The Road Ahead: After Your Big Run

Once your Epic Run is over, there are the formalities:

  • Creating your race report (a requirement if you want it recognized as a Fastest Known Time).
  • Uploading your workout from your GPS watch.
  • Photo Finish!
  • Calling newspapers and TV stations
  • Social shout outs to supporters and sponsors
  • Announcing your fundraising total and reminding people just how important said cause and the charities behind it really are

That’ll hold you for about a week–just long enough to keep you busy while you sit in a chair all day and nurse your sore muscles and feet.

But the road continues after that.

Physical Recovery

For me, probably the hardest part after finishing my first run across Texas was the period right after. It was a little less so after the US run.

Blisters and wounds

My experience has been that it takes about six weeks to fully recover from an injury. Whether that’s bones knitting, pulled muscles healing and rebuilding, or skin growing back on your blistered feet or guardrail-ripped hands (hello, Coolidge AZ!), if it hasn’t grown back (correctly) in six weeks, you’ve got a more serious problem.

The most common challenge, for me at least, are healing from full-foot blisters, rolled ankles, and back pain caused by running hundreds to thousands of miles on cambered road shoulder.

You can “push through”, but since your Big Run is over, now really is the time to Be Nice to Yourself. I’m not saying to be lazy, but if you don’t need to run, don’t run–do Something Else, mixed with a little Nothing At All. Focus on eating plenty of protein so your body can rebuild what’s been torn down.

Labs

As an experiment, I got labs done before my run across Texas, as well as once during the run, one day after the run, five days after the run, and ten days after the run.

I requested labs be done to check levels of cortisol, C-reactive protein (CRP), creatine kinase (CK), and glomerular filtration rate (GFR), among others. I also closely monitored my blood glucose, as an elevated BG for an extended period of time can be an indication of the effects of stress.

Cortisol is a hormone released during stress, and as such was a good measure of the physical stress to my body. CRP is also a stress marker. Creatine kinase levels reflect muscle breakdown, and GFR monitors kidney health, which can be adversely affected by muscle breakdown.

After an epic run, don’t be surprised if all of these labs are abnormal. Run long enough and you’ll not only get an inflammatory response from stress, but you’ll also break down muscle, and disposing of the broken down muscle protein will put stress on your kidneys.

Some ambitious and competitive 100-mile ultra runners have been known to have rhabdomyolysis after their runs. If you’re pacing yourself well, that shouldn’t happen, but your labs will probably still reflect the abnormal stress your put your body through for a while.

For me, that was about 10 days. I started seeing minor improvements in my labs about halfway through that period.

Endurance, stress, and variations in BG

It’s hard enough being a Type 1 diabetic. Add to that the stress of ultra endurance and you have an extra challenge: keeping your blood glucose level after the Big Run.

Thanks to the burgeoning community of Type 1 Athletes, there are quite a few type 1 runners and marathoners out there. Many of them, including myself, will tell you that one side effect of endurance training is increased insulin sensitivity. If you’re regularly active, you’ll usually need less insulin.

Usually.

If you put your body under a lot of stress, you may need more. Stress can elevate blood glucose (I wrote more about stress and Type 1 here). It’s your body’s attempt to provide more energy to the muscles to “escape the cheetah” in times of crisis.

It’s tempting to try to dose down high blood sugars during stressful times. But as long as the stress persists, your body will try to raise your BG again. You can fall into the trap of dosing and dosing and dosing and not eating anything. Then when you stop running and remove the stress, that insulin sensitivity you’d normally expect kicks in–hard–just when you’re glycogen-depleted, and that can be very dangerous.

Strength and endurance

Just making it through the week or so of abnormal labs doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods.

After my first Texas run, I was feeling proud of not having any significant blisters and decided that rather than sitting around the house being lazy, I’d join a good friend of mine for a lake swim. Normally, he and I swim a couple of miles around a point at a local lake at a pace that’s somewhere between leisurely and competitive. For me, that’s around 1.5 MPH or so with no current.

I made it about half a mile, at 1 MPH, before my arms were sore and I felt more tired than I have ever felt. My friend was kind enough to soothe my bruised ego while I hauled my body out of the water and went home to sulk.

I didn’t feel like a badass at all. The truth was, I didn’t have it in me.

Fatigue

Fatigue is an interesting thing. After a marathon, you can usually sleep it off in a day.

After running across a state or country, fatigue comes daily, in waves, until one day you don’t feel it any more and you feel a spring in your step. Enjoy that. It isn’t permanent, and you will probably be more prone to sudden bouts of tiredness at weird times of day.

Generally, you need to sleep a LOT and eat nearly as much as you sleep if you want to recover fully.

Weight gain / loss

During a cross-state or cross-USA run, I burn in excess of 5000 calories a day. The average RDA for calories in the US is around 2000. Not that many people don’t eat way more than they should, but if you’re physically active and into extreme endurance sports, you’re probably not going to want to limit your caloric intake to the calories you’d eat during a normal rest or light-activity day.

If you burn more calories than you take in, you’re invariably going to get the extra energy your body needs from your fat stores, and after that, muscle protein.

During my first run across Texas, I lost 12 pounds in just under a month. During my USA run I lost about 7. That was an improvement. But it wasn’t like I intended to lose weight, either.

Losing body fat isn’t normally a problem. But for most transconners, it’s not an objective; and moreover, it’s not a good idea to “train” your body to break itself down for fuel. Eventually it will catch up with you and you’ll probably fall ill, become more injury prone, and lose your mental edge as your body consumes itself. In extreme cases, it’s even possible that you won’t be able to increase your weight after such a stressful experience, since your body needs to be slowly coaxed out of survival mode.

Mental and Emotional Aftereffects

A lot goes on both physically and psychologically when you’ve reached your finish line, not the least of which is feeling like you’re somehow not done yet, but you can’t will yourself to go another step.

Emotional fatigue

After finishing Texas, I didn’t just feel tired. I felt soulless and unmotivated, almost like a robot. I woke up, ate breakfast, and did my job during the day, then stopped, ate dinner, and went to bed.

Day after day after day. It felt like I was dragging an emotional tire around behind me. Things I used to get excited about simply didn’t interest me.

It’s easy to write it all off to a “letdown” after finishing, but it’s more than that. It’s biochemical.

Nightmares

After I ran across Iowa, I dreamed that I hadn’t finished the run, and that I was in the wrong state running the wrong direction. That happened after running across Texas, and it’s happening again as I write this a week after finishing my US run.

From what I’ve been able to tell from experience and asking around, it seems to be limited to a couple weeks after epic runs or really hard ultras.

But it happens Every. Single. Night. For a week, maybe two. Until my labs returned to normal.

I can’t even begin to speculate about what’s going on in the brain during times like this, but it isn’t normal, and it’s very common among super-long-distance runners.

Depression

For weeks after your Big Run, you may feel not just physically and emotionally fatigued but actually depressed. You may not feel that way all the time, but you may find that you’re easily triggered to bouts of incredibly self-critical, ego-destructive behavior. You may feel lethargic and have disturbed sleep patterns, as mentioned above. You may feel like you’re a nobody, like your life doesn’t matter or you’re just a speck in the sea of troubles.

Prolonged stress of any sort can lead to that. There’s a reason people bring comfort food to funerals. Restoring the body restores the soul. Take it easy on yourself, take physical care of your body, eat well, and take life a little bit at a time.

Depression after a super long run is usually transient, not not always. If six weeks have passed since your Big Run and you’re still feeling like a nobody, see a doctor.

Loss of appetite

I can remember countless times sitting in front of a huge plate of enchiladas at my favorite restaurant and not wanting to take the first bite. Food wasn’t interesting. I tend to think of this as part of the general disinterest in everything, which I talked about earlier. Maybe it’s different; I don’t know.

Once I had food in me, I could tell it was helping.

I think the trick is to eat a little at a time, out of habit, until your brain catches up with the fact that your body actually appreciates it.

But please do eat. It’s not good to lose 10+ pounds and then not eat; that sort of thing can get into a vicious circle, and “failure to thrive” is not unheard of in such situations.

Ennui and wanderlust

Many of the other transconners I’ve talked to have told me that after their run across the USA, they feel like they don’t fit in at work, at home, or anywhere other than on the shoulder of a highway. After all, it’s been their life for a hundred days or so, sometimes more. They’ve quit their job, taken a sabbatical, sometimes even sold their home. They’ve often experienced something ineffable and transcendent. And they feel like they don’t belong anywhere.

There’s a saying among some transconners that for at least a month after finishing your run, you should not sell your house, furniture, vehicles, or change your religion.

I can see why.

Changes in family relationships

Running across the USA can strain even the strongest of relationships. Family members who’ve been crewing you go through the same struggles you do (except for running). Those who support you from a distance may feel shut out of the hoopla. And sometimes you may find that any attention your run is getting is taking attention away from someone else’s life…a life that is just as wonderful and celebration-worthy as your media-centric, epic, personally transcendent extravaganza.

Seeing your needs as separate from those of others, or seeing your own existence as independent from the world, is a source of pain. Eastern philosophers call this false dualism. I guess I got caught up in that.

During my run across the US, some of my family told me that they felt my Big Run was an egotistical indulgence that took time away from more important things like family. Given that more than one of them had told me the same thing, I had to note that I was indeed the common factor, and was forced to ask myself: was it true? Was I even listening? Was the pain I felt of their making, or mine? Did it hurt because I realized it was reality?

It’s not their fault that they felt that way, or that they told me. In fact, in retrospect the opportunity to see myself as others did was a gift of insight. But it hit me at a vulnerable time, just when I was starting to appreciate the things and people I had overlooked, and thinking of how much I missed my dad and was proud of the impact his life had on everyone around him. I was emotionally volatile and primed to feel hurt. That can just happen to folks on super-long runs for no really good reason. It’s why runners and crews get into it so often over the most minor things.

After a pause in the run due to COVID, I spent weeks contemplating how to separate truth from judgment, how to live more selflessly, and on how to balance my time. What could I change? What should I have done differently? What was beyond me to change? Was there an opportunity for growth, enlightenment, or spiritual strength–things I had not even thought about until 1200 miles into my run?

It would be convenient to pile judgment on those whose comments felt hurtful. But that would be denying my own single-minded and exclusionary ambition, sensitivity to criticism, and failing to acknowledge the emotional volatility that comes with a Big Run. I decided to accept that while there was some truth there, it was not the whole truth. There was my truth also, and it mattered, too. All I could really do was change my behaviors to match the way I actually felt inside, and try to be a better listener and more compassionate.

I begin to understand why some say Buddha told people to “meditate fiercely.” It is hard to look at the self or anything else that matters to you and see it dispassionately.

I wish I could tell you I’ve become a better person. I sure hope so. We are all works in progress.

But if you are reading this, especially if you are contemplating an epic run: take care of your family. They matter.

The Afterglow

Not everyone who completes a transcontinental run is going to find himself or herself suddenly full of enlightenment, peace, joy, and love for all beings. That would be ideal, but not likely.

Yet, it’s very hard to take on something that epic and not walk away feeling transformed. Sometimes it’s an insight into the beauty of nature, the kindness of strangers, or a newfound love for a fellow human being or companion animal.

Here, in a nutshell, are the things I’ve had some encounters with.

Self-discovery

Nothing teaches you who and what you are like going out and doing something really, really hard.

You may find that you were capable of way more than you thought. You may discover you are more determined and resilient. And you may discover that you are more sensitive and grateful for each passing day than ever before.

Just those few things can be transformational.

Confidence

Knowing that you can do something as hard as running across a continent puts many past challenges in place. It’s hard to look back at something like that and not see yourself as capable of the Big Things.

The fact that you literally stumbled, tripped, and fell along the way and that you have the physical, psychological and emotional bruises to show it helps you realize that whatever tomorrow brings, you have a hidden and untapped well of strength to draw on, and that you will be ready when challenges come.

Calm

One thing I’ve learned is that it’s hard to summon calm in a crisis. It is never easy. But being able to summon it at all counts for something.

There will be times, often in the wee hours of the morning, when you feel like you are barely hanging on. It’s what my ultra running friend Rochelle Frisina calls endurance-related emotional volatility. That volatility terrifies some people. They think they are coming apart.

Some macho-type runners even respond with the battle cry, HTFU, or Harden the F*** Up.

But these times do not represent your body or your mind being tested in the fire and hardened. They represent your spirit becoming more supple, flexible, and adaptive.

Eventually, you’ll come to realize the strength that is inside you, and you will be able to bring it out when the need arises.

Community

You may come to discover after a while that very few people actually “get” what it’s like out there, running day in and day out, slogging the miles for a third of a year or more. Especially if you’re really wrapped up in your cause.

You may feel like you don’t fit in. I’ve found friends who “get” me not only in the Type 1 Diabetic Athletes online community, but in the USA Crossers community.

When you feel disconnected from others, it can be a comfort to find fellowship with others who know the journey you’ve been on.

Purpose

Nearly everyone who sets out from one coast headed for the other will tell you they have a purpose. To raise funds, raise awareness, educate, advocate, win a bet with a friend, or just prove they can do it.

I wrote further about reasons for doing an epic run here.

In the end, only you will know why you did it. And your reasons may change.

The moment I knew my purpose for running across the US came just outside Carlsbad NM, on NM-176, about a week after my father died.

I was humming songs to myself as I usually do (I don’t use earbuds because it drowns out traffic noise and I don’t hear cars coming), and a particularly sad song came to mind. I thought of my father and suddenly felt his presence. It was almost tangible. He said he was proud of me, and had always been. He told me I was strong and could do this. We were together for a while, then he said he had to leave and couldn’t talk any more, but would meet me at the finish line.

I made him a promise to leave my running shoes rom the three deserts at his gravesite. It disappoints me that as of this writing, it has been almost a year since that moment. But I finally was able to keep that promise after we resumed the run on March 2nd, 2021. I arrived at his gravesite one day before the anniversary of his passing.

He had been so proud, and such a fan, but now it was no longer about me. In my mind, at least, it was about him.

Your reasons for starting your run will probably not be your reasons for finishing.

Transcendence

Historically, I’ve not been much of a devotée of of notions of transcending anything. My thinking has long been that if bad stuff comes, it comes. That’s not so much some kind of spiritual ideal as it a recognition of inability to flip the world upside down and change some outcomes.

But it is the beginning of something.

Here’s what you may find, if you are lucky, happens in time.

Acceptance

Somewhere on your transcontinental run, you’ll screw up. Majorly. It may twisting an ankle, ripping the skin off the inside of your hand, taking a wrong turn into a Native Reservation or even something as mundane as overestimating your daily mileage.

Don’t ask if that happened to me. Of course it did, because I’m clumsy and overoptimistic.

If you don’t screw up, don’t worry; nature will turn against you. Thunderstorms on the one day you were hoping to catch that TV interview out on the highway. Freezing rain for the first 20 miles of a 40-mile day. A bad back and utter exhaustion that force you to take a rest day early.

Whatever it is, you’ll have to deal with the situation on its own terms.

Which means:

  • Acknowledging the unpleasant reality no matter how much it sucks
  • Not trying to push past limits you’ve already acknowledged
  • Adapting to the new reality rather than trying to change it
  • Not grinding psychological and emotional gears about what could have been, what you should have done, or what you did wrong

This principle applies equally well to situations ranging from pain and injury to exhaustion to true tragedies like the death of a loved one.

I promise you: while pushing your limits may be tenacious and determined, pushing well past them is stubborn, foolish, and dangerous.

Embrace the suck, don’t resist it. You cannot get past something until you can accept, adapt, and be at peace with both the new reality and your new choices.

Sense of self vs the world

One thing you’ll come to realize as you run across America (or any other continent for that matter) is that while your run may be your world, you are also a small part of a larger existence.

Everything in the world has a place, and everyone has a role. In a way, we’re all inseparable.

When you interact with others face-to-face, out there in the middle of nowhere, you find yourself sharing simple stories about the things that connect you, even if only slightly.

The bonds accumulate across the miles, until you begin to realize you and the world around you are one and the same.

Appreciation

There is something wonderful about seeing America up close: the sun coming up behind long lines of telephone poles, salt flats spreading out forever, oilfield equipment pumping incessantly at the ground like giant praying ants, and the tall grass hypnotically waving in the breeze as you run past town after town after nameless town. The curious livestock and the friendly dogs that come out to run with you, farmers and road crews greeting you from atop massive equipment, conversations with Border Patrol, and the good wishes from occasional fellow transconners or other wandering souls. The tough-looking white flower growing up out of the asphalt at the Eastland County Rest Area, and the lady who came out of a church in Cisco, TX with a water bottle and asked me if I knew Jesus.

I have found beauty in blasted and forgotten landscapes, kindness in strangers, and redemption in the promise of each new day. I know that forgiveness is there if you treat others as kindly as yourself, and I know why when God looked out on creation, he saw that it was good.

Transience / impermanence

It’s hard to wake up running into the sunrise without realizing at some point that each of those days has a sunset, a time when things grow dark, confusing, and sometimes frightening. A time when the world is cold and it feels like tomorrow will never come.

For me, the worst of those moments usually comes around 3 in the morning, just when I should be resting up for the next day of running.

But it’s useful to dwell on such moments just a little. It’s the fact that the day doesn’t last forever that makes us appreciate the gift we’ve been given.

Life is like that. Don’t waste it.

“I see skies of blue and clouds of white,
the bright blessed day, the dark sacred night, and I think to myself, ‘What a wonderful world.'”

— Louis Armstrong, What a Wonderful World