The Not-So-Cinderella Story.
FOR THOSE WHO DON'T LIKE TO READ, LISTEN HERE:
FOR THOSE WHO DON'T LIKE TO READ, LISTEN HERE:
I would put my running stats first, so you'd have affirmation that I am, in fact, a legit runner that you should probably listen to (if you happen to love listening to fast people with, overall, bad ideas). But that would be boring. And it would totally go against the my-identity-is-more-than-a-number-on-a-results-page-dammit life philosophy—so you will have to read until the end (or just go ahead and scroll down if you don't care about words, stories, the secret to life, and next week's winning lottery ticket numbers*). (*This may be inaccurate information.)
IN THE BEGINNING
I wish I had a good story as to why I started running. Something like, "One day I barely missed the bus. As it was pulling away, I took off in a sprint to try to catch it—backpack and all. Alberto Salazar saw this and immediately noted my stride and nearly perfect foot strike. He came to me and said, ‘Kid. You will run a 1.53.00 800m one day. Make running your number one life priority.’”
But I don't have a cool story like that.
Honestly, I started running because I missed the high school soccer tryouts my freshman year. I had to either ride the bus home or find a way to stall at the school until my mom got off work. None of my two friends rode the bus. Plus I was bad/terrified at navigating public transportation at the time, so that made the bus option a no-go. Cross-country was the only remotely attractive option.
And that's how a star was born! THE END.
I most certainly did not start out a star. David Epstein in The Sports Gene says that there is baseline talent and there is talent in terms of adaptability. I am butchering that so I will post a snippet of what his book actually says:
When I started running it was apparent that I was not a person of high baseline talent. In fact, it is impressive how out of shape I am without some aerobic stressor. It wasn't until my junior year that some talent started to shine through. And when it did, it went straight to my head. I was a 2:16 half miler that thought she could break the world record next week. This misplaced confidence had me seek out what a quick Google search told me would be the best coach for my Olympic Dreams—Mark Wetmore from the University of Colorado.
Coach Wetmore told me (paraphrased), "So you usually run a 2:20 800m. If you ran two of those back to back, you still would struggle to qualify for NCAAs in the mile."
And I replied, "Well, if I can run a 2:16 now, then couldn't you teach me to hold two 2:16s with training?" And then (I imagine) he spit Gatorade out of his nose from laughter. (Note: I had no idea human physiological limits were a thing, and I thought this type of progression was normal. I might have been an idiot.)
He said, "You can walk on, but we do not have a scholarship for you."
That's when my fate was decided. The University of Tennessee it was! Due to that instate tuition!
I met Coach Clark a few months before I walked on. He believed he was the best coach, and he could coach me to my potential. I also believed he was the best coach and he could coach me to my potential. This immediate buy-in was possibly the most important part of my collegiate career.
MY COLLEGIATE CAREER
My first week of training was eye opening. The next worst miler (I was by far the worst on the team) was a good 25 seconds ahead of me. I could not keep up on the warm up. We did "easy" grass and turf morning runs. They were my least favorite. While everyone chitchatted, I rapidly lost self-esteem while running a Personal Best en route on every lap of the grass field. It was the first time I lifted weights. My muscles rejected me. For weeks I could not sit down on the toilet like a normal person. I had to either brace myself with my arms or just flop deadweight onto the seat.
Cross-country was brutal. During workouts, Coach would drive in a van beside us. There was an art to getting pulled from the workout and into the van—if you looked like you were giving up, he'd let you suffer. If you looked like you were trying and could possible rally, he'd let you suffer. There was a sweet spot where you were trying and failing. This was my daily workout goal—try and fail and get in the van.
During track season, Coach would go over everyone's workout. When he got to me, he'd usually say, "Hang on for as long as you can." Which is terrifying, by the way! Every day I ran until muscle failure. In a way, I think this mentality was what led to my success. I am in no way afraid of failing or muscle failure. In fact, I kind of think muscle failure is empowering, or, at least, funny. I am not sure why I did not quit during this period. I just had unwavering belief in my coach and myself. He said I was going to run a 2:05, and I was going to run a 2:05. There wasn't another option. I was too zoomed in.
I did not see improvement until the end of my freshman year. Even though I upped my workload by a million, my races stalled out. Doing more work is like punching a wall. You do it repeatedly and can't see any improvement. But with each punch, the wall gets a little weaker. And one day, with one normal punch, you bust through the wall. (Or you break your hand… Which would be overtraining! See: Entire professional career).
Anyways! All the work paid off in one race all at once: Penn Relays 2007 4x800. The race plan: Take a bite out of Michigan's backside and don't let go. My leg: Anna Willard—the best athlete in the NCAA at the time. I came through the 400m in a PR—57—and immediately started praying. (Note: I do not describe myself as particularly religious. But I do find value in prayer. Also, I assume God has a sense of humor and laughs at every prayer I send up.)
"Dear Lord, I might be in over my head here. This is the fastest I have ever run and still have half a race to go. Please delay muscle failure as long as possible. Also, Anna Willard is really good. Why is she my leg?" I prayed. I died to a 2:06. We lost. It was the happiest day of my life at that point. I puked for a solid 30 minutes afterwards from what I can only assume is my blood turning to acid.
That day was the day my life changed. Every race before this breakthrough was a punch against my delusional self-confidence. Luckily I was so delusional that these punches barely made a dent. This race, on the other hand, was the proof my self-esteem needed! It was proof my confidence wasn't misplaced. This was my starting point.
The next three years were almost picturesque. I bought into Coach's training. Coach's training provided consistent, solid improvement. My body had adapted to the workload. I could sit down on the toilet like a normal person. Every day, I got a little more confident. Every race was either evidence that I was good or evidence that I could get better. My life was track. I was an addict for improvement.
My senior year I was on a mission to be the most consistent runner. I wanted to be an example to my team that consistency in races is a practiced skill. I had a theory: When you race consistent times, the only thing that stays consistent is the time. The effort, how it feels, the strategy—they all change, but luckily, all those subjective categories don't matter. You can will your body to do what you want it to do. Every race I was poised and all business. I didn't think I was going to win—I knew I would win. It was like I was filling some predetermined destiny. It is easy to win when that's all you know how to do. The summer of my senior year, I PRed at USAs, PRed again at Prefontaine and went over to Europe to race my first professional season.
This was my best season thus far. That eats me up on the inside.
Why did I improve so drastically? No. Clue. There are a lot of untapped talents that work as hard as I did that don't end up being NCAA champ.
Was it Coaching? Maybe. Probably more of the buy in.
Was it my unwavering self-belief? Very possible. I have no idea where this came from. I had literally zero proof that I should be good.
Was it that I just got lucky with injuries? Maybe. My talent is my durability.
Was it that Coach shifted my normal to thinking 2:00 was attainable? There is something to this. Your goals have to be in your realm of possible. Otherwise, you are wasting time.
I wish I knew the secret. I feel like I had mojo during that time, and now I've lost a little bit of my mojo.
MY PROFESSIONAL CAREER
Collegiate running taught me that hard work is a prerequisite for success. Professional running taught me that hard work does not entitle you to success. That is a hard pill to swallow.
The American Dream says that the harder you work, the more you are rewarded. Learning that this is not always true felt like the Universe telling me Santa isn't real. In college, I knew my work would pay off; there was no alternative. I went all-in expecting the results. When I started my professional career, I went even more all-in. The problem with going even more all-in after you are already all-in is that you now are in debt. You always have to pay the piper. After my first professional season I owed the piper big time.
My first year as a professional, I wanted to do everything right. It turns out being a perfectionist in this sport is a curse. I had an altitude tent, I was doing "recovery runs" at 6:20 pace, I was crushing workouts. You can run on for a long time, but eventually it catches up. I remember my last good workout: 4x600 at 1:37 with walk 50m recovery. I want to go back in time and punch my young self for being so greedy. There is no need to play with fire like that.
My talent was that I was indestructible, and I still managed to destroy myself.
Most people have a physical injury that sidelines them before they get to the point of overtrained. In a lot of ways overtraining is worse than an injury (See: Overtraining blog). You don't know what is wrong, so you assume your internal being is the problem. Basically, it’s when your entire metabolic system flatlines. All your hormones get out of whack. With a normal injury, you feel pain. This pain is your body's way of saying, "Hey! Idiot! You are working too hard. Try working so hard with a gimp hammy. Bet you can't." And then you can't run, and then you heal, and you continue on your merry way. Overtraining is sneaky. You can't see overtraining. There's no pain. An MRI can't detect it. All you know is that workouts are hard and you might be depressed. I assumed I was a mental head case. The cure for mental head-caseness: try harder. This turned out to be the worst solution. But hindsight is 20/20; I was young and didn't know any better.
I had dug myself a hole and decided the best way to get out of it was to keep digging. I steadily digressed until the 2013 season woke me up to the idea of change.
It's funny. I had always been completely invested in Coach Clark's training. That's why we worked so well together. That loyalty was synergistic. Questioning the program felt like I was being disloyal. It felt wrong. I basically had an identity crisis all of 2013 when I was trying to find out what my next step was going to be. I met Katie Mackey and her husband and coach, Danny Mackey. They were so positive and wonderful and made the seemingly impossible decision to move to Seattle exciting.
Everyone says that when you move to a new training program don't expect results right away. I expected results right away. I thought I was special and immune to the transition plateau that most people experience. My expectations were sky high. I thought this new program was the miracle cure I had been waiting for!
Well. It wasn't.
It turns out I had a lot of internal demons that had built up that I had been repressing. Coach Clark was the coach I had attained success under. I had attributed most of my success to his coaching. I attributed the rest of my success to my insane work ethic. I now had a new coach (Danny Mackey--who is brilliant by the way. No one comes back from overtraining, but he and I managed to do it!) and this coach was telling me that the only way to get out of the hole was to not overtrain. This went against every fiber in my being. It was hard for me to feel like I deserved to run fast. I wasn't working as hard. I didn't have the full buy-in into the program. It’s hard to switch coaches and have immediate buy-in when you've seen such success under a different program—especially when that previous coach believed in himself to the point where any other coach was viewed as inferior.
In college I had to have faith when I had no proof I should have any. In Seattle, I had to have faith when I had proof I shouldn't have any. It was a nightmare.
My 2014 season was my worst one since my sophomore year in college. This was my rock bottom. My races were beyond bad. If I had to point to how bad my races were using this scale. (Thank you, Allie Brosh, for this photo. Hey, you, reading this: Go buy her book right now.):
They would have all been in the "TOO SERIOUS FOR NUMBERS" category.
It is terrifying to race when you are consistently inconsistent. I had no clue when in the race I was going to shit the bed, but I knew I was, at some point, going to shit the bed. Even though it sucked at the time, it is exactly what I needed.
Going into my 2015 season, I had zero expectations. I had been demoralized to the point of apathy. The one good thing about apathy is that you can't have anxiety about something you are apathetic about. For the first time ever in my running career, I had no anxiety! This newfound freedom allowed me to enjoy running again! I was actually responding to training, which was something I hadn't done since college. My first race out, I PRed in the mile at 4:38. (Mind you, this is a soft PR as I had only run the mile a couple of times. But I hadn't PRed in so long that this felt like winning the lottery.) Each race got better and better. I finished the season second indoor and sixth outdoor in the U.S. This was the traction I needed.
And this brings us to now! 2016. I have a healthy blend of faith, apathy, anxiety, passion, love for the sport, and positive momentum. I have no clue if I will make the Olympic team, but honestly, I don't care if I do or don't. I mean, I do care. And I want to be an Olympian. But the process of going through all this makes the attempt worth the work regardless of the outcome. I am exactly where I want to be.
52.3 (In practice)
Winning lottery ticket number: 2, 5, 22, 36, 47
My deep, painful secret about running: I haven't come within a second of my 800m PR ever. I am on a quest to prove I am not a one-hit wonder.