‘You can be too passionate about something’

Olympic 1500-metres runner Lisa Dobriskey refused to accept what her body was telling her and pushed herself to try and recapture the high points of her career. It took four years before she finally saw the light and realised she was in love with running, not the competing side anymore. Here, she tells the story of her ‘unhealthy obsession’

Having recently read an article by Brad Stulberg entitled “The curse of being too passionate”, I felt compelled to share my own experiences.

I have been struggling with being on the verge of retirement from athletics for some time now. Most would assume that I had retired years ago seeing that my last race was at the British trials in 2013. That particular race ended with a big fat DNF next to my name after I ruptured my plantar fascia at around the 600-metre mark. After being carted off the track in a wheelchair I was determined to bounce back. I never imagined at that point that would be the last time I raced on the track.

Up until that race I had enjoyed a fairly successful career in sport, although injury had always played an overbearing role. Every season I had managed to overcome something or other. These were usually fairly big injuries and I prided myself on my resilience and ability to make it to the start-line year after year. Between 2006 and 2012 I’d had two femoral stress fractures, a fractured rib, a sacral stress fracture, a sprained SIJ, two calf tears, plantar fascia tear surgery on my hip, surgery on my knee, a pulmonary embolism and ongoing lower back problems due to a protruding disc.

There was never a nice, easy build-up. Every season was filled with panic. Cross-training, hours of physio and sheer determination meant I somehow always made it. I’ve always loved running and it’s always been the most natural thing in the world to me, but my body has always struggled with the training loads. I’ve always felt like my body let me down. I never appreciated that often I was just asking too much. I used to thrive on the challenge of getting back after an injury and overall I did OK.

I was fortunate enough to run in two Olympic finals, win a silver medal at a World Championship and run under four minutes for 1500 metres. However, it was never enough. I always felt I should have done better. Finishing fourth at an Olympics was just outside the medals. My silver was 0.01 away from gold. I don’t even know where I placed in London and my sub-four wasn’t a British record.

I never imagined that this would be the sum of my career. I always thought there would be so much more. Yet since that DNF in 2013 I haven’t been able to get back. I’ve had another stress fracture of my femur, another operation on my hip, another calf tear and a couple of bone stresses. To top it off my body just doesn’t move like it used to. For the past four years I’ve not allowed myself to accept that the 3.59 runner isn’t coming back.

To start with it was just another challenge. I was sure I could do it again. But after a while it became an unhealthy obsession. I became so focused on getting back to the athlete I once was I failed to see the person I was becoming. I just couldn’t comprehend the idea that my body didn’t want to do this anymore. I’d spend hours in the gym (my lowest point was an eight-hour stint going over every single physio exercise I’d ever been taught trying to figure out how I could fix things). I’d read every article I could find. I’d spend hours going over drills, cross-training and stretching, but it didn’t fix me. I kept going back every day and would keep going regardless of how slow the times were.

I’ve seen numerous physiotherapists, chiropractors, bio mechanists and specialists who all look at me like I’ve got a screw loose when I try to explain how I feel. It’s difficult to put into words. Some days were OK and there seemed to be some light, but the next day it could be a struggle to jog a lap of the track. My whole body just felt ‘off’. I couldn’t articulate movement. I tried training through, I tried rest and I tried every combination in between. I listened when people told me it was in my head. I would wake up with a sinking feeling in my stomach. I’d go to bed most nights in tears. I was so determined to get back that quitting was never an option.

My husband coached me and everyday he would be faced with the question: “Do you believe I can get back?” A slight hint of uncertainty would result in a tantrum and accusations that he didn’t believe in me. Any encouragement would be shot down with an outburst of questions as to why it wasn’t coming together. He could never win. I was impossible to live with. If I couldn’t do a workout, he was wrong for making it too difficult. If he tried to set something more achievable, he was making it too easy.

Social media was an absolute no-go. Peers were making running seem so easy, so much fun! But the motivational quotes were what got me the most. Quotes about perseverance, quotes about following your dreams, quotes about not giving up. How could I even contemplate doing something as shameful as quitting? My family knew not to ask. “It’s getting there” became my mantra. Friends would approach me with caution, unsure whether there’d be a crying fit or a smile. I went out of my way to isolate myself as it made me feel like I was being “professional”. I could at least control that part of my life.

I found watching the Olympics heart-breaking. I couldn’t get my head around the fact that it had happened without me. Running had moved on. It didn’t wait. I would watch athletes’ faces as they crossed the finish-line and was full of envy. I just wanted that feeling again, that euphoria. I would feel inspired and motivated reading the stories of perseverance and determination. I truly believed that all I needed to do was keep trying and it would all be worth it. But every day I got the same answer.

Shortly after that my sister-in law and her boyfriend came to stay with us (we live in Arizona so they came over for a holiday). Neither of them are runners. That was a real turning point for me. I didn’t want them to see how neurotic I had become so I went out of my way to hide it. For two weeks I was forced to let go. I made a commitment to enjoy every day with them. My husband would constantly reiterate to me that I was more than just an athlete. Eventually I began to believe it. I stopped feeling guilty about not training. I was happy and it had nothing to do with running.

It took me a while before I started to run again. I didn’t run to train for anything, but simply because I missed it. It’s what I love. I imagine running to me is what meditation feels like for some. I feel so at peace when I run. I’d managed to get so tangled up in ambition that I’d forgotten how good it felt to just run. I stripped away all of the timelines, workouts, paces and just jogged. If I felt like it, I stopped and walked for a bit. If I wanted to, I ran as fast as I could. I started focusing on enjoying the process, not stressing about an outcome. I managed to get that harmonious relationship back again.

Since then I’ve been exercising because I want to and I enjoy it. I hiked the Grand Canyon because it didn’t matter if I twisted my ankle doing so. I’ve said yes to (maybe too many) slices of cake and I wore ridiculously high heels to my sister’s wedding. I’ll always miss competing as I’ve raced since I was 11 years old, but it wasn’t worth losing my love of running for. There’s such a fine line between what’s necessary to succeed and what’s destructive. I owe so much to that “obsessive” side of my personality and it’s an essential component to being successful, but there’s a limit.

You really can become too passionate about something. It can consume you if you let it. I lost sight of what I was running for. So I don’t feel ashamed, or as though I’ve quit. I feel like I’ve been reunited with something that’s been missing for a long time.

That article by Brad is available at: http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2017/02/when-passion-becomes-destructive.html

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lisa Dobriskey, Professional 1500m runner. Lisa’s latest articles

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4 thoughts on “‘You can be too passionate about something’

  • 10th June 2017 at 11:36 pm
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    It is a shame that super athletes like Dobriskey end up in state described above. An amazing athlete that most will not get anywhere near, irrespective of the injury setbacks. You have much to be very proud of. I hope you will dwell not on the “What might have been” and more on the “What was”, which from where I’m sitting looked like a super career among the elite at a time when things were not really what they seemed. That was not your fault, or indeed within your control at all. Hard not to be moved by your frustrated trackside interview in 2012 London. It would be great to hear more from you if you felt able as I think you have a unique perspective and contribution to improving things in future.

    I don’t think that elite athletes are supported very well from a mental health perspective. It’s easy to watch people on the telly and suppose that everything is rosy, on the face of it it’s a high profile jet set lifestyle, but the pressures of maintaining form via lifestyle discipline and heavy training loads in an environment where travel is regular, money must be tight for the vast majority, and social isolation is frequent, must be immense.

    You did good. Really, really good.

    Al

    (just some punter, club runner (Wirral AC) and general athletics nut)

    Reply
  • 11th June 2017 at 5:25 pm
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    I understand her frustration, and her passion, and her desire to have done better. I hope she will some day appreciate that she was able to reach heights of success that thousands upon thousands of athletes, who had the same amount of passion as she, who worked just as hard as she, and who wanted success just as much as she, came nowhere as close to the success she achieved. Believe me, I am one of them. Now, at age 54, I have a very different perspective, and am quite proud of what I was able to achieve, and those few moments where everything came together very well in competitions are such great memories. I still compete, and I still want to do well, train to do well, and enjoy doing well very much, but when things don’t quite come together as I had hoped, it’s ok, because I know I’ll always enjoy keeping at it, and that regardless of how I perform, there are many more enjoyable aspects of my life.

    Reply
  • 12th June 2017 at 8:00 am
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    Awesome article
    All I can say is dido!
    GOD’S blessing in Your new journey

    Reply
  • 12th June 2017 at 12:39 pm
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    Weren’t you also Commonwealth Champion at some point, Lisa? You did an amazing job – you should be proud of what you achieved, not downhearted about what didn’t happen as you might have hoped. Enjoy your running!! xx

    Reply

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