In a perfect world, every runner would finish out the season with their tibias, metatarsals, and ferritin levels pristine and with all of their goals achieved. However, whether it's because of injuries or illnesses, puberty or mental slumps, running too many miles or too few, not every runner who sets foot on the course this year will perform the way they believe they should. That is just a reality of our sport.
We all have bad races. But most of the time, runners are able to shake off their disappointing performances and bounce back for the next race. However, what happens when you have a string of bad races? Bad practices? Nagging pain? No matter the cause of a runner's issues, it can feel devastating to underperform so drastically or fall short of set goals. Distance running creates-or attracts-many people who tend to be highly driven, ambitious, and self-motivated. While this mindset drives a culture of dedication and passion, it can also spawn perfectionism and an inability to handle failure. It's difficult-but extremely important-for runners to keep a healthy perspective and remember that no setback, not even the ones that feel like failure, is the end of the road. It's a lesson I had to teach myself.
When I was in eighth grade, I finished the season as the team's first alternate and set a PR of 19:30 in the 5K. Going into my freshman cross country season, I had varsity aspirations and little doubt I would achieve my goal. However, at the end of the first week of practice, I mentioned to my coach that my shin had been hurting. A few days later, I was in a boot, diagnosed with a tibial stress fracture, sentenced to bike for a couple of weeks. Everyone assured me that I was young, that I would heal quickly and be back running faster than ever before I knew it. But even when I got out of the boot, I was behind and nothing I did helped me catch up. I ran slower and slower every race, but I rigorously held onto my goals. Soon, my disappointment and frustration grew until I cried after every race. The aspirations I had after eighth grade were no longer shining promises of what was to come, but benchmarks that I measured myself against, coming up shorter every time.
For every runner who feels their personal goals have been slipping further and further out of reach, it undoubtedly feels as painful as it did for me to realize that a bit of an adjustment is in order. I don't think any runner should abandon their ambitions because of a bad season or a bad streak, no more than they should after a single bad race or workout. But putting undue pressure on yourself to achieve goals that may or may not any longer be realistic can take a toll on what I think is ultimately most important: love of the sport. It's much healthier for runners who are struggling, in my not-so-expert opinion, to take a deep breath, stop looking at the clock, and give each day their personal best effort. It takes a lot of heart to accept that you may be years away from achieving what you dreamed of doing in a couple months.
In high school in particular, as many adolescent runners mature, they may need time to adapt to their more adult bodies. This perfectly natural growth can sometimes lead to stagnating times and performances. When I went through a similar slowdown following my 9th grade injury, I was scared I had peaked. However, this frustrating period was simply my body learning how to run efficiently again. When it became necessary for me to adapt as much mentally as my body had physically, I didn't abandon my earlier ambitions. I just put them on the shelf for a little while, to be looked at but not clung to, to be dusted off and brought out again when the time was right.
My sophomore year of cross country, I stopped focusing on the PR goals and designs upon the top-seven that had consumed me in 2015. Instead, I adjusted my expectations and set new, milder goals for the season: I wanted to run under 20 minutes and be the tenth runner on the team. If I got dropped in a workout, I accepted it and backed off to paces I could hit. But still, every day after the runs when we did 30 push-ups, I counted off my 15-letter mantra, twice: V-A-R-S-I-T-Y-P-O-R-T-L-A-N-D. Though I ran some of my slowest ever times that season and got dropped more times than I could count, in the last weeks of October and beginning of November seconds began to come off my race times, and I ultimately finished my sophomore campaign 7 seconds off my eighth grade time. It took me until 2017 to run a new 5K PR, to run new track times, and to make the NXN-qualifying varsity squad-three years after I first dreamed of doing so.
Probably every runner has a dream they won't reach, and that's okay. Even unattainable goals-fantasies might be a better word for them-can have value if you don't set too much stock in them. for example, I want to win State, and having that dream allows me to practice throwing the dub in my mirror at home. After all, the impossible happens; just look at 2018 Edina graduate Kitty Berube, who went from running a 27-minute 5k to joining a Division 1 cross country program in only a year. Runners should never feel like they're limiting themselves, nor should they be afraid to dream big. But true goals should be tempered with a small dose of reality. Though it may be disheartening at first, after you adjust your expectations, all that's left to do is surpass them.