At 17, I was a senior ending my high school running career on a high note. After years of hard work, I was at the top of the section in my event and for the first time I had the opportunity to compete at the New York State Championship meet (as an individual). My last two races of my senior year were the fastest races I’d ever run. I was lucky enough to finish up my high school athletic journey in the most ideal way. I could close that chapter of my life and package it up neatly with a ribbon on top.
I got to college with big goals of improving upon my high school successes and those around me shared those dreams and expectations. But the success I had in high school didn’t follow me to college. After a decent freshman year I began to feel the pressure to perform and the joy of running started to slip away. I was used to being the best; my senior year of high school had conditioned me to believe that winning was easy. But I wasn’t winning anymore and to some, if I wasn’t winning I wasn’t successful–a belief I started to internalize.
By the winter of my sophomore year burnout was setting in. I was tired and overtrained. Stepping on a starting line brought me more and more anxiety each week. I no longer felt the butterflies-in-my-stomach type of nerves that most athletes experience before competition, now I just felt pure dread. I hated running but I stayed on the team because I was a runner and running is what I did. I had no identity outside of running and I felt that if I stopped competing I wouldn’t know who I was.
Running was my enemy for the next two and half years. It seemed like the harder I tried, the slower I got. Somewhere in the back of my mind I always felt like my breakthrough was just around the corner and I would formulate some great comeback, so I kept slogging away despite my misery. Spoiler alert: there was never a comeback.
For years after, I allowed my college running experience to define who I was as a runner. I went into college thinking I was above average and left believing I was below it. My mindset for the next three to four years was that because I didn’t run well in college I must be a bad runner. I created this idea that a runner could only peak in college and now that college was behind me, I would never get any better.
Fortunately, with the help of some great running friends (shoutout badass lady gang) and an incredible coach (shoutout badass lady coach), I’m turning this idea upside down.
I’ve finally realized the notion that everyone peaks in college is bullshit. We refer to our high school and college athletic careers as glory days and when we graduate we refer to ourselves as NARPS (non athletic regular people) and joke that we’re washed up, but that doesn’t have to be the case. If you’re not a successful runner in college, it doesn’t mean you can never be successful and it certainly doesn’t mean you’ve missed out on your peak.
If you’re a runner, whether in high school, college, or beyond and you’re struggling, take comfort in the fact that your underwhelming performance right now does not define you as an athlete. Maybe you need a break, maybe you’re dealing with other stressors, maybe you’re struggling with mental health, maybe you need to change up you training or work with a different coach. A lot of these scenarios applied to me in college and for the most part, I’ve figured them out. It wasn’t right away and it certainly wasn’t easy but now, 5 years after ending my collegiate running career, I’m doing things I never would have thought possible.
Don’t be afraid to set new goals and go after them. Don’t let past failures lead you to believe your potential is limited.
This morning, I ran 18 miles, a distance that would have been unthinkable to my college self. Not only did I run that distance, but I ran it faster than I ran most of my 6-8 mile runs in college. These days my tempo pace is faster, my 5k pace is faster, and my marathon pace is fast enough to put me in the top 5% of finishers at the Chicago Marathon. Five years ago, if you tried to tell me this would be the case I would have laughed in your face. It hasn’t been an easy road, but I’m finally done allowing my collegiate running failures to define my potential. I’m not sure what I’m capable of but I’m sure that I’m ready to find out. Running is fun again and I’m back to feeling those butterfly type nerves before races, not dread. And I’m not necessarily working harder than I was 5 years ago but I am working smarter and running happier.
Stop defining yourself by your failures and maybe you’ll see what your potential really is.