Every so often a race leaves a lasting impact on you that’s far more than just a good time or a nice win. Over the past 14 years of my running career, there are three races that stand out as defining moments to me.
The first race was way back when I was a freshman in high school. All year I had wanted to make the state meet in the 1600, which meant I need to run a time of 5:26.0 or faster. I had consistently been running in the 5:40s and 5:50s throughout the season, and the week before the regional meet I ran all out to hit a PR of 5:39. But that was still a whopping 13 seconds away from the time, and I only had one week. I had never really tried race visualization before, but that week I focused more than ever on imagining running a 5:26 and believing 100% in my ability to do so. I had a white board in my room, and each day my Dad would draw a little picture of a train, the little engine that could. And above it he would write “I think I can, I think I can, I know I can, I know I can, I will, I will”.
The morning of the race finally came, and I lined up completely terrified out of my mind but believing that I was going to run faster than 5:26. The gun went off and I jumped right behind the top girls, who were significantly better runners than me. I remember being shocked at 500 into the race that I was still right up front and hanging on. Finally, as I came off the final curve, I heard my coach yell out “20 seconds!”, and I threw back my head and started pumping my skinny arms and legs as fast as I could. I crossed the finish line and saw 5:23 on the clock. I was elated; I couldn’t stop smiling for days. This was the first race that really showed me how powerful your mind can be in running.
The next race was the 2011 DII NCAA Outdoor Championships my junior year of college. I qualified in the 1500 and made it to the finals. I actually don’t remember anything about the first 1400 m of the race; all I know is that it must have been a tight pack the whole way because the majority of us were still in contention with 100 to go. I was running on the outside of lane 1 behind a few other girls, and as everyone unleashed that last surge down the homestretch, I stayed in the outside of lane 1, behind the girls in front of me, running strong but not passing anyone and not digging deep. I ended up finishing 5th and less than a second off the win.
For about 5 seconds I was okay because 5th matched my highest finish ever and I was All-American, but then I walked off the track incredibly disappointed. It was like a switch flipped; I suddenly realized that I had the potential to win a National Championship, and I had just completely blown the opportunity to go for it. Before the race it never crossed my mind that I could accomplish something that big, and so when the opportunity came, I had already mentally removed myself from that battle. I was so furious with myself after that race, and I immediately set a goal to win the following year. And one year later, I won the 1500 at DII NCAAs, my third National Championship of the year.
The last race, as you may have guessed, was the Olympic Trials final. Once again I faced a daunting task, but this time I came to the line completely prepared. Physically the rounds went better than I expected, and I came to the bell lap of the final race believing I had a legitimate shot and going for it. I kept repeating to myself throughout the entire race that I was okay, I was still in position, I could still make the team. That kind of engagement during every second of the race was huge for me. At some point I usually start to doubt a little or worry when it’s getting really tough, but I didn’t allow those thoughts to even enter my mind in the finals. And although I fell just short of my goal, that doesn’t mean I failed. Instead it proved to me that my dreams weren’t unrealistic. Most importantly, my performance at the Trials backs up my belief that I can make World and Olympic teams and compete with the best in the country. The mental side was there before, and now I have complete confidence that physically I can be there as well.
These three races don’t stand out as physical accomplishments; instead they each reflect a mental breakthrough and turning point. Each time I was able to make that leap in my mind that I could compete at a higher level, and from that point I had a new set of standards to hold myself to.
One of the hardest things about our sport is the mental battles we wrestle with every day. But every so often there’s a race or a workout where suddenly it clicks in your mind that you are capable of so much more. I try to hold on to those moments and use them to both motivate me and remind me of what I should be striving for.
As the summer season has finally ended and I’m gearing up for a new year of training, I like to look back on what I’ve learned from these races. I use that to set my new goals and mentally refocus myself for the challenges ahead. I also love looking back at these three races to see just how much my goals have changed over the years and how far I’ve come. I hope this inspires other runners to think “Why not me?” Sometimes it takes only one moment for your perspective to change and open up new doors.