As Jenna Fesemyer sets her sights on the Berlin Marathon and beyond, she has been training with determination, pushing her body to the limits, striving to achieve greatness on the grandest stage. We would expect nothing less from Jenna, who pursues excellence with the same energy and enthusiasm that she greets the world with.

Jenna is a competitor in the truest sense of the word, but as she shares, that sometimes comes at a cost. Many athletes struggle with balance between their race training and their overall health, as warning signs give way to goals. Jenna’s experience with overtraining is something we all can relate to, and she shares her story with the hope that we can be empowered with the knowledge that we are enough, peaks will always proceed valleys, and recovery is possible.

On the morning of Thursday, April 13, the Illinois Wheelchair Racing Team had a taper session on the track. We were finishing our preparation for the Boston Marathon, which was that upcoming Monday. I remember feeling particularly drained that morning. So tired, in fact, I told my training partner that I would hangout behind the draft line in case I fell out of pace. My arms, feeling depleted, finished the workout and I trotted home to recover. Very shortly after, I experienced a fever, muscle cramps, dizziness, and an unusually high heart rate. I remember driving home and turning on my heated seat and steering wheel, although the temperature in Champaign, Illinois was almost 80 degrees. Little did I know, later that day I would land myself in the hospital for emergency care.

Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) and Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) are diagnoses I had never heard before but are now frequent terms in my vocabulary. Over the winter months, my lifestyle led me to this new reality that benched me from the Boston Marathon and dampened my performances for the next several months. OTS and RED-S are consequences of under-eating paired with high volume training. They are also consequences of not prioritizing rest and recovery. Although I was initially surprised at this discovery, I can see the signs of my fate as I look back. Some key elements of my journey were: losing 15lbs and my menstrual cycle, obsessively under-fueling, forming disordered eating habits, and not listening to my teammates and coaches when they suggested recovery methods.

Returning to full health after my diagnosis has been its own marathon. Recovery has required an “all hands on deck” approach from my coaches and medical team. It was, for me, the first time where I didn’t feel at home in my body. I can compare my feelings to a caterpillar stuck in a cocoon. I needed to break out of my cocoon to return to my full form, but I felt pinned down. How do you escape the mental traps of body dysmorphia and disordered eating? How do you tell your loved ones and employers you’ve been struggling for months? Recovery is necessary for optimal performance, but the leap seemed at times unbearable. It has required an active investment into reversing my lifestyle by returning to my normal body weight, having proactive strategies around recovery, and mitigating stress through other avenues such as meditation and yoga.

My recovery process has also been subjected to months of testing (EKGs, ultrasounds, blood work, DEXA scans, etc.) to fully calculate my personal consequences of OTS and RED-S. It has also meant months of documenting my affective mood as I’ve returned to consistent training, monitoring qualitatively my enjoyment of exercise and physical activity. And finally, last month, I heard the words “Overtraining Syndrome Remission” from my medical team, noting my progress and a professional “stamp of approval” to return to competition and high volume exercise.

The more I share my story, the more I hear that many female athletes struggle with similar thought patterns and realities.

As I’m still processing my experience, I continue to be frustrated that OTS and RED-S are understudied, particularly for female athletes. The more I share my story, the more I hear that many female athletes struggle with similar thought patterns and realities. I’m hoping that the sharing of my experiences as an elite athlete with a disability will reduce the stigma around this topic and aid in normalizing conversations around mental health and body dysmorphia. Through having these dialogues, we change the discourse of what a healthy athlete “should” look like. We take away the power from the destructive choices that lead to negative health outcomes. We find community through our sharing and we educate each other on best practices for female physiology, helping women who are currently struggling in sport and protecting younger girls as they come up through the pipeline.

It has been a long “flight” to return to competitive racing for me. With my new toolkit of training strategies and with the help of my community, I feel healthy enough to continue wheelchair racing. I also feel ready to ramp up my training and attempt to qualify for the Paralympic Games in Paris next year. My next goal, however, is to receive my 6th star of the Abbott World Marathon Majors at the Berlin Marathon in September. I’m excited to celebrate my 6-star and to use this accomplishment as a beacon of hope for female athletes to know that if they are open and honest with themselves and others, they too can recover and still continue to achieve their goals.

Want to read more from Jenna? Read her bio, watch her 18 questions video, or follow her on Instagram.

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