Lonely at the Top - PHXruns blog page
I’ve been injured…. a lot. I would train for months and pour everything to prepare for the Cross Country season or the Track Season. Even when I didn’t feel like going for a run on a particular run, I would get myself out there and run even if it meant doing a long run during a blizzard in the Winter. I would pour so much time and basically make running my life… just to end up getting injured right when the season starts or when the season is getting to the more important races.
I’ll go through some of these injuries that I’ve had and when they occured relative to the track or cross country season. My freshman year, I broke my wrist. This, unlike all my other injuries, was from my own stupidity when I was playing manhunt in a church. It was the week or 2 before PACs and I was having an amazing first season of Cross Country. I ended up missing PACs, and my doctor told me I wasn’t allowed to run at districts either. I did it anyway cause why not and it didn’t go so well. About 200 meters into the race I was pushed because of the large amount of people running and fell which was what my doctor was worried about and is why he didn’t want me running. Luckily, some random person helped me up and I kept going. At some point during the race, I went from wanting to do well during the race to just wanting to finish and be done with it. I cut parts of the course in JV fashion, and I ended up running a time about 30 seconds slower than my PR that season. People around me had the best race of their life. People on the team that I had never even seen be anywhere near me in a race ended up beating me, and by a lot too. It was frustrating. I was heartbroken. My season went from being this incredible season to ending in the worst way possible.
Rather than being depressed about it, I got angry and got to work. I trained really hard over the winter, with something to prove to myself. I ran a sub 5 mile that track season, and then that next Cross Country season I broke out and managed to run a sub 17 5K. I felt like I was on top of the world.
After an amazing Cross Country season, Winter Training started up once again. I trained and I felt like I was in really good shape which was shown when we went to some winter track meets. During one run, I ended up injuring my knee somehow from overdoing it and going way too fast on what was supposed to be an easy run. I’m not sure what exactly happened but all of a sudden it just started hurting a lot as I was going maybe sub 6 on my last mile which was so so so stupid of me. I recovered and ended up making a comeback, but then the season got canceled. This was rough. What was supposed to be only 2 weeks of Quarantine turned into what felt like forever. The only thing to do was to keep running, and it felt like I was running without really a reason. Despite this, I kept training anyways during these hard times and eventually after felt like forever, Cross Country rolled around.
Cross Country was weird. We had to wear masks before runs and after runs. We weren’t sure if we were even going to have a season. We trained anyways with the hope that there would be a season and luckily, there was. There wasn’t an official season, but a season like no other. Winters created this meets for just us to run in and it was amazing. Of course, me being just the best runner ever (no big deal), I dominated and felt like I was on top of the world. This was until, you guessed it, I got injured. During a run where I randomly felt like pushing the pace really fast, I pulled my hip flexor or something and messed that up really badly. It messed with me and caused me to have a terrible race. I again felt like training was for nothing and things weren’t going my way. I ended up bouncing back and having a couple amazing seasons, but after wearing the ghost 13’s (That’s what I choose to blame for this) my foot started to hurt really badly. It hurt to run on it. During the last 2 races, I wasn’t even sure if I was going to make it through the races. I didn’t know if I was racing until I managed to convince Winters to let me try a mile in the first 5k. At the end of it I could barely walk and same for the last 5k I did that year.
Track that next year ended up being a nightmare. It started out really good. I was in the best shape of my life, and then during a 150 I messed up my hip flexor again. This led to other problems as well and I ended up not racing for a month. Yash broke out, and when I came back he kicked my ass… every meet. I ended up hitting my goal for the mile by the end of the season, and even though I missed half of the season that one race at the end made it all worth it.
I ended up getting injured during summer training for my last year of Cross Country and missing a month because I sprained my ankle really badly while I was at the beach. I think you get the gist of what I’m saying though. Joey would call this the “bryan cycle”. I would train, get into amazing shape, maybe have a few really good races, then I would get injured and be really bad and miss some races and then I would bounce back to have 1 or 2 great races.
Getting injured all these times, it would have been really easy to just quit or give up on running entirely. And I’ll be honest, running wasn’t fun for me at times and I did want to just be done with it. However, I stuck with it and here I am now, making it to States when in the summer I wasn’t even sure if I would be nearly as good as what I needed to be to do so after spraining my ankle. What I’m trying to say here is that at some point during your running career, you will most definitely hit a wall. All your training will feel like a waste, and it’s discouraging. It’s easy to just quit and be done with running entirely when this happens, but I don’t think that’s what anyone on this team is about. You have to stick with it when times are rough, and in the end, it will be all worth it when you hit that amazing time and smash your goals. I would know, I’ve been through the ups and downs of running and in the end, it’s all worth it.
And I’ll end this off with some tips for not getting injured that I’ve picked up.
1. Make sure you stretch and roll and all that stuff
2. Take the easy runs easy
3. Don’t be dumb and play manhunt or anything like that before races, it’s not worth it.
Growing up, it was very difficult for me to find a place where I fit in, and like many of you, I found that place when I joined xc.
July 28th, I got a text from an unsaved number (which turned out to be Mr. Winters), asking me if I wanted to join XC. I didn't know much about him aside from complaining to him about my "ankle problems" and XC was a foreign concept to a hurdler like myself. Either way, 12 hours later, I found myself at Black Rock Sanctuary. The first thing I noticed was how tightly knit the team was. Although it was reassuring, it was also daunting. As I awkwardly walked over to mutual friends, Big Al and Becker, the shock on their faces was pretty evident. After all, who would've expected little ol me to join the team. Even though I was "officially" on the team, it didn't immediately feel that way.
As I started running my first lap, my lack of experience and uncoordinated breathing was distracting; and on top of that I had to put in 5x the effort just to keep up with my group. It wasn’t until a barrage of claps and cheers from my teammates that I started to feel a part of the team.
I think throughout life it was really easy for me to make surface level connections or go through the motions without it meaning anything. I also think it took strength and courage to confide in a group of people that you just met, but after seeing how great the team was I decided to jump in head first.Whether it was pasta night, hitching a ride in the BBC (Big Black Cherokee) or dodging Joey's farts on a long run, I fully wanted to do it all. After only a couple days of practice I felt fully submerged into the team and the culture that came along with it.
As I became more involved in running I started to take notice of what worked and what didn't and after only one season I learned so much and wanted to share some tips that brought me success...
1) !!RACE DAY IS SPECIAL!!
Whether it be a pasta night or an extra scoop of ice cream after dinner I like to acknowledge the importance of race day the night before. Packing your bags with a good snack, trying on your uniform in the mirror, and packing the correct clothes to wear to the meet will make all the difference. Acknowledging the race's importance and packing the night before allows you to have more time and energy the next morning to focus on the difficult task ahead. When race days roll around, visualizing the race, listening to pump up music, and talking to a fellow captain about what should happen when the gun goes off, are one of the many ways to get mentally ready for a race. A special pre-race routine will most likely lead to a special race.
2) !! ACKNOWLEDGE THE PAIN!!
Workouts, conference meets, invitationals and sometimes even practices are gonna hurt. You can do all the stretching out you want but in order to run a race or distance you’ve never ran before there will be a recognizable amount of pain involved. When thinking about a race and visualizing it I think it’s important to keep in the back of your mind what your body will feel like during it. The 1st mile relaxed and steady and the 2nd and 3rd mile most likely feeling like a slow death. For me and hopefully others, leaning into the pain will give one an advantage in a race and help mentally prepare for what’s to come. On the other side of the pain is a time or race you've never run before
3) !!LISTEN TO YOUR BODY!!
I know for many there is an urge to run the extra distance or keep going faster and faster on runs. While it is amazing to strive for better, you must listen to your body whilst doing so. Running hard when it matters and keeping the easy runs easy allows for the body to heal and recoup after a hard workout or race. Proper rolling out and stretching are key to allowing your body to reset and recharge in order to keep you pushing. If listening to your body means running a shorter distance, or laying on the couch on Sunday then DO IT! It’s easy to take your body for granted when everything is working and nothing hurts as opposed to when everything hurts due to not allocating enough time and energy to roll out and stretch. When race day rolls around THIS is the day where you’ll be experiencing mental and physical discomfort. With stretching and rolling out your body will be fine and it’ll be up to you mentally if YOU are able to push through the shallow breaths and negative thoughts to the finish line. Your mind will quit 100 times before your body ever does. Feel the pain and do it anyway.
4) !!CHERISH IT!!
Even after only one season I have learned so much and came to appreciate all the love and support that comes with being on a team. I can say with confidence this is truly one of the only times I felt a part of something bigger or a time where I had a voice. I guess I just want to say Thank You, thank you for the laughs, the hard races, the WWE, the relays, the support and most importantly the memories. Please please please don’t take it for granted and whether it be three years or three more days of practice stay in the moment and recognize how lucky you are.
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,