Megan Markoff: CrossFitter Turned Triathlete

We hate to brag, but we’re pretty proud of Megan for qualifying in her age group for the 2022 Ironman 70.3 World Championships. Not bad for her first triathlon. But more importantly, we’re psyched to see Megan return to competitive sports following a major health crisis in 2018 that ended her dream of qualifying for the CrossFit Games. We talked with Megan about the highs of elite CrossFit competition, the lows of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S), and her comeback as an endurance athlete.    

How did you get into CrossFit?

In 2013, I was working as a staff scientist at an environmental consulting firm in Los Angeles when Andrew accepted orders to Camp Lejeune, NC. He had a choice between San Diego and a swamp, and he picked the latter. And after he plopped us down in Hampstead, NC, he left on deployment. To make matters worse, Hampstead really didn’t have many career opportunities for a budding environmental scientist. I took a job remediating hazardous environmental sites, which I hated. I was bored out of my mind and miserable.  

So one day, I walked into the local CrossFit gym, just to try something new. I didn’t know anyone in Hampstead, and the community I found at that gym hooked me immediately. I was also pleasantly surprised to find I was good at it. After a few months of training, I placed 4th in our gym’s in-house competition. Afterwards, the head coach pulled me aside and told me that I would’ve won if I’d been able to do double-unders. I felt like I had athletic potential again. Athletics have always been a part of my identity as I started competing in sports in elementary school and played soccer and lacrosse throughout high school and college. After seeing the progress I’d made in a few months of CrossFit, I was hungry to be an athlete again and see how far I could go. 

Eventually, going to the 5:30 CrossFit class became the best part of my day, and I found myself racing out of the office, much to the dismay of my boss, to get to class on time. I eventually found myself at a crossroads. I could either continue working a stable job that I hated, or I could pursue something I was passionate about. I chose the latter and started coaching at our gym and training with a squad of competitive CrossFit athletes several hours a day. I trained hard. I got stronger. I got faster. I was flying high up on the bars and rings, doing movements I never believed I could do only a few years ago. I competed at CrossFit competitions like Wodapalooza only a few lanes down from CrossFit Games athletes. Qualifying for and competing in the elite team division at Wodapalooza was a turning point for me. It’s a premier 4-day competition where many of the world’s best CrossFit athletes come to throw down in Miami, FL. I had gone from a girl who couldn’t even string two double unders together to an athlete who was passing Games Athletes on a sandbag run. I smashed past old expectations and beliefs I once had about myself around what I thought I could accomplish, and I couldn’t wait to see where I would be with another year of training. 

Can you tell us about your health crisis?

So, it all started in 2015, when I purchased a templated nutrition program that was advertised on a few CrossFit Games athletes’ social media accounts. I fell into a trap that many fall prey to. I wrongly believed that if an elite athlete followed a specific diet or training regimen, then it must be the best one out there. All I’d have to do to get to that next level is follow it too. Plus, most of those elite athletes had a certain aesthetic: incredibly lean and super jacked. I thought I had to look like them to be competitive. Soon I found myself meticulously measuring out egg whites and white rice all day. I anxiously waited until 8pm for when I could put my one measly tbsp of peanut butter on top of my chocolate casein protein oatmeal for “dessert.” My husband tried cooking us dinner when he got back from deployment and I stood in horror staring at the olive oil he used to cook our asparagus. Sure, I got super ripped and lean, but at what price? Not only did I start to develop disordered eating habits, but soon I was about to learn that maintaining that level of leanness came at a serious cost.

It was right around 2018 when my health and performance in the gym started to go downhill. I had just switched coaches after The CrossFit Open, and my new coach told me that I had to keep pushing with training because competitive CrossFitters can’t have an off-season. A week or so later, I remember sitting on a rower staring at the screen, shocked by how slow I was rowing and how insanely difficult it felt. I started to feel absolutely horrible after CrossFit workouts. I would lay on the ground practically incapacitated for an hour wondering why I felt like I had been hit by a train. Everyday, I walked around in a brain fog. I was so tired I didn’t want to go to the gym, let alone get out of bed or off the couch. I couldn’t stay asleep at night. I started having panic attacks. I saw several doctors. They all told me I had anxiety or depression and that all this was in my head. But being a former scientist, I had learned to examine all the data and evidence available to me and to draw conclusions from it. And the conclusion I came to was that something was terribly wrong with my health.

How did you work through this?

Finally, I found a doctor who actually listened to me: a fertility and hormone specialist. After running a few tests, I found out I had hypothalamic amenorrhea, which was a symptom of a very serious condition: Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). On top of that, we learned that my thyroid wasn’t working how it should for a young woman in her late 20s. However, no one could tell me why I had these conditions besides the fact that I exercised quite a bit. In their minds, it was common for female athletes to experience these issues. In fact, one doctor even put me on bioidentical hormones (because my body had stopped making its own hormones) to help me cope with my symptoms rather than getting to the root cause of the issue. And that was the fact that I had not been eating enough calories to support my training and energy expenditure for years.

This again goes back to having been trained as a scientist. I am programmed to figure out how and why things work the way they do. After spending months diving into nutritional science and research, I discovered that my issues stemmed from Low Energy Availability and that my thyroid issues likely originated from a combination of under-eating as well as testing positive for thyroid antibodies, indicating the presence of an autoimmune condition. It was then that I had a “lightbulb moment.” I needed to change my lifestyle to focus on getting better. 

Since CrossFit made me feel like a burning pile of trash, I decided to stop pursuing it competitively. Instead, I focused on basic weight training. Though I didn’t feel terrible after training, none of my other symptoms improved. Ultimately, I realized I was going to have to take a more drastic approach if I really wanted to heal. When I commit to something, I really commit. So I stopped all exercise and ate freely, without restriction. I gained weight, which was a huge struggle for me mentally. But I began to feel better, which kept me going. My energy came back. I started sleeping through the night again. My relationship with food improved as I became far less rigid. My personal relationships with my friends and family became a priority again. And all my health markers started to normalize. After several almost symptom-free months, I decided to cautiously reintroduce exercise, starting with weightlifting. My only goal at the time was to reincorporate fitness into my life in a balanced way while maintaining my health.

How did you get into endurance sports?

A year or so after quitting competitive CrossFit, I started to feel restless. Something was missing. Sure, I was able to workout every day, but I was bored and unmotivated. I didn’t want to continue to only “train for life”. I wanted to work towards a concrete goal again and achieve something big. In my mind, CrossFit was out of the question for me. I didn’t want to compare myself to what I had been and what I used to be able to do. I didn’t want to put that pressure on myself and take the fun out of the experience. I wanted to be a beginner again and have a fresh start.

So, I signed up for my first marathon. Years ago, I had sworn that I would never do a full marathon, but here I was punching my credit card number in and paying for my registration fee. As I did so, I made a promise to myself that I would do it while maintaining my health. And I did. I also finished 30 minutes faster than I’d expected. Just like my first CrossFit competition, this race made me feel like I had athletic potential again. And with the knowledge I’d gained working through RED-S, I felt like I could chase big goals while staying healthy.  

My next big goal was to learn how to swim, so I signed up for Ironman 70.3 Arizona. Just kidding. Sort of. A triathlon, like the marathon, was also something I said I would never do because of the swim. To say that I hated swimming is an understatement. Every time I got in the water, I felt like it was fighting back. I’ll never forget the night swimming event at Wodapalooza in Miami. It looked like a scene from the movie Titanic. It was not a fun experience. I really wanted to prove to myself that I could finish a 1.2 mile swim. I knew if I could get the swim out of the way, I could do well in the rest of the race.  

How did you train for the swim?

I like to say that my introduction to swimming was a form of exposure therapy. We started with a little bit at a time until I became comfortable. Each week, we’d push just a little bit more. I’d be in the pool for 40 minutes one week, and then 50 minutes 2 weeks later. So, I started slow. Very slow as I could barely swim 100 yards without wanting to grab onto the wall in desperation because I felt like I was suffocating. Looking back, I probably was physically capable of “survival swimming” 2000 yards, but I had a huge mental block. There were a lot of “I can’t” thoughts swimming around in my head (no pun intended). 

I always started my swim sessions with drills that Andrew gave me to build good technique, something I continue to do to this day. Andrew would always explain the intent and purpose behind each drill, which really helped me connect the drills to my actual swim stroke. Then, I moved into short working swim sets that would push me physically. Once I was comfortable completing multiple sets of 50 yards, Andrew increased the distances in my workouts. 50 yards turned into 100s, then 200s, then 300s, and finally 500s with strategically planned rest periods in between. Eventually Andrew had me work up to two sets of 1000 yard intervals before finally testing out a 2000 yard swim. The day I swam my first 2000 yards it wasn’t even programmed for me. But as I was swimming a 1000 yard interval, I suddenly thought to myself “I can keep going.” So I did.

Technically I hadn’t gone to a swim lesson since I was in elementary school, so I decided to take a few lessons with the local masters swim team coach. She gave me some new cues and specific things to focus on that made moving in the water so much easier. It really showed me how important good technique is with this sport. I also used the pool to practice sighting a target, which is something you have to master if you want to end up at the exit ramp. Otherwise, you’ll probably swim double the distance during the race because you got lost along the way.

As race day got closer, I started driving out to a swimmer-friendly lake near my house to get used to open water swimming. I didn’t swim long distances at first. Instead, Andrew took me out and had me float on my back and tread water while focusing on my breathing. These were tools I could confidently rely on if I found myself panicking during the actual swim portion of the race. Knowing that I could calm myself down if I needed to by just floating or treading water was a big confidence booster. From there, I went out with a tow buoy and did a few sets of 1000 yards while practicing sighting on my own. Not going to lie, I was scared since the water was murky and all I could think about was how there probably was something lurking in the depths below. My last open water swim before the race was with Andrew and a friend so I could get a feel for what it felt like to have others swimming around me.

What strategies did you use to manage your health this time?

I ate. A lot. In all seriousness though, I made a promise to myself that no matter what, I wouldn’t risk my long-term health again for athletics. This meant eating the part to make sure I was supporting my body’s energy expenditure. In my mind, I wasn’t exercising or training so I could eat. I was eating the part so I could train how I wanted to train.

70.3 training is demanding. It takes up a lot of time and many days consist of double sessions that add up to 2-3 hours of training. We’re burning through hundreds of calories in a single training session, easily, and that can add up over a day’s worth of training. While some might be excited about the fact that they’re burning a crazy amount of calories, I never saw my training as an opportunity to “lean out.” Instead, I viewed it as an opportunity to perform, and to perform to my best potential, I made sure to eat enough calories to match my energy expenditure. 

I decided to track my calories and macronutrients during higher volume training blocks. Endurance training can often blunt your hunger, causing you to under-eat. So I wanted to make sure I was in fact taking in enough calories. I also prepared food over the weekend for the upcoming week so I would always have food options and snacks available to me. The last thing that an endurance athlete needs is an empty fridge or pantry. Let’s just say that I still made multiple trips to the grocery store during the week!

I also constantly checked in with myself. How was my sleep? How was my energy throughout the day? Was I craving certain foods? Was I thinking about food non-stop, even after eating? If I had trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, or if all I wanted to do was lie on the couch before or after training, that was usually an indication that I wasn’t eating enough. Same with cravings. Our body is pretty good at telling us what we need to know and gives us great feedback – we just need to learn how to listen to it.

What’s next?

Well, not only did I place 4th in my age group at Ironman 70.3 Arizona, but I qualified for the 70.3 World Championships in 2022! I was shocked since this was my first 70.3! This is an incredible opportunity, so I’ve decided to really dedicate myself to training for the next year to prepare as much as I can for the tough course in St. George, Utah. Obviously I want to finish, but I want to see how I stack up to some of the best age-groupers in the world.

As I look ahead for the next couple of months, my primary goal is to get faster. I want to become a faster runner, a faster cyclist, and continue to work on my swimming technique. To test out my speed, we’ll probably sign up for a few sprint or olympic distance triathlons before doing another 70.3 in May or June to see where I’m at. I have no doubt that we’ll also dedicate a huge portion of my training to mastering hills since St. George has 1200 ft of elevation gain on the run and around 3000 ft of elevation gain on the bike.

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