A couple days before the race, I said to my boyfriend, “What if I win and you aren’t there to see my race?!”. My boyfriend, Grant, was getting ready to leave to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and was not going to watch my race because he had to meet his hiking partner to go over the final details of the hike. I was running at the Oregon Relays, an outdoor track meet that takes place at the historic Hayward Field. Hayward Field at the University of Oregon is a famous track stadium mainly because of University of Oregon runner, Steve Prefontain, who held every American record from the 2,000m to 10,000m. The entire running community was in awe of Pre, as his cocky confidence exuded in every race he ran. Pre ran from the front, pushing the pace the entire time until he broke the souls of his competitors. Now Hayward has been home to countless NCAA Championships, USATF National Championships and Olympic Trials.
I had only raced on Hayward once before and the race did not go as planned. The history behind Hayward Field is daunting enough, let alone memories of a previously bad race, so safe to say I was slightly nervous to be back at Hayward again. Though, besides my fear of racing at Hayward, I was slightly less nervous because here I am a 5,000m and 10,000m runner and I was entered in the 1500m. My coach wanted me to use the 1500m as training because to be a good 5,000m and 10,000m runner, you need to be able to run a good 1500m for the final mile of the longer races. Since I do not train for the 1500m, that relieved some racing anxiety leading into the race because no one had any expectations of me, the race was for training. I went into the race with the mindset that I would start in the back and get a sense of the field and see if I could be in the mix at the end.
When the gun went off, I stuck to my race plan and found myself in the back of the pack, tucked safely where I could see the entire field. As we came around for the second lap, I found myself moving up through the pack as the pack begin to thin slightly as moves were made. I never felt a sense of urgency, I was flowing with the movement of the pack. Coming around the backstretch of the third lap, I remember saying to myself, “I might actually win this thing!!” and in a few strides I found myself in the lead. As I came around to the home stretch with about 500m left in the race, I felt like a hare being chase by a hungry pack of wolves. When I heard the bell to signal the last lap, my primal instincts took over. 400m separated myself from whether the hare lived or died, and I was going to ensure the hare survived if possible. I have never been known for a sizzling finishing kick, though I was going to do my best at pretending I was a 1500m runner.
One of my teammates took a photo of me running the last 100m in the race and my facial expression displays the animal instincts as I powered home. I finished second in that race, barely edged by a competitor from Gonzaga. Even though I wanted to win and getting edged in the final step is frustrating, I was incredibly happy after the race. For the first time in four years, I remembered how running can make you feel free. Not only had I felt free, but for the first time in college I had entertained the thought of winning. Since my back injury a year and half earlier, I did not consider myself to be physically capable of leading a race or have any of the mental confidence required to do so. Though, the Oregon Relays 1500m race had been different. A few days before the race, I knew in my soul that despite everything I had been through, I belonged. I allowed my body and soul to be free, like Saint Sing (2004) describes, “The movement alone guides us if we let it…” (Saint Sing, 2004).
In the fall of my Sophomore year in college, a year and a half before the Hayward Field magic of the 1500m, I was living in constant pain. Here I was at Oregon State University, supposed to be running collegiately and I was unable to run, let alone walk or stand for more than 10 minutes at a time. The medical staff in the athletic training room scheduled meetings with physical therapists, chiropractors, osteopathic manipulation therapists, neurospine specialists, and team doctors in attempt to find a solution to my back pain. My MRI showed a couple herniated discs in my low back. However, based on my pain patterns, the herniated discs were ruled out as the cause. I was on every prescriptible anti-inflammatory drug possible. The team doctor eventually started prescribing anti-depressants because somehow the drugs would “help”. I stopped taking the drugs at a certain point because none of the medications were lessening my pain nd I was tired of the way the drugs made me feel. At one point a neurospine specialist told me that I would forever run with low back pain unless I came in regularly to burn the ends of my nerves. I remember leaving that specific appointment in tears, not willing to accept that my fate as a collegiate runner now depended on silencing the pain by burning my nerves. As Saint Sing (2004) describes,
I was not in balance. I lost touch with the well within. I stumbled on the journey. My life was tilted, leaning, like a top ready to fall off its center. I had the image many times of a wagon carrying the baggage of my life, rumbling out of control down a bumpy road, and precious things were falling out- like my physical ability: the ability to run, for instance, and the ability to go through a day without pain. (p. 39)
For the first time in my life, my first love, Running, had been taken away from me. Though, along with Running, my ability to live without pain, seemed like a reality I would never have again.
Despite being told that I would never run pain free again by “specialists”, my soul had the confidence that my body at the time lacked. If there was anything I was sure of, I knew my journey with Running was not over. I decided to go home that summer and seek out the wisdom of the Boulder running community to see if anyone could give me answers. After finally getting a CAT and bone scan done, the bone specialists were able to discern that my Lumbar 5 vertebra and the top of my sacrum were thicker, a sign that sclerosis was occurring. Sclerosis causes thickening of the bone as a healing response to a bone injury. My doctor at home unofficially diagnosed me with having a stress fracture in the L-5, S-1 area during the height of my pain, close to eight months prior to the scans. After almost a year of misdiagnoses, I finally had an explanation for my pain. The results affirmed I was not crazy and that my pain was legitimate. During the last year, the athletic trainers made me feel as if I was falsely creating the pain so after receiving the results, my entire body took a deep breath. The results confirmed I was healing, and that is all my soul needed to know. Like Saint Sing’s (2004) description of her injury, my back demonstrated that, “For the body is transient and eventually fails, but the spirit runs, keeps running on…” (Saint Sing, 2004).
I describe my personal experience with running as the closest activity humans have to flying. When I am running in the mountains, darting from rocks to tree roots, flying up and down hills, I feel like I am a hawk soaring over the landscape. Running is the only activity in my life that has ever made me feel like my body and soul are in harmony. However, the deck of cards I was dealt took Running away from me for a period of time. The time away from Running forced me to look at life with a different perspective. I realized that even though I largely have always defined my running through the subjective experience, I found that my relationship with Running was toxic.
During my sophomore year of college, I found myself really depressed. I was no longer the vibrant, outgoing individual I have always been. Losing Running gave me tunnel-vision, and my sole goal was to run again. My goal to be healthy was not motivated from the desire to live without pain, my focus was on competing again because my self-worth was tied into my running accomplishments. I had always defined myself as “Sam, the runner” because nothing else in life seemed more important. Running had given me purpose and had directed everything in my life up to that point. I chose Oregon State because of the team and the coaches, not for the academic programs or the amazing community of Corvallis. My running was not a reflection of the Greek ideal of excellence, “arete”, in which mind, body and soul are in unison (Saint Sing, 2004). My body was not in harmony with my soul as my soul ached to run but the body refused. Running now had become something that not only made my soul feel alive but plagued my mind to become solely outcome-oriented. I needed to learn how to live without running, to not allow myself to be consumed by my love, but instead to enjoy putting one foot in front of the other.
“There is no substitute for experience. There is no substitute for finding out for one’s own self, for the personal revelation, for knowing firsthand…” (Saint Sing, 2004). I am convinced that despite everything I went through with my back injury, my entire being needed that experience. A year and a half after everything I went through, I found myself running consistently again. Sometimes even running twice a day, and ultimately getting to toe the line in the orange and black with the Beaver logo across my chest. I needed to experience something I loved dearly being taken away to truly understand why I run. I realized that despite my desire to win, I truly love running. I loved the feeling of flying, the feeling of freedom and the connection with nature that Running gives me. Do not get me wrong, winning is an amazing feeling, however that is not the driving force that gets me out the door every day. My injury taught me that every run is a gift. When teammates would get upset after races because they did not run the time they desired, I would think to myself, “Well at least you get to run, you get to lace-up your spikes and feel the rush of your primal instincts when the gun goes off.” I almost felt sorry for them because they lacked the perspective to appreciate their health and not take running for granted.
I did not have the collegiate career that I saw myself having as a freshman in high school. I envisioned myself at the NCAA Championships, breaking school records, and winning, A LOT. My collegiate career made me more vulnerable than I have ever been in my entire life and I had to ultimately accept the journey I was on. I will always remember my last race for OSU, the 10,000m at the Pac-12 Championships. I was back at Hayward Field. Based on my training, I was ready to run a qualifying time for first rounds of the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. The race did not go as planned and I found myself about one minute off where I thought I could be. Though, at the halfway mark, when my race began to deteriorate, Hayward unleashed its magic and rain started to slap the track. A huge smile spread across my face. I was running at Hayward Field in pouring rain in the footsteps of so many amazing runners before me. I was not having a great race, but I was enjoying my last experience as a Beaver. I crossed the finish line just as the rain stopped with a rainbow behind me. The Haywards Gods had sent the rain to remind me that I love to play in the rain, to run through the puddles. Prior-to-back-injury-Sam would have crossed the line sobbing. Instead I crossed knowing that I gave everything I had on that day. As Saint Sing (2004) explains the power of sports, “When we are sacrificing, offering ourselves for the greater good, the outcome, the finish line- we have broken the barrier of fear, gone through the limit of self and embody creaturehood, gratitude, and humility. This is when champions become heroes.” (Saint Sing, 2004). I allowed myself to be vulnerable, to chase after a dream that I would never ultimately achieved. Regardless of the outcome, my last Pac-12 Championship was a defining moment in my running career. I had fought back from what many believed to be a career-ending injury, “…formed a new dimension in personal experience…” (Saint Sing, 2004) and learned more than achieving my goals would have ever taught me.
Despite the perspective I gained through my injury, I found that when I graduated, I immediately resorted back to an outcome-oriented perspective. My back was no longer an obstacle I needed to overcome, so I became greedy. I moved to Moscow to work with the Head Distance Coach with the University of Idaho Track and Field and Cross Country Team, Travis Floeck. I believed with a new coach, new style of training, different strength program, I would achieve all my goals and more from college. However, I again lost sight of why I run. I became so consumed with running personal bests and proving to everyone else that I was still meant to run “fast”. Therefore, at the end of last Spring in my final track race of my season, I was not running because I loved Running. I ran because I wanted to run personal bests. Big shocker, I did not run a personal best that day. If anything, like we say in the running community when someone runs poorly, I ran backwards. I was not free. My mind, body and soul were not in unison, they were on different planets as I allowed the outcome to consume my being. I was doing the exact opposite of what I preach to the athletes at the University of Idaho to focus on the process. I even contemplated walking away from Running, finally moving on to pursue my master’s and my future career in collegiate coaching.
After some downtime post-track season, I was still slightly unsure what path my running journey was going to take. I started running again, because my I could feel my spirit tugging at me to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I attended the Steens Mountain Running Camp for high-school runners over the summer and found myself in the mountains, surrounded by people who love to run. The energy at camp was infectious. I ran not because I “had to”, but because I was enjoying being one with nature. I felt like my mind, body and soul were beginning their journeys to reconnect and I could feel the happiness that Running gave me. I had become the hawk again. I came back from camp, with a renewed perspective, and whole-heartedly adopting a process-oriented mindset.
My renewed mindset was reflected in my training and my development as a collegiate coach. I no longer needed verification from Travis that I ran well in a workout. I approached every workout as an adventure. Whether I was running a workout at 4:30am or being chased by a coyote (two different adventures), every step I took was to appreciate putting in the work. I stopped comparing myself and instead chose to be satisfied because even if a workout’s overall pace was slower than a previous workout, I felt confident that the effort felt right for that day. I could tell I adopted a new outlook in my conversations with athletes on the team, as I was asking them, “Why do you love to run?”. Many of the women, like I had, were beginning to become obsessed with the outcome and as a result were not running to their ability level. I challenged them to reflect on why they chose to run over playing another sport. At the end of the day, most people unless they genuinely love to run, would not put themselves through the rigors of running each day unless a deeper meaning was pulling them out the door. Like Saint Sing (2004) did in her coaching, I “…tried to make sports [running] something more, to plant the seeds at least to pursue excellence- arete, the beauty of body and soul checking and counterbalancing one another, pulling the other to a higher, better place- and us with it…” (Saint Sing, 2004).
My process-oriented mindset and renewed love of running was not only reflected in my coaching, but in how I was racing. I was racing well, really well and enjoying every minute. I was mainly racing on the trails. I have always felt more at home on single-track trails climbing mountains and running through trees. After a successful race at Moscow Mountain at the beginning of September, I spontaneously registered for the USATF Trail Half Marathon Championships in Seeley, WI. Normally for any race, my anxiety levels would be extremely high, stressed multiple days before from the race as negative self-talk would plague my thoughts. However, like the Oregon Relays 1500m, I was “naively” confident. I had only done one trail half marathon before the USATF Championships, I was working 80-hour weeks, therefore not sleeping as much as I should. And yet, I was confident in myself. I was actually excited to race. I went into the race legitimately going to “play”, envisioning myself flying down the hills, jumping from rock to rock. Of course, I wanted to win and hell I thought I could. Though, the process I adopted going into the race and the concept of just going to “play”, I knew that I was not going to “lose”. I was pursuing “arete” for the first time in my life and I think I understood wholeheartedly that, “Winning is only a 50/50 proposition; on any given day on a field of play someone wins and someone loses, but if you play your very best and you compete to be excellent, then you never lose, you are always a winner…” (Saint Sing, 2004). I may have officially finished second in the race, though I felt like I had just won.
The USATF Trail Half Marathon Championships was a major turning point for me on my journey. I had finally learned to let go of the outcome and with that, I let go of all the stress and pressure that had compounded over the years. I reflect more now as well and seem to be more in tune with my body and thoughts than I have ever been before. I am also happier in general, I am finding the positives even in “bad” workouts and running is not consuming my whole life but is a great part of my life. I am learning how to “play” all over again and the possibilities in running make me excited now instead of fearful. I believe that I am on the path of achieving true harmony within myself, a deeper inner peace that has been developed through my experiences of trial and error (Saint Sing, 2004).
Being an athlete or a coach today is a tricky act. The culture of sports has been incredibly swayed by the extrinsic factors that drive the capitalistic society in which we live in: winning and money. My thought process for almost my entire running career was centered on the outcome. Even with the new perspective my injury provided me in college, I was still subconsciously consumed solely by running faster times. I thought I was dedicated to the process. I always did all “the little things”, probably could have slept more, but for the most part I was your model student-athlete. Though, I was never able to truly escape myself, “No one controlled my next move and the only roadblock to success is my won fears…” (Saint Sing, 2004). I was scared to fail because if I failed in running then that meant I had failed in life. Though, the amazing thing that I learned by working 80-hour weeks last semester, was that as soon as you step off the track, life keeps moving on. No one cared if I kept running, my athletes did not care if I had a good or a bad race or if I was a “fast” coach. They valued me, Sam, as their coach because of my passion for the sport and the experience I bring to practice every day because of my journey. I know firsthand how to “…use the tools and techniques of sport and training to overcome the hurdles of life, to transcend…” (Saint Sing, 2004) and my goal is to help guide my athletes to do the same.
My challenge for my athletes, like Saint Sing (2004) describes, is to figure out why they play and to allow the subjective experience to fuel their passion for running. Most of my athletes will give me a funny look before a race when I tell them, “Just go play.” However, we all need that reminder. Regardless of how weird that may sound before a race, like “Coach how do you play in a track race, I just run in circles?!”, the little kid in us that chased after their friend knows what I men. Just remember to not to take yourself so seriously that you forget how to play.
Saint Sing, S. (2004). Spirituality of sport: Balancing body and soul. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press.