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.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference” – Robert Frost
My return to the world of competitive running was really only a matter of time. It wasn’t a question of if, but a question of when. I think I knew all along that I wasn’t done, that I couldn’t be done, but I also knew that forcing things was not the answer. I needed to let things happen in their own way, in their own time. My path thus far has not been conventional, and I suspect it never will be, but it is the one that I truly feel will yield the best and most satisfying results.
In the months leading up to graduation last spring, people started asking questions. Are you going to keep running? Are you going to train with a group? Some people didn’t even bother to ask whether or not I would be doing either of those things, and simply asked me where I would be going and who I would be running for. Those ones really fried me. But as annoying as it was to get those questions over and over again, they weren’t what bothered me the most. What got really old really fast were the reactions people had when I told them that I was not, in fact, going to train somewhere.
How can you just walk away like that?
Is it because you’re afraid?
You are wasting your talent.
It took every ounce of energy not to go off on these people. And, on a number of occasions, I did not have the capacity for restraint. It was infuriating. Why these people thought it was OK to make assumptions about me and my life and how I was going to live it was just beyond me. Who were they to judge me? They did not know me.
First of all, I had already committed to staying the extra semester to finish my masters. After essentially completing undergrad in 3.5 years, I had begun a yearlong masters of engineering program the second semester of my senior year. And after killing myself all spring in graduate engineering classes, while the vast majority of my classmates sailed through their final semester with a limited number of credits, there was no way I was going to not see things through. Graduating and immediately moving somewhere to beginning training with a post-collegiate group was simply out of the question.
But second, even if I wasn’t staying on for the masters, there was absolutely no way I was going to be able to become a full-time professional runner. I had nothing against professional runners or the idea of a career as a professional runner. I had, and still have, an enormous amount of respect for what they do and the dedication they have to this sport. One of my best friends, Katie Kellner, is a professional runner and I couldn’t be prouder of her and all that she is accomplishing. But that lifestyle just isn’t for me.
Spring of my junior year, Arthur, my two teammates, Katie and Genna, and I, went on an extended trip to California in early March. Every year for the Spring Break, the Cornell Track Team takes a week-long trip to California to train and compete in some non-hostile weather. That year, with the way our spring break schedule lined up, the Stanford Invitational was the weekend after we would have returned home. So rather than take a red-eye and fly home on Saturday only to fly back out to California the following Wednesday, the four of us stayed the extra week in California.
That week, we essentially lived the lifestyle of professional runners. The entirety of each and every day was focused on training. When would we run? Where would we run? What was the workout? Where would we go to do our lift? When would we lift? When would we do core? When would we stretch? Where would we eat post-workout? When would we go to sleep so we would be ready in the morning for our next run? What activities could we do that wouldn’t be tiring or dangerous or otherwise detrimental to our training?
It was overwhelming. It was intense. It was maddening. It was too much. By the end of the trip, I was entirely sick of running. I couldn’t wait to get back to school and go to classes again, a situation that I rarely found myself in during my 4.5 years studying engineering. I couldn’t wait to do anything besides running. I needed a break – a physical and mental and emotional break. A trip like that should have been like a dream for me, so the fact that it wasn’t was the first sign that perhaps the professional running life might not be for me.
Later on that year I competed at outdoor USA’s in the steeplechase. By that point in the season I was pretty tired, so I didn’t really have any goals or expectations going into the prelim. I was just happy to be there and get the chance to compete against some of the best women in the country. But I distinctly remember feeling like not many of my competitors felt the same way. Those women were there with strict purpose. They were on a mission.
Throughout my running career, I was all for being focused and serious at meets when the time came, but at that meet, it was taken to a whole other level. Everyone there was so intense. For anyone who knows me and knows how intense I can sometimes be, that is saying a heck of a lot. There was no chit-chatting in the holding area, no friendly smiles as people passed by; everything was straight business. People were fighting for prize money and sponsorships and spots at Worlds. They were going to do whatever it took to get it done, and if that meant freezing out and intimidating the competition, so be it. The whole environment was really overwhelming. Even at NCAAs, where the stakes were the highest of highs for a collegiate athlete, things never felt that serious or pressurized.
The entire time I was there, I kept trying to imagine what it would be like to be at that meet as a professional athlete. At the time I was there just for fun, just to see what it was all about, but what if I was there and my career was on the line? What if I had been training for months and months and that meet was where everything was either going to finally come together or completely fall apart? Every time I imagined that scenario, I came to the same conclusion – that wasn’t something I would find enjoyable or fulfilling. And it wasn’t something I wanted to do. I loved to run, absolutely loved everything about it, but the idea of putting all my eggs into the running basket was one that I just couldn’t wrap my head around.
I remember having a conversation with Arthur about it the day after my race. I told him straight out that I didn’t want to be a professional runner after I graduated. I told him that, as much as I loved running, it could never be my job. I needed to have something else in my life, something else to work towards, something to give me balance. And in one of the greatest acts of support I’ve ever been shown, he did not try to change my mind. We talked for a while about things, and he gave me perspective and insight as to what life could be if I did choose that path, but he never once made me feel like that was the wrong choice to make.
He knew me and the things I wanted out of my life, and he cared about me enough as a person, rather than just a runner, to not let me sacrifice those things. He knew how important it was to me to not merely get a job, but to begin my career. He knew how, after years of struggling and stressing and pouring myself into my studies, I felt that I owed it to myself to go out and see my hard work payoff. He knew how much I wanted to thank and honor my parents by putting to use the education and degree they had worked so hard to help me earn. And he knew about the life I wanted for John and I. He knew about the plans we had for ourselves and the family we hoped to one day have. He knew that putting those goals, my long-term, overall life goals, behind my running goals, could never be the right decision.
Throughout my senior year, despite the successes I achieved and the new heights I reached, I never forgot my experiences in California and at USAs. Even when things were going really well and I was feeling on top of the world, I tried to keep everything in perspective – running and the things I had achieved and the ways it had helped me grow, were all part of a greater plan. When the spring season ended, I actually had a couple offers. They weren’t anything fancy – an inquiry from an agent or two and invitations to join a handful of training groups. The fact that anyone thought enough of me and my accomplishments to even consider me was incredibly flattering. I’ll admit there were a couple moments where those opportunities seemed tempting and I questioned my decision, but ultimately I stuck to my guns and politely declined everything.
I had my own path to follow. It wasn’t going to be easy. It wasn’t going to look like anyone else’s. But it was the one I knew I was meant to take, the one that would lead me where I needed to go.