There and Back Again

It has been a long time since I’ve been here on my blog - an entire racing season has gone by and I haven't posted anything. Normally the challenges of a racing season bring me back writing, and last season I actually did start quite a few essays, but didn’t complete any of them. None reached a conclusion. Each one led to confusion. 

When I decided to continue my running career after the Rio Olympics, it was because I finally understood how to appreciate the little victories along the way. There was a newfound joy and contentment in running that had been missing in the past, and I wanted to spend some time truly enjoying being a professional athlete. Furthermore, for many years my prayer has been that God would direct my life and guide me, which gave me the confidence that in continuing to run, there was something good ahead for me in it.

I approached this past indoor season with that confident hope - not expecting anything in particular, but expecting it to be good. My first race was better than expected with a win and a lifetime best in the mile. Someone said to me "Nicole - is this your year??” and I replied “I hope so” with a dream in my heart.

From there my entire season fell apart. I was training hard and struggling in workouts. Sometimes I was the strongest one in the group and sometimes I would drop out. With the prestigious Millrose Mile coming up on my schedule I went into emergency rest mode and tried to regroup in time. On national TV I placed last in a race I had aimed to win, and stepped off the track in complete confusion.

 Warming up before the Millrose Games. I had a terrible race.

Warming up before the Millrose Games. I had a terrible race.

In the next few weeks I tried to pull things together but my training was still up and down. During those weeks I also received a few bits of bad news, and suddenly I was at it again: the dreaded emotional spiraling. It was supposed to be a thing of my past, but I recognized it instantly. Want to know who else recognized it? Tony. He’s the only one I allow to see this ugly side of me - the part I feel so ashamed of because I hate my weakness.

Between the bad news and my recent failures on the track, the worst was my own failing to HANDLE IT. I could see, hear, and feel myself spiraling down into a pit of confusion and doubt. When I decided to continue in this career I had not signed up to STRUGGLE. My plan had been to enjoy more years of competition from my new mature grateful and joyful perspective! And yet at the first sign of problems it was as if I were beginning from the beginning. Unable to emotionally handle this wave of difficulty, I felt a total lack of any strength of character. 

Why did I continue running, full of dreams and goals if I had been prepared to retire? Why was the sport still able to hurt me deeply? Why would God lead me further down this path only to humble me with failures - not only on the track but also of character? I felt so small, so uncertain, so sad.

For weeks I had no sense of peace. I was upset and hated being upset. I drifted away from my daily disciplines of scripture reading and memorization and prayer. But the Lord was still close to me. I wasn’t seeking his comfort but he was still answering the my lifelong prayer for guidance. He reminded me of this passage, written by a man tormented by some unknown ailment, a “thorn in his flesh:”

Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.
But he said to me, “my strength is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 
That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties, for when I am weak, then I am strong.
— 2 Corinthians 12: 8-10

Of course, those words didn’t turn life into rainbows and lollipops. But finally, after weeks of floating along in uncertainty, this was my foothold. It’s weird to say, but I almost felt as if my weakness was worth it just to have God’s power. It was a trade I wanted to make. Although there were no answers, I decided to move forward. By remembering God's faithfulness throughout my life I was able to trust his promise to give me his strength. And by drawing from lessons from my past, I committed to a few weeks of absolutely no self-criticism - there had been enough failures for a while. And I set some goals for the outdoor season. 

One of those goals was a 5000m race, and to prepare for it to the best of my ability. Although my indoor season took a disastrous turn despite my best efforts, I committed to proceed with the expectation that my 5000m would be great. Through seeking advice and with thoughtful, prayerful consideration, my training has been adjusted since the indoor season. But my approach hasn’t changed: I’ve prepared as best as I know how. With the race now just a few days away, I will go to the line with a cherished sense of peace, and a fresh understanding that whatever the result, Christ’s strength will be sufficient for me.

I waited patiently for the LORD. He turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire. He set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.
— Psalm 40: 1-2

Optimism

I wrote this a couple weeks ago, just before the Canadian Championships. There was no time for any editing, but I planned to publish it later, regardless of my results in Ottawa. Optimism does not protect us from future surprise or disappointment. It does not guarantee anything. But it prevents us from suffering any circumstances that do not actually transpire. It allows us to be hopeful and experience happy anticipation in the present. 

 The view from here... Ottawa at night.

The view from here... Ottawa at night.

I am sitting in bed looking out at the setting sun over downtown Ottawa, winding down for the night. The Canadian Championships start tomorrow, and as the the qualifier for the World Championships next month this is the most important meet of my season so far.  

Every year the national championships are filled with anxiety, pressure, and dread. I have always feared failure at this meet in particular because the potential for disappointment is so high - the possibility of *not* qualifying for the Worlds, or the Olympics, depending on the year. Even as I have matured as an athlete, re-adjusted my priorities and stopped chasing goals single-mindedly, the Canadian Championship meet has always been a dark cloud on the horizon. That is, until now. 

Earlier this spring as the trip to Ottawa approached, a familiar wave of dread washed over me and I attempted to change my outlook. My husband, Antonio, would be using vacation days to travel with me and support me, as he always does. Nationals are such a heavy burden for me that he has become accustomed to dealing with a highly anxious and stressed out athlete/wife. This year I just wanted him to have some fun during his vacation, so we planned a road trip from Michigan to Toronto, and then on to Ottawa. We booked nice hotels and great restaurants and planned to do some shopping with the money we saved on plane tickets. We looked forward to the trip for weeks. 

And now, it’s time to race. At some point I realized my happy anticipation was not only for our fun road trip plans, but also for the actual competition. I am excited to race, and that is significant.

I tend to be pessimistic even though nothing really bad has ever even happened to me.  In 5 years I have never missed a Canadian team and have never been sidelined due to injury. Even the disappointments I have had have proven to be valuable for learning and growth, and yet I always deal with fear of failure. It doesn't make sense -  God has always been so good to me and has given me so much, and still I expect disappointment, failure, and sadness. These thoughts are what prompted me to seek help from a sport psych almost 4 years ago. Since then I have learned many ways to manage my negative thoughts, and have made a lot of progress. In this battle I asked God to make me optimistic. Especially over the past year my prayers have been filled with the same request: that God would help me instinctively, naturally, expect something good to happen.

Tonight, instead of guarding against "worst case scenarios," my mind is full of possibilities of what could go right. I don’t know if I will win or if I will qualify for the World Championships, but I would bet on me. Regardless of the outcome, my preparation has been great and I am confident that my performance will be great as well. If I get beat it means that the other women also have great runs because that’s what it will take to beat me. 

Even as I write, these positive thoughts seem somewhat foreign to me. They have never come naturally until now. Instead of celebrating the joy of a long-sought answer to prayer, I tried to brush off this positivity as no big deal, thinking that my optimism was because my training has been going really well. Or because only 3 people have world standard which means chances are good that I can make the team this year.

But no - good health, good preparation and my chances on paper have never made me optimistic. (There have been years where I've had a better buildup of training or there's been less competition and I still dreaded race day.) At most, these factors have been tools used to combat my dread and anxiety by discipline and sheer will. But the reason I am optimistic tonight is because God has granted my request. He has made me genuinely, deep down, optimistic for this meet. Are my struggles forever behind me? Likely not, but I hope God will continue this transformation... because it’s great! I can’t wait to race. It’s going to be good.

 Running in the final at the 2017 Canadian Championships.

Running in the final at the 2017 Canadian Championships.

I ended up placing 3rd in Ottawa, and on July 18 was named to Team Canada for the World Championships in London next month. The first round of the 1500m is scheduled for August 4.

I sought the LORD, and he answered me. He delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant...
— Psalm 34:4-5

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