Today I set forth to lay out my thoughts on the stubborn bastard that was the younger version of myself, from an athletic perspective. While I would have lots of things to say to that idiot from a general life perspective (be better about money you fool!), the goal here is to focus on who I was as an athlete, and what that means to me today. This isn’t really a letter to that version of me, but a reflection on who I was, and what my shortcomings were as an athlete during that period of my life.
A fact of life, and a fact of sports in general, is that not everyone gets to “make it”. Sports are a chew-you-up-and-spit-you-out kind of world, and any success at a high level can be fleeting and should be celebrated. Celebrating your achievements involves a more-or-less “living in the moment” attitude that I never cultivated and, I think, is unfortunately, not part of the high-level athlete wiring naturally. My wiring, and I think the wiring of a lot of athletes (particularly those of us living with a chip on our shoulders) are focused on looking forward, never being satisfied, and pushing to create, what you perceive as - a better version of yourself. This makes it hard, if not impossible, to celebrate your accomplishments in the moment. You’re too focused on what’s next, and not focused enough on what’s happening in the moment.
I was lucky enough to have a two year period where I was “making it” in the sport of distance running. I wasn’t raking in the cash, or highly sponsored, but I was fast, and I was competitive in nearly every race I entered, particularly on the roads. In a two year period, I had finished top 20 at two US XC Championships, qualified for an Indoor US Track and Field Championships, Finished top 10 in the US 25k Championships, top 15 in the highly competitive US 1/2 Marathon Championships, and could boast of a top 20 ranking in the both the Marathon and the 1/2 marathon in one year. I was working full-time, training incredibly hard, flat broke, but hitting a ton of PR’s and sticking my nose in every race that I entered. Then, as quickly as it had come, it was gone.
That’s not to say that my career was over, far from it. Physically I was always close, and training at a high level. Mentally, though, things had started to unravel. Over and over again I would train at a high level, run a race that was not up to the standards of my fastest self, get incredibly frustrated, change tacks, and try something different. I found myself unable to stay focused, was dropping out of more races than ever before, and mired myself in a running malaise that I was unable to work my way out of. I even tried retiring a few times during this period, convinced that I would be happier if I could just let it go and move on. Running, at times, was making me incredibly unhappy, and I found it difficult to find the motivation to continue to do what I used to love to do.
There are a wide variety of reasons why I struggled mentally during this period. I would place incredibly high expectations and pressure on myself, expectations that I consistently was unable to live up to. And while that pressure may have kept me in the sport at times (I felt that I was unable to walk away because I would be disappointing people in my circle, something that, in hindsight, is patently ridiculous), it also made the experience miserable, and would get in my head and make it impossible for me to perform like I wanted to. It became a concentric circle of discontent. I would train hard, get my hopes up, run into some obstacles, crash and burn, race poorly, take time off, and do it all again. I lacked the wherewithal to step back and accurately assess myself, and lacked the mental fortitude to withstand multiple setbacks in a reasonable manner. Emotionally, I was all over the place, riding too high during my highs and falling too low during my lows.
This was unsustainable, both mentally and physically. The lack of consistency cause me to drift further away from the athlete I was at my peak. Eventually, as I began to stabilize emotionally, It got more difficult to physically achieve what I wanted to achieve. Which would, in turn, take a mental toll because I knew what I was capable of, and I found it incredibly frustrating that I was unable to do the same things. Over time, that spiral gets exhausting, and the constant questioning can drain a lot of the enjoyment out of the pursuit. That’s not to say that there were no good things happening around me at the time, in fact the redeeming portion of this part of my career is that I had great people around me, and cemented some excellent relationships. All of which helped to take the sting out of my lack of quality performances. It also has given me a lot of perspective, and hopefully some wisdom that I can pass on to other athletes who find themselves in a position like mine.
I think about that season of my life a lot, for a variety of reasons. It’s when I met, and courted, my now wife, who would change my life irretrievably for the better; and secondly I was achieving things that I wouldn’t have thought possible in my running career. Moving to Flagstaff was a difficult thing, and to be successful at something that I had set out to do was simultaneously surprising, as well as gratifying. As I’ve stated before, I never thought that I would have the success that I had, and I’m grateful for it.
I also think about it, from the “what could have been” perspective. To this day, while being satisfied with how far I came as an athlete, I don’t think I ever fully maximized my potential as a runner. I was never going to be world class, but I know I left some time on the table because of my inability to cope emotionally and to stay 100% focused. I had so many good voices in my ear, and people who believed in me, invested in me, and wanted me to succeed; but I was (and probably still am) incredibly stubborn and stuck in my own head, and unable to take the advice that I so badly needed to take. It’s clear that I haven’t fully resolved everything that I feel about that period of my life, but writing it down and reflecting certainly helps, and hopefully moves me in the right direction - in the long run, that’s all you can do.
If you’re reading this and are a younger athlete, file some this away for later use. There will be times when the arrow is always pointing up, and it’ll seem like you can do no wrong, but you have to be ready for the fall. There will always be low periods, and how you handle those will be part of what defines you as an athlete. You can learn from has-beens like me, and the mistakes that we’ve made, so you can avoid some of the potholes that tripped us up. Learn that you can’t change the past, and that what’s done is done. Learn that it doesn’t serve you to lament on what could have been. Keep an eye on the future, but live in the now and celebrate the successes that you have. And when it gets hard, as my Father likes to say, you have to “keep on keeping on” and, to use an old running adage, keep putting one foot in front of the other.