Back in the present, the Road to Rio finally finds some smooth riding...
It is amazing how bad, scared and rudderless we can feel until, all of a sudden, we don't feel that way anymore. How in the throes of a bad race I have the ability to convince myself that I will never be fast again, all hope is lost, and it is time to retire, only to show up and win my next race, a week later. After the victory, the self doubt that haunted the depths of my being the week before seems so ridiculous as to make me question whether their memories are real.
The mantra, "this too shall pass," in its infinite wisdom, reverberates around the hollows of my mind, but finding nowhere to latch on to, continues to escape into the ether. At the close of 2015 I had just completed my best year of marathoning ever, topped by a world record performance in the 800m during the track season. I was healthy, happy, and in the best form of my life. The aforementioned mantra was met with a shrug. Sure it might not last forever, but surely the end was not near.
Four months later my racing was flipped on its head and I was forced to get used to the new orientation as I struggled through one disaterous race after the other. An unforeseen ailment, followed by an unforseen medical procedure, led to a sharp dip in performance and fitness that at once frustrated and confused me. Again the mantra, this time as a reassurance, yet to the same result. I couldn't figure out why my body was not bouncing back and regaining form, and I had no evidence beyond faith that it ever would.
The mental trickery began after my horrendous spring marathons. When I went to Switzerland to race a series of track races in May, I changed the parameters of the race in my mind. I established my narrative: I'm not meant to be fast right now, the Paralympics are still many months away, I'm meant to use.each race as a stepping stone. You may ask, "well isn't this the correct narrative not matter what your physical condition is?" Well yes, it is, but if I'm coming into a face fit and fierce I'm going out there to win. I'm not repeating to myself my coaches advice to not press too hard, to let the race come to me and take careful notes on my current strengths and weaknesses. If I'm fit and fierce I'm questioning why the word weakness even exists, grabbing the race by the balls and attempting to throttle every poor soul in a three wheeled chair who gets between me and the finish line.
In Switzerland, however, I stuck to my narrative. I was calm, humble, forcefully positive, and didn't press. I actually performed better than I expected to, but constantly reminded myself that I had plenty of time to get better.
This same narrative carried me through the rest of my track season with meets in Indianapolis and, finally, US Natioanls in Charlotte. I raced from the pack, allowing others to dictate the pace and when the finishing kick would begin. I forced myself to stay patient and respond. I actually managed to win a couple races, and able to deal with my losses in the framework of the narrative. Whether I believed it or not, this was a process. Despite how much I wanted to, I could not expedite my recovery. Whether I believed or not that I would ever fully bounce back, or, at least, bounce back in time for the Paralympics, was besides the point and not worth wasting to much brain power on.
Then, as quickly as the funk began, the funk ended.
When I pulled up to the start line at this year's Peachtree 10k, the biggest 10k of the year held every July 4th in Atlanta, my brain had long been practicing a form of perverted mental gymnastics to hedge my bets against a bad performance. The Peachtree 10k is a wonderful event on a course that I hate. It begins with a two mile long, screaming downhill that typically leaves me cursing and alone at the bottom, with 3.5 miles of hard climbs remaining to bust my ass and try to chase down all those who beat me to the bottom of the hill. Despite being a pretty good hill climber, I never seem to climb fast enough to satisfy the fiendish, judgmental coach living in my brain, and in the past four years I've finished second and third two times each. This year, based on the struggles that plagued the first part of my year, combined with the steak and king crab leg dinner I gorged on the night before, I figured that winning was definitely out of the picture and that I should use this race to test my body, an axiom that basically means, "I'm resigned to pushing alone, so instead of being pissed off about it I'm going to chill out and just enjoy the feeling of pushing hard."
Shockingly (said with much irony), letting go of victory and the "me > other" goal of racing allowed my body to work free of the shackles of my mind. After reaching the bottom of the massive downhill section in sixth place I felt no pressure to catch anyone, but rather, an urge to work hard. With each succeeding climb I was shocked to find my arms feeling fresh and light, my speeds fast, and my place in the race quickly shifting from sixth, to fourth, to third, and eventually to first.
With that, I won my first Peachtree 10k of my career. My climbing, a former strength of mine that had been on vacation all year, suddenly returned, better than ever. In the course of one 20 minute race I developed some form of athlete's amnesia and could not remember why I had seemingly struggled to move fast for the past few months. The switch had been flipped.
This too shall pass. I know this to be true whether or not it ever fully burrows into my psyche. I'm pushing well again. My confidence has returned. I know it won't last even if I believe it will. I just hope the cycle stalls out long enough for me to complete my road to rio. The Paralympics are inching closer and closer, and for the first time all year I'm greeting the approaching enormity of the games with excitement.