Lonely at the Top - PHXruns blog page
A running memory that will always stick out in my mind was my first 5k that I ever ran on the track. I vomited before the race. Yes, before. I awoke that morning riddled with anxiety over the race. I ended up running like garbage, posting a time that was SLOWER than my cross country 5k time. The pressure and anxiety that came with racing has been a staple throughout my running career. I sabotaged myself more times than I would like to admit. There were a variety of different reasons this would happen, but all of them involved my ego. “If I don’t run a certain time, I suck”. Or an even more ridiculous statement, “If I don’t run faster than so-and-so, I suck.” And of course, we can’t forget my personal favorite “If I don’t win, I suck.” What do these all have in common? They are all very outcome driven goals that I have very little control over, and thus serve as bait for the ‘ol race anxiety. Like flies on crap, anxiety LOVES to attach itself to things we can’t control. And, to be clear, I am not talking about the excitement/adrenaline fueled energy that comes along with racing. I am talking about barfing in the bathroom and sucking down Imodium so I don’t crap myself waiting in line for the port-a-potty kind of energy. Perhaps you have been visited by such “energy” yourself. Maybe it made you think racing wasn’t for you or that there was something wrong with you. Maybe you even took the approach of not caring or trying, giving yourself an out so that you wouldn’t be afflicted with these horrible feelings of dread. If you don’t care, anxiety can’t get you, right?
Over the last 13 months I have done less running in my life than I ever have, as you all know. Perhaps little Colton Kleppe is reading this right now and thinking to himself “Why would I want to take racing advice written by someone who hasn’t raced in over a year?” Well, Colton, I’ll tell you why: I have perspective.
When I think about my mental approach to racing (and running in general, honestly) it was like I had this death grip on running. Like I was squeezing it so hard it’s freaking eyeballs were popping out. This mentality came from a good place with good intentions, but it really never panned out the way I wanted it to. It’s like if you had a crush on someone and you followed them everywhere, texted them nonstop, visited them at work, sent them pictures of you scarfing down hog island every night – they would probably be horrified and want nothing to do with you. It was like that with running sometimes. Like the more I chased it and the more I wanted a certain goal, the more impossible it became. I had to learn to let go.
I was always at my worst (aka: had the tightest death grip on running) when I trained alone. I would obsess over my splits in a workout, ruminate over an upcoming race for WEEKS, and meticulously analyze my running log, often comparing similar workouts from previous years. It was unhealthy, to say the least. It wasn’t until I finally started training with the team (you losers) that I finally learned to at least loosen the death grip slightly. When I was training with a group, my attention and focus was no longer on myself. Ironically, I could run faster and do workouts I could never have dreamed of doing alone when I was with the group. I think it’s safe to say there is a special magic amongst training with others. If you have ever done a workout alone before, I think you would probably agree that there is something special about being with the team. I was finally learning the subtle art of letting go. But then something else happened. Something I really, really didn’t want: I got injured. I have had a lot of time to think and reflect over the last year about my running. I thought about the things that really mattered (spoiler alert: it WASN’T all the races I was barfing over). I almost laugh about it now. Like, really, what the hell was I so worked up about? The worst thing that could have happened was that I would run slow, which ended up happening anyway because I was paralyzed with fear. The moments in running that I valued the most weren’t centered around the outcome of a performance. They are valuable moments to me because of the people I was surrounded by. The races that went amazing for me were always the ones that I didn’t really care about. I was loose. I was EXCITED walking to the starting line. I was actually taking a solid dump prior to it and not expelling molten lava. Most importantly, It was fun. Painful (it’s still racing), but it was fun. It was good energy. So what am I saying? I guess I am saying don’t care so much. Let it go. Just know that at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. The outcome of a race doesn’t define you. Your friends will like you if you don’t win. You can still go to hog island if the race doesn’t go well. A famous red-headed man wearing children’s Star Wars pajamas once said “It’s about the journey, not the destination”. I disagree, Coach Rich. It’s neither. It’s about the company you surround yourself with.
Pain is a gift; never give up. On the team, we are reminded of this mantra at least once a week. Sometimes life gets uncomfortable, but you have to push through. Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Push yourself during the workouts or you’ll never learn to push yourself during a race and endure the pain.
I latched onto this motto as soon as I heard it. My freshman season, I engrained this into my head, and it proved beneficial. I saw major improvements and raced well, and I chalked it all up to this motto. I told myself that if I could keep doing what I was doing, I would see so much progress.
One problem with that quaint thought I had: my actions weren’t sustainable. As much as younger me would’ve denied this statement, the pain I was experiencing wasn’t a gift. It was harming me, both physically and emotionally. And as much as this statement goes against the core values of the team, pain isn’t always a gift.
As I was getting more involved in the world of running my freshman year, I had begun to watch more professional runners and their races. I noticed one key difference between the athletes and myself, besides the high intensity of their training: they were all lean and thin, while I felt like I was anything but that.
I told myself that if I wanted to work my way up towards higher mileages and faster times, I would have to be disciplined (true). I would have to look like them (very, very false). I had to be in control.
How did I find this coveted control? Through setting detailed and specific training plans with the help of a coach? No, that would be too logical. Did I focus on perfecting my technique, so I could be as efficient as possible? I did eventually, but not at the time. Did I focus on my diet and nutritional health? Bingo.
Nutrition is most definitely important, don’t get me wrong. However, I warn you, dear reader and teammate, that combined with my already poor body image and prior relationship with food, the definition I had of “health” and what I thought I needed to do in order to enhance my performance was damaging. Throughout the 2019 track and cross country seasons, saying I was conscious of my diet would be an understatement. Every waking thought of mine was consumed by distress over caloric intake, macros, perceived quality of foods, timing of food intake, and much, much more. I became legitimately afraid of processed foods and fats, including nuts, avocados, and other nutritionally dense - but certainly healthy - foods. I started to give away parts of my lunch in order to avoid consuming “extra” calories. When I wasn’t home for dinner, which was (and still is) quite often during track season, I would replace my packed meal with a Clifbar, or worse yet, nothing at all. Instead of enjoying a Hog Island meal after a workout, I would still go to Hog Island to socialize, but bring my own food: “peanut dust,” as Coach Winters and Maria would fondly call my peanut butter powder sandwiches. Those sandwiches were disgusting, but I was too afraid to have actual peanut butter, so I found myself enjoying this dry, dissatisfying meal with a nice helping of kale. My stomach lived in a constant state of hunger, and the meals were proverbial torture for me. However, I kept telling myself that pain is a gift, and since I was feeling pain, I must be doing something right.
By the time cross country season rolled around, I was unsurprisingly performing much worse than I had during track. All my races felt more sluggish, and I found that I physically couldn’t kick it at the end of races. On a more personal note, I wasn’t seeing any noticeable reductions in my body size either. I was failing on so many different levels, and I hate(d) failing. More accurately, I hated myself. I tried harder to feel pain, and pushed myself more.
To even less surprise, the rest of that cross country season went even worse. I injured myself and couldn’t compete in the final races of the season. I was heartbroken that I couldn’t finish off the season, despite not enjoying it very much, for what I feel currently to be obvious reasons. I was angry with myself that I couldn’t do what I had set out to do. But most of all, I was scared. I was scared of what would happen to the little progress I had built, and I was scared of the changes in my body that could come about from not exercising.
Later that year, as I was mindlessly scrolling through YouTube’s suggested video, one video caught my eye. It featured a professional runner who had been recruited by Nike, and how her career went down the drain as she similarly tried to restrict her diet and eventually broke a part of her lower leg while racing due to low bone density caused by malnutrition. She commented on how she got to a point where when she stepped up to the line, all she could think about was hoping the number on the scale would be lower, rather than thinking about her racing strategy or even hoping her time would be faster. I had a sort of epiphany at the conclusion of that video. Our two experiences were eerily similar. I realized that running was no longer about running for me. It had become a tool for me to find control. Rather, I was using the control and pain necessary for running as tools to try to fix other issues I had in life and with myself. I had gotten to a place where I had found a twisted sense of comfort in the pain.
I felt so lost after that. I had no idea what to do, because I thought that any other method would mean giving up on the pain, and thus quitting. I won’t bore you with the details of how I came to my next thought, as many months went by before I learned the lesson. Ultimately, it occurred to me that giving up on a method doesn’t actually mean you’re giving up. Even if you are treating pain as a gift, that doesn’t mean you’re taking the only painful path, or the one that will yield you the most success. The pain you feel in the middle of a race is undeniably usually a gift; it means you’re working hard and putting your best foot forward. The pain you feel in a part of your body, however, is not a sign to keep trudging along that same path. It means something must change.
Since this realization, I have started to find a new path, one of good pain this time. I’m actually nourishing my body. When something physically hurts, I address it through rolling out or completing various strengthening exercises. Outside of running, I’m working on finding peace with my body. With these changes, workouts are going much better, and I’m finally building mileage instead of being chronically injured.
So, pain is a gift. This mentality will get you places. In the wise words of the Class of 2021 valedictorian Colin Murphy, “Avoid the easy road like the plague because the hard road is where all the cool kids are.” However, the hard road has many different surfaces and stretches. Scratching an unsuccessful method doesn’t mean you’re giving up on the goal or giving up on the pain. It simply means you’re finding the part of the road that works best for you. Never give up on that process. You’ll find beautiful things.
I always had thought of running as a burden, up until this season. I have given running a shot at various times, such as when I participated in CYO. Unlike our team I just did not feel the team aspect of running. Often times, I would be running by myself and dreadfully pushing myself through each run. I would compare myself to stronger runners on the team and think “am I ever going to get there?” I ended up stepping back from CYO in the middle of the season. The hardest thing for me was approaching my coach and saying the words “I quit.” This would come to be one of my biggest mistakes, but also the best learning experiences I had faced. I just didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t enjoy running by myself at practice, I didn’t enjoy the team aspect, and I didn’t enjoy being one of the last people to finish in a race. I moved onto try out middle school cross country and track and took off the winter and summer seasons. Middle school running was a nice experience, but I still didn’t feel the motivation and life of running.
During this past summer, I had to make the decision between cross country, and you guessed it... golf. I decided to choose cross country, but I didn’t really know what to expect. I went to the first practice and felt an immediate click with the people on the team. Upper classmen especially made me feel welcomed and part of the team. Like some people on the team, it was hard for me to get into the rhythm of running. It was difficult to get in shape physically, but the team made it enjoyable. The hog island trips, the rainy Gettysburg trip, and most of all the WWE nights with bulletproof Owen and unstoppable Zeke were some amazing memories made. Through all this, what I have discovered I value the most is the friendships I have made and how I have grown to understand that running is more than just fast times and mileage.
The title “How you’ve changed me” is directed towards each and every one of you. You have all made me feel a part of something bigger than myself and I’ve grown because of it. I’ve grown physically getting faster and faster each day, I’ve grown amazing friendships, and I’ve grown a ton mentally. Though my CYO years were rough, this team has made me realize that quitting is not an option. I finally enjoy running and feel the motivation to do good. This team is more than I could ever ask for. Though I’m new to the team and the world of running, I know one thing that’s for certain, never pass up an opportunity. If I had not taken the opportunity to join the team, I would have never found my true self and what I’m capable of. Thank YOU for showing me what it means to be a part of something extraordinary.
~ Brenden- Class of ‘25
So, you ran race that you were not happy with. It sucked. It hurt. You hated every aspect of it, and feel worthless. Where do you go next? That is a question that I struggled to answer after my first conference meet this year. I felt pain, and I gave up in the race. No reason to go into specifics, because the fact that I did not give the required effort for the race is what matters. So, as we all do, I went and sought help. I concluded that I did not put out as much effort as a I could, and that I did not take the most amount of pain I could. Afterwards, I thought that I figured out what I needed to. I went to bed, and prepared for 6:45 practice the next morning. The time came for that practice, I checked the time, and I felt bad for myself. Thoughts like “you didn’t do well enough” flew around my head. I felt sorry for myself, and thought I might as well just sleep in. The entire day I dreaded that decision, and what I had done. What it said about me. The next day, I had a conversation with someone that helped change my perspective. I got several things from that conversation that changes how I view running, and even life.
One thing, the most important thing, is do not feel sorry for yourself. So, you ran a race you were not happy with. It sucked. It hurt. You hated every aspect of it. Where do you go next? Face it, do not submit to it. You ran a terrible race. Move on and try harder. Do not get too down about it. Now, obviously there is some degree of disappointment that comes with having a bad race. But never give into that. In other words, keep your head out of the gutter. Once you give into these ideas of “I am not good enough” or “I could not do it” it leads on a long and dreadful road. Being sad about it does not prove anything. The more you feel sorry for yourself and how your race went, the deeper you dig yourself. So, get out of that hole. Face the problem at hand. What is being sad about a race going to do for you besides harm? It is especially important to identify these bad thoughts before you let them take you over. I have an issue with dealing with this still, and it takes time to work on. Dealing with it may seem hard and might be something you do not want to do, but it is a necessary step for growth.
Secondly, is to do better. After you have faced the issue and are not down about it, it is important to figure out how to grow from there. Make a promise to yourself; if I am going to have a bad race it will not be because of x reason. For me, my promise was put out as much effort as I can. As Coach winters says: if you are going to have a bad race, make it bad for a different reason than before, in other words make a new mistake. Fix what you know is wrong and grow from there.
After applying both of those ideas to my race, I was able to run a much better race at Six Flags. I did not give up. I did not feel sorry for myself when pain came along. I vomited four times in that race. I felt like I wanted to stop because of it, but I knew that I was never going to let something like that happen ever again. If I was going to have a bad race, it was not going to be from giving in to pain. So, I gritted my teeth, pumped my arms, and ran my heart out for the rest of the race. Do not let things you have done or things that have happened to you get in your head. Being sad about it does nothing, but identifying your issue or coming to peace with something you have done is the way to grow. I have had more than just poor races; I have had low moments in my life that I have thrown my head into the gutter for. Not a good habit to get yourself into. How did I overcome some of these issues? I identified that it happened. So, it did not go my way? What happened happened and it is time to move one and grow. Relating this to racing has done a lot for my improvement. It is time to get out of the gutter and deal with issues you may have. The road may be short, it may be long, but it always pays off. Always.
Stay out of the gutter,
It has become a well known fact that our team is coined “The Punishers” for a good reason. As it is said time and time again, we rise to an occasion and punish those that face a threat in a race. We take their suicide pace, kill ourselves some more, and then push even harder to victory.
“But what makes a Punisher?”
To answer this question, we must look back at our training. We don’t only punish those that we face, but we also punish ourselves in our day-to-day work. By showing up every day, glorifying the grit in the grind, and performing our best, we are preparing to kill the opposition. Sure, the workouts may sting, and the long runs may prove to test one’s patience, but by sticking through these, we are molded into something greater than we were before. Something worthy of competition.
We must also look at our mental fortitude. All the way from our dead-set focus the night before a meet up to the starting line, we are designed to strike fear in our opponents as a collective team. With exception of the fearsome and coveted hype-circles, we remain focused to a peak of silence. These moments always give me that electric feeling that no other sort of moment could replicate - they show that not only are we physically invested, but also mentally and emotionally.
We also have to look at our ability to execute. Here, execute has multiple meanings. If you want to take a more traditional approach, we are taking a plan and performing it to the best of our physical, mental, and emotional ability. You can also look at it in a more intense manner, and I think Leo would appreciate me saying in the most metal way possible that we also execute the competition point-blank through our execution of the plan.
An important distinction to make here is that as a team, we are all Punishers. Every single link of this chain matters. No matter the times, places, or other performance statistics that are out there, effort is the greatest source of achievement. If you can bring it all to the course, and leave behind every ounce of effort you had out there once you finish, then that is the greatest accomplishment you could get. Regardless of time or place, you just pushed yourself to the best you could have. You punish yourself not at the sake of doing something wrong, but in order to do something right - to succeed.
So I ask again, “What makes a Punisher?”
If not our grit, determination, focus, drive, fortitude, execution, and preparation, then what else? It is also ingrained in our team that we are closer than just a bunch of highschoolers. We look out for one another, have a good time when everything is said and done, and help each other succeed. I strongly believe that this is why we are the best team out there, because we have transcended being just a team. To quote Chia from his Havana Night speech, “We are family.”
As the seasons carry on, and you look at the Vague Skies ahead of you, just remember the core principle of why we are out here every day - to punish.
It can be hard to remember a time when we didn’t run. For most of us, it’s become an important part of who we are, so it feels like it’s always been with us. A lot of people have been doing this literally since elementary school, and I think that’s great. But I feel a little different. I’ve only experienced one real season of track (spring 2021) and this year is my first on the cross-country team. I’ve changed so much since I started, and I think it’s worth thinking about how far running and the team have brought me.
Winters got me thinking about this by pointing out the sweatshirt I was wearing last pasta night. It was one I wore almost every day in his class freshman year, and then sent into retirement. He said it felt like something from an entirely different era, and he’s absolutely right. For you to understand what I’ve changed into, let me first tell you what I changed from. In the present day I have almost nothing in common with the person I was at the start of my freshman year. Honestly, I think I just wasn’t very interesting. For starters, I had a buzz cut and wore glasses. I didn’t participate in any activities, I didn’t play a sport, I didn’t even really hang out with my friends much. After school I would head home and proceed to sit around doing nothing until I fell asleep. I didn’t have any motivation to do anything. It felt like I was just floating through life, and I think there are a lot of people who can relate to that.
Being on track, and then cross-country, changed everything. Spring track 2021 was an incredible season, and it felt like the only thing keeping me anchored was going to practice every day. The last meet of the season, Diamonds are Forever, was when I really started to understand how it changed me. My performance at the race was decent, but I still didn’t really have a strategy down to make my races good. The part of the meet I remember most is what happened right before I went home. I’d been acting all gung-ho about the season ending, but when it actually came time to leave, I was anything but. I had to go home eventually though, and when I went to say goodbye to Winters, he said something that I don’t think I can ever forget: “You can be good at this, I promise.” That was when I realized that that was what I wanted. I want to do well, I want to be an asset to the team, I want to make myself and you all proud, and I don’t care if I need to hurt to get there, because it’s going to be worth it.
It turns out the way we think about running and racing can apply to almost everything in life, even if we don’t realize it. It’s embarrassing to admit, but before this all started, I used to be the kind of person who would just avoid things when they were difficult or frustrating. After all, I didn’t have any real reason to work hard – I barely even knew what that meant. Thankfully, that isn’t me anymore. I’m not afraid to do things that might be hard, because I finally know what it’s like for something to be worth it. Just like in running, sometimes in life we have experiences that are going to hurt like hell. You can’t avoid it. You can’t make it hurt any less. All you can do is embrace it. Knowing that makes all the difference.
I understand that this whole spiel might sound meaningless to someone who feels like they aren’t seeing any results. I think if I handed this speech to myself circa 2019, I would’ve said something similar. I want to promise you that isn’t true. You are getting better. I’m living proof. You just have to keep at it.
Please feel free to talk to me privately if you have any questions or thoughts on what I wrote here. I’m always available.
What defines a “good” race? Is it a fast time, achieving some gold standard of pain, or even catching the eye of a local Deptford resident? Whatever your response may be, it is subjective to say the least. Everyone applies their own standards to performances, making it nearly impossible to formulate some blanket statement response. However, I can say with near certainty I know what a “good” race looks like.
The team has scraped themselves off their comfy mattresses onto our not so luxurious school bus. We trek across US-30 East, stopping only to alleviate the bladder of an unnamed individual. The sun is baking the tears of junior high racers onto the pavement by the time we arrive at the acclaimed Cherokee High School. Tents are set up and port-a-potties are s(p)oiled. Nerves have begun to sink in. Tension grows as the freshmen battalion creeps closer and closer to their moment. Bibs are tacked and chips are tied. We conclude the warm-up, dynamics, and strides. The hay is in the barn. The boys are ready..
The strategy is simple: go out hard, settle in the first mile, and rip the latter half. Our comrade, KV, feeling light as a feather, knew what had to be done. He got out hard, then harder, and harder. He came bolstering through a quarter mile, reeking havoc amongst his noobish competitors. He had is game face dialed in, as well as a suicide pace. I quickly obtained a spectating position at mile one. I waited as the frosh boys streamed past me, trying to pick out purple in a mass of frenzy. I eventually locked in on him- he had followed through. Same pace. Same face. We made sweet, sweet eye contact, and he took off. The rest is history. Shiv ripped it, gripped it, then ripped it again until he crossed the line. He never quit. That, however, was the minimum for Shiv. He needed more, and he knew he was only one man for the job.
Looks can be deceiving, very rarely are they not. Zeke Rein proved this to be undoubtedly true. Create a race strategy then execute- the chalk plan for a “good” race. I could lecture Zeke about the hills, when to push, and when not to. It clearly did not matter. The man had one goal- stick with Owen Kelly. The matchup we had all anticipated was falling right into the clutches of Mr. Rein. They were together through half a mile, yet when Owen breached the mile mark, Zeke was 15 strides back. I ordered him to catch Owen to which he managed,” I can’t”. It was the most rancid load of B.S. I had ever come across. Why? Because Zeke was latched onto Owen two minutes later. Did it matter that Zeke had already dumped “everything” he had on that hill? Not at all. He found more than what he thought there was, and in turn created a masterpiece of a race. What at first looked to be a shot in the dark gone rogue, transformed into a courageous effort.
Our final race of Cherokee that will gain some attention is that of Owen Monson. Owen is no stranger to total domination. Out of millions of players, he is ranked 250th in the world for the popular video game Overwatch, involving aquiring targets in a co-op environment. On the cross country course, however, Owen is fairly new. This being his second race ever, the focus was on putting out a solid effort; do just that and the race will be “good”. I waited at the quarter mile. Alas, he came through. He was maintaining a strong pace, yet we both knew there was more. I dashed to my staked spot at one mile. In a group of four or five, Owen bolted up the hill. He was moving faster than before with the same game face as always. I yelled at him to accelerate- pass his competitors in that group. I did not know if he received the message, and if he did, would he do it? Two minutes later, I was given the answer. Near the bottom of the hill crest towards the mile and a quarter mark, he had put on a 50 meter gap. I sped off to the 1.75 mile mark. Now 100 meter ahead of his once worthy group, he increased his speed up the final hill. Over the course of a week, Owen had put down a finishing time of 90 seconds faster per mile between his first and second career race. No longer just a gamer on the desktop, but on the green, too.
You know a “good” race when you see one. Gritted teeth, clenched fists, and some mean turnover. That is PHX Cross Country. We are the Punishers. You see it on our shirts, our flags, and most importantly, how we carry ourselves. Our races look good because we care. We run for effort and not time. We run for each other. So as the season marches on, and you see Purple come whizzing down the back straight, you know we are up to no good.
I’m not gonna harp on how weird quarantine was, because we all lived through it, we all know it was weird. But that spring, 2020, stands out in my memory. If you break quarantine into phases, it was the very beginning, the three months that were supposed to be like two weeks. None of us really knew what was going on, and we had our uncanny valley school experience, and during all of that, I was running. Winters gave us a schedule for the first two weeks, and hilariously, traumatically, funny in the sense that you can only laugh because any real response would be too much to think about, that two week schedule just expanded and expanded. It was all pretty standard. Every week there was a workout on Wednesday, and a long run on Saturday, and easy runs filled the rest of the days. The easy runs and long runs I did with my dad, and that’s a whole different story that I could talk about - the first time I ran ten miles was during that time.
But in this post I want to talk about the Wednesdays that spring, specifically the Wednesdays every other week, when we had hill workouts. I did all of them on Cromby hill, which, if you don’t know, is this big hill on the North side. If you go through town on Hobo, the Schuylkill River Trail, and then cross Mowere Road and run up a little hill, you end up at the top of Cromby. So, every other week I’d run over to Cromby as my warm up, do a hill workout, and then run home to cool down.
Cromby is a brutal hill. It’s like 100 feet of elevation in a quarter mile. It’s pretty amazing for doing hills. I’d always try to figure out which part of it hurt the most during the workouts. Maybe it was really just aerobic pain. Or maybe it was all in my upper legs. Retrospectively I think they both hurt the most. But in a spring with a lot of unfair pain, Covid and police violence especially, Cromby taught me how to deal with the simple, logical pain of running. There was nothing unfair about Cromby. I wanted to run up the hill, and that required a fair bit of uncomfortable exertion, and if I really wanted to run up the hill, I’d have to get comfortable with that discomfort.
In Finland, they call that sisu. It roughly translates to “guts”, but a better definition is the skill of being comfortable with being uncomfortable. There are some things this doesn’t apply to, I guess - the unfair pain I was talking about earlier. We aren’t comfortable with Covid killing people, and therefore we ought to do our best to make sure it doesn’t. But to an extent that includes being comfortable with discomfort too, like the discomfort of wearing masks and lockdowns, and so does the idea of fighting racism, which includes some uncomfortable reckonings and realizations. I think if sisu applies at all to those complicated, unfair pains, it surely applies to the completely explicable pain we feel in running. Running faster than you ever have before is uncomfortable. As exhilarating as racing can be, it includes a lot of feelings that really suck. That’s a whole mythology of team storytelling. Declan calls the spot by the finish line on the track the graveyard, since people lay on the ground, exhausted, after racing. But if you apply the logic of sisu, that pain isn’t for nothing. If you want to run faster than you ever have before, you’re going to have to get comfortable with discomfort. Discomfort is required to do something you thought you couldn’t do, and the process of training is a process of preparing your skill of being comfortable with that, your sisu. It’s a mental muscle, and every time you push through discomfort you strengthen it.
Running up Cromby however many times every two weeks for however many weeks was a sisu building process. I credit that spring and summer directly with my evolution from “just on the team because I always have been” to really being invested, and Cromby was a big part of that. Right now, I’m dealing with a more abstract Cromby. My arms are broken. I’m uncomfortable. It sucks. Dramatically. Still though, I know that I have sisu. That didn’t go away. And if it doesn’t go away after breaking multiple bones, I imagine it doesn’t go away after a bad race or a bad workout.
Keep building your sisu,
I feel like this story starts the same way as so many others do on this team. A hot, humid, brutal summer run, bright and early in the morning. The date was July 27th, 2020, and on this day, Winters decided to bust out a new spot for us to run at, Shady Oak. Almost everyone has been there now, and its nuance is all but gone. It’s just another paved trail along the river, shaded and hilly. While the lockdown made practice the highlight of my day, on this day the energy was not there. I showed up that day unprepared and I knew it, dehydrated, barely stretched, and tired on another level. But like most people on most days, you just chugged along and made it through enjoying the highlights and forgetting the lows. Another surprise from Winters was then laid on us when he decided that day was a long run, the longest to that point in fact. I had 8 whole, painful miles ahead of me and I was scared. Not nervous, anticipating what's to come, genuinely frightful of what that might entail. I know now that 8 miles is just another long run, and for many on the team an 8-mile-long run would be easy. I was not even close to prepared for what was to come. The final pre-race surprise for that day would be one of the most impactful ones, Winters would be joining me and Will for these 8 miles meaning we would be going his pace, a frightening prospect to say the least.
Usually, what happens on a run, like the talking that occurs, all of that gets forgotten. But for once, I can distinctly remember what us 3 were talking about. For the first two miles, we talked about Alex Jones and conspiracy theories. And then for the last 2 miles out, we were talking about the Patriot Act. If you don’t understand what that it is, I implore you to google it, or if you really want to know, ask Winters. Regardless, let’s just say we weren’t focusing on the run. Now as we turned around at 4 miles, my stomach started to hurt, my legs started to burn, I'm falling a step behind. All bad signs of what's to come. Winters and Will continue talking. I feel like I can barely think by this point and I’m really just trying to get to the end of this run as soon as possible, as easy as possible. Spoiler: It will not be fast, nor will it be easy.
We reached around the 5.5-mile mark, and disaster strikes. The construction we saw on the way out is now blocking the trail to get back. A large trail closed sign blocks the path back. My first thought at this sign was to go right past it but ultimately, I saddled up for the ride. There is no way back through the trailhead, so we have to go around. The sign also presents the arrival of a new group to this story, consisting of Colin, Yash, and Luke Hihi. They ask Winters what we should do, and after a few moments of deliberation we decided to head left of the sign off of the trail. This put us onto a highway, and a bridge which you can see from the trail. On this bridge, a man in a gray truck pulled up beside us, put his window down, and offered us a map. That man was an angel in disguise. We dismissed him and kept running. After reaching an intersection and making a right turn, we headed downhill, past some houses, and then through a small neighborhood. None of us had phones and all we were looking for were directions. Then we saw it, a large gravel driveway, surely a public park. Which means a map. We’ll know where were going again. And how to escape this place. We get to the sign at the front of most parks, with the tiny roof on top and what do we see. Not a map. Not the only thing we needed…
A birdwatching guide.
Welcome to Hoy Park.
Welcome to Hell.
To say my heart dropped is an understatement. All I could do was laugh. What else can you do when you fall so far. You have no energy to cry. You just stand and laugh at your own misfortune, your own failure. Right now, you can travel on Google Maps the exact same route I took to Hoy Park, but you can’t go in. In takes real suffering, real pain, to enter that place. You can only enter at your lowest of lows, halfway through a run you never wanted to do, at a speed you can’t go, on a day you shouldn’t run. Yet there I stood, in a sick twisted form of shock and horror and yet laughing. Everyone except Winters stood around for a while he scouted uphill for a possible escape, ultimately unsuccessful. So, what did we do? We ran back the way we came. I started to really die by this point, I had stopped sweating a while ago, but I began to feel chills run down my spine. Finally, when we got back to the trail closed sign, now accompanied by a construction worker, I was offered a water from his cooler. Now when I say that was the best water I’ve ever drank I mean it. That was the taste of Life. I had escaped Hell.
But I wasn’t home free. Slowly but surely Winters and Will pulled away leaving me all on my own trying to make it back in once piece. Right before the steel bridge you go under, I stopped. Unable to run anymore, I just sat there. Defeated. Dead and yet Alive. Wishing I wasn’t. I walked onwards just trying to finish the run with what I had left. I threw up after I went under the bridge and Chia was there. Asking what was wrong. I forget what I said but I know it wasn’t PG-13. I eventually reached the end. A liberating feeling? Far from it. I threw my shirt off, said goodbye to Winters, hopped in my dad’s car with the AC on blast and went home. I would throw up about another 20-25 times before going to the hospital. It wasn’t great. I hated life. But I kept going. And after two IV bags, one call from Winters asking how I was doing, and a small amount of luck, I survived Hoy Park. And I was right there at practice the next day.
That’s what cross country means to me. A life changing experience for good and bad, a social experience in some parts, a pure mental battle in others. I’ve been asking myself a lot of what others can take away from this story. And it’s not something shallow like “I’ve been through worse suck it up.” What I think you can and should take away from this is that everyone on this team will have their Hoy Park moment. That pit of despair, the lowest point, where you just want to quit. These moments are crucial to not only running but to life. Cross country means so much to me and in this case, it became a learning opportunity to understand what I can handle, where I can go, and how I can push through everything holding me back. That is more important than any time or place in any race. You only get 4 years of cross country, please savor them. The more and more I reflect on my time on the team, the more and more I realize how little I have left. Enjoy every day at practice, you only get so many of them.
~Jacob Cross - Class of '23
The outcome of a race is often decided before the gun even goes off, as the physical and mental preparation required to successfully perform in a race has a huge effect on a runner’s ability to “put-out” and do well. However, when it is a new season, your knowledge on preparation for racing can be a bit rusty - maybe because you haven’t done it for several months, or maybe you’re brand new to competitive racing. This can be especially true for the mental side of race-preparation. Everyone (hopefully) understands that stretching out, hydrating (even if you’re in school the day of a race), sleeping well, and other physical tasks are necessary to do well in a race. However, the mental preparation for a race is much more difficult to fully wrap your head around. How much should I be thinking about the race? How emotional should I be about it on the bus ride over? How about a week before? Should I be trying to hype myself up or stay mellow? Learning the answers to these questions is a painful process, and if you ever feel like you’ve fully “figured out” racing, you are probably a few races away from one that punches you in the gut and makes you question your philosophy on preparation and racing. So, how would I best advise you to prepare for a race?
There are two core items that you must understand going into a race: what you need to do, and what is about to happen to you. Knowing what you need to do is simple: what’s the race strategy? Do you need to come through the first mile between in 6:20? Do you need to stick with a specific person and beat him at all costs? Do you need to run a challenging first half mile then dial it back? What task do you need to accomplish? A lot of this is up to Winters, but making sure that you understand exactly what he wants you to do is important. A related piece of advice: set concrete goals. Saying “I want to run fast,” is not the same as, “I want to come through the first mile in 6:20.” Saying, “I want to try as hard as I can,” is not the same as, “I want to run a reserved first two miles, and then go ballistic the last 1.1.” Make sure that your goals are material and real rather than unclear so you actually know whether you are doing them correctly.
Now that you understand what you need to do during the race, you need to understand what is going to happen to you during the race. It is going to hurt a lot. In case you missed it: it is going to hurt a lot. If you are not prepared to be crossing the line totally exhausted barely able to feel your legs or control your breathing, you are not as ready as you need to be, as that brutal experience is what it may come down to for you to achieve your task. I use the word “brutal” intentionally, as racing is a brutal experience. I have come to view competitive racing as a combat sport, maybe not of the punch and kick kind of combat, but of mental combat. You need to be willing to go step-for-step, mile-for-mile with someone until they can’t take the pain that your effort and running is making them feel. Imagine you were in a foxhole with an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat, where only one of you walks away alive. In that situation, you need to be willing to be vicious. You need to be willing to be savage. You need to be willing to do whatever it takes to beat your enemy and live on another day. I’m not saying that you should view racing as a military encounter, but what I am saying is that in the same way you need to be willing to not stop fighting when the enemy punches you in the face, or stabs you, or bites you, you need to not stop racing at a high effort level when you start to feel sore, or when another racer makes a move to try to pass you. I’m also not saying that every race will be a hellish, primal experience. What I am saying is that you are not fully ready to race unless you are prepared to face anything that gets thrown at you. No matter what, you need to keep executing your task.
How could you possibly prepare for a race mentally knowing just how brutal it has the potential to be? How do I think about a race in a productive way? Quite frankly, I’m still working on finding the answer to that question, because I’m not sure myself. I think that figuring out how to think about racing is a career-long process. However, I do have a few pieces of advice: