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.
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.