Results came back

My leg isn’t broken, but my ferritin is low. Ferritin?!!? I feel like such a dunce. That is distance running 101: keep your ferritin up.

In a sport where the gains are made by increasing oxygen-carrying capacity, increasing blood volume is one way to do that. We go to altitude camp at 8000 feet to get a natural boost, and we have to insure that our bodies are properly equipped to do their blood-building thing. Hemoglobin is the oxygen-transport protein in your red blood cells, and hemoglobin picks up oxygen molecules by having them stick to an iron ion. The process doesn’t work without iron, it’s a limiting factor in increasing blood volume.

Ferritin is another protein that carries iron. If your blood ferritin is low, it means low iron stores. We test ferritin every 3-6 months to keep ahead of any issues. They (exercise scientists) say it’s not even worth it to go to altitude if you’re under 35 ferritin. I’m 29. 🙄🙄

Have I defeated the purpose of those grueling six weeks in Mammoth? Jerry essentially says so. Or at least that I wasn’t optimizing my training. This is the 6th year since I’ve started this journey, since I verbalized my goal to go to the Olympics (at that time, I said I wanted to bring home a medal for my coach, Frank Gagliano), and dedicated my life to that pursuit. I’m a veteran, dammit. How could I fall in such a rookie trap. THIS IS YOUR ONE JOB.

I tell my parents and we have one of those conversations where I feel like I’m 12 again and they’re chastising me for procrastinating on the school assignment. Sheesh, people, can it be enough for me to be hard on myself? Mostly, I’m embarrassed, and I don’t like getting called out on that. I’m also confused. I’ve been supplementing with an iron pill every morning and night while in Mammoth. I follow protocol, I drink it with vitamin C, away from other food (as much as possible) and especially dairy products.

Anyway, let’s keep this in perspective. While it’s embarrassing, it’s probably the best possible thing to find wrong. Low iron is fixable, almost immediately. And it gives me a reason for some of the fatigue these past few months. As long as I have an explanation, I can convince myself it’s not just me, I’m not inadequate.

I do quickly identify a few things that could have gone wrong. A few months ago, on recommendation from a nutritionist, I stopped using the slow-release iron that has worked for me in the past and switched to a new supplement brand. I was taking it with Emergen-C packets for vitamin C (that helps with absorption), but those also contain calcium (which blocks absorption, hence the no dairy with iron rule). In trying to aid absorption, I may have been inadvertently blocking the supplement from doing its thing.

I switch to a Nature Made vitamin C, and back to the slow-release iron pill. Also, I do a deep dive on iron-rich food sources. Here is the list of food products and the amount of iron they contain. Some sources may not be as easily absorbed, I’m not sure how to distinguish those. (It would be nice if someone came up with a ranking for the amount of bioavailable iron per serving. That could be a one-day research project). Above all, I try to stay thankful. Last weekend, I was scared I may have a season-ending injury. Now, I’m already more optimistic about the US Champs and summer season. What a change a week makes.

Recovery champion

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After Prefontaine we did make an alteration. Jerry had me plan to return to sea level two weeks before US Champs. Altitude response is unique to individuals, and some athletes feel sluggish in the first few days down from a camp. Common knowledge is that it’s best to either race immediately, or two weeks after returning to sea level. For me, we are going with option #2, I’m staying in Portland from now until we head to Des Moines.

The plan was to run an 800m at Portland Track Festival. But my leg has been achy over the past few days, and we decide to pull out of the race and get some diagnostic tests. I’m freaked out that I’ve hurt myself, and I am exhausted. I fly home Friday, and stay in bed for the whole weekend. I read, and binge watch a new find on Netflix, Sneaky Pete. We are ten days from my prelim race at USAs.

Everything is so much better after the rest. I get an MRI to check the leg, and a blood test for low iron. A day or two after the low point, I’m scrolling Instagram and see an inspirational post about the importance of “process”. I have to give a cynical laugh as to how far off my process I am right now. A long weekend spent in bed watching Netflix, no running, and less than two weeks before the US Championships. I feel like a slob.

But I don’t actually think that’s a bad thing. Running has a “no days off” culture and I want to fit in. And process is important, heck, process is all I talk or think about 99% of the time. But the motivational quotes about process leave out a key point: results matter. In sport especially, all the pretty talk can’t hid that in the end there’s a race and there’s a winner. And sometimes talk of process goes awry when we obscure that point. Or worse, we hid our race anxiety by getting too fanatic about training. As if training were the goal. As if we turned in our training logs and they handed out the medals.

This year I’ve tried to average 70 miles a week. I try to the point of pulling silly stunts like going for a 10 minute evening run to hit an even number for the week. But there is no podium for perfect 70s. There is a podium next week. And in the end, I’ll do whatever is necessary to line up as ready as possible. My mileage is shot right now, and while I make self-deprecating jokes, I believe that between the injury scare and the exhaustion, this is exactly what I need to be doing. And I believe I’m about to beat all the people who would ignore their signs and do otherwise.

Photo by Talbot Cox

Starting from the bottom

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😴🧘🏻‍♀️💉⠀ ⠀

This week was all about getting healthy. I cut my mileage, and didn’t do workouts. That actually timed really well with crappy weather in Portland. It snowed a bunch, so the team wasn’t meeting for workouts anyway.

Also, I made an appointment with my PCP as soon as I got back (*plug* I have a primary care physician now for the first time since childhood and it’s GREAT, so much better than the scattershot approach with visiting urgent cares. Thank you to Julia and Emma for suggesting that I establish a relationship😘❤️). We tested for pneumonia, which I guess is a worry this year if you have chest congestion after the flu. Thankfully nothing there. Other than that, blood-work shows high lymphocytes, which just indicates fighting a virus. Sucks that there’s not much to do in that case aside from rest. But I did rest!!

Runs over the weekend felt better. The altitude boost is in effect. My legs are kind of achy still, but I’m hoping that continues to improve. And I’m looking forward to getting back on a group schedule this week.

Photo by David Bracetty

My Supplements and Workout Nutrition

Supplements can be over-hyped, and are not a very effective method of getting vitamins (which are better absorbed from a balanced diet of whole foods). They are not regulated like food or medicine, which means there isn’t a guarantee that what you’re taking is pure. Aside from the safety risks, there is also a doping violation risk with unregulated supplements. A bit more on that here.

For those reasons, I try to limit what I take to ones that are advised by a doctor, or have some research backing their use. I look for reputable brands that submit themselves to third-party testing. (USP and NSF are two well-regarded third-party regulators. The websites have databases of approved substances, and you can see their stamp on supplements they have certified for quality, purity, and safety). Based on those criteria, this list is what I currently take.

  • Iron*** – Slow FE Iron. USOC recommends Nature Made Iron 65 mg, and USATF recommends a liquid protocol with Ferrous Sulfate Elixir.  But whenever I’m low on ferritin stores, this is the one that has the quickest and most noticeable effect (as seen in a followup blood test). That said, it’s possible I was timing my intake wrong with the others. I will probably test them out again this year.
  • Vitamin C – Nature Made Vitamin C Chewables. I chew this before taking the iron, to aid in absorption (I do this on an empty stomach, in the morning upon waking up, before breakfast).
  • Vitamin D*** – Nature Made, or Thorne
  • Gelatin – Knox Gelatin, Unflavored. I eat this to promote collagen synthesis, and prevent injury to bone, ligaments, tendons, and cartilage. I make a jello dessert once every 2-3 days. (Though I’m currently trying out bone broth as a replacement). 
  • Golden Milk –  Gaia Herbs Turmeric and Ashwagandha blend. Turmeric for inflammatory properties, and Ashwagandha. I mix this powder into a smoothie in the morning. (I know I’m linking to WebMD… what’s a good source for lit reviews on this?)
  • Multi vitamin – Nature Made Prental. Prenatal because it has folate and B12, which are both good for blood building.

***Don’t supplement with iron or vitamin D without blood test results and instructions from a medical professional. Both can have negative effects if used when not needed.***


Workout Nutrition

  • Electrolyte Tab – Nuun Vitamins. I haven’t done an excessive amount of research on different brands though any time I try a powder, I find that I prefer the tabs. They are easy to keep and much less messy. Plus, you use half and not have to worry about an opened powder packet spilling in your workout bag. I also like that Nuun has different formulations, this one has a bit less sodium, so I don’t have to overthink if I’ve worked out enough to warrant using one. In the summer when I’m generally sweating more, I’ll put a tab in a water bottle to sip throughout the day.  The electrolyte formula has more sodium and magnesium, for a long run or hard workout day. 
  • Pedialyte – Magic powder! I love Pedialyte for rehydrating after hot summer long runs and workouts.
  • Gatorade – for sipping during interval workouts.
  • Protein powder* – Garden of Life SPORT Organic Plant-Based Protein. I put some of the vanilla powder in a smoothie every morning. Protein powders are one of two categories of supplement most commonly found to be tainted with banned substances, so it’s especially important to get a reputable brand, this one is NSF certified for sport.
  • Picky Bars*