Disclaimer: This is a long blog. I have a lot of good stuff on my mind!
When we returned to school on Saturday, there was a beautiful rainbow over Lake Michigan. It's vibrant colors stood in stark contrast with the dark storm clouds that had marked our entire drive home. After the last bee got in her car, I enjoyed an even more spectacular sky for my drive home. It was as if the sunset was too amazing to be hidden because even though the west was gray, bright pinks and oranges painted the eastern sky and highlighted the ashen clouds. It was simply breathtaking. As I stared in awe, I could not help but think about how our country has endured tragedy after tragedy in the past few weeks, from natural disasters in Mexico, Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico to the unnatural calamity in Las Vegas. And while these events are terrifying, they also allow us to witness one reality of life in America: that we come together to help one another when the going gets tough. Watching donations and reinforcements poor into disaster-stricken cities, not to mention lines of every day people waiting to donate blood, helps soothe the hurt of watching innocent people suffering. Beautiful scenery--like where we get to race all the time, or a stunning sunset, or the quiet of an early run at morning practice--helps rejuvenate our souls. But humans crave more than just nature to bring us joy. Although many people pursue the superficial highs of acquiring expensive "stuff" like clothes or cars or phones, or getting attention through likes or retweets or streaks on social media, or even finding temporary escapes through alcohol or drugs...true happiness comes when a person feels genuinely connected to others...when a person feels important to another through honest, hard work and a shared vision. THIS is why I love cross-country. There is nothing so pure as the dedication required of a season and the mindset required during a race to bring forth the best in us and to bind us to one another.
All summer and season, this past week, and this weekend in particular, I was able to witness up-close and from afar that very phenomenon. Over the summer, I saw glimmers of what we could be: The dedication of our small group was outstanding, and Oshkosh helped start a spark of that love and commitment to the team; Coach Anderson and I revelled in the fact that the group at Osh felt closer than any before. Once the season started, the injection of new faces helped our team grow, and I have been impressed by how quickly many of the newbees have embraced our team mindset. As we head into this final week of full-team racing, I encourage you to reflect on the beauty of being part of a team. I challenge you to help that beauty multiply by reaching out to your teammates that you know of, but do not know as well as you should. I implore you to lift each other up with your words and actions...to revel in each other's beauty and greatness. I expect you to let your final full-team race of the season speak to how you feel about your team. "Self-transcendence," as Steve Magness and Brad Stulburg in their book Peak Performance, can be achieved when you divert your mind from the discomfort of a situation (in our case, the pain that is inevitable when racing) and focus on a higher purpose: your team, a family member, or anyone else who really matters to you. Check out this excerpt from their book here for some inspiration.
This weekend, I already saw some glimpses of this spirit of finding beauty in what we do. It started on Friday morning when Angie and Klyde asserted that they wanted to take on the challenge of running in the Varsity race at Wheeling. And it was multiplied by Carmen's encouraging words that I will paraphrase here: that running in the Varsity race was a great opportunity to push oneself by keeping the right mindset. And as I discussed my expectations for Wheeling, I could feel the positive energy of the group, which heightened as we hit the dark and quiet of the streets for our run. After 7th period, I could feel the same positivity as we assembled on the spirit bus and as you read the Sterling letter. And with each "Remember When," I could feel you appreciating the funniness of this team as well as reflecting on how we need to work harder on getting to know one another. As we ran the course, I felt at home, and I hope you did, too. The easy banter of a group on a mission is so energizing and reassuring, and your natural observation of go-zones was simply awesome. And once we were dry and warm, a new warmth spread as I was listening to you create goals for our upcoming race. I loved your insistence upon fixing the split and mapping out the go-zones for complete clarity. ;) It was impressive to watch. I felt confident as I set my head on the pillow, and I allowed myself to dream big.
And the next morning, I was buoyed by texts from Franklin and Anderson as they asserted the positivity on the bus. And I rejoiced in the quiet calm of pinning on bib numbers and relaxing on the bus pre-race. And I smiled at the selfless, thoughtful text from Alexia as we prepared on the starting line. And I celebrated with you as Anderson sent me a pic of Klyde and Angie on the starting line for the Varsity race. And I could barely contain myself as I watched Kelsey emerge from the woods right on plan, with Maya only steps behind, and Julia only steps behind her, and Janelle only steps behind her. And I was speechless as I watched our pack of Cynthia and Steff and Vic push harder than they had in the past to fix the split. It is impossible to explain the elation that occurs when you can see people shifting their words into actions. Every time I saw one of you, I saw you scrapping, using the course to your advantage, trying to get ahead of the next pack. And I was glowing by the team response after the race...first as we helped Tay and Di with their awesome races, then as those two actually raced, later as we took pictures and laughed and ate, and finally as we did some brief analysis on the bus ride home.
This race was not without learning opportunities, however. While our start and our kicks were the strengths of the day, our middle mile continues to concern me. Despite the rain and wind, the course was still fast, as illustrated by Madison Marasco's time of 17:30 (Schaumburg) as well as Katherine Olson's time of 17:44 (Dekalb). There were several runners in the 18s as well as the low 19s, so the course clearly handled Friday's rain ok. So if the course is fast, what is holding us back? Clearly you all were invested in our team goals. Clearly, you all believed in the moment that you were giving maximum effort. I will refer to the Jocelyn Barajas (class of 2017) for some insight. During the spring, she was on a quest to break 6 minutes in the mile. It took her longer than we anticipated to break this barrier, but once she did, her first words to me were, "What was I waiting for? That was not hard." Often, part of our brains are committed to a goal, but we allow other parts of our minds to set blocks...to listen to the body during the race and agree about pain and fear of falling off.
I am going to use Maya's race (with her permission) as another example of this mental-physical connection. At Lake Forest, I asked Maya to run close enough to Julia to see every blond wisp of hair on her head...to be able to smell her shampoo. She went out hard and felt good and was able to reach this first-mile-goal with relatively little discomfort. This success helped her build more mental confidence mid-race, and she was able to push through the physical boundaries that once held her back. She broke 21 seemingly easily (we know that there is a tremendous amount of effort involved, but when your mind is right, it looks simple), and she felt positive the whole way. After that success, I challenged her to push more at Sterling. I told her to go out even harder and keep Kelsey in her sight, bringing Julia along with. Maya dutifully went out HARD, and I was so stoked to see her taking a risk. Although not next to Kelsey, I knew she could see Kelsey for the whole first mile, and Maya was rewarded with a speedy 6:25--30 seconds faster than her time trial on Saturday. At that point, she still looked strong and confident; when I asked her about it later, she reported that she was proud of her first mile and felt good, much like Tuesday. When she emerged from the woods again, she had fallen off Kelsey, but she still looked ok. I could tell that she was not as confident (you women would be amazed by how much your face reveals your mindset), but I was not concerned yet. As she headed into the woods for the final loop, with about 1,000 meters to go, I could see that Maya was in trouble. Her breathing was shallow and rapid, and her legs looked like they had no strength. I encouraged her to breathe deeply, but she almost seemed incapable of hearing me at that point. When she emerged for the final 400, I could see that Maya was in distress. Her legs looked barely capable of holding her up, her eyes were glazed over, and she seemed to be going backwards. Moments after she passed me, she collapsed.
I have witnessed runners experience this problem over the years. Shayla (class of 2017) had a few bouts of what I call "spaghetti legs" during her years as a runner. We at first thought there was a physical catalyst, but after a lot of checking, we realized that it originated in the mind. I have also watched too many runners experience this phenomenon at State, which reinforces that mental source due to the high-stakes nature of that race. Let me explain. When you run, your body demands more oxygen than when you are at rest. Simply, your muscles require oxygen in order to perform. During the race, you face many mental challenges. Perhaps a specific goal that you want to pursue feels out of reach. Or maybe a girl challenges you, and you cannot respond. Weather, hills, an unexpected pain in your stomach or leg or whatever...there are a million factors that can take your mind by surprise. In that moment, you make a choice: to try to respond to the challenge or to ignore the challenge.
Let's look at the "respond" choice first. You might be able to muster some energy or mental grit to respond and work through the challenge. If you do, you get a mental boost and feel better about yourself. If you cannot, however, (and that DOES happen sometimes...sometimes you are faced with a competitor who is simply faster, or your reaction time is not fast enough to match a competitor's surge, or you have a physical problem that cannot be overcome simply by grit...it happens) your brain feels like you tried (thus preserving your "gritty" view of yourself), and you continue with your race.
What if you simply choose to ignore the challenge? This seems black and white, but there is the complication of ego. At this point in the season, you have all bought into wanting to have a tough mindset, so the "ignore the challenge" choice feels like punking out. Your ego does not want you to look bad, so your mind races to try to fix the situation. This can cause a stress-response in your body: your heart rate increases even more, and your breathing must catch up. The problem is that you are already taxed physically because of the race, so it is all too easy to slip into a shallow, rapid breathing pattern.
When I spoke to Maya after the race, she said that she felt like her mindset was strong, even as Kelsey pulled away from her. This is good news because I want you all to keep a positive mindset and flexibility if your plan does not unfold perfectly. Unfortunately, you can still have a stress-response even if you are trying to respond to a challenge. This spiral seemed to develop at the 2-mile mark for Maya, a point when the body is already under tremendous race-stress and has nearly the highest oxygen demands (the highest being the very end of the race). Unfortunately, this creates a bad spiral--as the body gets less oxygen due to the bad breathing pattern, the muscles start to cramp up, including the diaphragm--a muscle that helps control the opening and closing of our lungs. When the diaphragm cramps, it further complicates breathing, which makes the whole situation worse. The muscles cramp further due to lack of oxygen and our human instinct to survive. Our brain screams, "Whoa! If you are not going to give me enough oxygen, I'm shutting down the whole system!" The brain sends signals to the muscles to cramp so hard that they can no longer function...aka spaghetti legs.
So what can we learn from Maya? There are several lessons:
1. It is imperative to run the entire race like your team needs you. You never know when a teammate might fall or have a bad race, etc. You have to run like you are our #1 runner each race to help lift the whole team.
2. Look at her reaction during the race: despite being in physical distress, she kept trying to fight for her teammates until she was physically unable.
3. Look at her reaction post-race: once we got her breathing back to normal and some fluids in her, she started feeling better. She had the choice to go home with her parents, but she decided to stay with her team. I think this is due two two factors. First, her teammates were incredibly supportive of her right after the race. The twins both took great care of her, and the others did not judge her--they simply wanted to help her feel better. Second, despite being a freshman and relatively new to running, she was strong and smart enough to realize that the whole trip mattered, and that she would miss out on some important moments--pictures, seeing her teammates get medals, yummy lunch including ice cream, and a very revealing game of Two Truths and a Lie on the bus ride home.
4. Her reaction today: I asked her if I could write about the experience, and she gave me the green light because she "could learn from it." Talk about a gritty, growth-mindset response! This kind of reaction is where true growth comes from--being humble enough to want to learn, and being wise enough to ask for the feedback!
5. Breathing matters. I know this sounds trite, but it is easy to forget that breathing is something we CAN control. We cannot control the weather, our competitors, the course, the world. We can control how we react to it. That stress-reaction can occur in a variety of situations: if you have to give a speech for class; or if you are in a car accident; or if you are faced with an uncomfortable conversation with a friend. All of these situations cause our bodies to react instinctively to protect us. You CAN override that reaction by forcing yourself to take slow, calming breaths. The best way to do so is to practice relaxed breathing in non-stressful situations first. Before you go to bed, spend two minutes in a deep-breathing pattern. Lie on your back, close your eyes, put one hand over your heart, and your other on your stomach. Slowly inhale through your nose, and feel your belly rise; pause for a beat, and then slowly exhale through your mouth. After five breaths, you should already feel a difference in your body. As you follow this cycle, try to simply focus on the feeling of the breath as it cycles from your nose to your lungs to your belly and out of your mouth. It is normal for our minds to try to think during this process. Just acknowledge thoughts as they happen, and then return your focus to breathing. After two minutes of this rhythmic breathing, your heart rate should lower, your body should feel relaxed, and you should feel ready to drift off to sleep.
Once you have mastered this two-minute cycle, then try it when you are stressed. It could be before a test or before a race or during another stressful situation. See how the breathing makes it easier to make clearer choices and remain grounded. If you want more information, google "watching the breath." You will find countless videos and articles about this meditation technique. One more quick note--many researchers attribute the idea of the runner's high in part to the rhythmic breathing that running creates. Exercise releases endorphins, too, but they do not explain the runner's high alone. :)
Ok, so I know that was a long tangent, but it was an important one! I'd like to focus on a few more beautiful moments from Saturday. First, I was really excited by a few other racing details. When I saw that Maya was in distress with 1,000 to go, I told Julia that Maya needed her help. She was already having a good race, but her immediate response (despite having a stomach bug since Wednesday) was to shift gears to step up. That kind of reaction is how we fix the split! When Vic, Steff, and Cynthia caught Maya, they kicked like mad to help lift the team. Every time Janelle passed me, she worked to fix her shoulders and re-catch her teammates. Post-race, the girls immediately shifted to helping Maya feel better as well as prepare Diana and Taylor for their races. They spread out to help in the tougher spots of the course, and were elated to see their teammates race so well. Speaking of Tay and Di--these two were beautiful, too. After the radar indicated that bad storms were on the way, the race directors combined the genders for the open race, but pushed the start time later to give the boys time to prepare. This could have been stressful, but our two bees took the change in stride, and their teammates helped keep them focused and warm. At the gun, Tay and Di got out hard, and I was stoked to see Taylor emerge from the woods in the mid-20s place-wise with Di only steps behind! They used the boys in the race to help push to great mile times: Taylor with a 7:08 and Di with a 7:15! Heading into the woods, they worked hard to pass people. Going into the woods for the final time, Taylor was in 21st place. Not only did she pass several packs of boys, but she also passed 3 girls to finish in 19th and earn a medal. With 1,000 meters to go, I told Di that she was in 30th and would have to work hard in the woods; she reacted immediately by picking up her pace! Unfortunately, her kick could not withstand a late surge of another girl, and she ended up in 31st. That being said, these two took tremendous risks in their races, and I was impressed by their grittiness. :)
As I looked at the results from the race, I was pleased that we took 15th out of 22 teams (better than our finish last year with a much more experienced team). There is a particular story that is noteworthy within the results. We tied point-wise with my alma mater, Conant. The reason we "beat" them has to do with fixing the split. If you look at our two scores head-to head, we lost the early part of the race. Their #1 beat Kelsey, and their #2 and #3 beat Julia and Steff. BUT, our pack of Julia, Steff, Cynthia, and Vic all beat their #5 runner. And even though Janelle was not satisfied with her race, her effort was important to the team outcome. As our #6 runner, she beat their #5, pushing their team score up. She also beat their #6 (they only had 6 runners, too). Never underestimate your power to help the team and fix the gap. If this had been the regional, Janelle's efforts, as well as that of the pack might have made the difference between us making it out as a team and only individuals getting out. Food for thought! (Check out the picture at the end to see what I mean).
The bus ride home also made me happy. You insisted on finding out about our split, and Vic and Tay asked many follow up questions after everyone else left. I can feel a shift with this group. Let's keep the momentum going this week, ok?
I can only go by the reports, but it sounds like a solid day. Angie and Klyde took on the challenge of running in the Varsity race. Although their times were slightly off of their races lately, they looked aggressive and had great finishes, each catching a few runners in the end. Nice work, women!
In the open race, both Jayla earned the lone LPR for the day, dropping 4 seconds, despite the hilly course. As I look at the other times, I am concerned that too many of you let the mental challenge of a hillier course get in your heads. Charmaine, Aja, and Kate seemed to be the only ones in the right neighborhood time-wise. I want to talk with you about it in person, though, before I jump to conclusions!
Let's have a great week in order to have a great conclusion at Conference on Saturday!
Thanks for reading all the way to the end. Can't wait to see you all at Van Patten tomorrow! :)