Not For Me, For Them

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February, 2017: My goal for my last collegiate outdoor track season was to help my team win the NCAA National Championships by qualifying for Nationals, adding valuable points to my team’s score. To qualify for Nationals, an athlete must conclude the outdoor season as one the top 22 competitors in the nation. Coming off of an incredible cross country season in which my team placed 2nd at Nationals, I began training intensely and returned after spring break focused and ready to compete. The prior year, I had discovered my potential talent in the 10K – 25 continuous laps requiring focus, grit, and endurance – racing the distance just once but finishing with confidence that I could complete it much faster. The 10K would be my best shot at getting to NCAAs, scoring points, and helping my team win. 

March 31, 2017: I ran a huge personal record (PR) in the 10K (36:17) at a home meet early in the season, temporarily ranking first in the nation. My coach was ecstatic, assuring me that with this time, I would be a shoo-in to qualify for the National Championships. It was an incredible feeling. As was expected, I was soon bumped down from the top ranking, but I remained comfortably within the 22 qualifying spots. 

Post-race ecstasy! A giant bear hug from my mom after running 36:17 in the 10K.

Post-race ecstasy! A giant bear hug from my mom after running 36:17 in the 10K.

May 11, 2017: NCAA National Championships were two weeks out, and my time ranked 16th in the nation. I finished my classes, completed my finals, and was soaking in the excitement of nearly being a college graduate. I was also doing final prep for Nationals, the race I saw as the absolute pinnacle of my individual running career and my final opportunity to contribute to my team’s success. At this time, there were “last chance meets” held two weeks and one week before the National Championships in order to give athletes last-ditch chances to qualify. Following my coach’s guidance that my time was sure to qualify me in the 10K and there was no need to race it again to solidify my spot, I entered the 5K in the first of the two last-chance meets. 

Many meets hold distance events at night when it’s cooler and less windy, and on this particular night, it was 50 degrees (perfect) and windless when the gun went off at 8:00 PM. I felt relaxed and strong, ran a near 30 second PR (17:20), and crossed the finish line thrilled with my time, surrounded by congratulatory teammates and a very happy coach. But when the 10K gun went off, my emotions changed in a heartbeat. The field was fast, much faster than expected. I watched lap by lap as my likelihood of remaining in the top 22 slipped away, entirely out of my control. With my eyes glued to the large electronic timer at the finish line, I watched the seconds tick away – one by one, six girls crossed the finish line with times faster than mine. My “guaranteed” qualifying time, the time that would have easily qualified me for the championships the five prior years, was now useless. I was 23rd, one place short and two seconds too slow. Crossing the track towards the exit, I looked down through tears at the innocent red rubber that minutes before held such promise. I felt betrayed – by the track, by the times, and by my coach who had promised me my time would be enough. I sobbed to my mom on the phone, enraged at the situation and disgusted with myself for not running just two seconds faster.

May 13, 2017: As my anger subsided, I realized I wasn’t ready to give up yet – there was still one more last-chance meet. The timing was the farthest thing from ideal: I had just raced an all-out 5K the week prior, and the final race was held in Naperville, Illinois, a 6 hour drive from St. Louis, at 10PM. My college graduation was the next morning at 8:30 AM. But I knew I would regret it if I didn’t give it one last shot. 

At graduation with my teammate and best friend, Ahna Buntrock, approximately 10 hours after my final collegiate 10K (can you tell I’ve slept 2 hours?)

At graduation with my teammate and best friend, Ahna Buntrock, approximately 10 hours after my final collegiate 10K (can you tell I’ve slept 2 hours?)

May 18, 2017: It’s 10 PM in Naperville, 80 degrees, humid, and unusually windy – pretty much the worst possible distance race conditions. We lined up, and I looked left and right at the sparse competition. The two other girls racing were seeded minutes slower than me, meaning I would be running by myself. (A note for those who have not run competitively: racing distance events alone is not easy. Without someone to compete against, pace off of, or draft off of, given the wind, the competition is a battle with yourself.)

The gun went off, and I knew after six laps that the time I needed was out of reach. My coach, calling off reinforcing splits for the first several laps, gradually stopped shouting my times as they slowed and instead began shouting words of general encouragement. For the next 37 minutes, I fought against the pain and my increasing desire to drop out, knowing with each step that I was nowhere near my needed qualifying time. I finally dragged myself to the finish and into my coach’s arms, more than a minute slower than my 10K PR. Oddly enough, he seemed prouder of me for this race than nearly any other I had run during the last four years. On the drive home, I stared out the dark window and felt fulfilled and deeply at peace. I had succeeded, because I had learned from my coach that success is defined as “doing the best you can, with what you have, where you’re at”. 

May 25, 2017: Dozens of my teammates and I drove 8 hours to Cleveland for Nationals to cheer for our exceptionally talented teammates who were competing. Our team has a saying: “not for me, for them.” As personally gratifying as it would have been for me to compete at NCAAs as an individual in the 10K, it wasn’t ever really about me. Two days of fierce competition later, I joined my teammates on the podium, holding our first-place team trophy, and this time on the track, I cried tears of joy.

Celebrating with my teammates after placing 2nd at 2017 NCAA Cross Country Nationals (we’re a very spirited team)

Celebrating with my teammates after placing 2nd at 2017 NCAA Cross Country Nationals (we’re a very spirited team)

I learned so many things from this experience. First of all, there is never a guarantee – not in sports, not in life. Neither my coach nor I could ever have known that two seconds would make or break my opportunity to compete at nationals. Second, you must control what you can. I could not control how many other girls ran faster than me, but what I could control was my mindset and my choice to go all in and wholeheartedly dedicate myself to something. I can now look back more objectively at the situation, confident that I made the right decision to race one last time. In fact, this decidedly unglamorous and painful race is the race I am most proud of from my four years competing as a college student athlete. I so badly wanted to contribute to my team’s score at nationals, and ultimately, I did. I was wholeheartedly present at Nationals, putting aside the pain of my personal defeat to support my teammates and cheer for them, sending them every ounce of energy that would help them compete at their best.

Today: Distance running, which I previously considered to be a 10K and now consider to be a marathon or beyond, has opened itself up to me as a whole new sport. It requires, in the most extreme manner I’ve ever experienced, consistent dedication, unbelievable patience, and deep trust. This year I ran the Boston Marathon, my 3rd marathon in the past year. Last fall, I joined the Impalas Racing Team, a San Francisco-based women’s elite running team, and I now have wonderfully supportive, talented, and empowering teammates and friends running by my side each week. My long-term goal is to qualify for the 2024 Olympic Trials in the marathon, wearing an Impala singlet. After a post-college year running by myself, I have newfound gratitude for the value and benefits of being part of a team. 

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All of these factors contribute to my daily inspiration and passion as the Founder and Executive Director of Step Ahead, a national non-profit that empowers college student-athletes to create free running teams for children with autism. In the picture on the left, I’m directing a Bear Cubs (the name of our chapter at Washington University) Running Team practice with the help of my athlete, Kirby. The success of Bear Cubs sparked my realization that the program could, and should, be replicated and expanded nationally. Step Ahead currently has four Chapters at colleges across the country, with 10 additional Chapters being established Fall 2019.

Every individual deserves the opportunity and support to experience the power of athletics, but more importantly, to experience what it’s like to be on a team. I’ve found the most fulfillment and joy focusing on others, and it was this revelation that drove me to create Step Ahead – not for me, but for them.