A quick look over the shoulder, and I see the one thing you never want to see in a race—no one’s behind me. I put my head down, partly to grind out the final couple laps, but mostly in shame. I’m humiliating myself. The four hundred meter track seems to be measured long. I haven’t hit splits this slow all year. In an eight-lap race, it’s an ominous sign when you’re hardly holding on after just two. I hit that point in the race when I see the lap-count and question if I can make it to the finish.
There are periods during any race when you have time to think, time to doubt, and time to talk yourself out of the competition. But running is a thinking man’s sport. For every interval, for all the long runs, and for each mile, there is something equally important that contributes to your performance—your mentality. Confidence is key. Stepping on the line, when that gun goes off, the miles of training run to get you to a specific point become negligible. If there is a lack of self-assurance to compliment and carry your physical fitness, then success becomes an impossibility. Sometimes, that belief is the solution to the dodo’s conundrum. Without the innate and genuine faith in one’s own training, the possibility of flight is dwindled and lost in the process. But confidence cannot be faked; it’s not something of which you can convince yourself on race day. You have it, or you don’t.
Before that race at states my junior year, I was in the midst of a breakout season. A month prior, I had two big breakthroughs; a 1600 in 4:16 and an 8:37 3k. Workouts were going great, races were falling into place. But as the season began to wind down, uncertainty slowly crept into the back of my head. The two years before I had fallen victim to a mid-season peak. And now I was anxious about the possibility of reliving those collapses in dramatic fashion. Even though I was showing no signs of slowing down, my skepticism grew and grew until it manifested itself at the worst time possible—in the middle of a race, once things began to hurt.
Beforehand my coach preached about the dangers of pessimism, and admonished me for what he thought could become a psychosomatic failure. Despite his warnings, the necessary confidence was absent, and doubt was getting the best of me. With just two hundred meters remaining, I muster up a kick, for pride. I finish in second to last. I walk off the track with my head hanging in embarrassment. I beat myself.
The next day I sit alone on the bus ride home, and I am forced to confront my own failure. I’m given hours to myself; to reevaluate and contemplate my next step. Unfortunately, in addition to that abysmal 3200, I botched my chance at redemption in the 1600 the day after. My head is resting against the window, my legs still filled with lead and my mind spinning. I’m exhausted. I wrestle with the various rationalizations and reasons for my poor showing. I examine my training log. I assess the details of each day with scrutiny. How did I manage to collapse into the same trap yet again? I continue to over think.
There was one week until outdoor nationals. I sat my parents down and explained to them that I was unsure of whether or not I should go. I did my best to explain to them [as non-runners] what it means to burn out in a season. The situation was hopeless; at least I made it appear so. It would inevitably be a waste of time and money to fly to North Carolina only to dwindle further. They called my coach to gauge his impressions. In the same sagacious manner as always, he knew that if I could not be convinced of my own ability to run fast, that it would never happen.
My parents ultimately decided for me—we were going to the meet. And so, it was my own duty to figure out that next step. Since my doubts lay in my training, my coach offered to let me write my own schedule for the week. I could fix the problem myself. A few weeks prior I had met professional distance runner Anthony Famiglietti at a local running store where he gave a brief talk. I admired his approach to the sport. With a freedom of mind, running was without pressure. He merely enjoyed running as an entity in itself and racing was an opportunity to display his hard work. I built up the bravery to email him one night, just seeking some simple advice. Certainly there must be some sort of secret that Olympians have to reverse a peak. The next day I received a response. He most likely could tell I was in panic mode from the frantic state and rambling of my message, and he encouraged me to just relax and get back to the basics. To run free [and obviously to “run like hell”]. Sometimes all it takes is hearing what you already know from the right person.
That week, I kept things simple. Just easy runs, and some 200’s at race pace. I needed to get my legs under me, or at least needed to believe they were. We flew down to North Carolina, and I started to look at the trip as a vacation rather than as a race. Looking back today, this was the trip that has molded my outlook on racing. It is difficult to control how a race unfolds, what the weather is like, who the other runners are and how fit they are, but my individual preparation [from a mental standpoint] is entirely my own. I understand the importance of a race. When the pistol fires, nothing in the world matters more–I am all in. Before a race, the only reminder I need is to relax. This is the fun part.
Race day. I break off the line, and get to the railing. I sit just off the pace; content to let the others do the grunt of the work as I’m hanging on the back end. A sixty-five first lap. It’s conservative, not an issue. I look down at the track–it’s blue. I wonder to myself, “How much faster is a blue track than a red track?” All of a sudden I am sitting behind the two leaders. I can’t remember passing anyone, but I won’t complain. 2:10 at the half. Something starts to happen, am I slowing down, or are they speeding up? I start to go backwards. The dreaded third lap has always been my weakness. We hit the backstretch, and a gap begins to form. Oh, no. Not again. I remember what happened a week before, twice. I fight a battle with myself. I make confessions; just keep pushing and make it hurt, after the race I’ll be able to say, “I told you so.” No one will be mad if it was an honest effort. The distance between the front and myself grows. 3:16 with one to go. I hear my coach yell, he hasn’t given up yet. To this point, it has been anything but an honest effort. Only 300 to go, I stop compromising. I breathe in deep; I’m fine. Maybe it was mental. I see someone struggling; “I’ll just pick him up.” With that surge, I feel the fire; there’s something left. I turn it on, and with 200 to go I come racing by and into 4th. I look ahead, I’m moving faster than anyone on the track. I swing off the turn, and all of a sudden I am in second. My mom is screeching from the stands. A lap ago, she had the shovel ready to scrape my corpse off the track; now I’m rolling. The distance seems too far for first, but the clock looks promising, I can PR. But then I get that shiver like I’ve been drugged—runner’s high kicks in. My legs are flying now. It’s possible and I commit. I dig down, and I lean. It’s close.
It was only the emerging elite mile at the national meet. I wasn’t ready to race the big guns, but I was able to compete and pull out a miracle victory against a great field nonetheless. I stood proud, I beat the only person that had held me back the week before. We all have this idea of how a season should unwind, and how a race should play out. Checkpoints are created, and we aim for specific splits. But how do we react in those moments after a bad race, or in the middle of one? We must adapt, and adjust to the situation, the reality. The only thing to focus on is the present, because it’s the only thing we can control. Tabula rasa.