I finished third

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Third place is not a win, but it is a podium, and in our sport, podiums matter. That is the difference between making the team and not, between Olympian and not, between medalist and not.

I took the lead in the race with a lap to go. It wasn’t something I had planned, but no one was making a move and we kept stutter-stepping the pace. By going with a hard acceleration, I forced my competitors to respond. Shelby and Jenny passed me in the end, but at this moment they are ranked top of the world, and that is not the level at which I have been performing. Yes, I probably should be looking to win, but I also want to be realistic with my goals and season progression. Today, a podium is a win.

I went into this Championship with the shakiest confidence of the last three years. Training has been hard, I haven’t been racing that well, and I don’t feel like I’m thriving yet in the program. Even with all that background noise, I was able to perform under pressure. 

This marks three years in a row that I’ve finished top three at the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships, three years ever. I’m proud of the consistency I’ve been able to maintain since my breakthrough year in 2016. Since starting my post-collegiate/professional running career in 2012, I have aimed to learn and grow as an athlete. With the help of coaches, training partners, and other experts, I’ve tried to develop and apply systems and knowledge to the goal of bettering myself and my performances. I’m proud of the developments.

That’s not to say I feel finished. I continue to understand different interventions I can implement based on feedback from my training. But I leave Des Moines at least knowing that I can still put up a fight.

 

Courage over comfort

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I want to stay in bed. And cuddle with my boyfriend and dog.
I want to stay in Portland and cook with my friends and walk to the park late with the sun still shining.

I want to stay in Mammoth, and giggle and bond with teammates, and play great mouse detective and trivia on Tuesdays.

I want to not change, not move,
Never leave friends, disappoint anyone, disagree or argue.
I don’t want to risk losing the things that I love.

I have to want this more.

 

I wrote that in my notebook on the plane to the US champs, after spending two weeks at home. This was a follow-up:

Sometimes I wish I could just hide in the mountains and stay preparing forever. There are always more workouts to do, more miles to get in. But that’s not how this works. We have to race, even without a perfect buildup (usually without a perfect buildup). The perfectionist part of me hates it, and that’s usually a good thing. If I weren’t forced with a race deadline, nothing would ever come of the months of work.

My friend @nic.antoinette says courage isn’t the opposite of fear, but of comfort. I feel like I’m constantly seduced by the desire to stay home. No matter how many times I show up, overcome my urge to flake, it will come time to travel, or have a hard conversation, and for a moment I’ll just want to …not. To go back to bed and watch TV. I don’t know if this is my special struggle, or more universal, but it surprises me that even after years of working against it, the little fearful voice still appears in my head. (You can just keep sleeping, call in sick, miss the flight).

Nicole also has a quote about only needed 20 seconds of bravery. You only need 20 seconds of insane courage to start the act. And once it’s started, inertia takes over. Usually for me, it’s even less than that. Just a moment to focus straight on that lounging, luring voice, and think, “YO! snap out of it.” And then stand up, and do the thing.

Workout matchmaking

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This Tuesday my strength session overlaps with Gwen. This is our first workout with just the two of us. She is a champion triathlete, currently training for the marathon. That doesn’t lend itself to much overlap with a mid-distance runner. But we are both planning to compete on the track at the USA Championships in a few weeks. I’m entered in the 1500, she’s in the 10k.

The workout is sets of tempo 800s with short rest. I’m going to do 9 reps, and she’ll continue with 3 more. It seems like it should be pretty manageable. We are getting closer to USAs. It’s not yet a taper, but Jerry does seem to have pulled back from the impossible sessions. This helps with recovery from accumulated fatigue, and it’s nice for confidence.

It’s a treat to workout with someone new. Usually we are segregated by distance. On event specific days, I’ll run with the other 1500 specialists. A new pairing is a bonding moment. You laugh and banter to get out the pre-workout jitters, and learn to rely on each other as you switch leads. And at the end, you share the accomplishment.

Still, I’m a bit nervous. It’s Gwen!! I really respect her, her athlete accomplishments (Olympic gold medalist in triathlon, for one) and the career she’s built, and I want to be a good workout partner. In this situation, we are given the pace, and we take turns leading one rep at a time. Being a “good” partner means that I hit the prescribed pace on the reps I lead, and do so evenly (if the goal is 2:34 for two laps, an ideal leader would run 77 and 77). It also means pulling my weight throughout the workout. I don’t want to blow up and leave a workout buddy hanging at the end, right when it gets hard. It feels like more responsibility with just two people, but it’s not as if any of this is new to me. If anything, I’m more experienced on the track than Gwen is. Still, the thought crosses my mind, “don’t mess up.”

Tempos are a unique kind of pain. They hurt, but not enough that you have to stop immediately. And it’s a slow build, so you start feeling the pain long before the end is near, long enough that your brain can get in the way. Today, I find myself forecasting. It’s maybe the 4th or 5th rep, only halfway through, and I start to worry about how much is left. I’m suddenly very aware of everyone at the track, especially those taking pictures. I let it start to agitate me. Stop with the camera, turn away! What if I can’t finish?!

I don’t usually get thoughts like that in the middle of a rep. The goal is to stay too present for the negative predictions. But tempos are just easy enough that my mind can wander. And I’m probably predisposed to a bit more performance anxiety right now. I ignore the mental interruption, or don’t add emotional importance, and focus on each piece individually. By the last set, I’m thinking I could have done one more.

Back to altitude

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Returning to Mammoth means I have to relive the post-race lull for a few days. People ask about my takeaways, I give some lightened version of the last post. There is no escaping the result, and the result is a buzzkill. I want to hide from their questions. I don’t know how to say this except to say it, at this moment I feel like the worst of the group. And when my confidence is strong, I see that as an incredible opportunity; I will never grow more than when pushed by these people. But my confidence is shot right now. A cheap boost would be nice.

I have Tribe of Mentors on my Kindle. It’s a collection of quotes and advice from the guests on the Tim Ferriss podcast. One question I highlighted is: “where do you go when the ego is low?” I believe it’s from a trainer talking about how the best performers will seek to be challenged even when they are down. He says it’s a mark of the good ones that they don’t back away in difficult times, when the first instinct is to run for comfort and reassurance. I’m clinging to that thought now; I can stand this discomfort. I try to not overthink results and just keep moving.

The mountains help. Up here we’re isolated physically, it’s easy to disconnect from news or social feeds and enjoy the camp atmosphere and the training. We are connecting with other runners in town, the Mammoth Track Club hosted us for a group dinner. I’m thankful for the camaraderie and distraction.

Post-race is a daze

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It’s been a few days since the meet, and my outlook is deteriorating. Lauren Paquette is another runner training in Mammoth. I see her on the trip back, and she mentions how says she thinks of post-race emotions as a series of stages, akin to the stages of grief. At first, I’m done — physically spent and sheepish. Then, I’m reassured by Jerry and focused on the positive progress and on Shelby’s breakthrough, maybe denying the sadness of my result. Over the next few hours and days, I move to disbelieve, embarrassment, anger, and the slightest bit of doubt.  

The questions start coming: Am I cut out for this program? Will I thrive under this system eventually, like other people have? What happens if I don’t? I try not to linger too long, but the thoughts do arise. I joined last October, it’s now been seven months, and my results at this point are subpar compared to last year.

I try to reframe my thoughts. Do these results fit in with my greater understanding of how development in this program will work? Yes. Shelby and Courtney both talk with me about how they felt in their first year of racing, they describe a similar, disconcerting, sense of tired legs. It’s helpful to get that first-person perspective. Though the question still lingers: when faced with a series of mediocre results, when do I continue forward with resolve, and when do I reevaluate the underlying assumptions?

I know I’m supposed to be all-in, but my theory of training is that the best results come when you can honestly reflect on what’s working, and what’s not. One size does not fit all. One size doesn’t even fit one, if you take the length of their career, or changes in outside variables. You have to be able to take results (good and bad!) into account, and iterate if necessary. Wait forever and you’ve missed your shot.

But I trust my teammates and their shared experience; I believe this training is a new and needed stimulus, and that my body will respond; and I have faith in this program.  I redirect my questioning from the training to myself. Am I doing everything to support myself in my goals? If I’m going to give this my best shot, the answer has to be yes.

Photo by Al Lacey