Tragedy: An unexpected gift.

This morning before my run, I gave myself this topic as a writing prompt:

What elements came together to produce my best running years?

Anyone who has every had a period of incredible running followed by a disappointing season (or a series of disappointing seasons) has certainly asked herself this question before.

First I needed to define the years of my best running, and a few periods came to mind. But for simplicity’s sake, let’s focus on one specific period: June 2013 until October 2014.

In June 2013 I ran almost a 90-second half marathon PR of 1:14 before leaving ZAP Fitness/Reebok to get a job as an assistant coach at Rider University. That fall I took 2 minutes off my marathon best to run 2:34 for 3rd place at the US Marathon Championships. I backed that up in the spring with PRs at every distance from the mile to the marathon, culminating in a 2:33 at Boston, and followed that up with another 2:34 at Twin Cities for my 2014 US Championship title.

For the first 20 minutes of my run this morning I meditated on this question – what was it that made me so good at running all of a sudden during that time in my life? And here are the factors that came to mind:

  • the three years of mileage, focus, and hard work that I put in while I was at ZAP prior to this period
  • the coaching switch and the faith that I had in Terry Shea
  • the leadership at New York Athletic Club who believed in me even in this time of uncertainty
  • the teammates who came with NYAC and how much they inspired me to maximize my own performance even as I took on a new job
  • the new role of becoming a coach and unofficially a role model to my athletes at Rider, and the inspiration and training structure that that circumstance provided me
  • the newfound autonomy I found in choosing my own coach and spending much of that period unsponsored – I wasn’t doing it for anyone but myself!

After coming up with that short but very important list, I switched gears in my run and started listening to the latest episode of Terrible, Thanks for Asking called Their Day which features a story about the Pittsburgh synagog shooting. As I listened to the very personal interviews with these awesome survivors, something resonated with me.

Many of the people interviewed didn’t directly witness the attack. They weren’t traumatized in that direct, visual way. But their lives were deeply affected nonetheless and it changed the way they saw the world, for better and for worse.

Then I remembered the podcast I listened to yesterday – an episode of Invisibilia called The Weatherman about uncertainty. In that episode they explained that in the wake of natural disaster, it is widely noted that the affected communities experience an aftershock of marriage engagements and divorces in the months following the disaster. This is because when faced with great unknowns, we as humans are programmed to create our own certainty.

In that moment, all three of these topics came together for me, and I saw something for the first time.

My greatest running years came immediately following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

I was one block away when the bombs exploded. I remember hearing the first, and then moments later the second. I was standing on the other side of a thickly built-up city block from the mayhem occurring on Boylston. Soon thereafter I heard every siren in the city of Boston crying. I called my mom to tell her I was okay before the cell towers got clogged and I walked towards safety.

And in the months following, we all watched as the entire City of Boston rallied behind the survivors and supported plans for the future of the marathon – not letting terror shut it down, but instead making it bigger and better than ever before. But we also watched the stories of the lives lost and tragically impacted by that terrible event. I myself felt a new pang of fear at the sound of any loud bang for the first time in my life. And it turns out that meanwhile my subconscious reaction also led me to lay down the groundwork for certainty in my life.

I chose to leave ZAP. I chose my coach. I chose my club. I chose to get a job and live closer to my sisters. I chose to love running more and pursue it just for me. And almost exactly one year after that terrible day, I ran one of the greatest races of my life, overflowing with emotion for the city I’ve always inexplicably loved and for my chosen sport that it honors every Patriot’s Day.

All these years I’ve attributed those decisions to all kinds of other factors, and I’ve known that my best running came because of those other factors. But somehow I never realized the significance that that day had in shaping the course of my life.

It turns out that there is a phoenix in all of us. When everything finally falls apart, that’s when we rise. Maybe that is the ironic beauty of disaster.

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