A Much Needed Look Back On An Old Blog

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.

Instride Blog 11/3/12-“Duel In The Snow”

In 1982, Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley battled for 26.2 miles over the course of the Boston streets. Despite pounding out sub-5 minute miles for two-plus hours, only two seconds separated the winner and loser. With one thousand meters left in the race, one of the many men on motorcycles accidentally cut off Beardsley as he rounded the turn, and interrupted his momentum. In his own account of the race, he reflects: “you talk about the perfect excuse that everyone would have believed…everyone would have believed it, except the person it mattered to most–me. When it comes right down to it, plain and simple; I just got out kicked.” After this weekend, I can relate.

About two hours before the race, we were each still hiding under the warmth of our hotel’s bed sheets. My teammates and I were miserable. Despite our current comfort levels being at an all time high, we looked out the window and shivered as the wind howled and the elements came pouring down in the thirty-degree temperatures. We made noises that bordered that gray area somewhere between crying and laughing—this was going to be painful.

The Ivy League Championships, more commonly known as Heps, is not your typical conference meet decided by the arbitrary lines drawn up by football coaches. There is history. These are eight regionally located universities that have been competing in everything since their establishment. It is a personal experience. As you run out during strides, you pass by the seven other coaches who recruited you, the masses of kids you personally hosted on recruiting trips, and the same runners you have been battling since high school. Everyone knows everyone. And when that gun goes off, everyone hates everyone. Hoards of alumni travel from all over the northeast and full teams come on fan buses to pack a cross-country course. There is no single sound tunnel, because the crowd outlines the entire course like it’s the last 200 meters of a typical race. This is Heps—a unique spectacle of ancient rivalries.

We warmed up in the gym. Princeton running one way on the inside of the track; Columbia running the opposite on the outside. Oh, the tension. We get the signal.  Thirty minutes until the gun. We pack up and head over to the course and as we hop out of the van, the chill hits us like an arctic wave. Spikes come on; shirts come off. I am pretty sure this is why clothing was invented, for weather like this. The gun goes off, and within 800 meters, it’s just as I expected—tactical. Only a mad man would be reckless enough to push the pace in the early stages of a race in these conditions. Just after 4k, after trotting along at a tad above 5 flat miles, the first move is made from the guy everyone was expecting to be the one to open things up. We hit the turn, and Cabral surges. My contacts are sheets of ice, and my eyelids are struggling to stay open, but I see the move and respond. Within a half a mile, we have our pack—the contenders have been separated; the race finally starts. The weather has shifted from rain to sleet. I put my gloves to my face and I feel nothing—always a good sign. I take notice of my breathing, contained and relaxed. I try to take notice of my legs, but I feel nothing. I look down to check that they’re still there—they are. That’s instrumental with 3k left of a race with a rapidly dropping pace.

We come around a turn in preparation for the final smaller loop, and Ethan Shaw of Dartmouth takes the pace. He hits the accelerator just a little bit more, and we separate. Now it’s snowing. I am just sitting, and he knows it. But he presses hard into the wind, the only appropriate move for one of the toughest guys I have ever raced. One mile to go, I pretend that I only have less than four minutes of hard running left—a small white lie to calm myself. At 7k, I look at him—he has icicles where his face used to be. I feel great; I’m in a rhythm and for some reason, still very comfortable. I make a small move to put a couple seconds on him, but then I reel it back. I remind myself of my closing speed, and decide to sit a little longer. Big mistake. With 400 to go, it’s my move. I roll, and start to open up. I make the final turn and see 200 meters until it’s all over. But then I feel someone on my shoulder and he’s back. With 50 meters, we are neck and neck. I start pumping my arms, and lifting my legs—but they won’t nudge, I’m a block of ice. And then the snow leopard pounces on me; he gets his head in front and takes the victory in heroic fashion. I cross the first timing pad, but don’t make it to the second. I thump to the ground. I’m asleep.

It’s cold, real cold—and I am a wreck. I don’t know what hurt more, the loss or my body. I am then covered in layers of jackets, but it’s to no avail, so I am carried off to the ambulance. The shivers get worse as my body is fighting to find warmth, and my groin begins to hurt from shaking so much. After 10 minutes, the paramedics suggest to my parents a trip over to the hospital; I’m sure they have blankets there. I know that I am in no way the only person out of the ninety-six-man field in such form; I was just lucky enough to be the first guy to cross the line who needed medical attention. I’m a mess the whole ride; this never happens in the mile.
I was right; they have lots of blankets in the emergency room. Special blankets too! Some had electric heat, some with air bubbles. But before I get under the covers [again], I notice one of the three female nurses going somewhere bad; I’m being stripped. I yell at my mom to get out, she doesn’t need to see this. Then my worst nightmare, “roll over onto your side.” Wait…what? No! AH! SHIT! Well…my rectum gave that thermometer a reading of 95.4, a lot colder than the 98.6 that I normally am. I’m informed of my hypothermic state, and that I’ll be fine; I just need to be thawed. An EKG, a couple bags of IV fluid, some drawn blood, and an hour later, I start to feel a lot better. But I have to use the bathroom badly. I am given a bedpan, but my extremities are frozen shut and the presence of the female nurses makes me shy. Ten minutes of solitude in an empty room does the trick; and now it is time to check my temperature to see how I am doing. Luckily, this time it will be done orally—why that wouldn’t have worked the first time, I do not know. I quickly confirm with the nurse to make sure that this is a different thermometer than the one before, and it is. I am back to normal temperatures. Shortly thereafter, I was released and able to meet up with my team to venture back to the city.

In the van ride back to school we all exchange the various events of our individual 25-minute adventures. The team ran well, but we came up short. Without a doubt in anyone’s mind, we each ran to the fullness of our capabilities; and it is difficult to be upset when you lose because another team [in this case Princeton] ran better, despite our own best efforts. We joke about the many falls suffered during the race, and in the safety and heat of the van we can now laugh about the misery of racing in a frozen tundra. However, as I analyze and explain the breakdown of my own race, I internalize the disappointment.

.1 seconds–It doesn’t get much tighter than that. I try and think about all the different places I could have made up such a slight margin. The difference of one turn being taken a little tighter, or taking two more extra hard steps off the line. Maybe I moved too early, or maybe I moved too late. What would have happened if I pushed the entirety of that final kilometer? Anyone watching the race would have advised me to just sit-and-kick, to be patient and let my speed finish the race out for me. But in the final moments of a cross-country race, logic is irrelevant, personal bests mean nothing, and the first 7900 meters never happened.

I recall the day before; during our pre-meet shakeout I took notice of the fact that the final straightaway was surprisingly short. On Saturday, I can’t describe how long it felt. From the second I finished, I have relived the race in my head over and over again with eidetic clarity. Each time, the distance from the final turn to the end gets further away. But no matter how many times I replay the race, the order of finish won’t change. Now, from here, I take consolation in my best cross-country performance to date. I remind myself of the grit and determination that each of my teammates ran with and how proud I am to have lined up with them in the final XC Heps of my career. I can only look forward.

You learn in the losses, and you truly find yourself in the failure. It is a reminder that no one race defines a career and that the regret of one race can provide the necessary motivation for another. I wanted to win, and I’m upset I did not. But maybe the refusal to walk away content is what will make the difference in the future. Rain or shine, hypothermic or not; I am not satisfied with the simple truth—I just got out kicked.

Instride Blog 10/19/12–“The Injury”

“People are disturbed not by things, but by the view they take of them.”

Why I thought a taxicab was an appropriate place to unwind and let the tension go, I will never know. But maybe you can’t choose the exact setting for the moments of your lowest low—they happen where they fall.  When the car door shut behind me, my face hidden by my sweatshirt’s hood, everything began to pour out. The stress of being injured was beating me. When a doctor tells you that the months you have taken off from running, along with the first procedure meant to heal your injury did not quite do the trick, it’s tough to feel optimistic. But it’s easy to feel helpless.

It happened suddenly, during the last half mile of a typical run on the roads near my family’s home on Long Island. One inch. If I would have taken a step one inch longer, shorter, or to either side, things would have been different. Instead, my path on that seven-mile run led me directly into the broken neck of a glass bottle. I didn’t see it appear under my trainer until it was too late. I jumped in the air, yelled out a few words that were so bad my mother would be upset at the fact I even knew they existed, and pulled the shard out. Somehow, it found a way to wiggle between a weak spot in my shoe, ending up snug in the middle of my flexor tendon. I limped home, spoke to my coach and in my running-log described the run as a “disaster,” but more notably, “a game changer.” Looking back, I was underestimating the true gravity of the situation.

Fate has never been a concept that I believed in. I’m a skeptic. This injury was not something that I could figure out considering the workings of providence, destiny or the rationalization that, “everything happens for a reason.” I wasn’t left in an existential crisis, wondering, “why me?” and counting my karma points from the sidelines. I couldn’t explain it, except for the fact that somewhere well beyond a thousand other healthy steps on a standard afternoon run, I mistook just one. And like that, I lost my junior year at Columbia to a freak accident. Instead of running with my teammates, I was being challenged in a different way than I ever could have imagined, but I was doing it alone. Instead of looking for a reason or for a meaning, I would focus my energy towards learning from the experience; and find a way to get back to running as quickly as possible.

At first, I believed the foot needed a week, to heal the laceration and allow the swelling to go down. But I figured it was safe to get an MRI and have a podiatrist confirm my amateur diagnosis. After receiving good news that I did not cause internal or long-term damage, I was confident that I would be back running cross-country with my team by pre-season [a week away]. But one week quickly turned into two, and although I was now off crutches, my foot still ached every walking step. It was improving, but much too slowly. A different doctor prescribed me a new anti-inflammatory and suggested that the pain would just need to be run through in order to break up the scar tissue. Coach Wood and I decided to trust this assessment; especially since any hope of a successful return that season would entail running immediately. For four weeks, I pounded out miles, and a few workouts, but without any hope. The pain became too great. One season down.

I am a miler. I can run cross-country, but my true motivation in the fall is team driven. That was the toughest part about my time away—having to watch my teammates instead of running with them. Holding a stopwatch doesn’t quite get the heart rate and adrenaline up like I crave. At this point, I stopped everything, too defeated to cross-train, and waited for my injury to repair itself. Friends would generally describe me as imperturbable; my moods are constant and my general outlook on life is overwhelmingly positive. But when you’re injured, things change. I’d say running is responsible for the usually steady aspect of my personality. But when that constant that I was so highly dependent on was stripped from me, the foundation crumbled. I don’t remember fall happening that year; the leaves didn’t change, and I never got to enjoy the crisp air on a morning run.

After multiple doctors failed to give me answers, and the waiting game was bringing about no results, I finally found the solution. My newest doctor not only enlightened me about the misdiagnosis I received, [that I was indeed dealing with a partially torn flexor tendon] but he had my remedy. There was a procedure known as Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) injections, and using a concentration of your own white blood cells, it creates an accelerated, but natural path to recovery. The first round placed me in a boot for a few weeks, and now I was the black sheep hobbling around campus, but at least I felt proactive. Finally, a couple months later, I made another attempt at running, but after a few runs I knew things weren’t right. Then there was that cab ride–I needed another set of injections.

My emotions undulated through each day, and in between the moments of hope, there were periods of doubt. I questioned my life without running, and what I would do to fill the void; and who I would be without the ability to tag myself as, “Kyle The Runner.” I was confronted by a couple friends who could no longer stand by and see this despondent apparition of the person I used to be. I didn’t project my sadness and it wasn’t an issue every moment of every day for month after month, but it was present. I did not take up any destructive habits, continued to get good sleep, and ate well (I actually lost 6 lbs.). I cross-trained an hour or so daily. But I was missing my enthusiasm for normal day-to-day activities, and the positive energy that I’d like to think I could be proud of for usually maintaining.

The day after talking with my teammates, I woke up a new man. I decided it was time to stop feeling sorry for myself, and move on. I could only control how I reacted to the adversity. But back in those times of doubt, I discovered some things about myself that were outside of the ‘runner’ label. I found parts of me I forgot were there. The influence I could have on the lives of those around me extended beyond my ability to run; there was more to me than the times I ran. The hobbies I developed and the perspective I gained contributed to my depth as an individual. And for that discovery, I am better off today both as a runner and a person.

Round 2. I had to go through the motions of the procedure and recovery once again. The lack of a timeline is what makes an indefinite injury so difficult to cope with. Everyday I would wake up, and before rolling out of bed and placing my foot on the ground, I thought that there was a chance that the pain had disappeared in that night’s sleep. Although I dealt with the disappointment daily, it kept me going. I bid my time patiently, and finally in March I was able to go for a jog in my space suit on the alter-g. Within a couple weeks, I jogged a mile outside on the turf. Did I feel my foot? Very much. But this time it was not pain, just soreness. Of all the miles I had ever raced or run, no other compared to the happiness that one-mile brought me. Because I ran, again.

Unfortunately injuries occur. Sometimes it is because you over train, maybe you are running in the wrong shoes, or maybe because you get unlucky. It is a part of our sport, and it just happens. But at the end of the day, as runners, there are certain things we can eventually take out of our experiences in the sport. Whether that is the value of hard work, or achieving and setting goals–one day our time as competitive runners will end. But in those races we lose, and the hours of solitude biking in an empty gym, or in the despair of a lonely cab ride; we grow. During those dark instances of uncertainty and pain, it is the reminder that there is a light at the end of the tunnel that will bring you there. An injury can break you, or it can be an opportunity to come back stronger. It is your choice.