My Story

as originally posted on InnerVoice

KEEP WORKING HARD

The beauty of bad races is that usually, you’re the only one who remembers them. There are a few in particular that I will never forget, but at this point, I’m almost certain no one else remembers. Sometimes they’re predictable, and other times they happen for absolutely no reason. Either way, I’ve seen enough of them and had enough bad workouts that I usually try to reflect to see if I can figure out why they went bad and what I can learn for the future. Beyond that, you’ve just gotta move on and use those experiences as motivation to keep working hard and getting better.

Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely times where these moments can really test you as a person or make you re-consider where to go next. I had one of these coming off the Olympic Trials last year where I questioned what could’ve gone so wrong and what I was still doing in this career. Did I really want to keep running? But ultimately, you’re not going to change anything by marinating in your sorrows. It’s not bad to reflect for a while, but eventually, you’ve gotta move on. And the best way I’ve found to do that is to keep racing and training (assuming you’re not injured or anything). If you can take something away from the bad experience, all the better, but if you keep at it, you will find your groove again and be better for it. It took a lot of reflection and a long time for me to find this groove again after the Olympic Trials – probably about 3 months – but now I’m happier with where I’m at as a runner, smarter with my training (I hope), and back to feeling good pushing the limits in racing again.

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ALWAYS FINISH

I consider stopping in pretty much every race I run. There’s always that first moment where the pain seems unbearable and it’s impossible to imagine finishing the rest of the race if it’s only going to get worse from there. Sometimes it takes a while for your mind to re-convince your body that you’ll survive and should continue racing, but it always does (or almost always does…) and you start to build confidence again towards finishing.

As for quitting the sport, I’ve considered retirement a few times over the past couple years. I’ve felt like I was ramming my head against the wall trying to get that breakthrough performance that I knew I was capable of, or when I missed making the Olympic team last year, but each time I’ve decided that I needed at least one more chance to see if I could push my body farther. I wouldn’t be satisfied leaving the sport with that Olympic disappointment as my ending.

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THAT BASKET WAS RUNNING

I think pretty much every male in my era wanted to be Michael Jordan when they grew up. That pipedream died on the bench of my middle school basketball gym, and my goal of being an NFL quarterback faded into obscurity when my dad said that I couldn’t play football. But I began to become more enthralled with the best endurance athletes of the time, in particular, the great Norwegian cross country skier, Bjorn Daihle, and Lance Armstrong. I would envision myself sprinting away to a victory on the ski trails in our hometown, or would give my brother “the look” that Lance gave Ullrich on the slopes of L’Alpe d’Huez, as I tried to drop him on the bike. We had also discovered “Without Limits” and Prefontaine by middle school and spent a lot of time reciting scenes from that movie while we would be out running.

Which of these great athletes I wanted to be changed with the season, but I always knew I wanted that I wanted to follow in their footsteps and chase that Olympic dream. It wasn’t until my senior year in high school that I really had to choose which dream to pursue. By that time, I knew I wanted to keep running, but I wasn’t convinced that my time as a cross country skier was over just yet. I had finished 2nd at nationals in the classical race and felt like there was still a lot I could do to improve. With that, for a long time, I considered the colleges that would allow me to do both running and cross country skiing – Dartmouth, Middlebury, Boulder, Northern Michigan University. Ultimately, it was my junior track season that convinced me that I wanted to put 100% of my energy into pursuing running. I had made Footlocker that fall and finished as the top junior there, in 6th place. But when it came to the track, I floundered comparatively. I still did well by the time the state meet rolled around but my times were nothing compared to what other top kids in the country were running in the mile and 2-mile at the time. Whether or not I was right, I was convinced that it was due to the extra upper body mass that I added during cross-country ski season and thus decided if I was going to compete on the highest level in college, I needed to put all my eggs in one basket. And that basket was running.

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KEEP IT LIGHT

There are 3 things that I look for in the people I like to surround myself with for training – They need to 1) be hard workers, 2) not take themselves too seriously, and 3) know how to have fun. I want someone who’s going to help me push my limits, but I’ve also found that becoming too single-minded and serious all the time in my pursuit of running goals can become detrimental. You’ve got to be able to have fun with it! With that, I also want someone who can joke around and keep things light-hearted in training sometimes. This part starts to become even more important during altitude camp time where we’ll spend as long as 7 weeks stuck together in a house up in the mountains. If you can’t figure out a way to have fun and distract yourself from running thoughts 24/7 there, you’re going to go insane. I’ve teetered on that edge enough to know that my running career won’t last very long if I spend too much time in that zone.

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“My dad has always said that it’s all about your peer group. This is something that has been very true for me in running and I think is really applicable to anything that you do. If you surround yourself with high achievers and people who care about a lot of the same things you do, it’s all of a sudden feels a lot less like work, is much easier to stay motivated, and ultimately tends to lead to being more successful.”

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NO IDEA ABOUT GOING ‘PRO’

I didn’t know anything about what it meant to be a professional runner, even as I was graduating as a senior in college with aspirations of becoming one of them. I had seen a few teammates become pros at that point, but I had no idea how to actually go about it – what the lifestyle actually entailed or what it even meant to have an agent. Some people start talking to agents before they finish their collegiate career so that they’re ready to hire one and sign their first contract as soon as they finish their senior year. In hindsight, this might have been a good strategy, but for me, I had decided that I didn’t want to add any extra distractions. I was finishing up school and trying to pursue the 1500m title that year, so waited until after NCAAs to even begin to figure out what my options for the future might be. I ended up finishing 2nd in the 1500m in Arkansas, and I can remember still being nauseous and bent over the fence when the first agent approached me and began introducing himself.

I don’t think I heard what he said, and I still can’t remember now, but I remember being excited that someone else thought I had the potential to keep running. Over that next week, I probably spoke with 15 agents, either in-person or over the phone. I liked some more than others, but to be honest, they all sounded great and promised me that they could help take my career to the next level. I wasn’t sure what exactly that meant at the time or what separated a good agent from a bad one, but I gave many of them the go-ahead to start talking to shoe companies on my behalf and get back to me with what the options might be. From what I had heard from them up to that point, someone with my credentials should expect something in the $50k-$70k salary range per year, more if the negotiations went well. It felt like a dream. I couldn’t believe I was about to make that sort of money just for doing what I loved. Or at least I thought.

It didn’t take long before I heard back from one of the agents on my prospects. I had been looking forward to hearing back for a couple days and can still remember where I was when he called. I knew by his tone right from the start that it wasn’t going to be what I was hoping for. He said that in any normal year, I would have made money similar to what they had told me, but due to the recession (this was in 2009), companies were cutting back and the best that he could get was free gear. Not just less money than I was expecting, but NO money. This wouldn’t have been the worst news for me a couple of months earlier, but now that I had somehow gotten in my head that I was worth something, I was devastated. After that, all but a couple of the agents I had spoken with disappeared. I don’t necessarily blame them. I no longer represented an opportunity for them to build their business, and after college, regardless of how much you do it for the love of the sport, this is also a business. Anyway, I knew that I still wanted to pursue running but I wasn’t sure what this new development meant for my ability to actually be a pro. Fortunately, one of the agents continued talking to me after this letdown. That guy I eventually signed on as my agent and continue to work with to this day, Dan Lilot. He helped explain to me how the life of a professional runner worked, what my potential future career in the sport could look like, and eventually, that fall helped sign me to a contract with Saucony. I don’t think I would have quit the sport without Dan that year, but I can confidently say that my career has been much better and longer because of the advice and support that he has given me over the years. I know that a lot of athletes still graduate college in a similar position to me with no idea of how they should approach becoming a pro runner or who to turn to for advice. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to begin helping some of the younger athletes navigate this time so that they can be better prepared and more successful than I was in those first months as a “pro.”

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GOALS KEEP ME MOTIVATED

Running has made me a very goal-oriented person. On a day-to-day basis, my goals help keep me motivated. And long-term, without them I think it’s very easy to get into a routine of just putting your head down and working hard each day but never actually making a tonne of progress because you miss seeing the big picture. I’ve had this happen in running where I’ve over-trained or gotten injured because I’ve gotten caught up trying to put in a tonne of work every day, but lost track of where I want that work to take me and how it all fits together.

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THE WORK HAS BEEN DONE

In the tough times, it’s always helpful for me to have multiple things going on that I can use as a distraction. It stops me from focusing too much on negative aspects of one part of my life. In running, this has meant using school, a job, or other side projects to keep me motivated and pushing ahead when injuries or race performances have started to drag me down. I still spend a lot of time training or healing injuries during these times but having other things going on at the same time helps these negatives to not become overwhelming. I think the same thing holds true for any part of your life. It’s good to have goals and be singularly focused at times, but you also have to have other things to fall back and shift your focus.

When I start to feel the nerves pre-race my inner voice will oftentimes remind myself that all the work has already been done and that it’s just a matter of actually putting it to use now. Even though there’s a lot that can happen in a race, it’s reassuring for me to remember that the baseline of my fitness and ability won’t change from anything I do that day.

It’s also pretty typical to have something go wrong, or feel like things haven’t gone “to plan” heading into a race, so I will very often think back to all the times over the years where things have gone horribly awry in the lead up to a race but the race itself has still gone well, or even great. I would say this happens enough that I almost feel comforted now when things aren’t perfect, or something doesn’t go “to plan.” It’s almost part of the pre-race routine, haha.

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ELLIOTT INSPIRES ME

I’m inspired by my brother, Elliott. He’s 3 years younger, but he’s the one who has always pushed me and inspired me to be better. Whether it was growing up playing one-on-one football in our front yard or racing against one another down the streets of 5th Avenue for the road mile there, he’s someone I can always count on to both never take it easy on me but also be there as my biggest supporter when I need him. Some of the greatest moments in my running career have been when the two of us have been able to compete; side by side, even if occasionally those moments have ended with him beating me.

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THE FULL SHEBANG

The next race on my schedule is the Furman Elite 1500 on June 3rd. After that, I’m planning to run the 5k at the Portland meet the following weekend and then USAs in Sacramento.

I’m not sure if it will be next year already or not, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gradually had this increasing interest in training for a half marathon. I’m not sure I’m ready for the full shebang yet, but half has slowly crept into my mind as one of the races that I’d like to check off my bucket list before I officially hang up the shoes on the pro running career.

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