The dark side of becoming an IronMan – mental health struggles (part 1)
January 18, 2022
Disclaimer: I have no medical background and nothing in this post should be construed as medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before making major decisions that could affect your long-term health.
For something that is so common amongst athletes, it is unfortunate that this topic is not talked about more often. It is long overdue from my side as well, but I wanted to do it justice and so it has taken a little while longer to write it (that, and procrastination). If you’ve done an Ironman or anything that demands anything close to it, chances are pretty high that you’ve experienced the mental health struggles that come with it. I’m going to call it what it is and not mince my words with euphemisms. It’s post-race depression, also refereed to as PRD for short.
PRD has varying intensities. As a runner I’ve experienced post-race blues before, after a big race or ultramarathon that demanded months of training. To me, that was a little rough, but pretty manageable overall. My friend Aashiek told me there would be mental struggles after Ironman, but it was said mostly in jest as he joked that his wife chased him out of the house to just go out and train rather than moping around in the house and irritating everyone with his moodiness. I thought it would be similar to the post-race blues I’ve experienced before. But NOTHING prepared me for what I was to experience after finishing my Ironman 70.3 in 2018 and full Ironman in 2019. If you are reading this as someone that has not experienced it before and feel that calling it depression is an exaggeration or that it doesn’t deserve the magnitude of that word…trust me, it does.
Many moons ago I went through a period of my life where I was depressed. It was brought on by a series of traumatic life events. At times I even questioned whether I wanted to continue living. When PRD hit, it felt eerily similar. The difference was that while in the former I couldn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel, and just couldn’t see the situation turning out well by any stretch of the imagination, with PRD I knew that it was temporary and at some point, it would end. I just didn’t know when. The fact that I knew it would end did not make the depth of emotions any easier.
I’m writing this from a perspective of an Ironman athlete, but the techniques I will discuss can be applied to other situations as well if you are going through something similar.
In the interest of not turning this into a novel, I am splitting it into 3 posts. In this post I’m only going to cover:
What it is and why it happens
My next posts will cover:
How to manage PRD as an athlete
How to support a loved one through PRD
So why does it happen?
Please bear with me as I provide some context.
Imagine you are on this journey to becoming an Ironman. The journey took years to play out. Maybe you had to learn to swim to do your first sprint tri like I did. Maybe you were a great swimmer and cyclist but couldn’t run to save your life and had to build up to being able to run the distance. Then closer to your big race you spend months living, breathing, and sleeping triathlon. Ironman becomes your sole focus for at least 4-6 months before the race. It’s 4am wake-ups and tough 5am/6am training sessions daily, and sometimes you have to smash an evening session too.
The other athletes become your closest buddies because you have no time for other socializing and they are who you see every day and banter with daily on the Whatsapp group. Also, there’s something about mutual suffering that bonds people unlike anything else, and training for Ironman is definitely mutual suffering. Yes it is self-inflicted, and yes we actually wouldn’t have it any other way because “hard is what makes it great”, but it still has to be endured and it does take its toll. Even if you’re not close friends with your fellow athletes, you share a bond like no other. As humans, we are hardwired to be tribal. Through the Ironman journey, you feel like you’ve found your tribe. It brings a feeling of safety, belonging, and identity. This is something that most people can search their entire lives for and still never find it, yet you have found it on this journey. It really is what brings people back to it again and again.
Then, you’re fighting through the fatigue of 15-18hr training weeks week in and week out. You’re balancing family, work, nutrition, and training. Sometimes it is impossible to keep all the balls in the air. And at times you question whether you have what it takes to finish this journey. The highs are euphoric and the lows are soul-destroying. But you make it through.
Then race week comes…
For days before leaving, there’s excitement about the race. Travelling to the race, half the plane is athletes, many of them from your tribe. My sister is with me, and sharing the experience with her was incredibly special. Friends, family, and colleagues are wishing you well.
Those few days leading up to the race, and race day itself is absolutely electrifying. It’s as if you are in another world, because nothing else exists really. While you’ve had to balance life for the past few months, now there is no longer any balance, but in a good way. You are now utterly and fully immersed into the Ironman experience and nothing else. You’re in this bubble with a village of athletes at the top of their game. The entire town is transformed into a race village, because let’s face it…this is the most exciting thing that happens in EL and PE. Everything you do for those few days is about the race, and it does take days. It’s getting ready, it’s course familiarization, it’s race briefings, it’s racking, it’s dinners, and the list goes on. Oh and SELFIES…gazillions of photos and selfies.
Now and then there’s a “so excited you can’t contain yourself moment”.
When Esther and I saw each other in the IM briefing hall, we were on either side of a long table and there weren’t many people yet. It was dark and there was loud music playing. When we saw each other we screamed and shouted with excitement and clamoured across the table for massive hugs. And of course, a picture. We kicked up a similar racket when we found each other at 70.3 bike racking the year before. We go way back and met while volunteering at the ATC relay race, and I’ve followed her journey ever since. She is one of my biggest inspirations. Now we were doing our 1st full Ironman together.
And then race day
Race day comes and it is the crescendo of the entire experience. I’m not going to go into the race experience because I’ve already written about it. I left it all out on the course that day to finish in time and to get that medal…to earn the rite of passage and be called an Ironman. The red-carpet finish line was every bit as rewarding as everyone makes it out to be. And then it’s all over.
But even when the race is over, PRD doesn’t hit just yet. There is plenty of good stuff still to come to keep that adrenaline going.
Another quick story: The night of the Ironman race, after the race was done and I had sorted out my bike, I went to take a nice hot bath before bed. When I was done in the bath, banter was still going on in the team Whatsapp group, and my friend Nic (who also did the race) DM’d me to say congrats. After he finished, him and Ashraf had waited for me on the finish stands but didn’t see me finish. I didn’t know they were waiting so I didn’t go to the stands. He was now grabbing a bite to eat at the casino’s restaurant because it was the only place still open at 1am. I was staying at the hotel attached to the casino so threw something over and went down to meet him. There wasn’t anything I could eat so I just chowed some of his chips. LOL. I didn’t care though. The company was much better than food could ever be. We ended up chatting for over 2hrs…and about much more than just the race. Our conversation went deep, but in the most fun and exciting way, the kind of chat that energises me (even after having been awake for almost 24hrs and finishing an Ironman in that time). It couldn’t have turned out better if we planned it. I realised that night that I have a connection with Nic that is not easy to find, and to this day he is one of my most special friends. Race weekend was probably the only time ever that it would be possible to have such a spontaneous meet-up, within minutes’ notice in the middle of the night. Under normal circumstances we would have to fit it in between “life” happening. But, he gets me…and I get him, so we do still make the time.
In addition to such enriching spontaneity, there is the general post-race excitement, flights home with a plane full of athletes, lots of congratulations from everyone back home. Because I was the 1st hijabi on that Ironman course there was a lot of media interest in me (even from other provinces) and I had a few radio interviews shortly after. All of this allowed me to relive the race and keep the excitement high for a while.
But then, a couple of weeks later…it all stops. This thing that has been a distant focus for years, and your sole focus for the past 6 months, is no longer there. You feel like a rug has been pulled from underneath you, sending you tumbling hard. What are you even supposed to do with your life now?
Life goes on. Everything returns to normal and you have to go back to your usual day-to-day activities. The problem is, you are no longer the same person. On the outside you still look the same, but you are so different. Ironman has changed you in a way that nobody around you can truly understand. It’s not their fault, because how could they possibly understand unless they’ve also experienced it? You are an Ironman now, and people see that as meaning you’re invincible. Why is it then that you feel so fragile? You’ve been on this roller-coaster and your insides are still recovering. Sometimes you feel like you don’t even fit into your previous life any longer, like you’re a square peg in a round hole, trying to fit back in but failing miserably.
As high performance athletes, it is our ability to hyper focus on a single massive goal that makes us so successful at what we attempt. When that object of hyper focus is suddenly taken away, we are equally susceptible to crashing spectacularly.
Race weekend being over also means they close down the Whatsapp groups. So now pretty much all the opportunity for spontaneous connection with people you have grown so close to is gone (note the operative word in that sentence is spontaneous, I know it’s still possible to connect, it just has to be deliberate). Overnight, you’ve lost your tribe. That’s where it was safe, and now you are all alone in the world, exposed. You struggle with identity because without them, who are you?
But if what I’ve described above is what I’m referring to, you’d be forgiven to think I cannot dare call it post-race depression. But that isn’t all, there is more to it.
What can happen to an athlete in the weeks after (and certainly what happened to me), is that a wave of almost-permanent sadness befalls you. And the worst part of it is when you don’t know what is happening to you. You’re confused, fragile, and mostly on the verge of some kind of emotional breakdown. You don’t know why you suddenly feel this way. I mean, you have no reason to be depressed. You’ve just completed a massive life goal successfully, and life is seemingly great from the outside. You have so much to be grateful for and happy about. You should be on top of the world! Plus, you no longer have those annoying 4am daily alarms for training. Why then, are you not happy?
Because it doesn’t make logical sense to you, you don’t speak to anyone about it. You’re afraid they’re going to think you’re crazy. I mean, there are people in the world with real problems and here your privileged self is being a cry baby for no apparent reason. So you keep it to yourself, and you suffer alone. Sometimes, when you’re visibly down and someone asks you what’s wrong, you do tell them. As suspected, they don’t understand and their response is most unhelpful to you. What was I thinking to believe they’d get it?, you wonder. So you go back to keeping it all in and suffering alone.
One day at work I had a disagreement with a colleague, a colleague who was also a friend. It wasn’t a heated argument, it really was merely a disagreement about something menial. I wanted the wall socket plug that we share to be on permanently, and she thought it should be turned off daily when we leave. She insisted on her option and declared that it shall be so. It felt like a dagger through my heart. I went on such a downward emotional spiral internally that I had to eventually retreat to the office bathroom for a sobbing session. I am not someone to get upset easily or to sweat the small stuff. Now I was crying because I couldn’t get my way about whether a plug should be on or off. Seriously Roggie, seriously?! I knew then that something was terribly wrong.
At home I was also not myself, getting irritated at my mom for the smallest things. My family didn’t deserve that part of me and I didn’t want to be that way.
Notice how the above situations have seemingly nothing to do with the race? Sometimes people don’t realise that it is connected.
I tried to research what I was going through, but I didn’t find any useful info online about it. There were surface-level articles, but I felt it didn’t really speak to what I was experiencing. It was more like a description of the milder form of post-race blues. It took me a while to realise that maybe I needed to put my own hypothesis to the test and go a little deeper.
You have a hypothesis Roggie? What’s the hypothesis?
Well, I thought about what clinical depression really is. It has very little to do with your situation you find yourself in, and everything to do with an actual chemical imbalance in your brain.
Simply put, most people who are depressed have something wrong with their brain chemistry. Life experiences can make things worse, but usually the dominant problem is chemistry.
– *William Walsh, PhD
People who don’t understand this shun and judge people who suffer from depression because they feel the person is in a state of ingratitude, and that they have no reason to be sad because they have a good life (from an outsider’s perspective). This is a narrow-minded and ill-informed perspective.
So here’s my hypothesis:
My suspicion was that the athlete is now also suffering from a chemical imbalance in their brain due to their level of happy hormones from the excessive exercise now dropping. It is not humanly possible to sustain the level of training required for an Ironman race for longer than a few months at a time. So when you instantaneously go from 15-18hrs of training per week to perhaps 4-5hrs per week (which is still a lot for a normal person), your body is starved of the amount of endorphins that your brain used to produce. Even though it may be higher than a normal person, it is far lower than what you’re used to and what your baseline has become.
The breakthrough was when I researched which hormones causes depression, and then which hormones are secreted through exercise. I expected a link, but I didn’t expect it to be this direct.
Lack of which hormones causes depression?
serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine
The release of which hormones are stimulated during intense exercise?
serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine
The hormones in the above table are called neurotransmitters, which in turn work to produce endorphins.
While I cannot even pronounce norepinephrine, it is certainly clear that the answers to the 2 questions are exactly the same chemicals. So my hypothesis was proven correct, one of the major causes of PRD was indeed chemical!
Great! So now you’re a square peg in a round hole, who doesn’t fit into their own life, who is starved of a life-changing experience they’ve just been through, who has lost their tribe and is struggling with identity and belonging, and who has a chemical imbalance in their brain. Sounds like someone who is pretty screwed, right?
There is hope…
The good news is that there is hope, and there are things you can do to make it more manageable. I’m going to go through that in my next post, so do check back on the blog tomorrow.
Research shows that if an athlete does not recover, post-race depression can morph into clinical depression. And we know that clinical depression is fatal! So it really is critical that it is addressed as quickly as possible.
In the documentary “The Weight of Gold”, Michael Phelps (5x Olympian, 23x Olympic gold medalist), admits to wanting to take his life on multiple occasions due to mental health issues relating to PRD. And he is arguably the greatest Olympian of all time, and by far the most celebrated one. Conservatively, it is estimated that over 80% of Olympians face similar challenges.
Getting back our non-pro, age-grouper, normal person athlete like me who had just completed a 70.3 or an Ironman… What this athlete often does not realise is that they are NOT alone. Most of their friends who did the race with them is going through similar struggles, each suffering silently without anyone speaking to each other about it. And if we just speak to each other about it, it helps a great deal.
Understanding what you are going through and having an idea of what causes it is more than half the battle won. You are not alone. You are not weak. You ARE a normal human being capable of feeling deep emotions of extreme highs and lows, and that trait makes your life richer. Let that sink in for a moment before we jump into dealing with it.