Tad is a Tiny Hummingbird

TadBlackBirdFinalThis year Tad Elliott will have a sticker on his Salomon skis depicting a hummingbird. Generally when we do special stickers for people it’s something whimsical, or a bit tongue in cheek – a way to poke some gentle (or not so gentle) fun. Tad’s hummingbird is different, and a whole lot more meaningful to him. To understand you need a little background.

HoboTadFor the past two years I’ve had the privilege to be an advisor and consultant for Tad as he works on a comeback from one of the more severe cases of overtraining I’ve seen. The process has taught me a lot about the physical response to training, and the difference between a body that is responding well, and a body that is responding poorly. It’s also taught me a lot about Tad, and some bigger lessons about navigating challenges, accepting limitations, and working within your capabilities.

Tad is a young guy with a pretty impressive athletic history. He’s one of the very few men in the US to have scored distance World Cup points. He’s been a national champion and an American Birkebeiner champion. He’s also got a background as a pro mountain biker; a U23 national champion with European World Cup experience on the bike as well as skis. But the past two years isn’t the first time in his life that Tad has faced a bit of adversity. He got off to a rocky start.

Tad&EvanTad and his twin brother Evan were born eight weeks premature. Tad was 3 lbs 11 ounces, and Evan was 3 lbs 14 ounces. By the time he was three days old, Tad had been through a failed abdominal surgery and two arterial line catheterizations via the jugular, with additional catheters in his arms for monitoring. He spent the first six weeks of his life in an incubator, and the medical staff was concerned that he was fighting too hard.

A nurse at St Mary’s hospital became very fond of tiny little preemie Tad, and she wrote a poem and taped it to his incubator.

I’m a tiny hummingbird
safe within my nest.
They say someday I’ll grow to be
as big as all the rest.
So just for now I’ll stretch my wings
and reach them to the sky.
Then close my eyes and dream about
the day I really fly.

Tad has always been a fighter. He did end up growing, but he still hasn’t quite gotten to be “as big as all the rest”. He’s a normal height, but he’s so skinny he disappears briefly if he turns sideways. Speaking from experience I can say that us smaller guys tend to have a bit of an attitude. If his doctors were concerned that he was fighting too hard back when he was a preemie in an incubator, I wonder what they would have thought about the way he was training in the spring and summer to 2013. He was cut from the US Ski Team after the 2013 season, and he was determined to get back to the training methods that had brought him success to start with. But he replaced a whole lot of hours on the bike, with a roughly equivalent number of much more strenuous hours on rollerskis and foot.

TadStickers-009By the time you’ve been through Mono and ongoing complications with Epstein Barr, you never really know whether the virus took you down randomly, or whether you created a good habitat for a debilitating disease by beating your system down with too much stress. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

Tad and I had worked together for quite a few years on skis. We had spent plenty of time talking about life and skiing. There was plenty of mutual respect and a good friendship in place. But we first started talking about his training and health shortly after he got really sick. The fall of 2013 was fought as a rear-guard action to find stability and health and save a ski season while fighting a mono infection. It didn’t go too well. Tad raced in West Yellowstone, and it was bad. He started the 30K at US Nationals, and spent half the race in the pack with his heart rate high in the 190s, before he simply couldn’t keep going. So he stopped.

TadStickers-008Six months (of no exercise) later Tad started to work on returning to ski racing. The first step was regaining his health. In the time since June 2014 he’s made a lot of progress, but the goal remains the same: health and stability. Throughout the process Tad the fighter has had to change his tactics. Often enough it’s the cost of the effort spent fighting for our goals that ensures we come up short. Tad’s been on a tight budget. He hasn’t been allowed to overspend, so he’s had to fight differently. He has systematically and conscientiously built himself up with small steps, ensuring that he always sees a positive response to the training. Even so, he has had regular health episodes in which his compromised and confused immune system has flared-up – a constant warning against over-reaching. Along with the flare-ups, he’s had some modest successes – a few good races last season in spite of ongoing health issues, and a gradual but marked improvement in his health and stability. As time passes his immune system flare-ups are less frequent, and less severe.

Tad is no longer one of the young guys in US skiing. He’s got a palmares that any of us would be happy with. It’s totally unclear what the shape of his athletic future will be. I’m convinced that he remains one of the best talents the US has got. Health problems happen, but I’ve never seen capacity just dry-up. It’s in there. “Peak oil” is a term that’s been popularized by necessity, and is widely understood. We haven’t seen anything close to “Peak Tad” – we haven’t seen an incipient decline. We’ve seen a total interruption and restart. He hasn’t trained a lot this year, but he also hasn’t dug himself a hole. We’ve been charting his progress and recovery state using Firstbeat technology, and it’s been a revealing process. As I see the performance levels that he’s reaching on the very conservative training load that he’s been allowed to carry, I’m starting to believe that the tendency to overreach in training is far more common than I had previously understood. Tad is operating with a patience and maturity that I’m tempted to call “wisdom”. It’s a very different fight than the old fight. This is not an attempt to regain old form; it’s a whole new process, and I believe it can eclipse the old Tad entirely.

Just now, Tad is stretching his wings. He’s stretching his wings because he’s left himself room to stretch his wings. I can hardly wait to see this hummingbird fly.

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