Monday, October 31, 2011

To everything there is a season...

While I reflect on my last race of the season, a bible verse comes to mind:

To everything there is a season,
a time for every purpose under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 3:1

I was invited to compete at the Pan American Games at the beginning of September. Competing for the USA in a big international competition was an honor and opportunity I decided I could not pass up. At the time, I was in the midst of great training for my 'road mile season', feeling good, and thought it would feel like a natural progression to taper back down to the 800m, do some speed training for a month, and finish out the season with a bang. 

Well, I guess you could describe my experience as some kind of a bang, but not the big successful kind that I was imagining when I said, "Sure, sign me up!" Rather, the "bang" was a sharp, yet healthy slap of reality. 

After the 5th Ave. Mile in NYC at the end of September, I was thinking I had underperformed due to the fact that I had traveled and competed at three road miles in three weeks. While this may be true, in hindsight, I think that may have been the first sign of general fatigue, and an indication that it might be best to end my season there. I hadn't taken a significant break from training and competition since I finished the 5th Ave. Mile LAST YEAR...and a year is a long time to be "on".

Rather than shutting it down though, the mindset I took was "press on good soldier!" I came back home, my coach and I decided to experiment with some new training ideas that involved back-t0-back days of working out (with shorter volume), thinking this would help me get through rounds at the Pan American games, and perhaps be helpful for planning for the Olympic Trials next year. At first, this plan was working out well. I wasn't hitting "peak times" in workouts, but at first I thought it was because I was getting back into speed training and wouldn't expect to be at peak yet.

Later, when I still couldn't hit the times, we accredited it to my training schedule, and said once I start to taper and freshen up, the times would come. As the Pan American Games crept closer and closer, and my taper was in full swing, the times were closer, but still not quite where I thought they should be. 

Leading into a big competition like this, you need to feel prepared, so I came up with a few more reasons that my workouts weren't indicating my true fitness. I blamed the wind and the cold that I had been sprinting in the last week before I flew down, and I even told myself that I just wasn't able to "hit it hard" at practice on my own, but when it comes to a race, instincts will kick in and I will have that pop that seemed to be missing from practices.

Anyone reading this is probably asking, "What about your doubts? That had to play a role!" Though I am speaking of a lot of reasons to doubt myself now, at the time, all these explanations for my underperformance at practice seemed entirely logical, and I truly believed great things would happen at the Pan American Games. I had high hopes to win the thing, and was seriously hoping to run a new PR.

So, long introduction short, I think my body was trying to tell me something that my head didn't want to hear.
As you enter the athlete village, all the Pan Am countries' flags

I flew down to team processing in Houston, TX first, where the US team was treated to even MORE gear from the USOC (United States Olympic Committee). I can't even describe how awesome it feels as an athlete to don the red, white, and blue. I felt so entirely blessed and spoiled when I had to check TWO bags of gear at the airport the following morning as we flew the rest of the way to our destination, Guadalajara, Mexico. We took a bus to the athlete village, which was a big complex that held the soccer stadium, some big tents for a cafeteria and other entertainment, and several apartment building that were serving as dorms for all the athletes. Every building had the flag of the inhabitants' country hung outside on balconies. It was like walking into another world, watching amazing athletes representing over 30 countries from Canada down to Brazil in every sport imaginable. 

The USA Building!
Village-life was pretty cool, and very simple. Basically, the only thing any of us needed to do on any given day was wake up, eat, train, eat, rest/treatment, and umm, eat again. It could have been quite boring, but there was enough things right at our fingertips to keep us entertained. I hung out by the pool for a little while my first day there with the 20K race walk girls, I went to a soccer game with a friend I made from the 10K, and every day I was working hard trading pins. Yes, every country gave their athletes pins, and the norm was to walk up to people and ask to trade your USA pins for theirs. It was easy enough to figure out who to talk to, because EVERYONE walked around in their national team gear that broadcasted their country. This was a fun way to start up conversations with new people, practice my spanish, and create a cool/free souvenir collection!

Outside the soccer stadium, with walls made of GRASS! So cool.
They had three cute little mascots of the games that were seen all over the place- I had to take a picture with this one!

Inside the soccer stadium- also beautiful!

The night before my prelim round, some of the USATF event managers told myself and the other American 800m runner, Christina Rodgers, that there was a 98% chance that the prelim would be cancelled, so we would just run a  straight final the following day instead. This came a quite the surprise, especially since all the training I had been doing was geared towards running solid rounds of races rather than just one. This is very uncommon to cancel a round at a big meet like this, but as an athlete we were aware that anything like this can happen, and I started making a new game plan with my coach for just one round.

At the track for a pre-meet workout!

The heat was indeed cancelled, so my time finally arrived the following day, to step out on the amazing competition track and race for the USA. The stadium was filled and the crowd was fantastic. Just before the start of the race they panned the camera on each of us, and when I looked up and saw myself on the jumbo-tron, I could hardly recognize it was me in the USA uniform. It was a cool realization to see that, and gave me the burning desire to make more teams like this in the future. 

The fans filled the stands and made their presence known!
The gun went off, and at first the race was very straightforward. We went through the first 200m in about 29 seconds, just like I was hoping, and so I tucked into the pack just behind the leaders. As we rounded the second curve, the race significantly slowed down. I was physically uncomfortable running as slow as things seemed to be going. So, I decided to make a gutsy move, and cut to the outside to get around the pack and start pushing. We ended up reaching the 400m mark in 64, a time I haven't seen as a split in an 800 since maybe high school? Obviously when a race goes out like that, the second lap will be an all-out sprint. The leaders took off, I pursued, but no matter how much I wanted it, and how hard I tried, I couldn't help but let them get away. I moved up to pass at least a couple athletes on the final curve to finish 6th in 2:07, but it certainly wasn't what I was hoping for or expected. To be perfectly honest, I was dumbfounded. The race was won in a time that I thought I could run, even tired, had we done it more evenly. 

Just after the first 200m, I am out wide to try to pick up the pace...
It was a great learning experience for me to see that you need to be prepared for any kind of race the field might throw at you, but I also need to hold myself accountable. I am generally a front-runner, but for some reason I committed to myself not to lead this race. I can't help but think the outcome could have been different if I had controlled the race from the front rather than the runners who took us through in 64. I also need to allow reality to finally settle in. There's a good chance that no matter how fast or slow that race went out, I would have been struggling in the second lap because I was trying to push myself beyond my seasonal 'expiration date', so to speak.

In college, after every season, I would sit down to reflect with my coach, Gary Wilson. He would always ask me, "So, what have you learned?" The question was maddeningly open-ended to me, but always sparked some valuable conversation. Ever since, this is a question I continue to ask myself as the seasons pass by in my professional career. I think the biggest thing I learned (or, re-learned if I am being completely honest), is I need to listen to my body, and be willing to allow it rest when it says so, not when the season's races dictates it is time to take a break. If I were truly paying attention to what all my physical signals were telling me, I would not have been so dumbfounded at my performance, and perhaps I would not have even allowed myself to go. 

Despite everything that happened, I would still say the trip was worthwhile. It was an AMAZING EXPERIENCE that I was so grateful to have had. I learned so much about village life (which is very similar to the Olympic Village), and mentally preparing at large competitions. I learned a lot about timing my season appropriately for the meets that count. I had access to great support staff from massage therapists, to coaches, and event managers. All-in-all, I think the things I gained from going to Guadalajara outweigh the upsetting performance. 

After I arrived home, my mom kept asking me if I had cried, and if I was doing alright, etc. I told her I had not, and that I am actually doing just fine. This is certainly not because I didn't care about this opportunity, I think I am at peace because I have a solid understanding of why things didn't go my way, and I know how to prevent this kind of disappointment in the future. 

For everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under the sun.

Right now is a time for rest and renewal. A time where doing nothing is the best thing. It is a time to reflect and learn. It is a time to enjoy life without running. I can honestly say I am doing all those things to the fullest, so that I am fully prepared to do running to the fullest when that time comes around again.

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