Fatigue and body aches after the expedition

It was only 30 months ago that we finished our journey. 30 months ago I was healthy and strong. 30 months ago, I could ride my heavily-laden bicycle long distances against horrific winds.

cycling in Tierra del Fuego

And yet now, I can’t.

Last week, I posted an article here on my blog about my health struggles. It didn’t take long before I heard from some pretty big names in the adventurer/explorer circles that I’m not alone. “It happens all the time,” they told me. “The crash and burn after a big expedition is more common than you think.”

And yet nobody wants to talk about it. We want to talk about the glory of the journey! The exhilaration of pushing our bodies to the brink and surviving! We want to talk about how strong we are – not how weak we’ve become.

We adventurers expect our bodies to perform like Olympic athletes, yet we don’t treat them that way. We’re living on a budget, don’t have trainers, and don’t even consider the long-term effects of what we’re doing.

“Why didn’t I crash and burn?” John asked me last week. “The kids and I did the same thing you did – but we’re okay.”

And that’s true. They did. Except for the pneumonia. And the ill-fitting crown that caused a chronic infection in my mouth for six months.

Still, we can never know how our bodies are going to react; we’re all unique individuals and our bodies are ours and ours alone. Some of us will make it through just fine. Others of us won’t.

Here’s my story of the build-up of the fatigue and body aches, in the hopes that those who recognize themselves at some point in the progression will seek help earlier rather than later. Getting to the crash and burn stage is no fun.


6 months post-expedition

I was lazy, there’s no question there. For three years, we had rested on rest days. And ate. Our bodies needed that. Knowing that we would pack up our bikes and move on, demanding a lot from our bodies, we rested on our rest days.

I told myself that I was now back home; I wasn’t going to be packing up my heavy bike for a while. I didn’t need to sit around and do nothing but eat. I didn’t need to refuel for the demands of our journey.

But old habits die hard, and we were in the habit of doing nothing on the days we weren’t on the bikes. Except eat. It didn’t take long to gain 15 pounds, but I was still in pretty good shape. I rode my bike while running errands. I went to the Y on a regular basis. I was getting soft, but it wasn’t too bad.

I had a reason for not feeling my best – I was becoming sedentary. As I saw it, this was just normal, after-the-expedition letdown.


12 months post-expedition

hiking the colorado trailAfter being in Boise for a year, I knew I didn’t feel good. Still, I had a reason – I told myself that my body was still adjusting from the extreme levels of activity, and hadn’t found a balance yet.

John and I both wanted to do something active; to get out there and challenge our bodies. We came up with the idea of hiking the 500-mile Colorado Trail. That sounded like the perfect thing to get moving again.

As I saw it, there was nothing wrong with my body; I had just been too sedentary. I had spent too many hours sitting at the computer writing my book. I needed to exercise more.


18 months post-expedition

By now, I knew something was going on. I didn’t feel good. I was tired. I was lethargic.

But still – I had ways to explain that. I had reasons.

Although I made it a point to ride my bike to the Y regularly, and I rode my bike around town while running errands, I figured the problem was that I spent too many hours in front of my computer.

I discovered that the walk through the parking lot to the supermarket was easier when I had a cart to lean on, so started looking for carts as soon as I climbed out of my car rather than picking one up inside. I rationalized that I was doing them a favor by bringing in a cart. I mean – I couldn’t be that far gone, could I?

I found excuses for cutting my errands short. Instead of going to five places, I went to three and then found a reason to put the others off.

Something was going on but, I still figured, it was nothing that a change in diet and more exercise couldn’t fix. I just had to relearn this diet stuff – after so many years on the road, I had forgotten how to eat healthily.

See? I told you I always had a reason.


24 months post-expedition

By now, I was seriously weakened. The fatigue and body aches were in full swing.  My bike sat, more often than not, in the shed. I still went to the Y, but I drove there and chose machines that were easier rather than harder. If I tried to push hard, I hurt. A lot.

I tinkered with my diet some more. I ate lots of veggies. I made juice daily. I tried this. I tried that.

I started planning my errands carefully, knowing that my energy level wouldn’t allow me to stop at more than two places. I timed my grocery shopping to go when I knew I would be able to park close to the entrance. I sometimes took the boys with me so they could run in and grab something.

I slept ten hours per day, but rationalized that somehow. I could always find a reason.


26 months post-expedition

I rallied out of sheer stubbornness and will power.

retaining wallOne day I saw a commercial for some sort of arthritis medicine talking about how imperative it is to stand strong and keep moving. To refuse to give in and park near the store entrance. To refuse to give in and stop doing the things you love. To refuse to give in and give up dancing.

I was determined not to give in. I wouldn’t let my body give up on me! If I just pushed through it, I could somehow get to the other side of this.

So long after the completion of our journey, I knew I couldn’t blame it on the expedition any longer – I was far enough out that my current lifestyle choices far outweighed the effects of what I had done before.

We headed to Connecticut to work on the cottage. “I WILL be an active participant,” I promised myself. “I will. I will. I will.”

And I was! I worked hard, and actually contributed to the fixing up of our cottage. Granted, a lot of my help consisted of running errands and making trips to Home Depot for materials, but that stuff had to be done by somebody. On top of that, I pushed myself hard and actually managed to build a couple of stone retaining walls. That made me hurt, but somehow… it was a small price to pay.


29 months post-expedition

It had been 29 months since our return to the USA. I arrived back in Boise after a summer at the cottage determined that I would, once and for all, regain my health. I was tired of being on the sidelines. I was tired of feeling like I couldn’t contribute like I used to.

I would drastically redo my eating plan, go to water aerobics every day, and take the dogs for a walk in the foothills. I can do this!

The water aerobics felt good; walking was painful. I mapped out a ¾-mile route in the foothills and determined that I would walk that route every day. There were days when I barely made it back to the car.

Through it all, I kept thinking about that commercial – about refusing to give in and accept a diminished life. No – I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. I refused. I kept going, even when I knew I shouldn’t.

And yet, in my mind, I knew I had no choice but to give in. Sure, I could park way out in the back of the parking lot, but would I be able to make it around the grocery store and back to the car? I could be stubborn and do the things I loved but when I was honest with myself, I admitted that I didn’t love them anymore. Because I hurt.

And yet I always had a reason. I could always come up with some explanation for what was going on. I was too sedentary, I reasoned. My diet wasn’t right. I wasn’t sleeping well.

I started planning out errands so I only needed to do one per day – getting in and out of the car multiple times was more than I could handle.

Okay then, I told myself, I have only myself to blame for this. I’ll just buckle down, eat right, and work out regularly. I’m in pain because I allowed my muscles to wither. I need to grin and bear it. No pain, no gain. Just do it.

And I tried. I really did. I went to the Y and I swam laps and I lifted weights.

And I hurt. A lot. And not in a good way.

Push through, I told myself. Just keep pushing. You can do it – you’ve always done it before.

But “before” I had never hurt like this.

Granted, there were occasional days when I felt well – and those days I pushed myself to go a bit farther. Inevitably, the next day I was in so much pain I could barely get out of bed.

Still, I kept telling myself it was just a matter of pushing through. Of refusing to give in. Of being stubborn and not allowing this body of mine to fall apart.


A new day dawning

The realization dawned slowly. One night when the pain was particularly bad, I took some Ibuprofen to lessen it. I slept particularly well that night. “Maybe that’s all I need,” I reasoned.

The next night I took more Ibuprofen.

And the following night.

Then Ibuprofen started getting me through the days too. “If I just take these pills, it will allow me to push harder. That’s good for me!”

My world came crashing down around me one night. As I got ready for bed, I reached into the medicine cabinet for my Ibuprofen. The bottle was empty.

At that moment, I was faced with two choices: I could lay in bed all night, unable to sleep due to the pain. Or I could drive down to WalMart to buy more Ibuprofen.

I started up the car.

That night, as I lay in bed reflecting upon that decision, I knew something was wrong. My body had betrayed me. This wasn’t just normal aches and pains. This wasn’t just the normal aging process. This was more. I had no idea what it was, but I knew that night that something beyond my control was happening inside my body.

I’ve already told the rest of the story – you can read here to see where that journey took me.

I’ve now identified that my body has developed sensitivities to both milk and wheat and I’ve eliminated them from my diet. I’m taking Vitamins B, C, D, and E. I’m allowing myself to sleep as much as I want and not feel guilty about it. I drive rather than ride my bike, and don’t feel guilty for that either.

The other day I managed to stop at four different stores for errands – and didn’t collapse from exhaustion. I thought that was pretty good. At the Y, I’ve moved on from slowly pedaling on the stationary bicycle to actually doing machines that make me work. A couple times a week, I take the dogs for a walk – I’ve mapped a new route that’s about three miles.

I know I still have a long road ahead of me. I know it’ll take time to get to where I want to be. I’m okay with that – I know I didn’t get to this point in a week, so I can’t expect to get out quickly either.

But now, I have knowledge. More knowledge than before, anyway. Now, I know that I don’t have to live that way. I don’t have to live with the pain, brain fog, fatigue and body aches.

Sometimes, it really is up to us. Sometimes, it’s a matter of us just taking control and doing it. But sometimes, it’s not.

I hope that if you see yourself in my words, that you start seeking answers. Find a naturopath and start asking questions.

Here are some topics to start your search:

  • Adrenal Fatigue
  • Vitamin D Deficiency
  • Food Sensitivities (I HIGHLY recommend you do The Elimination Diet to find out what foods you are sensitive to, even if you don’t think that’s the issue. I was very surprised.)
  • Thyroid issues


books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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12 Responses to Fatigue and body aches after the expedition

  1. Catherine Forest November 20, 2013 at 9:08 pm #

    Wow, Nancy… What a journey… Pain is terrible. Not feeling at home in a body that allowed us to do so much before is one of the hardest thing. I am so glad you have identified some important triggers. The elimination diet is the best solution for that. After years of trial and errors, I finally pinpointed the triggers for my terrible migraines thanks to a very thourough elimination diet. I truly hope you will find more relief in the months to come. Adrenal fatigue is a serious issue.

    • Nancy Sathre-Vogel November 20, 2013 at 9:19 pm #

      @Catherine Forest, It has been a journey – and so very confusing. I can’t say enough good things about the elimination diet – I learned more through that than I ever could have dreamed.

  2. John November 20, 2013 at 9:48 pm #

    Good luck with your road to recovery. I have to say for myself it can be tough after hitting a major goal. I didn’t go to Argentina on bike but just last month I ran 8 min miles and yesterday I was winded running a 12 min mile. Unfortunately, I think in my case it is just laziness but I am hoping to break through the mindset.

    • Nancy Sathre-Vogel November 20, 2013 at 11:14 pm #

      @John, I think our bodies, in general, intuitively know what they need – for the most part. If your body is saying that the run is hard, there is a reason for that. For me, it was a consistent thing over a long time that clued me in – but it really had to break me before I listened.

  3. woollypigs November 21, 2013 at 2:25 am #

    All the best to you and hope you recover.

    I know how you feel, we had to cut our tour short because of severe pain my arms, radiating out from my neck to my fingers. This started last year in Nov. I will wake up 2-3 times a night with numb arms and hands with pins and needles that hurt more than a hit on the funny bone and I struggle make a fist.

    I have had MRI scans, physio and other test and yet we still don’t know what caused it. My strength is weakening, I don’t really trust my hands any more so working or DIY is becoming slow and not often. And every time I get on a bike I feel the pain coming back fast, so I have only cycled 5 times this year and short journeys they were too.

    What frustrate me is that 11 months down the line we don’t know what is going on, I could live with knowing what it was no matter what it was even if there is a cure, it is the not knowing that is killing my mood.

    • Nancy Sathre-Vogel November 25, 2013 at 12:03 pm #

      @woollypigs, 🙁 I am so sorry. I agree that the knowledge is so important – once I identified my food sensitivities, my mood shot up. Yours sounds dreadful – and scary! I hope you find some answers soon.

  4. Hannah November 27, 2013 at 1:31 am #

    I know traveling is supposed to be really fun, but when you are doing it for more than 3 months, you get really exhausted and you get travel burnout. We felt that 3 months on our travel, realizing that “Shoot! we want to go home!”. But we have to stay true that traveling was our passion and we should keep remembering why we did this.

    • Nancy Sathre-Vogel December 1, 2013 at 8:59 pm #

      @Hannah, It’s a tough balance. If it’s at the beginning and you’re just in the throes of culture shock to the new lifestyle, it’s worth pushing through. However, there comes a time when you’re ready to stop. It can be hard to know the difference.

  5. gabi (the nomadic family) November 27, 2013 at 9:16 pm #

    you are so powerful, also when weak at times. i love that you allow yourself to be tired, drive, and nap. you’ll get there, one step at a time. so much love to you, gabi

  6. Julie December 5, 2013 at 12:22 pm #

    I have had all of those symptoms/health issues, but mine wasn’t as a result of doing something as strenuous as you. Mine came after me after my second pregnancy/third child. I would fall asleep anytime I sat down (there were more issues, but this one was the worst), even if I had just woke up 1-2 hours before. Once the issues were identified, it was a several weeks before I felt somewhat better. I think we have mostly lost the ability to listen to our intuition and our body. Now I am much better and no longer have any of the above issues, but I can say I have learned to listen to my body and I do what it tells me. Good Luck sorting everything out! It isn’t an easy task, but it can be done with time and persistence…the same attributes that helped you complete your bike ride.

    • Nancy Sathre-Vogel December 10, 2013 at 10:14 am #

      @Julie, You are so right that we’ve lost the ability to listen to our body! We need to get in tune with it – or we suffer. A lot. Happy to hear you are feeling better!

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