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Runtrails' 2005 AT Journal
 
 
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POST #22:   ADJUSTING TO REALITY
 
DECEMBER 16
(and an update January 5, 2006)
 
"Congratulations on finishing such an epic adventure. I admire your tenacity, organizational skills and teamwork. I will be curious to read the subsequent posts about how one readjusts to reality after such an exciting and all-consuming trip."  - Jana, one of our ultra running friends

"Wishing you the best of success as you recover and re-enter mundane reality."       - Harry, faithful "international" journal reader and ultra runner


Still following white blazes . . . trail in our "back forty," a reminder of our most excellent summer.  

Harry intuited what Jana verbalized - how do you adjust to "real life" after an adventure of a lifetime, something you've been looking forward to for so many years?  How do you transition from a go-go-go, do-and-see-something-new-and-exciting-every-day experience to, well, your average daily existence???

I figured a little denial wouldn't hurt, so the second or third day back, I painted a 2 x 6 inch white blaze on the tree leading to one of the paths in our woods (photo left). I wanted to see it from the house as a reminder of this summer's fine adventure.

I also wanted to see how long it took Jim to find it and comment on it -  about a week!

Bottom line on adjusting to reality: it was much easier and faster for me to adapt to life on the Trail than it was to transition to being at home afterwards. The readjustment continues nearly three months after finishing the adventure run.

I see two major causes for the delay: the magnitude of the journey (in all respects) and then ending my level of activity too abruptly.

I'll expound on both theories and hope my experience is educational for others - or at least entertaining. It's long, so grab something to eat and drink as you follow the saga. (I'll throw in a few photos to break up the text, OK?)

WRITER'S BLOCK

It's been hard to write this entry. I wanted to wait until several weeks had elapsed so I could work through the "symptoms" and give readers a more complete assessment.

But I'm not "through" it yet. I'm not back to "normal" yet.

I'm writing this in the hope that it will enlighten others who hike a long trail or do a journey run on trails or roads. It may even apply to epic bike rides or other aerobic athletic efforts that last several hours a day for months on end.

I think this is rather "uncharted territory" of the body and mind because so few people do it. That's the main reason I'm going to be frank and open about my experience.

I wish I had read something like this before I started my trek because I would have done a few things differently to ease the transition when I first got back home. I also wish some medical and psychological studies would be done on athletes who do super-long feats like this.

At first I thought that I was very fortunate that I didn't have to return to a JOB a few days after returning home. When I consider how much Jim and I had to do after being gone for nearly five months, I cannot fathom how we would have managed jobs, too.

In hindsight, however, I think my mental and emotional adjustment might have been easier if I had been forced to focus on work or other matters and had less time for reflection and introspection.

It also would have been better for me to continue a higher level of physical activity than I did, despite my overwhelming fatigue. This caused chemical imbalances that have created all kinds of problems that I described in Post 18 and will continue to talk about here.

ORGANIZED CHAOS

I'm not 35 any more (how many times have I joked about that??) and it is probably taking me longer to return to "normal" physically, mentally, and emotionally than it would a younger person.

When we first got home, Jim and I couldn't even remember where we keep some common, everyday items that we frequently use! Part of the reason is that we moved into this house only last year and we've been away quite a lot, so not everything is engraved on our brains yet . . .

. . . but I think it was primarily due to what Jana described as our "all-consuming trip" this year. We were so focused on the Appalachian Trail that everything else pretty much was off our radar screens. (OK, CRS Syndrome probably played a part, too!)

Even though we had an intense, physically demanding, and erratic schedule all summer, we had a lot of fun and there was some structure to it (organized chaos?). Then we came home to a lot of work and a different kind of "structure" and no exciting adventures every day.

We love our home and our lifestyle since we've retired but it's still "mundane" in comparison to running over hundreds of mountains from Georgia to Maine.

PARADISE LOST

Let's play "pretend" for a minute.

Imagine what it's like to be gone for one or two weeks on the best vacation you ever experienced. You had been looking forward to it for a long time. Let's assume you didn't exactly relax on said vacation, but you stayed physically active every day, maybe tried a new sport, saw new things, met new people, tried different foods, expanded your horizons literally and figuratively, and had a wonderful time. You didn't want it to end. Yeah, you occasionally thought about home and maybe even missed it, but you had such a great time you sometimes fantasized about staying in "paradise" and never going home.

Multiply that to equal almost five months away from your normal routine on the trip of a lifetime and maybe you can imagine what this part of my mental and emotional transition has been like.

Jim returned to "normal" much faster than I did. He wasn't as exhausted physically and mentally as I was during the run, he continued running when we got home (even increased it), and this adventure wasn't his life-long dream. He also had other decisions/issues to keep him occupied, which I'll describe later.

So even though we did this as a team, our experiences during and after the run are very different.

EXPERIMENT OF ONE

"Hope the readjustment to life off the trail has been going OK. I imagine you have mixed emotions about it."  - Jana again, about six weeks after we finished the AT

Most definitely.

I knew the transition phase might be a little difficult from reading hikers' journals and talking to/corresponding with other journey runners and thru-hikers. But no one was real specific about the mental and emotional adjustments to life after the AT or another long trail, and I didn't know how I would react when I got home.

This is an example of how ultra runners are often "an experiment of one."

Now I think I know some reasons why folks stop writing in their on-line journals when they get done - they may be too busy, it might be difficult to articulate their feelings, their feelings may be too personal to share on the internet, maybe they're too depressed to want to write any more, or they have other reasons. So they just move on and readers are left to wonder how they fared afterwards.

Well, I won't leave ya hanging!

(No, that's not a hangin' noose, but a rope someone put along a steep rock in Connecticut to make the climb a bit easier.)

THAT MIND-BODY CONNECTION

The emotional and mental aspects of my readjustment have been closely tied to my physical transition, described in Post 18 before I had some of this figured out.

It has been an interesting (although frustrating) study in psychosomatic interactions, made even more interesting since I have a Master's Degree in counseling psychology. There's nothing like some good, old-fashioned self-diagnosis!

I'm convinced that most of my emotional/mental symptoms have been caused by chemical changes in my brain and the rest of my body.

I went from intense activity almost every day to being an athletic sloth, barely running at all the first month home because I was wiped out. My body reacted in strange, strange ways that I wasn't expecting and that has affected my psychological adjustment.

My hormones, endocrine system, and who-knows-what-else are still screwed up almost three months after finishing the trek. Some problems were worse the first couple weeks and have (thankfully) lessened over time. A new problem cropped up more recently.

TEARS FOR THE TRAIL

Take crying, for instance.

For two or three weeks, I cried very easily.  Every time I thought about something to do with the AT Run, the tears would just well up in my eyes. The memories I have are overwhelmingly pleasant - memories of the people I met, the places I saw, the tranquility of the wilderness, the pride of accomplishment.

Initially I missed the Trail very much. It grows on you. I can fully understand the draw the Appalachian Trail exerts on thru-hikers, probably even stronger than on me because I passed through more quickly than they do and didn't sleep along the Trail.

I bet the experience is just as intense on other long trails or transcontinental runs and bike rides.

I remember crying only three times during the trek -- Day 117 in the Kinsman Mountains in New Hampshire when I had the only major emotional meltdown of the run; and twice when I was relieved to be reunited with Jim after a struggle: on "flood day" in the Little Wilson/Big Wilson area in Maine (Day 141) and on top of Mt. Katahdin (below) on the last day (148).

After returning home I more than made up for my lack of tears on the Trail. It was a bit embarrassing to me because I don't cry very often.

The experience was intense. Hormones are enough to make you cry.

Other changes in body chemistry occurred that didn't bother me on the Trail. I had frequent nightmares and dreams about the Trail, I couldn't sleep well (woke up often from the nightmares and night sweats), my face broke out worse than it has in forty years, lots of body parts ached that didn't hurt during the run, and I had trouble focusing, concentrating, and remembering things.

Most of these things resolved themselves within the first month. However, I still have the focus/concentration problem and now I'm a little concerned that I might be mildly depressed (that's the more recent problem).

Unless I'm running or using the computer it's difficult for me to focus on anything for more than a few minutes. My memory is worse than ever. I don't have much "ambition" or "drive" to do anything, either. I'm just kind of apathetic. It takes major effort for me to plan meals, clean the house, decorate and plan for Christmas, arrange to see friends, enjoy hobbies like scrap booking and writing, get out and run, and even to think about races and traveling next year.

I'm just not motivated to do much of anything right now. It's hard to get out of bed in the morning and I waste a lot of time. I'm functioning, but at a much slower pace and at a much lower quality than usual.

Since I'm really an optimistic, energetic, organized multi-tasker, I believe most of my mental and emotional "depression" has physical causes. Fortunately, I do NOT have more serious symptoms like feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, or life's-not-worth-living-any-more. (Whew!)

ENDORPHIN WITHDRAWAL?

I've been doing research on the internet re: depression. I've got some of the classic signs I remember from graduate school training in psychology thirty-two years ago. I'm pretty well convinced that several of my brain chemicals were significantly altered during and after this trek (serotonin, norepinephrine, endorphins, etc).

How's that for self-diagnosis???  (It's more than any of my doctors came up with until I mentioned it to one this week.)

Consider endorphins, for example.

As a runner, I'm more familiar with endorphins than the other chemicals I've been reading about. Many activities, including running, increase the amount of endorphins that are produced naturally by the body.

 Endorphins are a type of opiate that reduce stress, relieve pain, enhance the immune system, and give us that wonderful "runner's high." And since they may also postpone the aging process, they are a Very Good Thing to have!

So there I was all summer, producing copious amounts of morphine-like endorphins on the Trail every day, and I came home and GREATLY REDUCED ALL PHYSICAL ACTIVITY for several weeks because I was dead tired. No more stimulating endorphins produced for several weeks until I was able to increase my runs up to an hour or more (it takes me a while to get that endorphin "fix").

I'm like a junkie who suddenly quits doing drugs and has withdrawal symptoms.

Well, duh. Big mistake on my part to do so little running and walking for a month or two. No wonder my mind and body are acting "depressed." It's less depressing to realize that it's situational, though - and temporary.

" . . . Was it all that you expected? I'm sure now you will be down a bit now that it's over . . . but you know what, it'll never be over because you are now and will forever be a part of the AT history!"  - another ultra buddy named Steve

"SPEED" WRITING?

Here's an interesting realization that came to mind during a run in the slush and ice one recent afternoon (hey - maybe the endorphins are returning!):

Almost all of the daily entries in this journal - the ones during the trek - were written under the influence of mind-altering endorphins!! They are definitely more enthusiastic and playful than the "prep" and "post" entries, don't you think?

In one of the daily entries I described how great I felt on the Trail in the mornings. I took 'way more notes and photos in the mornings, when I was fresh and my thoughts flowed freely, than in the afternoon, when my body AND brain were tired.

But even in the evenings, resting in the camper, I was still on an extended endorphin high. That's apparently why it was usually so much easier for me to write in this journal during the trip than it has been since I got home. Now it feels more like work than play.

And now I finally understand why.

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER

Understanding what's going on at the cellular level helps me deal with the symptoms I'm having. I'm also aware of several additional "situational" factors influencing my mood just now:

  • I was occupied with more important responsibilities in October and November than I am now and that helped keep my mind off myself. We were really busy getting the household in order when we first got back. Next Jim had a tough five weeks when he endured a very painful face treatment for a pre-cancerous skin condition (acitinic kerotosis), then also had neuroma surgery on one foot at the same time. I was pretty focused on relieving his misery during that time. (He's in much better shape now, thank goodness!)
  • I dislike winter. It's too cold and too gray too early in Virginia. I need more sun and warmth. I have always been affected mildly by SAD (seasonal affective disorder) no matter where I lived - Ohio, Georgia, Montana, now Virginia. We're very close to the "shortest" day of the year (with the least daylight), so soon it will be getting light a little longer each day again. There is hope . . .

  • We've already had three ice storms (above) that have reduced my ability to safely run outdoors (or to drive eighteen miles to the YMCA to use the "dreadmill"). I'm ready to extend my longest runs past fifteen miles and produce more of those coveted endorphins, but it's been a challenge. I need to just suck it up and use the treadmill longer or run on paved roads that have been cleared and forget trails until they are more user-friendly (i.e., until the ice melts).
  • Finally, it's the Christmas season and this normal "Christmas Person" just can't get into the spirit much. Putting up the lights outside, setting up the snow village inside - just seem like too much work this year. I did decorate the tree, hung up the wreaths, and put out a few other festive decorations, though.

MEDICAL SLEUTHING

Although I've addressed most of my physical problems with real doctors (not just self-diagnosis) since I got home, I'm having some additional blood tests done to determine if I'm too high or low on some critical nutrients or other chemicals in my body. I could have easily depleted my level of iron, for example, or my blood count may be totally out of whack. Supposedly my thyroid is functioning normally.

A few days ago I saw my new general physician, a young female MD who runs marathons and seems very competent in her profession. She listened patiently and showed obvious interest when I told her about my AT run and the symptoms I'm still having. She did not freak out when I told her I run ultras!  She asked more health and lifestyle questions than any doctor I've ever consulted.

She agreed that I am mildly depressed and gently asked if I'd consider taking medication (a generic form of Paxil) temporarily to see if it helps me regain my normal level of perkiness.

I accepted a prescription but didn't promise to take them. I hate taking meds other than NSAIDS for anything, and I try to limit even those. I don't like messing with mind-altering substances of any kind. The newer psychotropic drugs like Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil have lengthy lists of possible side effects and I don't want to get addicted to anything (besides the endorphins from running!). The drug companies claim they aren't addictive but I'm not "buying" it.

I've had some time to research Paxil on the internet and I don't like what I read about withdrawal problems some people have. That got my attention more than the side effects. So I doubt I'll ever take the low-dose, generic form my doctor prescribed. I want to see if I can get through this funk without synthetic drugs.

I'm hoping that as I increase my mileage the natural endorphins and other chemicals will return to their pre-AT levels and continue to serve me well. I'll consider the meds only if I'm still apathetic in a couple months.

Jim joked that if I don't use the prescription maybe it would help him. He's having his own issues with resuming training after not running for six weeks while he underwent the face treatment and foot surgery. He thought he'd be running more by now but he's discovered he has to proceed slowly. He's also had some withdrawal problems of his own, coming off the pain meds and sleeping pills he was using. So he's a bit depressed himself. But he doesn't want to mess with his brain chemistry any more than I do.

[Addendum January 5, 2006:  I decided not to take the generic Paxil. In the last two weeks the weather has improved and I've been able to run more. It has definitely helped my mood. Let's hear it for endorphins!

My blood test results were good, although my cholesterol is the highest it's been in many years (total 190). That might be good for the general population but it's 30-40 digits higher for me than in recent years. In fact, it was only 117 nineteen years ago . . .

My HDL is higher than last year, when my doctor was concerned that it was too low and wrote on the results "advise exercise." That was hilarious, and I loved sharing it with my family and friends!

Jim's total cholesterol is 20 points higher than last year. We both know exactly why our numbers are higher - we ate a disproportionate amount of fats on the AT trek - but we're puzzled why our cholesterol counts are still up there because we've returned to our healthier way of eating the last three-plus months. We're now being even more careful and will have our cholesterol checked again in late spring.]

THE PERILS OF MODERN LIFE

I found an interesting statement credited to a psychiatrist named Kevin Turnquist in one of the reports warning about the class of drugs to which Paxil belongs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs). I think it also helps to explain what I'm experiencing right now:

"Mundane jobs, boring routines, and the absence of real struggles for survival may all prove to contribute to depression's increasing place in society. We cannot discount the possibility that the activities that seem to add diversity to our modern existence don't provide the sort of stimulation that healthy brains thrive on." (in The Humanist, 2002)

That rather neatly summarizes what's been going on with me since my "struggle" on the AT. I felt really alive there, and the tougher it got, the more I enjoyed it.

I thrived in that environment.

NEW GOALS WILL HELP

I know part of my lack-of-motivation problem is lack of a clear goal or lack of anything approximating the excitement of running the Appalachian Trail. I worked so hard to accomplish this goal, and now it's over.

Now what? How do I top this? Several readers wrote to ask the same question.

Even after a much shorter goal race or event like a marathon, triathlon, or ultra, athletes often experience a let-down feeling. It's happened to me lots of times before, but it lasted only a few days. Part of it was physical, part mental/emotional. I always had another goal race in a few weeks or months to train for, so the funks quickly passed.

Not so this time. The Appalachian Trail took much more out of me physically and psychologically than any previous event I've ever done and I looked forward to it much longer. It's the highlight of my athletic "career" (so far).

By now, Jim and I do have some interesting plans for 2006 and I'm starting to look forward to them (I'll write about that in the next entry). However, because of my lingering fatigue and difficulty getting my mileage back up, I'm just not anticipating next year's plans as eagerly as I think I should. More reason to get those endorphin levels back up!

I miss the excitement of being on the Trail. I miss the beauty, the tranquility, the newness of each day.

Yes, I "have a life" with other interests and I can still run beautiful trails near my home, but I crave exploring new territory and being "on the road." I retired early so I'd be able to travel and run all over the country. Jim's dream was the same, and now we can live that dream as long as we have the health and funds to do it. Having the same goal means we'll be devising interesting adventures the rest of our lives.

As my body transitions back to its former athletic self, I know my mind and heart will follow and I'll resume my more normal optimistic enthusiasm for life in general.

Here's a good example of a zest for life: Cody and Tater earlier this year, reveling in the snow.

 

WARNING TO OTHER "EPIC" ADVENTURERS

We're all different. That's obvious. I hope this summary of my readjustment will help others in the future. If you anticipate similar problems after a long trail hike, cross-country or trans-continental run, or other epic, weeks- or months-long adventure you can more easily prevent or deal with them.

I realize now that a different approach when I got home would have eased the adjustment.

  • I should have done a more gradual taper from running and other physical activities, not stopped so abruptly.
  • I should have forced myself out the door more often the first two months to do light exercise that wouldn't have stressed my body.
  • I should have stayed busier and more focused on other people and activities instead of being so reclusive and self-absorbed.

Parts of the readjustment period might hit thru-hiking backpackers even harder than someone who is crewed like I was.

They are more isolated from civilization, so a return to "real life" may well be more of a shock. I stayed in campgrounds, often in or near towns, not shelters or a tent in the middle of the wilderness. Every day I rode in a vehicle on roads to and from trail heads. I occasionally shopped in stores or did some sight-seeing on rest days. I ate pretty much my normal diet. I took a shower every afternoon and had clean clothes and dry shoes to put on. I half-listened to the news on TV or the radio when we had reception, so I had a better idea about what was going on in the world. I read e-mail nearly every day.

But even though I was in touch with civilization most of the trip, it was still a difficult transition initially to suddenly stop all the fun (even the scary parts) and go home.

Although I usually drive a third or half of the miles when we're traveling long distances, Jim insisted on driving home from Maine, a solid two-day haul with the camper. I was so zonked both mentally and physically that he didn't think I was fit to drive!

He was right. The trip home is a blur to me. My body may have been in that truck, but my mind was still on the AT.

I think my funniest experience last summer regarding "civilization" was on Day 6 after only five days on the Trail. Go back and read the beginning of that entry if you don't remember it. I already felt like I was in a foreign land when we made a trip to a Lowe's store and I was totally overwhelmed by the bright lights, people, abundance of goods, and noise. I couldn't wait to return to the tranquility of the Trail.

I still regard that reaction as pretty amazing so early in the trek.

RETURNING TO "POLITE" SOCIETY

I'll end on a humorous note since this entry has been mostly serious.

About ten days after we got home one of our ultra running friends wrote, "How are you both doing? Has re-entry into polite society been OK?"

Since Dru's a good friend, I wrote back - more succinctly than I would to someone I didn't know as well - that now I had to watch where I peed and farted . . .

It's true. Anyone who has run or hiked on trails out in the middle of nowhere knows you can get away with less PC behavior on trails than you can if you only run or walk on roads. I'm careful to do these things (even using my cell phone) out of sight and earshot of other trail users whether I'm on a training run or in a race.

But yes, there are uncivilized behaviors like spitting and relieving yourself in the woods that thru-hikers and journey runners have to break after being away from "polite society" for several months.

Fortunately, for me that was the easy part of re-entry.

Next up: what's next on Jim's and my adventure agenda (you knew there would be more fun, didn't you??).

 
Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2005 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil