Runaway brain

First of all, shoutout to Julie, Ed and Peter for teaching a fantastic Jan-plan course. The past month for me has been a refreshing return to academia. As an ex collegiate runner and newbie coach, I have begun to explore the science behind the sport that ruled my life (and my body) for the past 4 years. For my last blog post, however, I want to talk about the brain. Specifically my brain. For no reason other than the fact that I am haunted by one single race. Sometimes every bit of anatomical, genetic, biological, or physiological science that rules running just goes down the crapper when your brains decides to step in. So here it is.

In a series of very fortunate happenings I have qualified for NCAA championships in the steeple chase during the first race of my outdoor season, running a time of around 10:50ish. So the season goes on, v happy, much running. And then this… GRAVITY STILL WORKS. not pictured, my elbows, which look similar to my knees. This was before my knee caps swelled to the size of baseballs (see below). So now its more like not happy, no running. I completely stop running for over two weeks. Eventually when I can finally kinda bend my knees, my coach sticks me in a race. The lowest pressure race ever. No goals, not times to hit, just run and make sure my legs don’t fall of. I crush my PR by over 10 seconds and run a 10:32. And it feels great. A couple more weeks go by, I continue training for NCAAS. Then suddenly, I graduate from college. I pack up my belongings, say goodbye to my best friends, my teammates and leave the most amazing place I have experienced in my 23 years. And off I head to Iowa to run the last ever race of my collegiate career. So… high pressure… at least in my own head. I went in to the race with the second fastest time run. Just a second or two behind the first runner. The goal is to win it. My coach and I had decided I was going for national champion. So on a hot May day on a black track in the middle of Iowa, I stepped on the start line for the last time. The gun goes off and my body shoots forward, but my brain just stays at the line. For 7 and a half laps and 7 water jumps I fight myself around the track. I lead the pack for most of the race ( I like space when I run), not feeling good, not feeling bad. On the second to last lap, the time to break away, girls start pushing harder and I try to follow. I lose the leader. It takes all my effort to just keep up with the others. Over the last water jump I go, with 200 meters left. Im in second. I wish myself forward. But I just don’t have it. Im fighting myself. Girls zoom past me with 50 meters to go, 10 meters to go. I cross the line in 10:43. Over 10 seconds slower than I ran not long before. I give my coach a hug, but I barely remember it. I remember feeling awkward. Im whisked off the track. Find my belongings, and start to cry. I’m no cryer, but I cried from there, all across the thunder and lightning swept plains of northern Iowa and souther Minnesota. Not because of the race. But because everything in my life had just changed. Everything I was comfortable with had just ended. Everyone I had loved so dearly for 4 years were heading off across the globe. And I had just run with my brain.

I could synthesize this forever. Ive certainly thought about it a lot. This class had brought forth so much knowledge behind the human body and how it runs. Muscles, bones, organs, nerves, glycogen, hormones. Endless beauty and complexity. ¬†We have learned that there is no one thing you can pin down that leads to great athletic performance. No gene. No magic food. But the brain is pretty powerful. And even if you’ve got the genes, or a magic food, lucky socks, or a good calf to lower leg ratio, sometimes life becomes the deciding factor.

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3 Responses to Runaway brain

  1. Flying Monkey says:

    I’ve been there before many times, while admittedly the stakes weren’t quite as high. Whenever I go to a meet where the stakes are higher than normal my brain starts running overdrive trying to compensate in ways that I really don’t need it to. It honestly wasn’t until earlier this season that it finally clicked. My coach saw me getting worked up at practice and start missing or aborting jumps. He told me to stop, put the pole down, walk away from it, and then when you’re ready come back and hit it. Don’t think about it just do it. I attribute this one simple thing to a good deal of my success this year. Sometimes focus doesn’t mean thinking it over or letting your brain do the work it means trusting yourself to do what needs to be done.

  2. BornAgainAthlete says:

    If you ran it ten more times, maybe you would have won 9 of them. It seems you had the talent and the work put in. To run so well, right off of an injury speaks to two things: the base level of your physical ability and your mental game. Both seem quite strong. There was a lot riding on that one race at Nationals. So much more than just running or even where you would place. It’s hard cause maybe if Nationals wasn’t about all that other stuff, maybe you would have run differently. At the same time, maybe that was the only way Nationals could be for you at that time. When I think about my best races, they aren’t necessarily my most successful races. Frankly, my most successful races I feel like I know less about. I don’t know if it was because I had assumed the athletic mindset of being in the moment or because my physiology at that time was better than my opponents allowing me to be less present. I don’t know. Guess my main point is just that there is no one way to define your best race or even your best finish. Nationals doesn’t have to be your best race by any means. It should just be finished in your head as it is on the track and filed away however you see fit. If it isn’t finished, well, then you should keep on running.

  3. If your parents were there, they felt worse than you did. Guaranteed. (Been there.) Great last paragraph!

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