Last year and the year before on the Monday after all of the Last Chance meets, I went about my day as usual, except I was clutching my phone waiting for my coach to call.  Waiting to find out if enough girls who had run faster than me those years chose not to declare in the mile and/or 3k for the NCAA indoor nationals.  Two years. Two big disappointments.  I was so angry and frustrated with myself for not being able to push a little harder to getting an auto-qualifying time.  I let is become a motivational tool in my training over the past year.  The pain my legs would feel in any workout could not compare to the pain of missing this meet by hundredths of a second one more time. 
I worked hard.  I gained confidence.  I did it.  That same Monday night this year I had accomplished and gratifying feelings equal to the agonizing in the years prior.  Before the meet, my coach asked me what had changed.  He said even the way i carried myself was different, more self-assured.  Confidence is key, and it is not something that can be coached or taught.  It has taken me a really long time to get to this point, where I feel like I belong and deserve to be in some of the high caliber races that I have gotten myself to.  I was ready.
Trouble strikes when I have races like last night.  I wish that I had an explanation; not an excuse, but something that I knew I could change for next time.  The truth is it just wasn’t my night.  With two laps to go, all I could think was just finish.  Since the second I crossed the line, all kinds of thoughts have been racing through my mind. 
What just happened?  I feel bad that my dad and boyfriend made the trek out to Arkansas just to see that terrible performance.  That just happened on ESPN, in front of everyone in the country who follows college track.  I sooo thought I was ready!  How long has it been since a five minute mile was that hard or felt so terrible?  I have to run 2k more than that in three weeks??  Why do I do this to myself?
Dangerous thoughts that I cannot suppress.  But I have to suppress them.  It’s a chain reaction and a year ago I let the blow to my ego from not qualifying for NCAA indoor carry over to our outdoor opener.  Another big important meet with a terribly disappointing result.  I won’t let it happen again.  Time to get back to work.  June is a long way away.

Race Day

I wrote this for a class last semester.  I reread it before my first race this season.  Now, sitting alone in my hotel room anticipating the NCAA indoor championship 3k that I will race tonight, I wanted to take it out and read it again.  A lot of people ask me if I get nervous for races, and answering that question was not my intention in writing this, but it is the best answer I have.

One week into my freshman year at Roxbury High School I found myself on a bus, at night, on my way to a cross country meet.  It was at Randolph High School, my town’s biggest rival, and it was going to be huge with great teams from all over New Jersey and New York.  It was the Twilight Meet and my first serious competition as a runner. 
I had past experiences with cross country, but they were nothing compared to my new teammates. I found myself surrounded by ex-Junior Olympic competitors who had been running in big arenas since they were five.  I, on the other hand, had a much different start to my running career. 
I can attribute my introduction to running to my dad, who began running shortly after I was born to get in shape, and ended up falling in love with it.  Being the daddy’s girl I was (and still am), I wanted to do everything just like him.  So at age nine, I ran my first 5k road race with him: The Hangover Run.  The nine-year-old that I was had no idea what the name of this race implied, but I had gone to watch him on New Year’s Day for as long as I could remember and now it was my turn.  I loved the rush, the people cheering, and the attention I got for being a tiny little girl running a big long race. 
I joined the town track team that spring, but I hated it!  The cool kids played soccer anyway.  It was not until four years later that I found myself intentionally getting in trouble at soccer practice so that I was told to run laps that I realized I should give running another try.  And that’s when I fell in love. 
Eventually my love of running lead me to that bus ride, nodding my head the All American Rejects playing in my ear buds while I looked around at my new teammates.  Some of the other girls were old pros and they were going to represent Roxbury in the varsity race of the season opener.  As I sat on that bus, the one thing that kept me calm was knowing that I would not.  I was not a pro and therefore I would be warming up with a JV race that night.  The course was a 3k instead of 5k, and my score would have no impact on how the team placed.  No pressure.
Until there was pressure.  There I was, scrawny fourteen-year-old in a pink Lake George sweat suit I had gotten on vacation that summer, lacing up my shoes and getting ready to warm up for the JV race, when my coach decided I could handle the extra 2k.  To her, no big deal.  To me, time to panic.
All of a sudden my face felt flushed, my hands, which had been cold on that fall night, suddenly started sweat, and the sound of the music that had been playing at the finish line was replaced by the sound of my own beating heart.  What did she mean I was in the varsity race? Was she crazy?
I ran and found my parents to tell them they would have to wait another hour to watch me run.  They were proud and excited for me, but I cannot say the same for myself.  All that I felt was dread.  What if I mess up for the team?  What if everyone here sees me come in last place?  I couldn’t control my shaking body as I walked back to my team’s tent. 
It was then that I ran into Ali, a senior on the team and one of our top two runners.  I looked up to her so much and I wished I would eventually be as good as she was.  “Just relax,” she told me. “You’ll be fine.” She tried to give me a heart-felt pep talk about having confidence and keeping it fun, but it didn’t work.  I found no comfort.  I tried to tell my coach I couldn’t do it.  I tried to convince her that she was making a big mistake.  She wouldn’t hear it.  She had faith.  I tried to tell myself I could always drop out if it was that bad, but then I thought that might be even more embarrassing.  I knew I wasn’t getting out of this.  I jogged my warm-up with the rest of the team, but I did not engage in their light-hearted conversations and laughter.  I was completely silent as every possible bad outcome ran through my head.  We finished jogging, stretched, and marched to the starting line.
Finally, it was race time.  Time to sink or swim.  I stood with my team at the line on that dark night, under the spotlights, staring at the man with the gun in the middle of the field.  The warning whistle rang through my ears and I knew it would soon be time to go.  However, those next five minutes were agonizingly long; something that I have come to learn is a characteristic of all races.  I never wanted to feel like that again.
Arms out. “On your mark!” Why am I sweating so much? Stop shaking. Arms up. “Runners set!” Deep breath, keep it together. BANG!  With a puff of smoke and the sound of the gun, we were off.  My first of many serious races was underway.  Three miles went by in a flash as the adrenalin ran through me.  Now with two-hundred meters to go, every muscle in my body was burning as I saw the finish line getting closer and closer. One-hundred meters.  Fifty meters. Done. 
I had done it. I finished the race.  I didn’t pass out or spontaneously combust.  And I didn’t come in last place!  In fact, I had fun.  I felt the rush that I had four years earlier, and I knew that it was a feeling I wanted to have over and over again.  I chose to swim.
Eight years later, I think about how my life would be different if I sank.  Running gave me the friends that I am closest with today.  It made me decide where to go to college.  It changed my career plans from high school teacher to high school teacher and coach.  It made me decide to put off those career plans while I fulfill my dream of being a professional athlete.  It will always have a major place in my life, and all of those things might be different if I gave up that day.
In those eight years, I have learned to love the sweating palms, the increased heart rate, and the smell of sweat in the crisp autumn air.  Those things changed from meaning anxiety and fear to meaning anxiousness and confidence.  Those things mean it is race day.