Confessions from the Trail: ‘Tis the Season (For Illness)

Season’s greetings from my couch. Yup, like many this time of year, I’m sick. Unfortunately for me, I’m also supposed to race in two weeks and seriously, body? THIS IS NOT THE TIME! But it was also somewhat inevitable…

Since it’s apropos and I definitely have time since I’m not running today, this post is all about getting sick during a training cycle. I’ll be giving you some insight into why it seems to happen so often so close to race day, help you decide if you should keep training or not, and help settle your fears (and mine) about whether you can race.

What happens when you go from this to this?

Why am I sick? I lead a healthy life!

Let’s knock the first question out of the way: at this point, my doctors don’t think I have COVID-19, my breathing is fine, and I likely have a bacterial infection (yay, strep throat…). But like many of you who experience this so close to race day, I’m thinking, “why, oh why does it happen now??”

There’s a fairly simple answer: I’m depleted. I’ve been running hard and long for months now. Last week Sapper and I did our “Runningest Writer Showdown” for the Fisher House Foundation. I ran the hell out of myself through bad weather, hot on Thanksgiving and then cold and rainy on Sunday. No, the old wives’ tales that cold, wet weather makes you sick is just that, an old wives’ tale. But, when you’re already run down from hard training, as you would be toward the end of a training cycle, it’s harder to fight off those opportunistic bugs. I am utterly unsurprised even though I’m annoyed.

To train or not to train?

This is where you have to use sound judgment. The typical run of thumb is if your symptoms are from the neck up (runny nose, sore throat), you can keep training and if it’s below the neck/full body (cough, full-body aches, fever, fatigue, nausea) don’t train.

**COVID-19 caveat!** If you suspect COVID-19 at all, I had better not see you on a trail. Stay home, call your doctor, wear your damn mask. Most COVID-19 symptoms fall under the “below the neck” category, so you probably won’t choose to train through it, but don’t be an ass.

I had a sore throat with nausea and fatigue, so I’ve chosen not to run this week. It sucks, I hate being inactive, but the fatigue pretty much flattened me. I spent most of the last three days lying in bed listening to Force No One on Audible, working on a commercial writing piece associated with my day job, doing homework, playing videogames (hello World of Warcraft expansion!), and feeling sorry for myself.

Part of my fatigue comes from not eating. Low-grade nausea meant everything I could choke down felt like it might come back up, so I didn’t eat much the last few days. Even laying around all day, the body burns calories and, as you saw in “Race Weight,” when when calories in are less than calories out, you lose weight, even if you aren’t exercising. I wish I could say this was the healthy weight loss I wanted, but it’s not. That’s right, friends, starvation is a bad weight loss tactic! The best I can do now is gently add more food into my daily intake, get some strength back, and keep rolling.

Plaid flannel and a good book cures all woes

What happens next? Oh no, can I still race??

Short answer, yes, you probably can with some important notes. It will depend on how long it takes your symptoms to resolve and how close to your race you are. I have roughly two weeks until the BUTS Bearly Ultra (13.5) and I’m at the tail end of being sick. I have a week to get my feet back under me, return to a healthy and full diet, and get one last long-ish run in before my taper. If I were a week closer, I would have accepted this is my taper week, carried an easy to moderate training load, and only taken a couple of days to taper. (I will cover tapering next week for those unfamiliar with the term.)

When deciding if you should race, here are the criteria I use:

– Am I still feeling symptoms?

Can you train with some symptoms? Yes. Should you race with symptoms? Bruh. No. A normal training load is probably ok to continue training, but the extra stress of racing will overload you. You will extend how long you are ill and risk a Did Not Finish (DNF). Ask me how I know… That’s right, I took a decongestant the days before and the day of Mississippi 50k 2017 and tried to power through. Guess who not only didn’t finish the 50k course (made it 20k and stopped) but ended up on the side of I-20 calling their spouse and asking if they should go to the ER or wait? Yeah, this chick. Don’t be dumb like me.

– Have I returned to a full diet for at least two days?

Training depletes your glycogen stores. It’s why people “carb load” in the days before the race; they’re trying to get fuel back into the muscles. If you haven’t been eating well and don’t get the critical chance to refuel your body, you can’t make it up by eating while you run.

– What is my resting heart rate?

I can tell if I’m overtraining, dehydrated, or ill based on an elevated heart rate. If you have a fitness device that monitors heart rate, you can track it over time and gauge when your heart rate is higher or lower than usual. If I see mine rise by more than 20% (average resting HR: 42, 20% = ~8) to 50bpm or more, I assume I’m sick, dehydrated, or overtrained. In any of these cases, it would be unwise to run.

– Do I feel mentally prepared?

Let’s face it, being sick is mentally taxing as well as physically taxing. I get loopy when my fever spikes. I get stressed by being sick. I get even more stressed when I’m hoping to get better close to a race. You need focus before a race and if your head isn’t in it, today may not be the day to race. I know that BUTS 13.5 has a ridge crossing like you read about: thirty feet of slippery, muddy trail with sheer sloping sides on both sides of the trail. There are firefighters on both sides, but they will only help you *after* you fall. That is not the trail conditions you want to find yourself up against when your head is floating off your shoulders from cold medicines, fever, or worry.

What’s the bottom line?

The course will always be there. There will be other races. Yes, it’s heartbreaking to train so hard for something only to have to bow out at the last minute. But your health is worth more than a finisher’s medal. Be safe, be smart, be healthy!


Happy trails!


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5 Comments on “Confessions from the Trail: ‘Tis the Season (For Illness)

  1. Pingback: Chasing the Ultramarathon: – K R Paul

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  3. Pingback: Confessions from the Trail: Training and the COVID Rollercoaster – Author K R Paul

  4. Pingback: Confessions from the Trail: After the Race – Author K R Paul

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