I raced the Prefontaine Classic

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Pre is the premiere track meet in the US, the only Diamond League meeting on American soil. Every year, the best of the best converge on Eugene, Oregon. It’s my second year racing the 1500m at this meet. Last year I went out hard, sharing the lead momentarily. The pack overtook me, and I ended up barely beat at the line by another American, Brenda Martinez. This year, the plan was to stay in the back, let the race play out, and kick to pick up any carnage on the final lap.

In terms of process goals, I executed the first part well. I felt more aware in this race than I have in past years. In my view, I had been treating 1500s like long 800s: go out hard, and try to not die more than the other people. But that’s not how the race is best run (it’s usually more of a sit and kick situation, with a negative split between the first and second half).

But if you are playing the waiting game, there has to be a switch. On Saturday, everyone started gearing up for their move with 400m to go, and I just… didn’t. I had been keying off Shelby for the first three laps, and her race was the picture of how this plan is supposed to work: she moved up starting at 400m, and unleashed a monster kick coming down the home stretch, to win the thing.  She’s been crushing workouts, and it’s transferring to competition. This is a huge win for her.

My last 400 was slower than my other laps. The end result was a poor place, and a slower time than last year. Part of that may have been mental, when people started pulling away and I didn’t have it, maybe I let a few more seconds slide. But there was also a physical component.

After the race, all I can say to Jerry is that I felt… tired. I’m not a cheetah waiting to pounce, I’m more a cheetah at the end of a long run, who wants to get off my feet and curl up. That is not the ideal spirit animal!! He sees improvement with the way I handled the first part, and admonishes me to keep head to the grindstone. It’s all a part of the program.

Photo by How Lao

Mentors

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You are your own business, your race results are the product, who do you pick for your board of advisors? (Okay, maybe most small business don’t have boards, but this is my imaginary scenario, and anything is possible).

Call them mentors, #1 fans co-conspirators, there are going to be people in addition to a coach who play a role in your athletic career.  You can call them family and friends, though I’ve found that I prefer to consciously choose who I let in on the details of my training and development. My parents love me, but I’m not texting them after a bad workout. That’s why I like the board of advisors thought exercise. It helps define who plays which roles for me, especially when roles can overlap. As I navigate bonding with a new coach, a rocky first few months, and a new training program, I am especially aware of these supportive figures in my life, and so thankful for them.

Aren’t mentors irrelevant if you have a good coach? Maybe for some, but I’ve found they hold different functions. I want a coach to keep me accountable, to raise the bar high and keep me reaching for it. I’ve found that I push myself hardest in practice when I have more of a “tough love” relationship with a coach. If I never break the seal and ask for mercy, that in itself strengthens my resolve… it’s a nonnegotiable. I want a coach to be honest and realistic, because only in that way can the relationship maintain its integrity. We both want big things, and we won’t pretend to have reached the goal until we are there. Trust grows in this way, and we can have direct conversations about what’s going well, and what’s not. I believe that a working relationship based on high standards, trust and psychological safety will produce the best results. And when those results come, they come with the satisfaction of mutual achievement.

But the growth phase is hard. The coach isn’t going to baby me, but man, I want someone to! Whereas I’m going to always try to bring my best self to interactions with a coach, I sometimes need to be able to admit when I’m scared, or unsure. I want help with nurturing my confidence, maybe now more than ever. And I love me a partner in crime. This person can be a significant other, a dear past coach, a trusted mentor. In my reality, it’s all of these people at different times, hence the board analogy.

Sometimes it’s helpful to have someone who will shamelessly make me feel better. At others, it’s nice to be able to brainstorm about what I might be overlooking in training, the auxiliary parts that my coach doesn’t oversee. For example, how do I process the “failure” of the workout last week? Should I re-evaluate nutrition, strength and recovery for missing links? Or is it better to reframe, realize that I’m completing longer and more intense sessions than I ever have, that it’s only in comparison to training partners that it seems I’m coming up short? Questions like this are always popping up through the duration of a season… when to make changes, when to stay the course. Improvement is a dynamic process. Of course I could come up with answers on my own, but seeing my development through an advisor’s eyes can be enlightening and reassuring.

I believe my ability to stay positive, long-term focused, confident, purposeful, joyful, has been due to an incredible support group. People like this impart a feeling of security, they enable me to take risks and dream big. I can’t imagine my career and track accomplishments without them.

Team

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I was thinking more about that last update, and the psychology of working with a coach in the early stages, before you have experienced success in the program. That’s when training partners are more important than ever. 

Physical training of this intensity is hard (understatement!). You are exhausted a lot of the time, and while at altitude camp, you’re mostly isolated from friends, family, partners. And on top of all that, there are no guarantees it will pay off. Improvements at this level don’t come easy. You have to endure months of work without much positive feedback, from a coach or the outside world. It’s a recipe for some depressing moments.

Having teammates in this situation is what makes the setup at all bearable.

When I first joined, I was warned a lot about the trials of the first year with Bowerman. Courtney, Colleen, Shelby, Emily, Amy, everyone had a story about how hard it was at different points, how they weren’t able to finish workouts, and that in itself was a new challenge. So I was at least prepared. But commiserating can be a slippery slope. You want keep the bar at the level of the best of you, not let it fall to the lowest common denominator. I think we do a good job of this. On the workout days, no one is given much sympathy. It’s not that anyone is mean, it’s just that the focus is on the people completing the full session. Which is exactly as it should be. People still working to get to that point (me!) can gain strength knowing that teammates who are crushing it now went through the same growing pains. You aren’t given the chance to wallow or slow down in the pursuit.

And this all makes it sounds so serious, when there is so much fun. We giggle and bond over shared struggles and goals, use humor to deal with hard days. We explore new places together, cook together, share stories. We get on each other’s nerves, but even that turns eventually to jokes. The experience of a training camp is itself unique, and you grow close from sharing it, living with each other’s messes and faults.

A few of us struggled on the tempo mile day. There is power in simply knowing that someone else is going through a similar ordeal. We didn’t talk about it too much, we all went home and kept each other on the same routine: did a second run, shared dinner duties, got up the next day and repeated. Simple. But at a point when I am desperately wanting more approval, from Jerry, from the outside world, from myself and my expectations, I am so thankful for this camaraderie. I want that stuff, my ego wants the validation, but I don’t need it when I have them. And maybe you could say I don’t need training partners, but on this day, it sure as hell makes it easier to keep my head up and keep on the train.

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Jerry came for the workout

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While we are at altitude camps, a coach comes about once a week to oversee a session, either Jerry or Pascal. The specifics are the same if Jerry is at the track or texting the instructions. But I get more nervous when he’s there. I want to give a good performance. This is complicated by the fact that he usually travels for the hardest workouts. And Tuesday was a doozy.

The original plan was 2 x 2 mile tempo, followed by some 300s. I struggled in the tempo, and he ended up altering the second one (gave me a break at the mile to gather myself). That meant I was able to finish with some dignity. But it definitely wasn’t a knock it out of the park situation.

I want a knock it out of the park situation.

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A special flow happens when workouts start clicking, a shared secret begins to grow between athlete and coach. You both know that a flame has been lit. To the outside world, everything is as it was. But to the inner circle, new potentials are unfolding. They are still just dreams, but there’s a growing evidence that the dream isn’t unrealistic. The risks, and hard work, and educated guesses, they are starting to show results. Nothing big, but enough to make you want to dream more, and bigger.  Anyone who’s worked on a successful project or collaboration in its early stages would know that sensation. The ultimate flow state is one that’s shared.

I love that feeling. I’ve known it with coaches. I see it happening with some training partners now. But the thing is, it’s not a given for me, and definitely not this year. I’m currently telling myself that in order to achieve great things, I have to put in great work. And if my breakthroughs and flow states come too easy, it just means the peak won’t be as high. I’m telling myself that it’s okay to be solid, just solid, and not magical, not yet.

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Jerry gives me get a head nod and reassurance that I’ve come a long way from November. I have. Though I can’t quite shake the feeling that I wish I was the one he keeps talking to after the workout, making plans for summer races. All I can do is acknowledge it and walk to the car. I have to take my dignified fails for now.

When you reset your watch, every day is a PB

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The altitude catchphrase: everything hurts and I’m dying. I kind of love that feeling… you know something good must be happening. But still, it can be easy to lose track of progress. If everything feels a bit crappy, and all the paces are different, how do I know if I’m getting in good work? ⠀ ⠀
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I’ve found logs to be immensely helpful as an anchor in these situations. I’ve kept a training log in one form or another for six years now. I don’t look back at them too often, but I like to use them to establish a baseline in hard training blocks. ⠀ ⠀
I started doing this on trips to Flagstaff. If I was struggling the first week, I might look back and see I was running faster than previous trips, or more mileage. It calms me to have a reason to know why I’m more tired. ⠀ ⠀
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Of course, there can be a negative side to holding too tightly to past experience. If you have a certain key workout you need to hit, it can seem like failure if you don’t repeat it exactly (one reason why I hate the idea of indicator workouts before races). Example: I finished my long run today and was bummed because I averaged slower than last week.
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I guess like anything, logs have to be an exercise in optimism: go find one thing that you’re doing now that you weren’t a year ago, one point of progress. If I practice this attitude, I can most times find something that has improved – be it mileage, pace, workout load – and that helps me feel like the bar has been raised and I’m building momentum. When each day is a bit of a slog, that’s exactly what I need to believe.