I hope that what you are about to read does not resonate with you. Let me tell you a story of sleep.
My stomach. Oh god, my stomach. How is this even hunger? There has to be another word for what this is. It doesn’t feel like hunger. It feels like someone cored out the center of my body with a drill. And I am sweating. It’s not because I am hot. Am I hot? I feel cold. The sheets, my pajamas...all soaked. Do I have extra sheets? I have to get up and change my shirt. But, if I get up, I am UP and I need to sleep. Close my eyes, just ignore, you can try to keep sleeping. No. This is ridiculous. I need to see a doctor. I think I might be dying. This can’t be right. Is my thyroid medication off? Maybe I have the flu. No. I am not sick. My legs hurt...so bad. My quads… Maybe I need to stretch more. See? This is what happens when you jump back in the car after being on the trails all day. Dammit Jill, you have to stretch more. Get up, get up, fix the hole in the stomach. What’s in the pantry? Almond butter? Ok. Come on, get up, change the t-shirt. It’s almost 4:30. You only have 45 minutes until the alarm goes off. The clock is ticking. Stay up? Yes. Make some coffee, get the day started. Breakfast will help. Long day ahead of you...seeing clients in the city...then running...gotta pack snacks...you can do it...you’ll sleep this weekend. Now, go.
It didn’t start off this bad.
In the past, running replaced rest in so many ways. There were days that I was exhausted from work, or even just life, but all I wanted to go was get outside and beat my feet for a couple of hours. Why would I come home after work and chill with a cup of tea when I could run ten miles around town? Most mornings, I didn’t even need my alarm to ring. I was so excited to get up and out that my eyes would pop open ten minutes before, my belly filling with butterflies. Sure, extra sleep would be great, but I wouldn’t be getting my “fix” for the day and that was just unacceptable. I wasn’t “not resting”, I was just training when it fit into my day.
But soon, the edges of my day started to blur. I would go to bed, but found that sometimes by 3:30 or 4:00 am, sleep was impossible. On those days I would lay there scrolling through my phone until maybe 4:30 or 5:00 and then get up and head out to run. Why not? I’m just laying here. It’s no big deal. I can go to bed early tonight. It’s just this once.
Seven or eight hours of sleep turned into five or six, sometimes just four. I tried meditation, counting backwards from 1000, breathing techniques. Eventually, I figured out that I could get back to sleep after a snack. I am embarrassed to tell you how long it took me to make that connection. Who knew anything about blood sugar at that time? Not me. I would get up, trudge to the kitchen, stick a tablespoon of almond butter into my mouth, drink some almond milk, get back in bed, pray.
The more sleep slipped away from me, the worse things got. Little by little, I was breaking. If the stars aligned, I might be able to nap. It was never enough. I was digging deeper, getting down beyond what a few days off could fix. Some nights I would try to stay up extra late thinking that maybe sheer exhaustion would put me out. I would be lucky to get an extra hour on those nights, maybe. Nights after long runs or races were the worst. There was no reprieve from my twitching, jerking muscles and more torrents of sweat.
It wasn’t just “sometimes” now, it was “all the time”. The sweats got more vicious, the butterflies in my stomach more venomous, the pain in my legs searing. It all rolled over into my day. How could it not? I was miserable, still pushing, and feeling trapped. I had no idea what the problem was. My ignorance and blatant stupidity astounds me. But, I know what you know, which is that I didn’t want to know.
I was totally convinced that it had nothing to do with running. I was running just fine. I think. Maybe a little tired lately, but still kind of ok. Maybe. Sort of.
I kept Googling my symptoms, looking for an answer. Funny how I never found the words I needed to read, “YOU NEED TO STOP RUNNING, JILL. YOU NEED TO FIX YOUR DIET AND SIT THE EFF DOWN.” Even if I did read that, I can’t promise you that I would have done it. The truth can be right in front of us, even right on us like a sweat-soaked t-shirt at 4:00 am, and we can’t see it.
I once read that sleep is a golden chain that binds our bodies and health together. My chain was broken to bits. The pain of it was one of the things that finally made me stop running. I just couldn’t take the lack of rest anymore. I couldn’t deal with that raw edge of night like a blade slicing at me. I wanted peace. I wanted to close my eyes and feel my body just float over waves of sleep. Until I stopped, peace never came.