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I remember long runs most. My absolute favorite workout was a 14-miler with the middle ten fast. The kind of run where you hit halfway and have no idea how you’ll hold on, but somehow you do. It’s the best feeling in the world like running is your superpower.
Those runs are fading Polaroids to me now. It’s been so long since I’ve felt like myself on a long run, or any run—in control, the paces clicking, whittling split times down, grinding out the miles, chasing a goal, and surprising myself with my abilities. My running is wholly devoid of that today. I miss striving for something other than surviving.
In 2004, I set the U.S. high school record in the 5K, immediately signed a professional contract with Nike, and planned to be an Olympian a few times over by the time I was 30. That was my dream.
Instead, I’ve spent the past 18 years in a state of extreme fatigue that no medical professional can explain. Yet I keep running. I fell in love with this sport a long time ago, and while it’s broken my heart a thousand times over, I keep coming back.
I’ll never forget the moment I fell into the abyss. It was early 2005 and I was straight out of high school. I was wearing an orange long-sleeved Nike shirt. It was still unfathomable to me that I was a Nike athlete, getting all of this free gear, and running on the giant Ronaldo grass field in the middle of my personal Eden—Nike World Headquarters in Oregon.
It happened halfway through the third rep of a ten-by-one–kilometer workout on a loop outlined in cones. I was running neck and neck with my new elite training partner. We’d just rounded the side by the cafeteria, where employees often watched us, and it was like I tripped and fell into the dark.
My legs felt like lead. My breathing started to stick in my throat. I watched my training partner pull away in front of me. But she hadn’t surged; she was staying on pace. I was the one who was falling off.
In the years to come, I would watch my body’s ability disintegrate, along with my dreams. I felt like someone was sawing off my legs, like I was bleeding out and there was absolutely nothing I could do to stop it.
I fell in love with this sport a long time ago, and while it’s broken my heart a thousand times over, I keep coming back.
The actual sensation was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. From the first step of a training run, the effort was harder than race days used to be. I’d be going all out, look down at my watch, and see that I was running minutes per mile slower than it felt. My mind would scream at my legs to turn over, but they couldn’t respond. It was like running in quicksand, like those dreams where you try to run but are stuck in slo-mo.
At first I had glimmers of hope. Every once in a while I would pop off a great workout, a tempo run or mile repeats on par with the best women in the country. One day during this time, at altitude camp in Park City, Utah, I dashed through a five-mile tempo run followed by 800-meter repeats, hitting faster times than I ever had at sea level. Even wilder, this was only three days after I’d had an emergency appendectomy. These glimmers kept me hopeful enough to keep joining my team for workouts. I’d be encouraged, only to come back the next time and struggle to run 200’s slower than a JV high schooler in Converse sneakers.
Eventually, my body fully hurled itself into the dark chasm. I felt like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, but I refused to release my white-knuckled grip on my goals and dreams.
My coach and I sought out every doctor. I underwent a battery of tests, starting with standard blood draws and progressing to more involved procedures, like collecting my urine for an entire day. All that these experts and specialists could tell me was that my results seemed normal.
Being told you’re normal when you know you’re not is unbearably frustrating. I came to dread the moment when yet another doctor would raise an eyebrow and ask, “Have you looked into psychiatry?”
I’m an open book. I’m fully aware that I have psychological issues: I’ve been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. But this is different. I know this is not in my head.
The only answer I’ve ever come up with, after years of research and talking with fellow endurance athletes who have suffered from similar symptoms, is that I have some kind of adrenal fatigue, a condition that Western medicine doesn’t recognize and for which there are no treatment protocols.
Early on, I tried fully resting, taking weeks and then months off from running. The grip of fatigue still held me in its clutches like a vice. Mentally, though, I barely survived these breaks. At one point, I fell into such a dark place that I tried to take my own life. Running has always been the thread holding my sanity together. It’s the only time the chatter in my brain is blissfully silent. It keeps the full wave of depression from crashing down on me. Only after running can I relax, fully function, and be the kind of human I want to be in this world.
As my ability continued to mysteriously deteriorate, I decided that even if running felt physically brutal, and even if I might never be fast again, the mental payoff was worth it. Running was my life raft, it kept me from drowning. I desperately clung to the act that had once given me so much joy and still provided peace.
But it was more than memories and my mental health that kept me lacing up my running shoes. The activity had been such a part of my identity, my career, and my dreams. It was my first love. I felt like letting it go would mean abandoning the last piece of myself. And even though the days where I felt in sync and my stride had bounce were gone, running still offered an element I loved and craved: the test of mental toughness.
I am addicted to proving to myself that I can do the difficult thing. I love pushing myself into and through the pain cave. It’s a rush that leaves me feeling invincible, floating, special. I can make myself do things most people can’t, and that gives me confidence.
But the thing with toughness, as all runners know, is that you can never just prove it once. You can’t check the box, kick your feet up, and relax. The next day wipes the slate clean. That’s why I used to eagerly await race days, hard-workout days, and my Sunday long runs: that’s when I could once again prove to myself that I was still as tough—no, tougher—than last week. My biggest fear was the day I showed up and couldn’t pass the test.
Even when I could no longer do workouts or races, when running slow was so taxing that it took all I had, it was still my daily test. I’m not fast anymore, but I’m still tough, right? I had to know.
In 2010, I was hit by a car during a run. I almost lost a leg and was told by medical professionals I’d never walk or run again. But in my mind, there was never a question that I would. Call it forced ignorance, but I just couldn’t imagine not running again.
Looking back, I’m amazed that the accident now feels like a small detail in my running saga. Unlike the mysterious fatigue, I could map out a way to recover from this. At least I knew my enemy, and I knew how to fight it through the grueling year of recovery.
The journey back to running after the car accident did, in a way, help shift my perspective on losing the record-setting runner I had once been. I had stared down the reality of never being able to run, and I vowed I would be grateful for the act of running if I ever could again.
That gratitude is key. Running easily is like my phantom limb—its ghost haunts me and itches in my brain. But I’ve learned how to reframe that itch into one that is more positive. Every time my mind shifts back to burning anger and anguish that this is not fair, I remind myself that I can still run. I am still a runner.
I’m trying to be kinder to myself and allow myself a bit of grace—I was a cruel miser with such things back when I was fast. After every workout or race, even if I’d PR’d, I’d inevitably ask my coach, “Could I have gone harder?” I was tormented by the fear that I hadn’t leeched every ounce out of myself or that I wasn’t able to give enough. When I sink into these spiraling doubts today, I try to remember how hard I’ve fought just to be able to run.
For years I carried a weight of shame that I was never the runner I was supposed to be. When people asked me about my PRs, I always looked down and added a disclaimer, “Well, I mean, I could never run that now, so it doesn’t really count.”
I’ve slowly come to ignore those voices. The fact I never ran any faster doesn’t erase my 15:52.88 5K. I did that. I had the time of my life training for that. I was doing what made me happiest, and it’s an experience I wouldn’t give up for the world. I am proud of the runner I once was. She is still a part of me. Her ghost runs alongside me and keeps me going.
Running easily is like my phantom limb—its ghost haunts me and itches in my brain. But every time my mind shifts back to burning anger and anguish that this is not fair, I remind myself that I can still run.
It’s taken even more time for me to get over the shame I harbored about my current pace—my 12-minute miles. Part of me still cringes as I type that. We’re all works in progress.
I hold out hope that one day I’ll have a run that doesn’t feel terrible. I go to bed at night wishing that I’ll wake up and this mysterious ailment will have disappeared as suddenly as it came. I devour any article about strange fatigue; I know I’m not the only endurance athlete who has fallen off the cliff into blackness.
I will never give up the dream that perhaps I will meet an expert—a doctor, a holistic-medicine specialist, a shaman, an underwater basket weaver, whoever—who will know how to cure me. It’s a thin, fragile dream. New doctors have promised, “I will fix you! I’m the best!” countless times, only to tell me it must be in my head. That downward crash crushes, it grinds the spirit into tiny bits that the wind blows away. Still, I choose to remain cautiously optimistic. It’s much easier to survive if you carry a tiny kernel of hope.
I fully recognize, however, that I may never claw out of this moonless void. Whatever tomorrow may or may not bring, I’m trying to make peace with the reality that this is my body now.
Today I’m a shell of the runner I once was. In the morning, my fatigue casts a dark blanket over me. I can barely think, talk, or function. I hype myself up to run a slow seven miles, at whatever pace I can manage, the same way I used to for my sacred long run. As my GPS syncs, I push from my mind that other voice, This is brutal. Why are we doing this? and repeat my gratitude mantra: I’m thankful for my legs and my body for allowing me to do this thing I love. I’m grateful for the opportunity to run.
As soon as the watch starts and I enter the run, muscle memory takes over. My body still knows that this is what it’s supposed to do. Slowly, the anxiety slips away.
As my legs become weak, my breathing grows labored, and the tortured anguish of fighting to continue moving begins to peak, I focus on familiar movements. I feel like I’m in the final mile of a marathon. We’re in the pain cave now. There are moments where it seems I’m falling and I just hope my legs keep me upright. I tell myself that these darker regions of hell don’t last forever, that if I keep moving forward it will feel a little better. I promise myself it gets better, even though I know that’s a lie. This fatigue never relents. But the lie allows me to keep going—it’s a lie of self-preservation.
The moment I’m done, the relief, endorphins, and gratitude wash over me like a storm. I did it. I survived another day. I passed the test. I’m still a runner.
This article originally appeared on Outside Online