head says, rest up, but with two weeks of altitude training in my lungs, I can’t resist the chance to race a flat, easy course. A novelty foreigner, I run hard, thinking only of the prize money at stake, and finish proud in three hours and 23 minutes. Third lady, with just over £200 in my pocket. I don’t regret anything.

I’m familiar with the post-race blues. I’ve written about them before. But this time the fug takes longer to lift. Three weeks on and I’m still not sure it has. I’m reticent to jump straight in and enter new races. The ultra-marathon roller coaster isn’t easy to get off once you’re on it: I’m in love with the experiences, the freedom. The people I meet and the solitude at the same time. Maybe slightly addicted too.

I put a lot of asks on my body while training for Atacama, and during the race itself too. Part of the reason I don’t want to set new race goals just yet is because I still want to soak up the experience of the desert. I also don’t like to take my body for granted. The miles stay in my legs for longer than I think. Although they feel well rested now, a few short runs and my hip flexors are tight and sore, so it’s back to stretching. Cycling to get places rather than running there.

Yoga helps me to check back in with my mind and undo some of the miles I ran in the desert. ‘After Atacama’: I said this a lot in the lead-up to the race. I’ll catch up with friends after Atacama. There’ll be time to get this-and-that-in-my-life back on track after Atacama. Now it’s after Atacama and I’m still not quite in the right frame of mind to be getting on with all these things just yet. But, like my body, my mind is still healing as well. And hell, if I want to lie in rather than doing a park run, or watch repeat episodes of Breaking Bad all afternoon, then I will. No drama.

Mind over matter: I guess it’s no big secret that a race like Atacama is the ultimate test of this. And when highs are higher, the lows are lower, and the matter is much tougher than before, I probably shouldn’t be alarmed that it takes my mind longer to bounce back.

I learned a lot during Atacama, like the importance of running my own race, rather than someone else’s. I went in without any new races on the horizon, as I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after completing such a big goal. I considered dabbling in triathlon or racing shorter events, but now that it’s over, I’m still just as much in love with running long distances as I was before. So in 2015, there will be 125 kilometres at Trans Gran Canaria and my first 100 miler. I think my mind is ready to do it again, and hopefully my legs will follow.

Then you come down

Post-race euphoria. That feeling when you cross the finish line and emotion rushes over you like a wave. You want to cling on to reality for fear of being swept away. But you don’t. You let it carry you far, far to sea, riding on the endorphin crest.

You’ve been training for this moment for what seems like an eternity. You’ve sacrificed a ‘normal’ life: training sessions over evenings in the pub. Early morning runs rather than Sunday morning lie-ins.

And then it’s over and reality resumes. Back at work, back to normality. After the congratulations it’s heads down. Let’s just get through the working day as quickly as possible.

Then you come down.

Physical stiffness sets in, mental fatigue takes hold. Everything feels, well, a bit hollow. The race feels like a distant memory. You double check your medal, did it all really happen?

The post-race comedown really sucks. But, as you listen to your body, post-race, take time to listen to your mind. As you re-fuel on protein, have a sports massage and take a recovery break from exercise, take time to allow your mind to regain its equilibrium. Do things that make you happy. Watch your favourite film. Laugh. Spend time with friends. People that make you feel happy and good about yourself. Hell, plan your next race.

Go to a place you love, a place you feel at one with. Breathe deeply, slowly taking in your surroundings. My post-race blues tend to take me to Pen Ponds in Richmond Park. Sitting on a bench, watching the world go by, thinking about nothing in particular. Letting go, allowing the mind to slowly reset itself. Because spending time in a place I love let’s me reconnect with myself and recharge mentally.

It’s normal to feel down after a big race. It’s not a reason for concern or the root of a more serious problem. But realising this can be the first step to recalibrating the mind and riding out the melancholy.

There are plenty more races out there, races that won’t enter themselves. After all, don’t be sad that it’s over, be proud of what you achieved.

Pen Ponds