Drawing Strength in Moments of Trial
I’m in the midst of my senior year cross country season at DePaul University, and my tenth year of running competitively. Alas, it took me quite a while to figure out exactly how to navigate not only competing at the Division I level, but also honing in on the mental toughness and grit needed to succeed.
The first three years of college were hell. I showed up to practice; I swear I did. My body was physically there. It took up space, and exuded carbon monoxide and polluted everyone else’s air.
Yet I found myself in my coach’s office on not one, but multiple occasions, having exceedingly difficult and introspective conversations, that every athlete has to face at some point in her career.
Questions that included but were not limited to, “How passionate are you for this sport?” and “Do you think it’s time for your body to retire?” The conversations almost always ended in salty tears and snot running all over my blotchy face.
Those aren’t easy questions. As an athlete who’s faced a series of unfortunate events with injury, and someone who has yet to achieve an injury-free collegiate season, they were perfectly valid. But it’s incredibly hard to let go of things that you love.
April of 2017, I was coming off a broken toe that kept me off the track for the indoor and outdoor seasons. (Unfortunately, as a result of my clumsiness, and not due to running-related injuries. Coach was fuming.)
The excitement for our home meet was building, and I wanted in. Will I be racing this weekend? Put me in coach! I said. I wanted so desperately to run sub 5 minutes in the 1500. Give me a shot, I pleaded.
No. One word, and it was over. Angry tears streamed down my face. I went into the summer with a new resolve: I would train smarter, harder, and with more dedication than in the past 10 years of my running career combined. And I would come back in such mental and physical shape that none of the questions from the past would ever surface again. Coach would have no choice but to say yes.
Summer was a whirlwind of activity. I hit the weight room, ran doubles, and strengthened my body with core and body weight exercises. I pre-habbed with foam rollers, cupping, dry needles… I served as a camp counselor at Green Mountain Running camp. As the sole Midwestern counselor, I had valid fears of being dropped on the hills.
Flash forward to our third meet of the season, the 5K National Catholics Invitational at Notre Dame. In years’ past, it was a fun course, usually fast and furious, and always inexplicably hot. Though not as toasty as the fire I decided to bring to the race that day. We were drinking our own sweat on the warm up, a perfect prelude for the race to come.
“Caroline, Maret, come here.” Coach called us over before the start of the race to give us a few last-minute pointers.
“You should be keeping your eyes out for Xavier.”
Coach I don’t pay attention to uniforms when I race.
“First mile should be around a 6:02.”
6:02 isn’t fast enough.
“You got it.”
I’ll need it.
I was beside myself in defiance. The Blue Demon Ladies were missing our top runner, and everyone needed to step up their game to fill in the gap. The sun was blazing, and our guns were loaded and prepped for battle. Lifting does that to your muscles sometimes.
The gun went off, and so did we. Our white and blue uniforms were visible through the swarming sea of stampeding feet. We rounded the first corner and the race was still relatively tight—a hoard of women striving for the same purpose, to compete and bring their best on that hot day.
I lengthened my stride and approached the mile marker. 5:40, 41, 42… an enthusiastic spectator droned. Good heavens it was quite the start. I took a deep breath to steady myself. Sweat was dripping into my eyeballs and I resisted the urge to wipe it off, not wanting to waste the precious time and energy.
Jess stood with her clipboard, taking splits and cheering us on in her calm and quiet voice, a barely audible whisper above the huff and puff of my labored breathing.
We were halfway through the race, and I was tired. My strained hamstring, an accolade from my PR in the previous race, wasn’t allowing me to stride out how I normally would. It was hot, and I felt like I was dying.
A competitor in front of me teetered off to the side of the course around mile two, dropping to her knees in submission. Her legs refused to carry her any farther.
“Come on girlfriend, you can do it! You’re fine, let’s go,” I encouraged. Partially to help her out, but more to remind myself that the race wasn’t over.
I often get asked, what do you think about while you run? Isn’t it boring? What goes through your head? I kindly smile and nod, appreciative of people’s interest in our crazy sport. The sport without timeouts, halftimes, or substitutions.
In moments of mental and physical exhaustion, I find myself thinking lots of things.
The 2.5-mile marker approached, and thoughts swirled in my head. I gazed up at the azure sky and prayed for strength. I mustered what I had left and pushed myself to go farther, faster.
I looked wearily at my coach, who stood with his arms crossed and shades on, blocking all the haters. “Bring it home, Caroline. Bring it home.”
I hauled ass, and I brought it home with a PR.
There are tough days, and tough races. There are bruises and broken bones, and sometimes broken hearts too. What makes it worth it?
Maybe it’s the chime of laughter with teammates, when you perhaps tie your long hair together down by your chins to create makeshift beards to fend off the bitter Chicago cold. Or maybe it’s those moments when your core is shaking, when your nonexistent abs are screaming for rest, or your legs want to fall out of your ass from hill repeats, but you discover that you actually enjoy reaping the rewards after the excruciating pain, and welcome it when it comes.
I’m sure athletes can look back on a moment of glory and share it with pride, a snapshot of time forever ingrained in our memories. But perhaps more relatable is attesting to the everyday glimpses of glory, the tiny victories. Overcoming injuries, persevering through the mental challenges that every sport brings, and pushing our bodies one second faster, one step farther, and one weight more than we thought we could bear.
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