Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.
Goal #1: Develop a training plan that fits with a full-time job.
Blue collar runner with a white collar job. I wasn’t the first person to do it and I knew I wouldn’t be the last. There were plenty of other people living the dual life, hiding their sports bras and spilt shorts under their button-ups and slacks. There were people with much higher mileage and much more demanding work schedules who were making it work. I knew it could be done, but it was still going to be an adjustment.
At Cornell it was simple; practice was from 4:30pm – 7:00pm every day, a period of time conveniently left open by the University for athletics and clubs and such. I ran and then immediately afterwards I lifted and stretched and did core and all the other little things runners need to do to stay strong, fit, and healthy. Everything I had to do for the day, done in one nice chunk.
But things in the real world were more complicated. With work from 9:00am – 6:00pm, there was no convenient block of time to accomplish all that had to be done. I needed to find a routine that worked within the confines of my new life, a routine that was structured enough to ensure the quality of my training, but flexible enough to ensure the quality of my life.
After many weeks of experimenting, I came to the conclusion that running before work was the best option. Every morning, I literally woke with the sun. Around 5:45am, my natural alarm clock would peek in through the skylight above our bed, just moments before my phone alarm would ring. Instantly, I would be awake. I hopped out of bed, scarfed down a granola bar, laced up my shoes, and headed out the door. I’ll admit in the beginning it was tough getting my body moving that early in the morning, but after a couple weeks, it started to come naturally.
There was just something about being up and running while most of the rest of the world was still asleep. It was inspiring and motivating. It was an awesome feeling having 10 miles of quality work in by 7:30am. It was also an incredible relief to have it out of the way. I say that not because running and training was something I dreaded, but because in trying to balance the different aspects of my life, stability and consistency were key. Doing my run first thing in the morning allowed me the freedom and flexibility I needed to keep everything else in check. If I had to stay a little late at the office, it wasn’t a problem. If my friends or coworkers invited me out after work, I could go without hesitation. The freedom and flexibility also went both ways. If I was up late one night or just felt particularly tired, it was nice to have the option to sleep in and run later.
Having my run done when I returned home also made it much easier to manage doing the little things after a long day at the office. John and I had a corner of our living room devoted to all our workout stuff: our yoga mats, 15, 25 and 35lb kettlebells, 10 and 15lb dumbbells, and 10lb ankle weights. It wasn’t a full gym by any means, but it was sufficient for what I needed to do. I lifted while dinner was on the stove. I did core while we binged through Netflix and Game of Thrones. I stretched while John worked on his schoolwork. It wasn’t fancy, it wasn’t high tech, but it got the job done.
Goal #2: Understand that sometimes, less is more
To this day, it still bothers me when I think about the NCAA steeple final from last year in Eugene. The year before it was a race for second behind Emma, but last year it honestly was anyone’s race. After four years of clawing my way up from the depths of obscurity, I had a legitimate shot at being a National Champion. Everything had led up to that moment; every run, every workout, every race. I had trained harder than ever before in my life. I had pushed myself to my absolute physical and mental limits.
I had, as I could only later see in hindsight, pushed too hard.
I remember waking up that day and feeling off. I went for my shake out run that morning and my legs felt like lead pipes. I tried my best to stay positive and put it from my mind, but as the day wore on, the heaviness and sluggishness remained. Two steps into my warmup and I just knew. I came back and went over a couple hurdles. I felt like I was wearing ankle weights. There was zero pop in my legs. It just wasn’t there.
It wasn’t the prelim, which I led and won with ease two days before. It wasn’t my Heps triple, which I did mostly off of nerve and adrenaline. It wasn’t my workouts or my racing schedule. Those were all carefully planned and crafted for the very purpose of being ready at the end. It was everything in between. It was the accumulation of months of hammering mile after mile after mile. My junior year I began to see the benefits of keeping my runs honest, but last year I was honest to a fault. Easy days weren’t easy. Pre-meets weren’t easy. Even race warmups weren’t all that easy. Arthur tried to tell me. So many times, he tried to rein me in. But I just wouldn’t listen.
When I came back February of last year after missing all of January with some tendonitis in my knee, I had a huge chip on my shoulder. I was behind. I needed to catch back up. I had ingrained it in my mind that if I wasn’t working hard each and every day, I wasn’t trying hard enough to get back where I wanted to be. So I put my head down and started to grind.
I caught back up at some point in mid-April, and ended up having some of the best races of my career, but I just never let up. I continued to hammer, right until the very end, and it cost me dearly.
This spring, I didn’t train harder than ever before; I trained smarter than ever before. I learned to listen to my body and to appreciate the importance of rest. I ditched the GPS watch I had been married to and ran completely off of feel. Sometimes that still meant going slightly faster than usual, but sometimes it meant just jogging along. If I felt particularly tired or sore on an easy run, I ran a mile or two less and didn’t think twice about it. When Arthur asked me how I was feeling before or after a workout, I told him the truth, even if that meant saying I felt like crap.
The benefits of adopting the ‘less is more’ philosophy and being more balanced with my training were undeniable. I was able to get more out of my workouts. I felt fresh and springy on race days. I genuinely enjoyed more of my easy runs. I felt the positive effects in nearly every aspect of my training.
Sometimes I wish there was a way to explain all this to senior year Rachel and save her from the heartbreak that came from working entirely too hard, but then I realize that in the long run, it was probably for the best. Taking away that experience would have robbed me of a crucial opportunity to grow. It was a hard lesson to have learned, and a hard place to have learned it, but without I don’t think I would ever be able to make it in the professional world.
Goal #3: Relax.
Throughout most of my collegiate career, I lived in a perpetual state of intense and largely self-imposed stress. Yes, the life of an engineer at an Ivy League school who is also training as an elite long distance runner is inherently rather stressful at times, but for me the stress was never ending. I studied and I ran. I ran and I studied. There wasn’t room for anything else, or least I didn’t allow there to be room for anything else. I was so focused and driven and determined to accomplish the high goals I had set for myself on the track and in the classroom that I was willing to sacrifice possibly the most important thing in life – my happiness. Don’t get me wrong, running and being an engineer did make me happy, but they did so in a different kind of way. The happiness I associated with them was conditional. When I succeeded, I was over-the-moon with joy. But when I failed, I was filled with despair.
The happiness that I cut out of my life was the pure kind, the kind that happens naturally, almost by accident. I stopped being silly. I stopped being spontaneous. I stopped doing things for no other reason than because I wanted to.
This goal was far and away the most important one for me to achieve. If I could not learn to relax and let go, it was never going to work. I needed to find balance, not only to be happy with my running, but to be happy with my life. For so long I had identified myself as either Rachel the runner or Rachel the engineer. I needed to rediscover my most important identity of all – Rachel the person.
The achievement of this goal was one of the proudest accomplishments of my life. It wasn’t always easy and progress didn’t happen right away, but over time I began to remember the person I once was. I started with baby steps, branching out here, trying something new there. And with the support and encouragement from my coach and friends and family, I remembered what it meant to truly live and enjoy my life.
I went out for drinks with my co-workers after work. I stayed up late every once in a while to attend a concert or finish a movie or see some friends. I made last minute plans. I started crafting again – sewing and crocheting and all other sorts of grandmotherly things. I had a glass of wine with dinner the night before a workout or race. I laughed more. If I had a bad workout or race, I didn’t beat myself up and harp on it for days. I planned my training and racing schedule to accommodate my life, not the other way around. I did things not because I felt obligated to do so, but because I genuinely wanted to.
As I pursued these new, at first foreign goals, something remarkable happened.
I ran just as fast as I did in college. I had a great first 6 months at my new job. And I had a ton of fun.
I proved to myself this spring that I can do it. I can be an engineer and a runner and person, all at the same time. Success and happiness in one aspect of my life does not exclude success and happiness in another, it enhances it.
Balance is the key, and balance will be the compass from here on out.