6 months ago, I was in Ottawa, taking part in what would be the last race of my season, the last little breeze needed to topple that fragile castle of glass that seemed a fortress, built upon years of hard work and dedication but frailer than ever. After the best year of my career in 2016, the darkest depths in 2017.
6 months. As much as it seemed like an eternity, as much as it all seemed to pass as a whirlwind. A long, tortuous road, filled with deep questionings, moments where life seemed so simple, brutal lows, but always to get back up on my feet. Three months from now, for the very first time I considered to maybe try a come back in triathlon, after three months spent seriously thinking of walking away from it all. Three tumultuous months spent leaving my mind drifting, away from the stress of decisions, navigating aimlessly a sea of thoughts to see where it would lead me and reigniting that flame of passion for the sport, who had been flickering so close to extinction.
6 months and many enlightening conversations later, I have the certainty that overtraining is far from a rare case, just as burnouts are in more conventional professionnal fields. Whether it was ex-athletes, relatives or various horizons, so many showed heart-warming compassion and understanding, various through firsthand experience, and led to agree that it’s a problem that’s far more subtle, complex and inexplicable than we can conceive or understand.
Inspired by a fellow triathlete’s blog that I read recently, I can recognize that the perfectionist inside of me has long struggled for balance and stability. At school, in sports, in my personal and social life, in generosity, in money, in sponsors, the same obsession to be THE best, nothing less. THE most efficient. THE most talkable. THE most generous. THE best at managing everything, while disregarding the fact that this obsession on being the best seemed increasingly unhealthy. This obsession on pleasing others before myself, overlooking the basic fact that I needed to take care of myself in order to give to others in a durable and healthy way. Perfectionism, at a certain dose, is certainly beneficial and arguably essential in elite sports, but where is the line between optimisation and self destruction? This 24/7 quest for perfection, with its massive mental and physical toll that can lead so quickly down a dangerous path, how can it be dosed? For some people, learning comes by experiencing it yourself; that’s definitely my case.
Sometimes, falling a long way down makes you see how far your path had diverged in the wrong direction. It may seem very cliché, but it felt unbelievable to recognize how far I had wandered from my true self, and it felt amazing, after many months of reflection, to feel like I was on the right path, my right path, again. After having gone as far into this overtrained state that nonexisting motivation was the norm, losing and forgetting things became a habit, concentration capacities a fraction of what they used to be, a nonexistent emotional stability and a perpetually dark, menacing cloud over my head, following my every move and invisible to all but me. Even with what seems in hindsight a huge, flashing, screaming ”Warning” sign right in front of my nose, I kept running full speed towards the edge of a canyon. Spoiler alert: tumbling down a cliff hurts (quite a bit). Just like the coyote in Road Runner, it takes a second or two before you realize you’re falling, but when you do, brace for the impact because it’s gonna hurt. Mine was June 19th, after Ottawa.
After such a long time passed stubbornly ignoring whatever signal my body was trying to communicate, it’s hard to suddenly be attentive to those subtle messages without falling into another imbalance. Isolation seems so tempting. It’s so easy to fall into another extreme after an intense emotional roller coaster, so easy to be fiercely defensive, suspicious of everyone, so easy to play that alluring blaming game where everyone is guilty except for you, leaving no place for introspection. It can be very hard to accept that ultimately, a part of the responsability from this situation falls on your own shoulders, all without destroying that feeble self esteem remaining. Reach that famed balance, walking on razor’s edge, where a simple breeze makes you lean dangerously to one side or another.
Being a young athlete in a late development sport, I feel it’s way too easy to lose sight of the long-term objective. It’s so challenging to keep everything in perspective when lacking some current indicators of a future greatness in the sport I love and that I dedicate my life to. Being an experienced over-analyzer, this periodically represents a major hurdle, but sometimes thinking too much is like thinking too little. The huge challenge now is to detach myself a bit more from all of these answerless questions, while staying open for new opportunities and reassessment. To avoid comparing myself to others, eternally tempting but such an easy opportunity to kick yourself when you’re already down.
While overtraining is already a difficult road to travel on a personal scale, it proves even more challenging to talk openly about the issue, leading to what I feel is a lack of public discussion on a very serious and underestimated matter. On top of the mental health taboo, for a young male athlete, the idea of masculinity conveyed by our society feels like an extra hurdle before the critical realization that the mind and body can’t take it anymore. A man is supposed to be strong, manly, never showing or discussing any emotions whatsoever in fear of looking weak, being judged too feminine; barriers that can prove even harder to overcome on your own, without any help. Talking and writing can be quite challenging, but doing so can relieve immensly, hence the kind of therapy I feel I’m going through by sharing these experiences with you.
Some positive in all of this? It feels quite blissful to be closer to my true inner self when I’ve spent so long wandering away from it. It’s intoxicating to give myself the permission to dream again, when for so long the perfectionist inside, perhaps by fear of failure and of anything that isn’t perfect, had consciously or unconsciously destroyed access to that ability.
I finally feel like I’m starting to get out of this pit too deep to climb out of alone, benefitting of 6 months of retreat, reflexion, with the invaluable help of family, friends and many professionnals. Once again, I’m dreaming of that same old normal level of training, of training hard, of surprising myself by how far I can exceed what I thought was my limit. It would be dishonest to say that everyday is like a dream; it’s so easy to fall back into the same, old patterns that brought me here in the first place, and challenging to change those habits and steer away from the same situation in the future. However, it feels good to put things in perspective, it feels good to really not give a damn about other’s point of view once in a while.
How much time before a full comeback? Still undetermined. 3 months? 6 months? 1 year? Impossible to know at this moment so no plans, no stress. I have a very exciting team of specialists guinding me at the moment, and while I really hope my comeback will be sooner than later, I’m ready to put in all the hard work necessary to make a intelligent, healthy comeback. Today’s great, tomorrow might be tougher, but I’m willing to make these sacrifices again, dreaming for the future, dreaming of accomplishments, dreaming of personal growth, dreaming of travelling to unbelievable places and meeting amazing people. Simply be happy, to be able to look back on these years and feel proud of the path travelled and the unbelievable journey. Life can be shitty sometimes, but it’s always a question of perspective: aren’t the biggest failures the most valuable lessons? A classic, but timeless saying. Life would be quite boring if we’d all know what would happen tomorrow, and I’m determined to keep travelling this intriguing road to unknown adventures.
Preferably with an imperfect balance along the way.