When Nothing Seems To Be Going According To Plan

Well, this racing season did not turn out anything like I thought it would.  Because of Covid it was difficult to find races, so we were left to choose between the bad race schedule and the worst race schedule when planning the season.  It started off well, with a reasonable finish at US 35 km National Champs in February and then a solid 20km performance in Dudince, Slovakia in March.  I was feeling really good with where things were at and hoping for a couple more solid races leading into the US Olympic Trials that is scheduled for the end of June.

Racing in Dudince in March

Instead, I’ve had three disqualifications in a row now.  Race walking is a very technical sport, requiring not only speed and strength to make it to a good finish, but also correct form by maintaining one foot in contact with the ground at all times and keeping your knee straight from the time it hits the ground until it passes under your hip.  Athletes are judged through the entire race and can receive disqualification marks if they are breaking these rules, if you get enough marks (depends on the race/distance) then you are out.

Prior to this season, I had one disqualification, I think it was in 2017.  I had a hamstring strain and I wasn’t straightening my knee.  I got the hamstring taken care of (well, kind of anyway, still bothers me from time to time) and things were good to go.  I don’t even recall receiving a warning call about my technique since that time.  Until this April, at the US 20 km Pan Am Cup Trials race in Philadelphia.  I got so many warning and disqualification marks that I was out of the race by 6km, very early to have accumulated that many marks.  But my coach was there watching, he said he didn’t see anything, and since I’d never had problems like this before he decided to just call it a fluke and keep going.

After my disqualification in Philadelphia with finishers and friends Joel Pfahler and Michael Mannozzi

Which I did, but things kept getting worse.  I didn’t acknowledge that there was something wrong with my form, so I wasn’t working to correct anything.  Years ago when I used to train with my dad, he would have me do technique drills and he would also watch me train and give me feedback on my technique throughout my training sessions.  It was a huge part of what we were doing.  He always said that technique comes first, speed comes later.  But in my current training regimen I wasn’t doing any technique drills, I have a coach across the country who isn’t watching me train and giving me that constant feedback.  So the technique piece of my training had really been set aside.  And training in general was struggling, I had a muscular injury in my left lower leg that was very painful when I walked, so most training sessions became purely about grit to get to the end.  Some days I made it to the end and some days the pain got the better of me and I stopped early.  The lower leg injury resulted in both of my hamstrings flaring up, and the pain got very intense.  Most days I was making it through my sessions by telling myself over and over just to keep breathing, just to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  I started wearing headphones and listening to music when I was training, something to tune out the pain and get me through, but it kept my focus off the actual motions that I was going through.  Training was miserable, I dreaded doing it, and I was struggling mentally with all of it.

With my dad following a race in 2012

I had qualified to race on the US Pan Am Cup team in Ecuador in May, but then the US elected not to send a team because of Covid.  This was disappointing, but I awaited my next race opportunity which would be a 10km in San Diego.  The leg was starting to heal, pain was still there but getting much more tolerable, I had nailed a few training sessions leading up the race, and I thought I was ready to fly.  But then I started getting marks early on during the race again, so I kept the pace conservative (going faster can cause you to lift off the ground more), and focused on dropping my arms down (which was something that my prior coach always hammered me on).  I made it further, to 8km this time, but again didn’t make it to the finish.  This one was difficult for me to process.  Now I knew that there was definitely a problem, I wasn’t sure yet how to fix it, there was one month until the US Olympic Trials, and there were no races left in the US and very limited international options.  It was very doubtful that I would be able to get the ranking marks that I hoped for with the racing options and timeline that I had left.  I had been fighting anxiety going into that last race, and I wondered if that was causing me to tighten up, lift my arms, and subsequently drive my legs through higher and get the lifting calls.  Outside of the race walking issues, my mother-in-law had died two weeks ago, and the week after her passing my dad was admitted to the hospital for an infection that would subsequently take his life.  He was discharged home from the hospital on hospice the night before I left to race in San Diego, I spent that night with him and my mom, and he slipped into a coma while I was away for that race.

On the start line in San Diego

I came back from San Diego and went straight to my parent’s house, where I spent another night, by now my dad’s death was imminent and more family had gathered.  The plan, prior to my disqualification in San Diego, was to take a last shot at a solid 20km race by flying out later that week to Alytus, Lithuania.  I had three nights at home to decide, my coach told me not to go, I was so torn about leaving my family in the midst of what we were all dealing with, and with another DQ on the books the trip seemed foolish without a solution to my technique problems.  But my family encouraged me that my dad would be the first person to tell me to go race, to take advantage of every opportunity to show up and try, because you just never know.  I had a bit of an idea what I needed to focus on with the technique and a couple weeks of training to work on it, I felt like there was a chance that it could come together.  My legs were feeling better every day and I felt like I had the speed and the strength to have an even faster 20km race than I did in Dudince.  In the past I have performed well at these last chance efforts, and I knew that if I didn’t at least go and try, I would always have that lingering “what if”, what if I’d gone and given in my all just to see what could happen?  And most importantly I knew that God was with me, that He is not limited by any of my fears or anxieties, and that the results are all ultimately in His hands.  So I made God my focus, leaving my anxieties, and decided to go and try.

Pre-race tattoos heading to Lithuania

I spent my final night with my dad before I headed to the airport, and I got the call that he had died as I was boarding my first flight.  There was such a mix of emotions, and a part of me that thought about turning back, but there was also a peace in knowing that there was a part of him that was going with me.  I boarded the fight, made it to Alytus, and had a week to focus on my technique while training and also start to process loosing my dad, who had been the start of my race walking and such a pivotal part of my entire race walking career.  I had times of doubts, times of grief, times of thinking it was so unfair that here I am struggling with my technique and the one person that I want to help me, my dad, is never going to be available again.  But for the most part, I felt God’s presence and provision, and I knew that no matter how alone I felt in all of it, God was always there with me.  I also had the privilege of some great company with some outstanding athletes and people; one of the most enjoyable parts of these trips for me is meeting people from all over the world, getting to know them, and getting to learn from their examples.  

Post-race trying to sort out Covid test results with Wayne Snyman from South Africa

Race time came, and I was nervous, but I knew that all I could do was show up, focus on my technique, and give it my all.  My dad would be with me in spirit, and God would be with me every step of the way.  I ended up with another disqualification, ending my hopes of being ranked high enough for Olympic contention at our trials race coming up at the end of the month.  Now my goal is only to finish, which will require nothing but technique work for the next two weeks.  

I don’t know why this season has turned out how it has, or what will come next for my race walking endeavors.  I do know that through it all, God is still good, He is still in control, and He still has a perfect plan for my life.  Yes there is disappointment, yes there are feelings of failure and feelings of waste of all that has gone into my race walking pursuits.  But I have learned and grown so much along the way, I have been blessed with experiences and opportunities and relationships, and now there is nowhere to go but forward.  So I will keep pressing on, to see what God has in store for me next, and I know that no matter what, He will be with me every step of the way.

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3 Comments

  1. 1

    Even as her husband, and part of the journey I can not help but be inspired by Steph’s focus and keeping God the main thing.

  2. 2
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