I’ve never met a problem I can’t outwork.
Challenging deadline? Pour some coffee and buckle down.
Committee needs a volunteer? Sign me up.
Fitness starting to slip? Register for another marathon.
When I injured my foot two years ago, I channeled that pain into rehabilitation. Weekend long runs were replaced by diligent lap swimming, and midweek training was replaced by seated weightlifting and physical therapy exercises. As I healed, the specifics morphed with my ever-evolving goals, but the level of work remained constant.
Now that I’ve made a full recovery, I’ve maintained a base level of half marathon-ish mileage. Over the past year, I’ve run several virtual races, which have given me deadlines and goals to work toward throughout the pandemic. For so long this was exactly what I wanted.
I can run.
I can run far.
I can run without pain.
But over the last several months, it hasn’t been all that fun. My legs routinely felt sluggish or my mind stayed cruel, and I just wanted each run to be over. I’d get up and dutifully slog through the miles, relying on podcasts or music to distract myself from how I actually felt. I reminded myself that not long ago I would have loved to run six garbage miles, but I found myself needing to have that pep talk more often than not.
The occasional off day is natural, but more and more runs felt heavy, forced, like work.
This year I’ve also pushed myself harder professionally, which only exacerbates the fatigue. Most of my team is on the east coast or Midwest, so my day starts early to align to their schedules. Knowing I’ll be exhausted by the end of the day, I made a habit of getting up at 4:00 a.m. to log a few miles on the treadmill before work.
In theory, this plan was effective and efficient, maximizing my waking hours to be the most productive possible. In practice, this was a recipe for burnout.
It’s a fine line between driven and depleted.
Yes, I was able to run and then have a productive day at work, but as soon as I logged off, I felt completely spent. I had no energy for cleaning or cooking well-balanced meals. Connecting with family or friends drained energy I didn’t have, and there was certainly no bandwidth for more trivial time wasters like hobbies or showers.
As this cycle continued, both my work and running started to suffer too. I made preventable mistakes, forgot key details, and my legs regularly felt like lead. Despite intentionally prioritizing work and running above all else, I wasn’t doing either particularly well.
Solving this led to a mini crisis of identity and self worth. My ego was terrified to take my foot off the gas. I could lose all the fitness I’d worked so hard to gain! I could be replaced at work by someone with more drive, more hustle!
What happens if I slow down?
What happens if I’m not hitting farther distance goals?
What happens if I’m just okay at my job?
What happens if I’m unimpressive?
Part of running’s appeal comes from that desire to push harder and resist the temptation to quit. As runners, we take great pride in our ability to persevere through fatigue. We are tough. We are ruthless. We finish what we start.
But driving relentlessly is unsustainable, and I’ve learned the hard way that bodies and minds have limits. They are not bound to obsession or capitalism, and they will snap when pushed too far. If I don’t pause to rest, my body will quite literally make me.
So I’ve been listening. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been prioritizing sleep and hydration, and practicing saying no. I stopped running before work and let myself sleep in to the decadent time of 5:30 a.m., opting to run on my lunch break or after work, or even – gasp – sometimes just not, and taking an unplanned day off.
It’s been fine. Better than fine. Nothing bad has happened. I haven’t been fired, I’ve reinstated hobbies like reading and writing (why hello, yes I’m aware it’s been months since my last post – glad you’re still here), and that spark of joy is back when I run. Running is a choice, not an obligation. When I choose to lace up, I’m back to enjoying the sunrise, the endorphins, and a moment to clear my head.
Turns out the problem of feeling overworked cannot be solved with more work. We need space. We need stillness. We need rest. This will no doubt be a lesson I need to learn again and again, as I inevitably fall back into the trap of thinking my value is tied to how much I can produce, but for now at least, I’m learning to exhale and trust that I’ve done enough – that I am enough.
And I’m pretty damn impressed with myself for that.