I feared my return to racing, and I faced that fear. I feared not being the athlete that I once was, and I’ve wrestled with my struggle to live up to those expectations in the rebuilding process.
What I haven’t talked about, however, is that there is another reason I feared returning to racing, and this one is more difficult to grapple with than worrying about sub-par race results.
I feared my own return to racing because I feared the person racing makes me.
And I didn’t want to go back to her.
For as much as I love the sport of obstacle racing, I wasn’t quite sure I actually loved the circuit of racing anymore.
As I’ve talked about repeatedly in the past (seriously, take your pick of podcasts…), I came into obstacle racing in a roundabout way. I did things backwards. I started with the ultimate sufferfests – with the 24-hour World’s Toughest Mudder, with Death Races, with races that lasted up to 72 hours. I started with Tough Mudders and not Spartan Races BECAUSE there was no timing involved. I took on GoRucks and Death Races because the only thing that mattered was finishing – there was no winning (well, Joe Desena might disagree).
It took me 2 years to run a “regular” length Spartan Race, which happened to be the Spartan Race World Championships. In 2013, after crossing the finish line as the victor, I remember walking down to the lake at the bottom of the Killington Ski Resort and sitting in the water, cooling off my exhausted legs. I looked around and said to myself “this is going to change everything.”
And it did.
But not in the way you would think. Sure, with being a world champion came sponsorships, articles, magazine covers. With it came adoration and respect and feeling legitimized as an athlete. But with it also came a feeling of expectation and pressure – expectations to run races that didn’t really thrill me (hello 3 mile sprints!), the pressure of a NBC televised series – all race lengths that sounded like my worst nightmare. These were races that were all a far cry from the 24-72 hour endurance races that gave me so much joy in the beginning, that drew me into the community in the first place.
Yet, I signed up. I said yes. I picked races because those are the ones I “should” do, and I sat out of others that I really wanted to do in order to save myself for the championship series, for the ones with the prize purses and the television cameras. The further I went down the rabbit hole with these shorter distances, the more of an emotional and mental wreck I became. I could hold my own at these distances, and keep it together (aside from a lot of swear words) in front of the cameras, but winning no longer became something I was thrilled about – winning was a relief. I spent days before these races an absolute wreck – crying, imagining phantom injuries, swearing my retirement, fearful of what would happen if I didn’t win, if national television documented my less-than-stellar performance. I shut out friends, I spent hours on the phone crying to my parents. My engagement fell apart in large part due to my inability to cope with juggling my professional life and the constant obligatory racing, and I watched a man I loved walk away because of the person I had become.
I hit emotional rock bottom the day I ran the Spartan Race World Championships in 2015 on a stress fracture I had told no one about, not even my physical therapist. The sad thing was I wasn’t even excited about running the championships – I was mostly upset that I had sat out the Barkley Fall Classic 3 weeks before (a race I REALLY wanted to do) in order to be “fresh” because people “expected” me to win. I spent the week leading up to the race in a walking boot, dodging anyone who might see me in it, only taking it off for the race, and hiding it in my luggage. The next morning, I strapped it back on, ashamed of what racing had brought me to.
Through the help of loved ones and some great Tough Mudder friends, I managed to find some semblance of peace before World’s Toughest Mudder in 2015, and, after that, I thought it was finally my time to follow my heart. To shift focus to the longer endurance events that were my roots, to the ones genuinely made me smile. I’d been eyeing ultras as a new challenge, and in securing a Golden Ticket to Western States 100 in June 2016, I saw it as a natural transition.
But a case of the femurs changed all of that.
Suddenly, Western States was gone. Suddenly, OCR was taken from me. My perfectly laid out plans of shifting my focus on own terms were taken from me. Injury had (literally) stolen my ability to walk away.
So I did what any other hyper-competitive athlete would do – I got angry. And I pushed and pushed to try and make a triumphant comeback at Spartan Race World Championships 2016 and World’s Toughest Mudder 2016. I remember standing there on crutches at Western States, Diet Coke tucked into my sports bra (pro tip: sports bras hold EVERYTHING when you are on crutches), telling Rose Wetzel I couldn’t wait to come back and “crush bitches.” Not the best choice of words, but I was hungry, and I was angry.
And as I’ve talked about repeatedly, it’s almost textbook what happened: In pushing so hard through that anger, I broke myself again.
And while those five extra months on the sidelines from the sacral stress fracture were traumatic, it did force me to really step back and ask WHY. Why was I pushing so hard, and Why was I doing all of this? Why was I trying to get back to something that, if you asked so many people around me, made me miserable. When I added in race week stress on top of a stressful professional career, I was a powder keg waiting to explode. In an ironic twist of fate – the activity, the hobby, the sport that I had started back in 2011 as a “stress-release” from work ended up being more a stressor than my regular day job.
I heard a quote the other day on TED Radio Hour by David Brooks (politics and your feelings about him aside) which struck me: “The central lie of American life is that success leads to happiness. And that’s just not true.” For so long, I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t happy, even though I was winning. Even though I was at the top of the sport. In fact, the more success I had, the more miserable I became.
Parts of me thought to hang up my obstacle racing shoes after this past 18-month gap in racing. That maybe my best athletic days are behind me, but more importantly, maybe I’m just a happier person when I’m not constantly freaking out about an upcoming race. And that, for all the good racing has done for me, maybe it wasn’t worth the mental anguish of “getting back.”
But there was a different voice that was also whispering, a different kind of monkey on my back: maybe, just MAYBE – I could change my relationship with racing. Maybe that’s what I needed – maybe I could learn how to handle the pressure constructively, and maybe I could finally nut up do what was right for ME, not what I thought everyone else expected. And maybe being sidelined was the catalyst I needed to change that relationship by taking control of that relationship.
Someone asked me the other day if I wanted to win another world championship. “Sure,” I responded, “that’d be fantastic.” He responded that I didn’t sound that enthused.
And I wasn’t. Because I’ll let you in on my racing goals this year. There’s just one.
To race happy.
Now, I’m not going to bullshit you and pretend that I don’t care about results. Of course I do – any competitive athlete would be lying through their teeth if they said otherwise. But what I’ve realized from these past few years is that results feel hollow if there’s no joy in the racing, if you are racing out of expectation. Podiums are meaningless if you spend the weeks leading up to a race an absolute miserable human being (which isn’t fair to myself or anyone else in my life). There will come a day when I’m no longer able to race, and if I destroy everything else in my life in the meantime to be singularly fixated on that goal, then what will I have left?
So in deciding to race again, I vowed to myself that this season and this year is a new challenge – different from any one I’ve tackled in the past. I’m not racing the U.S. Championship Series, or to win a world championship. I’m racing to see if I can race like I did in the early days of the sport – with passion, gratitude, and a perspective on things that really matter in life. With smiles and high-fives beforehand, and with beers and friends afterwards.
I’ve known for a long time that the races that make me the happiest are the long, hard sufferfests (hi World’s Toughest Mudder, Ultrabeasts and ultras!). While the circuit of the short races tore me apart on the inside, I always looked forward to a 24-hr slog in the desert with a smile. And I finally put together WHY that is: because the longer the race gets, the more the race is about others. It’s about the shared suffering. It’s about the random run-ins with other athletes at 2am when you are peeing in your wetsuit. It’s about the stories and it’s about the bonds that are formed by that. And THAT’S the reason I started in this world so many years ago – for the process. And that’s the reason I keep coming back to it. It’s for that connection, that growth, and those memories. And the community that I love so dearly.
But the rub is that those are the races that take the longest time to build up to (when you are starting over from…zero), so in the meantime, as I rebuild, I’m using the shorter stuff as tune-ups and mile markers for when I can finally return to those. And I’m biding my time with patience, knowing that those long sufferfests I hold so dear will be in the cards once again.
Some people have questioned why I jumped back into racing before I was 100% in terms of fitness and strength. Had my goals been to stand on top of the podium, I probably would have waited. But part of the challenge to me was to see if I was happy while racing, even if I’m not standing on the podium.
I’m happy to report that, so far, I think it’s working. For the first time in a long time, I’m smiling before races. I’m more relaxed. I’m learning that it’s ok to say no to races you “should” do. It’s ok to not chase the money and the TV cameras and the championships if those things come at the cost of destroying other aspects of your life. It’s ok to walk away from things that aren’t meant for you. It doesn’t make you a quitter to chose a different path.
And my path is me plotting a schedule, not around races that have the prize purses and the TV cameras attached, but around races that I truly want to do, and around new challenges I’ve yet to take on (including kicking it in the broadcast booth for some of the races doing my best Troy Aikman impression). For the first time in several years, I’m listening to my heart (apparently, I still have one of those) to find my joy. I’m finally giving myself permission to say “no” to races that don’t speak to me, and I’m saying “yes” to things that excite me. It may be my last obstacle racing season (or it may not); but if it is, I want to go out with the smiles that have eluded me in recent racing years. And you know what? I’ve found that the “shoulds” that I followed these past years were all internal – my sponsors and people in my life support my path, whatever I chose (THANK YOU!). I’m grateful to be out there. I’m thankful to a sport and a community that’s given me so much for some time rolling around in the mud. And I’m stoked for a season of genuine smiles, cheers, and giving back to this sport as much as it’s given me.
And you know what? By giving myself permission to say no, I’m giving myself permission to say yes.
Yes to my own path.
Yes to new adventures.
Yes to racing happy.
So if you see me out on the course this year, ask me if I’m smiling. If you are sending good vibes and well wishes to me before races, don’t tell me “good luck” or “kick ass” or (god forbid) “I hope you win,” – instead, please tell me to “have fun.” And if you catch me after a race, give me a hug, hand me a beer, and tell me about your day.
I love this sport, I love this community, and I’m saying yes to happiness.
Podium of life, here I come.