In my undergrad, I took a graduate class that involved a research project on the topic of my choice. I chose interleukins and cytokines. I knew NOTHING about them at the time. And while it may still seem that I know almost nothing about them, reading studies that showed muscle fiber damage well into the weeks, and maybe months post long distance race (mainly ironman), I got a better idea just how much damage races can do to the system.
I like to picture a race as a bomb to my body. In warfare, when the things that explode are released, there's an anticipation (oh shit!), initial destruction, boom, and then even more destruction as the shrapnel flies and things catch on fire. This season, I have begun to approach racing in the same format. "Oh shit, here comes the race, better prepare," suffices for the heavy anticipation. Then actual event, which seems to be so short that in driving back from a race, I have a hard time recalling events as they seem to all mesh together. Next comes da boom, wherein I am usually quite sore the day of ranging from 20mins to 5 hours post race, and then in many ways what happens next is a bit of a silent catastrophe.
Long term damage is done, and I don't think I ever realized exactly how long. In the past and even now, I can only really feel the damage for a few days, and then that sensation resides. Now, with power tap and a garmin to give me feedback on my output, I can actually see the damage that was done, and how, if I don't address it, long it will persist.
An example: After muncie last year I was sore for maybe 2 days. When the soreness gave way, I figured, time to get back to work! I shouldn't have. Basically, getting back to work 3 days post half ironman is like trying to open a theme park with the entire maintenance and cleaning crew on shift - things can run smoothly while just a few guest are through the gate, but when you try and run the park at full capacity (read as: high intensity), the maintenance staff busts out the dogs and shuts things down. Bottom line is, don't mess with those who have the keys, and in this case, those are your insides trying to bring you back to full power.
This is a tough lesson to learn. Especially if you're inexperienced and have just a touch of ego. I let muncie ruin the rest of my season last year because I did not gather all the papers it sent flying.
A race requires so much that afterwords I think there are two choices: fly or fall. With enough rest, yet easier steady training, a race can boost your fitness to a new level. Without, and a la ego, you can attempt to go hard like I did and get gradually shut down more and more until the lights are so dim you wonder where you are.
This season I have been extra sensitive to that. I want to do my last race in September knowing I'm the stronger than the beginning of the season, not weaker and barely holding on. Pay attention. Let the broken glass get swept before you cut your feet on it, again.