I have been having a hard time coming up with what to say about this last race. My 2020 season concluded with two races, a 50 km in January (well before I had any idea what 2020 would bring), and a 20 km in September (purely as a race of opportunity). Neither of those races were what I wanted them to be. I changed coaches shortly after my last race in September. The women’s 50 km, which was the focus of my 2019 season (and the portion of a season that existed for 2020?), was done away with and replaced with a 35 km distance. I got sick in December and never fully recovered, and in the process of training through illness I developed a dislike for training that was ruining me. I used to love training, it was what kept me going and what I looked forward to every day. Now I was so anxious about training, dreading even the thought of it, that I would put it off as long as I could. It was starting to affect my family in a negative way and I felt even worse about not living up to my expectations as a wife and a mother. I was at the point that I wanted to quit, I didn’t know what was wrong, I didn’t know how to fix it, and I didn’t think that I could keep going on how I was.
So welcome to 2021. The first ever women’s 35 km national championships were originally scheduled for the end of January, same course I competed on last year and 2 other times prior, being held along with the men’s 50 km national champs. Just a few weeks prior to the race it was delayed a month because of Covid concerns, making training and travel preparations difficult, and I thought about not even going. I had so many doubts. Would the race even happen? Would I be prepared for it? How would I fit in with a new team? I would have to travel on my own because of Covid, I had never raced a 35 km before, I didn’t feel like I was in any place mentally or physically to be racing so I made the longest list of excuses that I could come up with. I got injured (again) three weeks out from the race. My coach backed me into a corner and made me tell him if I was going to race or not and I said, “Fine, I won’t do it then”. It was my husband who finally convinced me, he told me that I just need to go. Race. Have fun. Enjoy it. Remember why I have put in all of the work, and do it for all the people who have supported me along the way.
So I went down to California. I got to stay with an old friend who was now one of my new teammates, which was so much better than staying on my own. I usually get anxious before races, but this time I felt almost numb. I didn’t want to be there, I didn’t want to be racing, and I really didn’t care what happened. I talked to my husband the night before the race and he asked me what my goal was. My only reply was “to finish”.
I got to the start line, it was a much smaller group of participants than normal, but so good to be in the presence of other athletes, to not be out there doing this solo like so many of my training sessions over the last year. I had a lot of negative thoughts, but did my best to re-direct them and focus on the positive. I had attended a Bible and prayer time the day before the race that was organized by one of the other athletes and we had a great discussion about how selfish being an athlete can be. I knew at the core that all of my race walking endeavors have been for God, to use a gift that He has given me to bring Him glory. Somehow I had lost that focus along the way, but during the race I had the chance to remind myself at least every lap that I was doing this for God.
I settled into a nice groove and was actually enjoying it. Okay, okay, there were some ugly parts, I think I said something obscene to my coach at one point when he kept telling me that everything was “just perfect”, and I was not feeling perfect at all. But I was a part of the walking community that I had missed for so much of the last year. My injured hamstrings acted up the last 7-8 km and the pain got pretty intense, but I did my best to mentally re-focus and keep my mind off of the pain. I know I slowed some over those last few kilometers when I really wanted to be speeding up, but I kept moving in spite of the fact that my legs were screaming at me to stop and made it to the finish in second place.
The finish felt…empty. Second place at a national championship is usually something that would be celebrated, but because of Covid restrictions there was no one at the finish line, no one to hug, no one to celebrate with. It felt like any other training session, there I was on my own, having completed something amazing with no one around to witness what had just happened. It felt like a lot of this last year actually, lacking physical closeness with people, no one around to support or carry me. I stood there for a few moments, hands on my knees, ready to collapse, not sure if I should laugh or cry. Then the only person who showed up was the drug enforcement officer to escort me to drug testing (an inevitable part of finishing well at a national championship). And that was that. I don’t even have a picture of me finishing, I don’t think there was anyone there to take one.
So now onto the next. My husband was hoping the race would be some sort of reset for me, that I would go back to enjoying training again. Usually I take a bit of time off after a race to recover, but with a new coach and a new program, I was back into some easy training by the second day, and the anxiety came right back with it. My husband also thought it was important for me to get right back into racing again, to face my fears head-on and not let them overwhelm me. So I am off on my next adventure now, it has had its share of struggles, but I am hoping for a better story to tell at the end.