I’ve talked a lot how I do a lot of my runs to a single song on repeat – past favorites include everything from Smashing Pumpkin’s “Tonight Tonight” to BabyMetal’s “Karate” to NEEDTOBREATHE’s “Keep Your Eyes Open.”
In 2017, the most played song-on-repeat has been from the musical, “Hamilton” – Aaron Burr’s theme song, “Wait for It.”
Not because I should want to end up in Mr. Burr’s position, but I found the lyrics particularly applicable to the current state of my athletic journey. Throughout the year, I wanted nothing more than to be back out with a full race schedule, competing in epically stupid events, but my body wasn’t there yet. So on run after morning run, I sang the words over and over again: “I’m willing to wait for it.”
Last year, I originally titled my 2016 year-in-review post “A Year of Injury,” and, after writing it, quickly changed it to “A Year of Healing.”
To keep a tradition running , I originally titled this post “A Year of Patience,” but as I wrote, realized that it really was a “Year of Rediscovering Joy”: both in racing and in life. Yes, there was a fair amount of patience involved, but by embracing that patience, I was also able to find joy.
A year ago at this time, as I slowly started my return to run program (whee one mile!), I sat there, making grandiose plans for my 2017 season. Surely, I thought, starting with that one mile “run” in December, I’d have plenty of time to get back up to speed by the time the season was in full swing come April.
I apparently underestimated the length of time needed to rebuild as an athlete after a year on the sidelines. But in this gray zone of “training but nowhere close to peak readiness,” I found an opportunity to rebuild not just my body, but my relationship with racing, from the ground up. I’m not a resolution person, but I do like to take stock of what I have learned in the prior year (what worked/what didn’t work), and see how I can apply that to the coming year. So here are my biggest takeaways from the year:
Check the Ego
In the rebuilding stage as an athlete, you face a decision: when do I race again? This was a question that loomed over me for most of the year. I saw it in two ways.
I could wait to race until I felt “ready.” Until I’d regained all the strength I’d lost, until my running paces had come back. Until I was SURE I could go out there and dominate.
Or, I could set aside my ego, toe the start line feeling less than confident, and accept what my current limitations were. Accept that I’m rusty, accept that I’m scared, and accept that the results may not be what I would like.
Essentially, accept where I am in the process and be ok with that.
There’s no right answer for an athlete, but for me, the hardest thing I could do was to get back on that race course feeling less than confident, knowing I wasn’t where I “wanted to be.” Because I knew that the only thing keeping me off that starting line was my ego, and a few fears: (1) the fear that I would lose my perfect podium streak of 6+ years; (2) the fear that folks would talk about how I was “no longer a great athlete”; and (3) at the core (if we are going to get REEEALLLY deep here), the fear that if I didn’t win races I wouldn’t be loved.
Note to self: the first two happened. The third didn’t.
It’s a difficult thing for any athlete to fall off the podium, to no longer be the one that everyone fears, and to feel like your best days are behind you. I won’t lie – it’s an extremely humbling process, and one that I’m still working through. But by racing through these emotions and these fears, I learned something else: there’s great freedom in it as well. Freedom in realizing your expectations are only constructs you create in your own head. Freedom is learning that the world keeps spinning regardless of what that finish time says. And hell – a bit of freedom in being the underdog.
I Am Not Broken (so stop waiting for the other shoe to drop)
Somewhere along the line since the case of the femurs, I got it in my head that I was hopelessly broken (physically, mentally, emotionally). I became distrustful of my body – a body that had historically cooperated so well, and had seen me through so many tough adventures in my life.
I’ve never been a big positive self-talk person. Affirmations make me want to vomit. But by getting stuck in this cycle of distrust of my body, and the feeling that I was hopelessly broken, every small niggle suddenly became a catastrophe. Each ache and pain suddenly became a “OMG I HAVE ANOTHER STRESS FRACTURE.”
Don’t get me wrong – I firmly believe in erring on the side of caution (and, the creation of Rest Day Brags was by far one of the best things that happened this year – thanks JL and CB!). But the mind-body connection is a curious thing: if you believe something hurts, then you can make it 100x worse. If you fixate, you will find pain there.
At the core, I was fearful of another long-term injury. I was petrified that every small thing would then mean months and months away from doing what I loved: in other words, I was just waiting another for the other shoe to drop.
I couldn’t believe that I could be healthy, and that I could go for a year without major injury. Granted, it didn’t help to hear from internet commentators “jeez, are you ALWAYS injured?” So I lived in perpetual fear and shame of ending up “that injured girl.” And let me tell you – feeling like you are running on borrowed time (“when’s the time thing going to happen?”) is incredibly exhausting.
Confession: I’ve had more MRIs this year that ever before (the MRI techs knew me by name…oy). I’ve had at least 5 separate occasions where I was CONVINCED I had another stress fracture in various parts of the body. All of the MRIs came back negative. And, oddly enough, once I saw that there was nothing wrong with me (according to the MRI), the pain went away.
But I can’t run to get an MRI every time something hurts for more than a few days – it’s frankly kind of shameful (and really…REALLY expensive). And it’s embarrassing to admit that the woman who made a name for herself in fighting through and loving pain was suddenly so debilitated by it. So a few months ago, I made a promise to myself to remember that I am strong. Pains will come and go, but I can’t live in fear of being sidelined again for another year. That other shoe doesn’t HAVE to drop (but if it does, I’ll deal with it then, instead of projecting into the future). Now, when something flares, I’ll often repeat “I am not broken” along with other “affirmations” (written in my running log – thanks Coach David!) and it’s rather amazing how well it works. Injuries will happen, but I refuse to let the fear of injury debilitate me any longer.
Joy is not found in the accomplishment, but the journey
In the beginning of December, I was fortunate enough to attend Tony Robbins’ “Date with Destiny” While there, we did a meditation exercise where we went back through moments in our lives where we felt pure gratitude, and pure joy. The idea was to let these moments flow naturally, and not force them.
Of course, I expected images of winning races, of standing on podiums, of crossing finish lines to flood my thoughts in this experience. Oddly enough, NONE of those came to mind. I even tried to force myself to think about, for example, winning the Spartan Race World Championship, and it felt hollow. The moments that did come easily, however, were moments of time shared with others – with family, friends, and loved ones. In fact, the ONLY moments that came to me related to racing were snippets of time out on the course shared with fellow competitors – a helping hand over Humpchuck at 3am, a post-race beer, a lap with #TeamFightClub.
After the meditation ended, I sat in tears, shocked at my experience, but forced to admit something to myself I’d probably known all along: true joy and true gratitude does not come from the victory – it comes from the pursuit of the achievement. The happiness from victory is there, of course, but it’s fleeting.
Because you know what? Winning is never going to be enough. I spent years winning race after race, and wondering why I still wasn’t happy. Why, the more I won, the less fulfilled I felt.
I was missing the point all along – I was failing to embrace the things that truly brought me happiness, that truly brought me joy: the pursuit, and the sharing of that pursuit with others.
It seems so simple now, and perhaps many of you realized this a long time ago (fine, fine – I’m late to the party). But it’s applicable across so many aspects of my life well beyond racing, and I’m determined to not lose sight of this.
There is No “Comeback”
As I wrote about back in the spring, I’ve learned to shun the word “comeback” (thanks in large part to my life twin Caroline Burckle). I cringe every time someone comments “I can’t wait to see your comeback.” While well-intentioned, they are missing the point. “Comeback” implies that you are trying to get back to a place you once were, and, therefore trying to recreate the past. The hard truth is that we can’t recreate the past. We shouldn’t want to recreate the past. We can only move forward, and write our new story. So for those of you facing an injury, facing a setback in life – I challenge you to rewrite your story. To let go of the preconceived notions of where you “should” be, and to embrace the new paths that can open when you are able to let go of the script you’ve written for yourself. Because that story is always in pencil, never in pen.
At the beginning of the 2017 season, I vowed that my one goal for the year was to race happy – to reformulate my relationship with racing by making it the source of joy it once was when I first started out, as opposed to the source of stress it became.
While I had moments of doubt and a few tears, I’m happy to report that it worked. I raced sparingly this year – partly by choice, partly by trying to respect my body in the rebuilding process. And while, on paper, it looked like my “worst” season of racing, results-wise, it was also the sanest I’ve ever been during a season.
Nerves were still there, of course, but I didn’t let it dominate my life. I lived life outside of racing, and I found a peace I thought I had lost so long ago.
It’s rather funny – I finished 11th in the Spartan Race World Championships, by far my worst finish ever. But I crossed that finish line so happy, and so damn proud. I had a blast out on that course – hooting and hollering jumping into that ice cold swim, high-fiving others, and fucking stoked that I nailed both spear throws, finishing my year without a SINGLE missed spear throw (for those of you who have watched me since the early days of Spartan, you know that I was lucky to hit even ONE a year). But I let a few internet commentators get to me, throwing barbs about “how far I’d fallen as an athlete,” etc., and I felt the self-doubt start to creep back in. But while I could have chosen to dwell in that space, for the first time, I chose to focus on how I felt out on that course, not what it said on paper. So while those comments stung, I realized it didn’t take away from my joy out on that course, or the pride I felt when I crossed that finish line.
I don’t get it right all the time, and yes, it’s something I’m still facing down and tackling head on. But slowly, I’m learning to run my own race, both on the course and in life. And throughout that, “race happy” will continue to be my motto.
Now, after reflection on 2017, I turn to how I can apply these lessons to 2018. And while I could write for pages on that topic (and I have!), I will spare you all the long and gory details and simply say:
Focus on the journey. Focus on others. Be unapologetically bold. And continue to race happy.
Cheers to 2018. Life is amazing, and there are big things ahead for all of us.