When Passion Turns to Burnout: Lessons from 16 Years of Endurance Sports
I’ve been training and racing for almost 16 years. That is a long time to be heading to the outdoors to push myself in the swim, bike and run. I’ve always been driven by the thrill of pushing my body to its limits, testing my resolve, and chasing the next big race. But like many others who share this passion, I found myself facing an unexpected adversary, not once, but twice: burnout. How did my passion turn to burnout?
The first instance came after a particularly grueling year. For a number of years, I would race a 100 mile ultra in February and an Ironman in late September/October. This spread worked as it allowed me to recover and move my mindset from one type of sport to another.
The Quest for Western States 100: Racing for Tickets and Dreaming of the Start Line
The reason I was racing these 100 miles was so that I could secure lottery tickets for the Western States 100. This was the goal. I dreamed of being at the start line with 300-ish other athletes, feeling the tension and camaraderie. The finish line after going around the track was something I envisioned for years. So, I raced to get tickets.
I raced Rocky Raccoon 5 times but it was the last time that set me up for burnout. When I registered for the event, I had no idea, it would turn out to be the kindling for a year of endurance sports fires getting extinguished.
I was already training for Rocky Raccoon when the Western States lottery took place. As fate would have it, my name was drawn. This was the 5th year so while I hoped I would get in, I didn’t think I would. Then my name showed up on the entrant list and a big year had gotten even bigger.
Signs of Impending Burnout: Ignoring the Warning and Drifting Away
I was now committed to two 100-mile trail races and an Ironman within the span of 8 months. As the races drew closer, I could feel the weight of my commitments bearing down on me. I was waking up early, running doubles, and juggling my training with the demands of everyday life. Despite my best efforts, I wasn’t fully present. My work suffered, and I was so exhausted I would find myself drifting off mid-conversation.
The signs of impending burnout were there, but I ignored them until one day on the massage table, I found myself uttering the words: “I cannot wait for all of this to be over.” That sentence was a wake-up call. I realized that I had lost sight of why I loved endurance sports in the first place. I DNF’d during the swim of Ironman Wisconsin. Committing to more than one major race per year was something I had to consider.
Was my time training and racing for multiple ‘A’ races a good use of my energy? Would I be better off focusing on one major event then entering smaller races in places that were exciting to me?
Cocodona 250: A Different Encounter with Burnout and a Shift in Perspective
But then came the Cocodona 250, a 250-mile race that took me 4.5 days to complete. This time, burnout hit differently. I wasn’t overcommitted or juggling multiple races. But the build-up to the race had been so intense that when it was over, I felt lost. Races that used to excite me no longer held the same appeal.
This second bout of burnout led me to reevaluate my approach to racing. Instead of focusing on long, grueling races, I started seeking out shorter, more enjoyable ones. I chose races that were new to me, in locations that excited me.
Embracing a New Approach: Seeking Enjoyable Races and Competing for Myself
Through these experiences, I learned that while I am a competitor at heart, it’s essential to stay present and compete for myself, not others. I learned to seek out races that interest me, that offer me more than just a physical challenge, but a fun and fulfilling experience.
These experiences have given me a lot of insight. I’m ready to race a 200 again, but now understand that what follows that isn’t going to be another 100 mile race or an Ironman. Triathlon is coming back to my blood but mostly as the cyclist, or even a swimmer, on a relay team.
As I age, my goals are shifting. The lessons over these past 16 years are emerging to show me how to embrace endurance sports from a different angle so that I can avoid burnout. I want to be here so that I can pin a bib on that shows me in the M70-79 category, maybe even the M80-89 category. To do that, I have to remind myself why I’m doing the things I do. The answer is to have fun.
Advice for Those Facing Burnout: Reflecting on Goals and Finding Joy in the Journey
To anyone facing burnout, my advice is to take a step back and ask yourself, “What are my goals? Who am I doing this for?” Focus on enjoying the journey and pursue what genuinely interests you, not just what earns you a pat on the back or a dopamine hit on social media. After all, the joy of the sport lies in the journey, not just the finish line. Have fun and don’t allow your passion to turn into burnout.