It's OK to Take a Break
By: Cara Baskin
At the end of February, I stood at the summit of Carter Dome, alone at sunset, 4.5 miles from my car in single digit weather, with frozen water, my phone battery on 1%, and a 1000 ft drop of ahead on slippery snow. That would have been fine, but I was in significant pain. It was one of few times I felt scared in the White Mountains. This moment was the culmination of several months of a frenzied attempt at personal redemption.
It’s OK to take a break. This is a sentiment I share with you, but mostly need to convince myself of. For most people, winter is the time to take it down a notch, or at least hang up the running shoes and slap on big scary skis. Many of us emerge alongside the peepers with renewed energy for spring training and summer races. I usually feel the jittery excitement of springtime too, and jump on a yearlong circadian roller coaster which tops out in absolute mania through the summer, flattening out sometime in October when I have to find my spandex. Last spring I never got a ticket to the ride. Stoke was nowhere to be found. I came up with excuses on the weekends. The weather isn’t great. I should be a good friend and socialize instead of training. I’m tired from walking all day at work. I’ll wait till my body tells me to go.
Spring came and went. My looming 100 miler got bigger and bigger. I tried to convince myself I wanted to do it, and that I should believe in myself more. Maybe I do have it in me! Maybe all my walking will count. Maybe ultra is a mindset. Maybe that one long run will be enough. It wasn’t. I DNFed the race and cried about it for a month. Not finishing my biggest goal of the year was like spilling beet juice on a new white shirt. It would never go away and I’d always have to explain what happened.
After my pity party, I finally got in line for the roller coaster. August wasn’t the ideal time to strap in for the churn and burn of the year’s first build, but not finishing my ultra lit a hot, hot fire to prove to myself I could still go far. I quickly turned my attention to the Grid, checking off 4000’ ft peaks in the White Mountains I intended to hike each month (i.e. experiencing all 48 of them in each month, but over time, not in a calendar year). In the next 7 months I hiked 169 peaks, in addition to racing a 50 miler, then running 50 miles across the Grand Canyon and back, supplementing with non-mountain runs, and climbing a total of 377,000 ft of vert.
In those months, my toes, arches, achilles, calves, every millimeter of both knees, my IT bands, quads, hamstrings, lower back, and bruises from tripping had their duets with my growing irritability. But, as long as the pains moved around, that was a green light. The fatigue was already so many layers deep and I kept getting slower, but I just wanted to make it to March, a month I had already “finished my peaks.” At the summit of Carter Dome, the top of my left foot raised a white flag and said, “no for real, stop.” That night my sister told me, “You can decide to rest or your body will decide for you. And if it decides for you, it will be longer.” I met pain in the middle and we shook on it. Well, I bargained. I’ll give you two weeks off and you let me ease back in for the rest of the month. No vert. I promise to be smarter in the future! Please? March hit me hard. I called it Operation Chill The F**** Out, a month of intentional rest time coinciding perfectly with forced injury recovery, zero peaks on the spreadsheet, planned travel, and COVID, to top it all off. I’m lucky the foot pain turned out to be bursitis, which was healed with a steady diet of Aleve. The rest of the month was spent physically removed from the mountains, forcing me to forget what a hill was and focus on sleeping, eating and watching entire seasons of short-term love on reality TV. Taking a break allowed me to completely unwind from my obsession of the past seven months. No more neurotically checking the weather, measuring routes, assessing trail conditions or timing daylight hours down to the minute with driving and hiking estimates. An incredible amount of stress I personally placed on my shoulders was removed. My muscles healed and my mood improved. My skin cleared and my irritability waned. My appetite changed and my emotional bandwidth broadened. I had time and energy to focus on my life and relationships. It was a month of shaking the puzzle pieces that had been jammed together, and letting them fall back into place.
My unplanned break last spring had forced me into a frenzy to prove what I was capable of the rest of the year. I don’t regret it. My planned break this spring will reimburse the energy necessary to work towards this year’s goals. Most of my aches are gone, some linger. I can sit and stand without holding my knees. Did I permanently skew the yearlong circadian rhythm? Did I overtrust in the magic of an underwhelming amount of rest? Maybe it wasn’t enough. Time will tell. I’m still proud of myself for recognizing the futility of going hard in March when I want to go hard in July.
It’s OK to take a break. It’s OK if you overdid it. A good friend told me, “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.” I agree. Then acknowledge you overdid it and give yourself rest and praise for doing it. You can also take a break if you didn’t overdo it. Or if you didn’t do it at all! If you’re tired, if life is stressful, if you’re focusing time on family or friends or work or art or just not running, take the break. Your body and future goals will thank you.