Open Lanes

I have said often that the surprise of my life is that I’m a professional athlete. As a child no one wanted me on their team in gym class and for good reason: I'm pretty unathletic. Growing up I did some swimming, skating and skiing lessons, but anything requiring hand-eye coordination or balance was a challenge (skating never clicked). One summer my mom and I decided to take golf lessons together just for fun, but except for putting I wasn’t actually able to make contact with the golf ball. My instructor finally suggested I try the swing with my eyes closed and that was the first time I hit the ball- with my eyes closed! It was during a track & field day at school that for the first time I could quite literally keep up with my peers, and in an instant my love for running began. 

This is me at work.

This is me at work.

More than 2 decades later, I am still running, and along the way it has become my livelihood. Meanwhile in recent years I have discovered a second “life” surprise: this blog. 

Throughout my junior high and high school years I dreaded all writing assignments. Predictably, I disliked all homework, but studying for science tests and working pre-calc problem sets were greatly preferred over writing even a single-page double-spaced wide-margins text-size 14 paper. At the University of Michigan, my chosen major was Civil Engineering. People who hear this are often impressed, praising me for tackling a tough program, but honestly, engineering was the easier choice for me - there were no papers to write!

And so “blogger” is a word I never expected to use describing myself. Before agreeing to help me set up this website, Tony made me promise that I would write at least 3 blog entries and post them... neither of us expected my new writing ambition would go very far. It has now been quite a while since I’ve written, and I’ve wondered if my blogging days were over. Yet here I am, still typing, still writing, still blogging. 

Anyone who starts a blog and develops a base of readers quickly becomes familiar with the need for CONTENT. Every day people visit my website and I am very aware of how infrequently anything new is posted. But I am not really capable of producing any meaningful content on my own. God gives me ideas and inspiration to write about. Based on my previously strong dislike of writing it’s clear to me that His divine intervention caused me to start this blog, and will continue to carry it. 

These surprises in my life prove to me that God is real. That I am an athlete and write a blog are things I (and my parents for that matter) never saw coming. This evidence that God is working in me and through me, guiding every step of my life, amazes me. I’ve read about and have met people who listen for God’s direction and then act on it - living under His guidance - and I have always wanted that kind of confident faith, always prayed that the Lord would direct my life. Now, in a small way, but still very significant to me, I have become one of those people. I have actually received messages from readers who are encouraged, inspired, and motivated in their faith by THIS blog. It really is incredible to be working with the Lord on a tangible project. I can hardly believe it, and yet, God can use anyone for His good purposes, even me.

Furthermore, it is through this blog the Lord gave me an open lane to write about my faith - something that doesn’t often come up in conversation but is the best, most important aspect of who I am. If I could pick one thing for the world to know about me, it would be that I love Jesus. Amidst the busy-ness of my life there is a longing that cannot be quieted through great success, financial security, or even my loving family and friends. Only God can fill that void - in knowing Him I am offered peace that defies my understanding and circumstances. How is it possible to live with that peace without wanting to talk about it? For me it is not possible. This blog has given me the opportunity to share freely what the Lord is doing in me and for me; how He defines my whole life.

Yet, O Lord, You are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter. We are all the work of your hands.
— Isaiah 64:8
If I told you my story
You would hear Hope that wouldn’t let go
And if I told you my story
You would hear Love that never gave up
And if I told you my story
You would hear Life, but it wasn’t mine

If I should speak then let it be
Of the grace that is greater than all my sin
Of when justice was served and where mercy wins
Of the kindness of Jesus that draws me in
Oh to tell you my story is to tell of Him
— My Story, Big Daddy Weave

Search For It

Last night Tony and I watched a race from 5 years ago - the 2012 Wanamaker 1500m. We had been actually watching a youtube on landscape photography (incredible sunrise!) and the race link popped up in the sidebar. I hardly remembered that event but as we watched the athlete intros, my memory of not running well and of the disappointment came back. However, as the race unfolded I saw my 25-year old self get out well, run near the front, and cover all the moves. With 2 laps to go the pace cranked up and I responded. Seeing it play out made me smile. And then in the final 150m I started to fade, a few people passed me, and I finished mid-pack. 

My memory of that race is so different from how I perceive it now. Yesterday, I saw my younger self and was very proud of her. She ran with courage. She pushed herself as hard as she could, and, unfortunately, it showed in that final stretch. But she ran well. I ran well. 

This fall and more than 4 years later, I had just finished competing in my second Olympic Games and was looking for something to change my simple eat-sleep-train life. The perfect opportunity arose when my coach invited me to to volunteer as one of his assistant coaches for the University of Michigan XC team. Most of my assisting early on involved clicking the stopwatch and listening to Mike interact with the girls on the team - it became immediately apparent how much there was to learn. 

While watching the girls workout and race, it dawned on me that in contrast to my own narrow definition of personal success, there was a wide range of their outcomes that I considered successful. Undoubtably, the most rewarding part of volunteer coaching for me has been witnessing the courageous performances, regardless of the final outcome. As I write this and think of some of their brave races, tears of pride are welling up in my eyes. When you see someone take a risk by pushing herself harder than ever before, searching for that next level, you hardly care what happens in that final stretch because her full effort is on display. It's so inspirational! This coaching perspective has allowed me to see my past performances in a different light, and has changed the way I now approach my own races.

Pre race smile at the 2017 NB Boston Indoor Grand Prix. Photo Credit: Jason Suarez

Pre race smile at the 2017 NB Boston Indoor Grand Prix. Photo Credit: Jason Suarez

And yet, swirling in the back of my mind are thoughts about winning. Isn’t the goal so much more than just participation and “doing your best?” What about intelligent racing, good tactics, and conserving energy for the final kick? Shouldn’t the aim be to finish as high as possible? In distance races, leading is generally seen as “doing all the work” and pushing the pace is considered kind of foolish (unless it results in winning, of course). In the homestretch the smart runners don’t fade, they overtake. In many cases, running bravely and pushing to the limit will result in the best finish an athlete is capable of, but will also inevitably sometimes result in finding your limit before the race has ended... And so running “courageously” means taking a risk that you might pay for by fading in the finishing sprint.

But by watching the Michigan girls race, I know I very much want to take that risk. When I see one of the girls run a gutsy race I feel proud of her and am inspired to run that way. In fact, I am never inspired when it looks easy; running "safe" has no appeal. Have you ever seen a race or watched a game when the winners made it look easy? It's simply not at all inspiring - we love seeing the grit and determination!! 1500m runner Laura Muir put on an electrifying and unforgettable demonstration of grit and determination last summer when she ran in London. With every single step she is digging deeper and deeper and deeper. Please watch her last lap and experience the awe for yourself.  

I am reminded of an interview with Ashton Eaton after he broke his own World Record in the Decathon. He had already been a lock for World Champion, but needed to run an incredible time in the final event to break his own World Record. He chose to attack that final event. When asked how he found the strength to run the last lap, he said "I don't know... But the important thing is to search for it, because it might be there anyway, so I think that's what I did." 

I am constantly learning more about my purpose in following the Lord, and how to make Him central in my life as an athlete (this should be the line description for my entire blog). In the past I've written about learning to give my best effort to God and being at peace with any outcome. Assistant coaching has helped me discover the difference between accepting that concept in my head and now genuinely wanting to run my butt off just for the sake of it. More than I want to win, I want to search for my limit. My competitors are now just people who will help me run harder. Going forward, the only way I now have peace with myself is to run with courage - to run as hard as I can. God has given me this body and mind and has blessed me as I pursue running, so why not see how fast these legs can go? No matter what final outcome may be, I will seek my greatest effort. 

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.
— Joshua 1:9

I Was Wrong

Since the London Olympics in 2012, I’ve been on the 4-year plan. Four more years to train and achieve everything else I wanted as a pro runner. Four more years to prepare for the next Olympics in Rio, and then I’d be done. After Rio I would no longer live the athlete life every single day. I would close this chapter of my life and possibly start a family. Maybe I could actually use the civil engineering degree I earned what seems like a lifetime ago. The timeline seemed so clear and obvious, so neatly planned and logical.

And so as I should have expected, since Rio there have been a LOT of questions. Family, friends, and even acquaintances - it seems like everyone wants to know: What am I doing now? Am I training? What are our plans? Is a Baby Sifuentes on the way? I accept most of the blame for such bold questioning - it’s my own fault for openly stating my “clear and obvious” plan to retire and move on after Rio.

Four years rushed by in the blink of an eye, and during that time I felt a pressure building inside me, like an important due date was approaching. “There’s still so much to do. I’m not done yet!” This self-imposed deadline played a part in a lot of stress I carried in the past couple years, but ultimately led me to let go of all the remaining goals on my “to do as a professional athlete” list. For that I am grateful, and although I still have moments of stress and anxiety, the peace and genuine enjoyment I get from training and racing now is greater than it’s ever been.

I was wrong. Sometimes life isn’t predictable and obvious. I’m definitely not retiring. 

Why continue? There's no unfinished business - my “to do” list truly has been left behind. And while there’s no doubt in my mind that I can (and very likely will) improve and continue to run PBs, as I’ve said a thousand times, there are no guarantees. 

Doing what I do best :)

Doing what I do best :)

I continue because I really love running. I’m good at it! And it’s my job! One reason I love it is because of the regular challenge to my character and motivation by pushing me outside my comfort zone. As long as I continue in the sport, there is constant uncertainty and there is always potential for public disappointment or failure. I literally lay it all on the line when I race, where at minimum the results are posted for anyone to see, and at the extreme my race is broadcast live around the world. 

This does not fit the mold of my natural tendency to take the safest, most risk-adverse route. I like to protect myself from disappointment, and for a while, my underlying motivation for retirement was to put an end to my constant state of uncertainty. I love a sure thing. But staying comfortable doesn't lead to growth physically, mentally or spiritually. I believe I'm called to pour out my very best effort without knowing what will happen and without expecting anything in return. 

Furthermore, in this sport of clear cut records and rankings, there is always something tempting me to elevate my own agenda for faster times, higher rankings, and lowering records. But there is no other way I'd rather practice putting God first than through this career.  I have now experienced what it's like to truly feel free of my own desires, and in turn my appreciation of doing what I love every day is growing. Even still, it's hard to remain in that peace. To live with an undivided heart is a challenge that drives me to depend on Jesus every single day. I rely on His help to keep my desire for personal success from taking over. My goal is to maintain a simple ambition: give God everything and thank Him for the results, remembering that my purpose is not in accomplishment but in following Him and honouring Him in whatever I do. 

So I can’t answer any more questions, and I don't have my future perfectly planned out. All I know is that based on the combination of my health, my love of this sport, and the value of all there is to learn from it, I suspect I'll be running for a very long time. 

Teach me your way, O LORD and I will walk in your truth. Give me an undivided heart that I may fear your name. I will praise you, O LORD my God with all my heart.
— Psalm 86:11

Fullness of Joy

A little over a week ago I bowed out of the 1500m at the Olympics in the semi-final. It was a big disappointment, and it’s been hard to let myself think too much about my race. In a few weeks or whenever I'm ready, I’ll watch the video replay, analyze it, and get feedback from my coach.

I can say honestly that throughout this season I have held all my goals lightly. I have accepted my results- some great and some very underwhelming - with a peace and gratitude that in previous years had been somewhat forced or altogether absent. My focus has been on following the Lord as closely as possible and prioritizing above all my pursuit of Jesus.

Meanwhile in the weeks leading up to Rio, my training on the track started to really click. I mean reeeeeallllly click. The workouts I crushed were surprising to both me and my coaches. I would check my watch and literally double-take at some of the readings, not quite believing how fast I ran. When this happens it is VERY HARD not to get excited. The workouts indicated that my fitness was at a level I had never before reached, and I felt myself starting to dream big again. My desire for success and great results was escalating quickly. 

Source: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images South America

Source: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images South America

If you’ve been following my blog you know that I’ve struggled with perpetual discontent with my results (always wanting more), and also fear of failure (I might not get those results). So as I traveled to Rio I sought a balance between firstly: the peace and gratitude I had enjoyed throughout the season so far, no matter what the outcome would be. And secondly: optimism, because the Lord is good and loves me. There was no reason to expect failure or disappointment.

Before the Olympics I sent to family and friends this list of ways they could pray for me:

  • Safe travel for my family
  • That I will be healthy, strong and rested for my races
  • That I will have courage 
  • And be optimistic
  • And not fearful of disappointment, and overall not think about the outcome so much
  • That God will allow me to have my best result possible 
  • That I will want God's plan more than my own success
  • But still believe that God's plan is probably that I have success. (this is optimistic thinking which I am trying to embrace, and stop expecting disappointment)
  • That I will speak and behave in a way that directs glory to God all the time & especially in the public interviews, etc.
  • That I will run in a way that causes me no regrets and that pleases God and makes Canada proud

The Olympic Games are a unique experience of heightened emotions for all the athletes, and I say that because I know so many of them. In the athlete village I shared an apartment with three first time Olympians, three 2x Olympians, one 4x Olympian, a World Champion & favourite for gold in Rio, and a World Silver Medalist. Before and after our races, we talked about our struggles and pre-competition nerves, told stories, laughed together and supported each other. Throughout my time in Rio I had moments of doubt, fear, and wanting to cry for no reason at all. Little things would set me off and I would hear myself complaining and not be able to just shut my mouth. 

In spite of myself God gave me nearly everything I asked for. No I didn’t have my best result possible, and I had moments that were not glorifying to Him. But standing on the startline for both my races, I felt calm, confident of a good outcome, and at peace. I was optimistic and unafraid. My semi-final race was scheduled between the semis and the final of the most popular event: the men’s 100m race. So that night the Olympic stadium - which unfortunately had had poor attendance throughout the games - was filled almost to capacity, and with Bolt and DeGrasse running, the eyes of Canada and of the world were tuned in. During that window of time, I ran with heart and determination and fought for a spot in the final, and my country saw me try. On national TV in front of a wide audience, God gave me the opportunity to thank my supporters and - of infinite worth: publicly associate myself with Him.

Last year, disappointment at the end of my season left me disillusioned and empty. I vowed to train harder than ever before - not as an athlete but as a Christian. And I did. 
A year later, disappointment on the biggest stage has left me simply disappointed. This heavy heart is just temporary, as I mourn the fact that my super awesome fitness and hard work didn’t pay off when I wanted it to. At the end of this brief sadness there is waiting for me fullness of joy in the knowledge that my greatest efforts were not in vain. In training my spirit I have become more faithful in prayer, more trusting in every situation, more confident of God’s goodness, more aware of his presence, more thankful for his control, and so much more deeply in love with Jesus. 

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
— Psalm 16:11
Click to view CBC interview

Click to view CBC interview

 

 

The Protagonist

Two weeks have passed since the Olympic trials, when I raced to a spot on Canada’s Olympic team. I am going to be a 2x Olympian! 

Over the past few weeks, countries around the world held their Olympic team selection trials and/or published their team rosters, and for every happy athlete celebrating an Olympic berth, there are so many more who have been at the least - disappointed, and at worst - utterly brokenhearted. My Olympic trials were a success, but I shed more than a few tears over the weekend for some of those who came up short. There are many reasons - injuries, illness, an unfortunate trip or fall during the race, nervousness, tactical errors, and great performances that aren’t quite enough. Some athletes are even left off the Olympic team having met all the selection requirements, but yet are still not considered competitive enough by a selection committee.

As a veteran in this sport, I’ve met a lot of runners on the circuit over the years. These aren’t just stories and examples to me - they are real people. They are personal friends. Their dedication, their grind, their commitment is no less than my own. Their hopes and dreams may be even greater than mine. 

There are some myths that catch us all off guard at one point or another, especially in sports:

You’ve just got to “want it” more badly than your competitors.
Persistence always pays off - your time will come.
Achieving that prize makes all the work worth it.

These ideas sound great, but they prove true only in some cases and for some people, and only some of the time. The crucible that is the Olympic trials expose these ideas as lies.

The truth is that we all want to succeed - at this level we all want to become Olympians and work tirelessly and sacrificially toward that goal. Although we Olympians are celebrated by our respective countries and portrayed as successful, inspirational, and even heroic, the truth is that we are not more deserving than those who will never be Olympians. The truth is that too many factors in the Olympic pursuit are beyond our control that we could ever rightfully accept credit. 

Sprinting for the finish at the Canadian Olympic Trials. photo credit: Claus Andersen, for Athletics Canada

Sprinting for the finish at the Canadian Olympic Trials. photo credit: Claus Andersen, for Athletics Canada

There is One who separates the Olympian from the Aspiring Olympian, and even though I know Him, I do not know why He has chosen me. God has granted me the honour of representing Canada at the Olympics not once, but twice. And when I wonder about my friends - equally deserving as I, likely even more hopeful and determined, I don’t think I will ever understand. Then I remember a conversation with one of my young training partners, she said we often forget that we aren’t the center of our own lives. God is the protagonist.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said "I believe that nothing that happens to me is meaningless, and that it is good for us all that it shoud be so, even if it runs counter to our own wishes. As I see it, I'm here for some purpose, and I only hope I may fulfil it. In the light of the great purpose all our privations and disappointments are trivial.”

Of course, my current situation - preparing for the Olympics - is one that I really did wish for and is something to celebrate, but I am familiar with disappointment too (not to the extent that Bonhoeffer was!) and I am not immune to future hardship. This attitude holds true in all of life’s circumstances. 

While I have worked hard to improve myself in every way, and have not been lacking in discipline or effort toward my Olympic bid, it is only for some reason in His great purpose that I will be on the start line in Rio. Wearing the Canadian flag as an Olympian is truly an honour that I am thrilled and grateful to accept from the Lord. On August 12, when I walk out into the Olympic stadium, I will remember that God Himself has decided to put me there for a purpose, and I only hope to fulfill it. 

Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.
— Proverbs 19:21