Where The Stopwatch Starts and Stops
Success in the world of collegiate track is black and white, determined only by the series of numbers flashing on a screen the instant you get your body across a line. As a track runner, you operate in a world where a digital clock, silently ticking away the seconds, runs your life day in and day out. And let me tell you, this omnipotent piece of machinery is never going to lie to spare your feelings --- your triumphs and defeats are laid out before you with unwavering indifference. Your ability to accept and shoulder those truths --- the good, the bad, and especially the ugly--- will make or break an athletic career. Three years out from Tufts, I can only now fully appreciate the value of what I learned because of the undeniable honesty of the stopwatch and how those lessons set me up for success on and off the track.
It’s January of my freshman year at Tufts University. Indoor track is just around the corner and I believe I’m destined to be a freshman stand out. I was a 2:16 800m runner by the time I graduated from high school. On just 12 weeks of training a year, I could run a top 10 time within the most competitive high school division in Colorado. If I improved by just 3 seconds, I would qualify for D3 Nationals at the end of March. There was no reason that with 4 months of fall training I couldn’t jump straight to the top of the Division 3 rankings for middle distance events.
As you may have guessed - that is not how things went down.
My four training partners and I drag ourselves to the start line for the final rep of the infamous “welcome back” workout, a grueling set of 8 x 400m starting the reps at 75 and working your way down to 65.
Coach: “Set, go!”
*1,2,3,4,5 hard strides, chin down, knees drive forward, accelerating into the tight curve of the indoor track*
A distant shout: “15...16…”
*Lactic acid buildup starts to creep into my arms and legs only 100m in.*
*200m in and two of teammates have already pulled away with enough daylight between us to drive a truck through*
*my other two teammates storm past me so fast I could have sworn I was walking. I contemplate dropping out, why is this so hard -- I’ve never been this far behind people*.
*I promptly drop to my hands and knees, hamstrings cramping, gasping for air, trying to keep down lunch, and doing my best to hide my hurt pride and completely deflated ego*
As Coach records our final respective splits, I earn a very personal, “Well Syd, let’s not sugar coat things---that sucked.”
The final score for the day: Stopwatch 74 - Sydney 0.
Over the course of the winter and spring seasons I watched my teammates run their way to personal bests while growing increasingly frustrated by the lack of meaningful progress in my own performance. I told myself every excuse in the book: I was in challenging classes, I had so much homework I didn’t have time to sleep, and coach had a bad training plan. I thought purely based of that fact that I showed up at practice seven days a week to complete the assigned workouts and lifts that I was entitled to the same success. I was choosing to ignore the abundantly clear truth reiterated by the stopwatch every day at practice --- I wasn’t being honest with myself.
It took a full 5 months of futilely battling against the clock, a rapidly deteriorating confidence, and a growing frustration at my own mediocrity before I gained enough humility to shove my pride and ego right out the door so I could honestly examine my own role in the gloriously underwhelming freshman season.
That first moment of honest reflection sparked a 180 degree turn, starting a long uphill challenge to turn myself into a 2x All-American during senior year. More importantly though, the unglamorous daily grind to find success on the track fostered traits that have carried me into a successful start to my career. It all starts with humility.
Humility allowed me to move past my long-standing fear of failure. I stopped expecting easy success and carefree perfection from myself. Instead I now had the liberating freedom to acknowledge imperfections, weak points, and mistakes and then do something about them instead of burying reality under excuses. I finally took ownership for the root causes of my lackluster freshman season: a lackadaisical approach to practices, a study routine that involved far more socializing with close friends into the late hours of the night than any substantial studying, and a failure to communicate with my coaches about what type of training I had found success with in the past.
That ownership lead to accountability. From my sophomore season on, I held myself solely responsible for my performance and success on the track--no exceptions. From warm-ups to workouts and from lifts to recovery, I began approaching every minute of practice with the intention of improving something; be it form, fitness, or how my muscles would feel the following day. I found quiet corners of campus to power through studying, ironically leaving more time in a day for not only sleeping, but spending more quality time with friends. I took responsibility for forging an honest and open line of communication with my coach. If a segment of training wasn’t effective, it was on me to raise the issue and then work with her to find a better approach. Over those three years, we built a plan that helped me break into the Tufts all-time list in all my events and place in three events at our conference championships.
While humility and accountability provided the fundamental foundation of success, it was grit and a commitment to constantly challenge myself that carried me across the line. In the words of my dad, a successful collegiate runner himself back in the day, “Comfortable is where potential goes to die.” In that spirit, I became my own honest critic -- no stopwatch required. When given paces for workouts, I would commit myself to not just hitting them, but beating them, on every single rep. At first, I failed often. Within six months I could routinely beat the pace without thinking about it. By the middle of indoor junior year, I could add reps to the workout, even after one of the all-too-frequent all-nighters that come with the territory of junior year as a civil engineer. By the close of junior year, I could close every interval with a kick, putting my memory of freshman year farther behind me with every lap.
It took me two and half years to claw my way back from a disappointing freshman season to my first All-American accolade. Two months after that I crossed my final finish line for Tufts, second All-American in hand, with a new challenge to face -- the real world.
Unlike my first year as a student-athlete, I entered the work place with a healthy dose of humility. As I dove into my first job as a Virtual Design and Construction (VDC) Engineer with a heavy civil contractor, I was unafraid to ask questions when I needed to and quick to incorporate any feedback. The early gaffs didn’t faze me because I had trained myself to accept honest critiques without aligning them with a personal shortcoming or failure. My willingness to accept critique with no excuses and take full accountability for the quality of my work stood out. Quickly senior team members started to share knowledge faster than I could ask for it, knowing I’d take anything they told me and apply it moving forward.
Within 8 months I was managing my own quick-hit, small projects. I missed a deadline on my first project but earned the trust of the project manager when I held myself fully accountable for the outcome, not once shifting blame to the engineering firm who delivered the plans late. I took the initiative to work late that week and over the weekend to ensure the project was back on track. From that day on, that project manager would ask for me by name even though I was the least senior member of the Virtual Design and Construction group.
By the end of my second year, my willingness to accept a challenge and the grit to see projects through aggressive deadlines earned me a promotion two years early and the nickname of Pinch Hitter. If something had to be done quickly and done right, I was your gal. I was well on my way to a comfortable career spent moving up through the ranks of a reputable company. I had what many viewed as success. And for a time, it was.
But you see, the funny thing about the world off the track is that it isn’t black and white. There is no equivalent to the clock quantifying where we are on the scale of success. So, we are left with no choice but to be our own stopwatch – our own honest critic – pushing ourselves to consistently raise the bar on our expectations by asking ourselves, “Am I too comfortable?”
After three years in my first job, the answer to that question was “yes”. As a result, I left behind my comfortable version of success in December to embark on a new challenge ---a new role with a new company and the chance to learn an entirely new skill set.
If I’ve learned one thing the past six years it is this: cultivating success is a never-ending process because success isn’t a finish line. Success is merely a split on a stopwatch at a moment in time providing a satisfying sense of accomplishment sprinkled with the lingering hints of an honest question: “But can you be even better?” And so, you start the next lap, taking on your next great challenge with the humility to know you will fail at points along the way, the accountability to continue upwards when you do, and the enduring grit to reach the next moment of success.