17 months. A year and a half. That is how long it has been since I have PRed in an event. Any event. Any distance (and, I have run everything from a 1,500m to a marathon). In fact, during that entire time I have actually only run slower, clocking some of my worst times in 6 or 7 years. While it may seem crazy, I have never experienced this part of our sport. Of course, I have had bad races. I have fallen short of where I wanted to be, of where I thought I was capable of being. But, I have always had good performances sprinkled in to serve as affirmation that I was still doing the right things. That I still belonged. For the first 16 years of my running career, I got better every single year. It is easy to find the motivation to keep going when you are constantly improving. When you find yourself on the other side of success, you realize it can be a little bit uninspiring and at times, dark. The worst part is that you often can't pinpoint what the problem is. I am healthy. I am training hard. For the love of God, I am trying my best. But, for the first time in my life, there have been thoughts of hanging 'em up. Calling it quits and moving on to the big world that exists outside of the sport. Not because I don't still love to simply run, but because I start to believe I am wasting everyone's time, especially my own.
When you are an athlete in a sport as black and white as track and field, it is easy to get caught up in defining yourself by your most recent performance. When you are running well, there is no greater feeling. When you walk in to a room you can just picture people saying "Oh, that's so-and-so...she has run X in the marathon. She's amazing." In fact, you want people to talk about you. But, when you are running poorly, you imagine the worst whispers and negative chatter that you can think of. You feel unworthy. You feel ashamed. You feel self-conscious. You want to just slip by the track without anyone seeing you. If there is anything I have learned over the last year, it is that your self-worth is not elastic enough to be determined by how fast you can run around a circle. When you really think about it, how stupid is that? I have laid awake at nights thinking about how much of a failure I am because I only beat one person in my last race. Or, because my 21-year-old self would have just kicked my butt in that steeple.
In my very biased opinion, there is no sport that makes you feel as vulnerable as running. When you start the race, you are exposing yourself to the world: opening your arms to be scrutinized and judged, whether its good or bad. When the gun goes off, there is nowhere to hide. No teammate that is going to pick up the slack for you if you have a bad day. The clock will still seek you out and expose you. I admit that I have been guilty in the past of making those judgments on others, almost always when I was on top. While our sport is about trying to beat the person next to you, I think that goal falls second in line to trying to battle the voice in your head. At the end of the day, we are all fighting the same fight. I think the approval that we all seek most, is approval from ourselves. Which ironically enough, can sometimes be the hardest to earn. So, I want to start the conversation for you by saying to anyone, of any ability level or age who even steps onto a start line....you are courageous. You are brave. As far as I am concerned, you have proved everything you need to prove to anyone by having the courage to start the race. Regardless of the outcome, you were brave enough to try. Strong enough to put yourself in the most vulnerable situation and risk failure. I will be the first person to go up and high five a buddy who just won a race, smashed a qualifying time or made a national team. But, I will also make sure to save a big awkwardly-long hug for the person that just experienced the feeling of failure and remind them that they are a warrior and that they are so much more than just their performance. More importantly, that they are worthy and loved. So, yea...I'm about to start getting really strange and uncomfortable at track meets. I apologize ahead of time, but it must be done. Encouragement is like bacon....you can never have too much of it and it goes well on everything (I just made that up....On the spot. Does it even make sense? Oh well. I like bacon.)