It seems like every time I do a long race, someone asks, “How long does it take for you to get back to normal afterwards?” Usually I brush this question off with some seriously raised eyebrows, a shrug of the shoulders, and a sharply-inflected, “Normal…????”.
As a tribe, ultradistance athletes tend to put a lot of obsessive thought into preparation and execution, and let the aftermath sort of happen. But it’s a serious enough question that it bears addressing – if for no other reason than to give your coworkers and loved ones a better idea of what to expect in the days following a big effort.
Putting it all out there for a long race means that you have exposed yourself pretty fully to the elements for long enough to matter. By definition you’ve been up for 24 hours or longer, and you’re hungry and physically exhausted. Depending on the course conditions and how you and your support team coped with them, you could also be injured (soft tissue or otherwise), dehydrated, nauseous (or worse), and so on. So there’s a wide range of recovery timelines.
But in general, racing ultra strips us down to the bare minimum of human existence at the finish line. Fittingly, the recovery process seems to strongly parallel a fast-tracked human development:
Finish line: Delivery! Your time of arrival is recorded. You are greeted, hugged, and swaddled. You quite possibly spew bodily fluids on your crew. Everyone is excited and happy, even though you may be bawling your head off. Awww - you’re the best li’l racer in the world – possibly in the whole of human history!! Bazillions of photos are taken and posted to social media.
Over the next minutes to an hour, things calm down a bit, you are given something to drink and closely watched for signs of trouble.
From there, you start to hit those little milestones: She burped! She smiled! She can stand all by herself! (by this time, there’s probably a new racer finishing, so folks are starting to lose interest, and the photos become less frequent. Welcome to the real world, baby…)
Soon, you’ll be eating sold food, just like a big kid. You’ll still need a sitter, and you’ll not be left alone or allowed to handle sharp tools or such – but your crew’s attention is freed up to take care of packing up the van.
For the first day you will nap frequently and need small-but-frequent feedings. You may be a picky eater.
As recovery continues, you reach the awkward, teenage stage. Your sleep pattern is totally whacked out, you obsess over all of the imperfections in all of those photos posted to social media (“OMG - did they HAVE to post the one with barf on my jersey??”), and you check and re-check the event results page (“Why can’t they get a simple set of results posted to the internet? It’s been EIGHTEEN HOURS???” -- it’s still lost on you that, just like you, the event director put out a ton of energy and did not sleep for a day and a half, and needs some time to be sure that they’ve got it right before they go live with results). Distressing pimples may show up in distressing places where hygiene was lacking or logistically impossible. You are unable to think straight (what’s your zip code??) but have clear memories of the race that are so intense that you laugh or cry readily. You can talk about your race, but little else. You want to help drive the race van home, but the crew won’t let you. Stupid parents. What do they know?
Day two should in theory end with a good night’s sleep. Let’s hope so, because from here, it’s a steep slide back to the real world and adult responsibility. You wake up and realize that the party is really over, and you will be going to work - tomorrow. That you have a report to read and edit before then, that the dog is out of food, that the grass grew three inches while you were gone, and that the coffee supply is dangerously low. And that the words “Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness” are NOT just words. And that thankfully you’ve got someone amazing to help you cope with all of this, because it just seems like too damned much to deal with, at least today. Racing is so much simpler than real life….
Spend this day doing the minimum that you need to do to make the transition less brutal. The lawn can (and should) wait for the weekend, but feed the dog, skim that report, and for cripes’ sake, get some coffee! Eat well, and start inching closer to your normal meal pattern. Treat sore muscles to whatever works for you – massage, hot tub, easy recovery ride. Mentally rehearse what you’re going to tell your coworkers about your adventure. Double-check your closet: do you have clean clothes for work? Turn in early, and give yourself a few extra minutes for the morning “routine”, which may seem absolutely foreign for the first day or so of re-entry.
A feeling of letdown following a big race is common. It’s easy to slide into a funk/depression that can really mess up your recovery. Don’t let it. Real life CAN’T be what racing is, and we CAN’T be racing all the time. Your real life is just that: Real. Life. And it’s damned good, and you’re really lucky to be able to have both your real life and your racing life. If you can’t bust out of this funk on your own, get help, quickly. Life is too short and too amazing….