Thursday, 26 January 2017

My road to 2016 burnout and why I wouldn’t take it back for the world

October 2016, a dark dark place: 3 Towers. A race I look forward to all year in one of my favourite places in the world, Mankele Bike Park. Hard climbs rewarded by the most amazing Bush Tunnels that go on for days!  Everything about it; the vibe, toughness, thrilling technical terrain makes it a highlight of the year! I never thought it possible but I was dreading it.

Before I begin, I’d like to note that this burnout was completely self-inflicted; oftentimes coaches and/or sponsors get blamed for pushing their athletes over the edge. In my case my sponsor Valencia, and coach at the time, Nadine Visage advised me more than once against racing too much but I insisted that I was fine; thinking I was invincible and oblivious to how dangerous over-training and over-racing is.

Now when I say I over-raced, I don’t mean that I did a marathon every weekend, I mean that I did 2 of the hardest races in the world within 6 months of each other (Munga and Iron Bike) and in between that was Joberg2C where I emptied myself for 8 consecutive days racing for podium. In-between all that I raced marathons almost every weekend and travelled like crazy. In hindsight… Well obviously I was never at my best and duh I burnt out!

My story starts with The Munga, December 2015; 1090km of base training done in 3.5 days… Lekker! Uh, not so much, I quickly realised that although you gain a ton of character and mental strength in The Munga your physical strength takes a big dive (at least that was the case with me).
I took 2 weeks off and treated the tendinitis that I had everywhere and started training immediately for a season that would start full-swing in January with the first national marathon. 


I was quite shocked by my lack of form and so to get strong I raced almost every weekend in Jan and Feb including Ashburton Sabie, a national XCO race and local races in-between. My results were less than desirable at first but I started gaining form quickly. In the beginning of April it was African Champs in Lesotho, I did both XCM and XCO races seperated only by a day and I developed a horrid chest infection I got from the altitude on the first day. The infection lasted for 1 week. Luckily I recovered just in time to earn bronze and XCM SA Champs which took place in Clarens 2 weeks later.

 I finally felt on top of my game and ready for Joberg2C which started the following week; most competitive stage race I’d ever done. For 8 consecutive days I turned myself inside out; Grant and I had the goal of winning the mixed category in a highly competitive field. Every day was super close and exciting, the top 3 teams were constantly within minutes of each other. We ended up coming a respectable 3rd despite many mechanicals. The race took a huge mental toll which I shrugged off because J2C boosted my physical strength further which was motivating. In hindsight I see so clearly that unbeknownst to me, in the background I was already taking strain. 

Anyway, no rest for the wicked, the following weekend was travelling to Sabie for the Forest to falls and then a flight to PE for a national XCO the following weekend.
The week after that I was off to Magalies monster where I came 2nd, yay! The week after that I won Nissan Trailseeker #1 on Saturday and JUMA on Sunday, double yay! We are now at the end of May. The following weekend was my first off weekend however I put in far more hours than Nadine had planned for me to make up for it. As I write this I am thinking WTF ‘Dougall??

Ashburton #4 in Van Gaalens was next and I came 2nd, I was also handed the series leader jersey but it pretty much went south from here, I didn't make life any easier mind you, but in hindsight burnout had settled in already. I was forced to take time off because of illness and tendinitis, surprising? This was not ideal because I was to embark on the hardest and most technical stage race in the world, Iron Bike in Italy. 5 - 10 hours per day with an average of 4000m of climbing per day for 8 days in the Italian alps (you should Google it) I got a chest infection on Day 2 from the altitude and pushed through the tendinitis every day until it stopped bothering me. After Day 6; 10 hours in the saddle and hiking, I had liquid seeping from my ears, I couldn’t eat and was nauseous and light headed all from altitude and exhaustion. It was the closest I have ever been to quitting in my life but my heart wouldn’t let me. This race is intensely and indescribably stunning, riveting, grueling and rewarding. I wouldn’t take this experience back for the world and I’m so glad I didn’t quit! 

Two weeks later I hung on to Theresa Ralph's back wheel for dear life at the Transbaviaans, still unable to breath from the chest infections and legs still poked. We managed to win the ladies section, but being the nail for 230km is never easy. A couple of weeks later my chest infection finally cleared and I surprised myself with a silver in Ashburton Dullstroom (beginning of September). 

After the race I felt the beginnings of a chest infection… Not again!! That week I left for Iron Bike Brazil, a 2 day race, and had to take a yellow fever shot before I flew. The shot pushed me over the edge and I was full-on sick with flu. The sickness lasted the entire trip, through the 2 day stage race, York Enduro, and still hadn’t cleared by 3 Towers.
Were Iron Bike Brazil a local race I would have pulled out but I had gone all the way there and felt I had to!

 I returned from Brazil and left that day for another highlight of the year, the York Enduro 4 day invitational event. I was still sick and massively jet-lagged and although the racing is short, the days are fun but long. When I raced I was "pap" and slower than the other pros . My form was nowhere and I knew Sam Sanders, whom I was to partner with for 3 Towers the following weekend, was peaking for World Road Champs in Doha and I had a week to pickup the pieces *didn't happen. When I finally got home from York with a broken-legged boyfriend (Grant broke his femur on day1)  slept in my own bed for the first time in 3 weeks I was utterly shattered and depressed. It was then that I knew I was burnt out. It fell on me like a ton of bricks. All I wanted to do was stay at home and take care of Grant. Alas, 3 days later I was driving to Mankele.

As anticipated, Sam was a lot stronger than me, and there was huge pressure to perform. I knew there was no chance of recovering or pulling out. I would just have to “vas buit”. I gathered up the mental strength, tasted blood on a daily basis but was still struggling to breath and my legs had nothing in them. Sam was an amazingly patient partner, pushing and pulling me but I felt guilty for letting us and Valencia down. I still adored the trails and made a point of having fun but I was so far over the edge that I just wanted it to end.

I AM DONE!! I hung up my bike, for a week, then did Berg ‘n Bush with my Old Man and then hung it up again to gather dust for another 3 weeks.

Berg and Bush with my Dad was the best thing that could ever have happened to me and I had the most fun I’d had in ages. No pressure, chilled riding, hanging out with the back-markers (what an amazing group of people!!) Most importantly I got to spend proper quality time with my old man. 

I was scooped out of my depression and was enlightened as to what is truly important in life! I then focused solely on being as much of a slob as possible! I jolled, spent time with friends, slept a lot, ate a lot of whatever I felt like. My energy returned and so did my lust for life. During this period I saw a pulmanologist about the chest infections and difficulty breathing during races. Low and behold I was diagnosed with Asthma after a series of tedious testing. I was so glad that there was a reason and simple solution for all my chest problems; 2 pumps and meds for allergies (all 100% legal)

At the beginning of November, after another night at The Jolly Rodger eating pizza and drinking beer, I was finally over it. I was feeling fat and unfit (which was the goal). I woke up, rejuvenated, motivated and ready to ride. I had more than enough time to build a decent pre-season foundation, so when I was ready I flipped the switch from slob-mode to athlete-mode and went straight into a massive base and strength training block. 

Look I wouldn’t recommend burning one's self out out, it sucks but why would I not take it back for the world?
a)       The experiences I had were magical. Munga and Iron Bike are not races may pros would do for the fear of jeopardising their season. Iron Bike cost me a lot of money as there is no prize money but WOW what incredible life changing experiences, both of them. They will stay with me forever.
b)      I realise that over-doing it results in never peaking and consistently average performances.
c)       I have learnt a lot about my body and mind.
d)      I learnt that I am not invincible, nobody is!
e)      I feel that I’ve done enough crazy things for now and am ready to focus on a successful season without FOMO.
f)        I can smile and say wow… I am young and have lived and experienced so much already!

It is now the end of Jan and after almost 4 months I have just completed my first race, one of the hardest single day races on the calendar, Attakwas. It was a shock to the system which I anticipated but I surprised myself in a good way! More about that in my next post!


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  2. Great article, Amy. Thanks for sharing so vulnerably and honestly! You are amazing, even if you don't win more races. What a year! You are so much more than an outstanding athlete. You will always be a champion ;)

  3. Virei seu fã! Você é muito simpática, amei os posts. Uma curiosidade que tenho é saber sua altura. Forte abraço!!