“How arrogant of me to think that they don’t know what they’re talking about.” – Hannah Hart from her interview on The Hilarious World of Depression on the topic of impostor syndrome.
A few weeks ago, I was standing on the starting line for the Cooper River Bridge Run 10k, a competitive race where I knew I’d get my butt kicked for two reasons: 1) the 10k is not my best distance and 2) I was only a month into working out again. But I showed up because my in-laws live in Charleston and it was a great opportunity to get in a good race without having to book a flight.
As sometimes happens, I was announced before the start of the race as the 2014 US Marathon Champion. That in itself wasn’t different. I’m always honored when a race chooses to highlight me. However, what came after that felt very different.
I know I’m not the only one because I’ve seen it in other elite runners… and really anyone who has achieved anything great and moved on with her life. When we are introduced by our greatest accomplishments, especially years after the fact or in moments where we aren’t quite as fit as we once were, I have noticed a common reaction – a brushing off or rolling of eyes at the announcement.
While from the outside it might look like humility, and for some people, that might be exactly what it is, that’s not what it has been for me. This is because, at least in my case, I have often felt ashamed that I am indeed the same person who ran so fast, but somehow haven’t been able to pull quite the same caliber of performance out of myself for some time.
And furthermore, especially when I show up to a race underprepared – on purpose, but just for the love of racing – it can almost feel unfair to be labeled as a national champion. Especially in that moment when I couldn’t feel farther from it.
But that wasn’t my reaction when I heard my name on the starting line for Cooper River Bridge Run this year. Despite being out of shape and in a race with a whole bunch of super fast 10k runners.
I was standing next to Tristin Van Ord, an athlete I had mentored during my time with the App State team when I heard over the PA system, “… and our American women’s field features the 2014 US Marathon Champion, Esther Atkins!” I could see how excited and proud she was for me, and seizing that energy, my coach brain took over and transferred me into a space of, how would I want Tristin to react if this announcement were for her? So I threw my hand up and said “that’s me! I did that!” Then the race started and I did my favorite thing – I ran my heart out.
It was such a simple moment, yet it felt like a massive breakthrough.
Certainly there has always been an element of feeling like I somehow didn’t deserve my PR or my US title. Like there was an asterisk by my performance. But as Des Linden said in her ESPN interview a couple days ago, “you can always put an asterisk on a race.” That’s what impostor syndrome is all about. We can always find an asterisk, or five or a hundred, if we go looking for them.
But beyond impostor syndrome, the thing that has kept me from embracing my accomplishments is a fear of expectations and judgement from the outside. A fear of having to continually prove that I earned a win in a race that ended years ago.
People who know me as a runner know that I was a national champion almost 4 years ago. They know that I’m still a good runner and consistently place well and run even splits in every marathon I line up to race. They might think I’m washed up. Or they might believe in me even more than I believe in myself. No matter what it might be, they are entitled to their opinion.
However, no matter what anyone’s opinion is, the truth is that I could not run a step for decades and I will still be the 2014 US Marathon Champion.
No one can take my accomplishments away from me. It’s only I who can throw them down the drain – by allowing my past achievements to make me feel ashamed of who I am today. Only I can allow my own achievement to steal the joy out of continuing to test my limits and push myself as hard as I ever have. Regardless of the result.
So maybe you’re recovering from an injury, or a slump, or a pregnancy, or maybe you think what you’ve achieved so far isn’t enough. But none of those are reasons to shy away from all the awesome things you’ve already done. Don’t let your past achievements keep you from setting new and different goals. You, too, can proudly say “that’s me! I did that!” and keep moving on.