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When to go and when to slow (and then when you crash and burn)

It’s taken me a full year to sit down and write about the dreaded BURN OUT that I experienced exactly a year ago. Not for one second do I believe I am alone in the ups and downs of Covid19, work adjustments, new home routines and even exercise and living. Everyone’s life has changed (for better or worse)! Although, I do have to admit that at the time, I personalised Covid and felt somewhat alone in this experience. To normalise what we as a society go through, in my opinion, needs to be verbalised. This past year has taught me just how “normal” my burnout experience has been, yet it is not something we talk about. So here I am, vulnerable and holding space for every human who has suffered from any sort of burnout.

When I sit down to reflect on why it has taken me a full year to put my thoughts down onto paper it is merely because it has taken me a full year to navigate what it means to have burned out, why I got it and just how to dodge that bugger again. The consequence of burnout has left me with the lulling fear of it happening again and me having to watch carefully for any signs or symptoms. This is something I hope to change and eventually just to call it “experience” and awareness.

When people ask me what they think is my biggest strength I almost always say my mind. I have grit, determination and once I set my heart and mind to something very little can get in the way of me achieving it. Tell me I can’t do something and my mother will be the first on the sidelines smiling from ear to ear. My “A-Type Personality” makes me a perfectionist who is hard on herself and loves to achieve. This is all something that felt foreign to me at the end of last year. Let me share why.

At the end of last year, I found myself 3 weeks before the Karkloof Trail Series signed up to do my first 50 Miler race. With over 90km in my legs that week and 10 hours of non-stop running, I finished with a happy heart and a huge sense of achievement. Both my body and mind made me proud and I was ready to take on the next challenge. The following week I set out with friends to do the 9 Peaks Challenge. In 5 days 13 hours and 37 min we had done a total of 145km and 7700m of elevation which meant 51 hours on the legs… and very little sleep! It was type 2 fun (hard at the time but what an experience). I had dived headfirst into a huge trail experience having only been on the trails for exactly a year at this stage and learnt so much along the way. Of course, somewhere along this journey I had crashed and burnt. I was physically exhausted and mentally and emotionally completely and utterly overwhelmed! I stood on top of the mountains and every question about how I am making this world a better place came into my heart. It is not easy to explain what happened in those mountains but I came back to reality as a different version of myself. It was probably too much too soon. Do I regret it? No. Would I go back and redo both events back to back? Also no.

Having grown and learnt all of the above it is easy to see where I went “wrong” and to differentiate between mental and or physical burn out and when to slow and when to go is so so so important. I can finally say that awareness is one of the biggest key values you can carry with you as an athlete. I came home and spent every day for the next 2 months in tears. I had no strength of mind. I have no will to want to train although I knew it would make me feel better, it also didn't. I booked myself in to see my endocrinologist. I told him, there had to be a hormonal imbalance to which he said “come back next year you are not due for an appointment yet”. I insisted, and he explained my test results were the healthiest they had been. I was both shocked and relieved. He told me to sort my mind out… and stop personalising my year. The harsh truth shifted my mind and I was determined to be Chi again.

A friend suggested that I sat down and write down what I needed to achieve over December to feel me again. I did exactly that. My list looked like this:

  • Start my day and end my day with a list of my gratitude.

  • Only do what serves me - be kind to myself.

  • Say no to anything overwhelming. I committed to only 2 activities per day (exercise was one).

  • Focus on me and what I needed to be happy (no people-pleasing).

  • Eat healthily.

  • Train every day to feel fit. At this point, I had done very little for 2 months.

  • Sign up to start studying Psychology and Counselling to mentally stimulate my brain.

Over December I had upset people around me for being perceived as being selfish and doing what I needed to do to feel myself again. Although I had tried to communicate what I was going through, everyone was and will always be going through something. I came out of December feeling rejuvenated and back to myself completely. I had the strength of my mind back, I felt grateful and happy and even ready to race again.

I always say that everything happens for a reason and that the order of events come along at the right time. At the beginning of this year, I was back on track and feeling good and then… I fell off my mountain bike and broke my knee. Although physically, I was back to no movement - not even doing Pilates - I had my mind and each day I went about being present, grateful for what I did have and I shifted my perspective to study and focus on writing, reading and work.

Fasting forward to the second half of the year where I spent hours in the saddle to train for Mad2Ride where I trained to cycle from Johannesburg to Cape Town over 8 days. I can finally say that I have made space to process and sit down and write (for me and you). My body finished riding and felt physically amazing with no aches or pains or injuries. I had already committed a mental break to little physical training for at least 2 weeks after my 1400km ride. Although my mind probably needs less of a break than I anticipated, knowing I have given myself this time off has just allowed me to take time to think, feel and process. Life happens at such a fast rate, and I fill life with all the juicy things I love to enjoy. But going for coffee without being on my bike, or having lunch with friends without being in a running kit is quite nice.

Under my laptop sits two annual calendars. I feel beyond blessed to live a life full of fun, races that take me places, adventures that allow me to resonate higher and a body that has the freedom to move. Sitting and planning a race calendar allows me to slow down a little and put into my diary mental and physical breaks. Everyone's journey is different yet as a society we often live life just too quickly. Along with a fast-paced life and doing what I love with those I love, my biggest lesson has been making time to simply be.


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