Gracie Mallak is an 8-time letterwinner in cross-country and track for Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted. She is a multi-time All-Conference honoree and State entrant, and has achieved All-State honors three times in cross country and track. She was a cross country captain for the past two years. Gracie will begin the final year of her high school running career this fall.
Most people who know me well know that I very much focus on the destination. I've never really been big on the whole "enjoy the journey" deal because I've always felt that the journey didn't matter as long as I got to my destination. I had always thought that if I controlled everything that I could control, I'd reach the destination. After my section track meet this year, I gained a new perspective. For the first time, it really hit me that maybe it's not so much about the destination as it is about the journey to get there. Maybe it's about the moments along the way that remind you why you're on the journey in the first place. I understood that God allows different situations along our journey to challenge us and remind us to enjoy the little things.
My freshman cross country and track seasons were a dream. I ran fast and I loved every second. Everything seemed so simple and easy. Determined to carry over the success from my freshman year, I put in all the miles and spent hours in the weight room over the summer. The first race of my sophomore cross country season, I demolished my personal record and was excited to see where the season would take me. I made it my goal to place in the top ten at State. However, things took a quick turn when I passed out at my second meet. That was just the beginning of a string of races that resulted in DNFs for me. I would be running strong and then out of nowhere, my right arm would start to cramp up to the point where I was unable to move it. Shortly after, my toes would start to tingle and I would lose control of my legs. Following the cramped arm and tingling toes, I'd get extremely dizzy and disoriented, eventually passing out. The destination of the State Meet seemed out of reach. In between the doctors appointments and tests, I was able to advance to the State Meet. I'd made it to the destination, but it wasn't pretty. Finally, after visiting several doctors, I was diagnosed with dysautonomia, a nervous system disorder. The doctors explained to me what it was, why I was having the symptoms, and how I could deal with it. I was relieved to finally have some answers.
Following the dysautonomia diagnosis, I was able to ease back into training... maybe "ease" isn't the right word. In an attempt to redeem myself after a less than successful cross country season (in my eyes), I wanted to work hard to ensure a successful track season. By early December, I was strength training five times a week and running around 35 miles a week with two workouts and a long run. From December until March, I went through the motions. Every. Single. Week. I thought that if I put in the work, I'd make it back to my destination I came into the season burnt out. Two weeks into the season, I knew I was in trouble. My training that was focused purely on getting me into phenomenal shape so I could make it to my destination, had destroyed me. My legs, bruised and swollen, were not able to carry me more than a few laps before I broke down in tears.
After a much needed physical and mental break, this time I truly eased back into training. I followed a modified training plan and went into the cross country season out of shape by my standards but healthy. Again, I was focused solely on getting back to State. After a very solid block of training with no injuries and no passing out, I found myself peaking at the perfect time. I finally got redemption. I made it to the State Meet, where my team placed 2nd and I took 11th. At the end of my junior year of cross country, I had made it to the destination and everything had worked out. After a sophomore season that was less than expected, I felt like my junior cross country season was setting me up for my best track season yet.
I approached my base training for track with a "work smarter, not harder" attitude. I went into the season ready to get back on track and prove to myself that I was stronger than ever. I might not have made it to my destination last year, but this was going to be my year. My first meet of the season, I requested to run what my coach refers to as the "death line-up" (1600m, 400m, and 800m). I wanted to do this line-up because I knew that it was a line-up that would be tough but had the potential to score my team a lot of points at True Team competitions. I ran strong, felt healthy, and had a lot of fun racing. Unfortunately, after a few good races and workouts, I strained my hip flexor and quad. While I was disappointed, I knew that if listened to my coaches, I would still have a chance to make it to State.
I sat on the bike the next two and a half weeks grinding out interval workouts. My coaches decided that it would be best to ease back into training and racing to ensure that I wouldn't re-injure myself. Turns out I was a lot fitter than I expected. A few weeks later, I crushed my 800m PR, a time I hadn't come close to touching in two years.
When subsections rolled around, I qualified for the section meet in the 1600m and 800m. I knew it would take good races to make it to State, but after establishing plans for each race with my coaches, I felt ready to go. I knew that I needed to get out hard to avoid getting boxed in and then just RACE!
An hour before the race, I started my warm up. I jogged around, did some dynamic and static stretching and then finished with some striders. I pulled on my uniform and double knotted my spikes as I always did. As I was putting my spikes on, I read the inside of my spike. I had written Phillipians 4:13 on it to remind myself that "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me". I jogged out, got my #1 stickers from the clerk and placed them on my uniform. It was go time.
We jogged down to the start line and the starter got us lined up in our alleys. I said a quick prayer in my head and then I was ready to go. Before I knew it, we were off. The start couldn't have gone better. I got out hard and found myself in second place. We ran a 1:17 first lap, faster than my first lap had been most of the races this year, but it felt really smooth.
We started the second lap and I was feeling confident in how I was running. The first lap had felt relatively easy, especially considering that it was faster than usual. About half way through the second lap, my right arm started to cramp up. It made me nervous, because I knew what had happened in the past when I started to feel this way.
Regardless, I knew that I was running a great race and my destination was SO close, so I attempted to push the fears about what might happen out of my mind. I came through the 800m in 2:37. I was still in second place and was feeling really strong aerobically, but my arm was cramping up even more. Then, my toes started to tingle and I felt like I had lost all control of my legs. I was used to having so much control over my body, but in that moment, I felt helpless. Everything ahead of me was blurry and spinning.
The next thing I knew, I was laying on the infield of the St. John's University track surrounded by my coaches, parents, and trainers. I had experienced this situation several times but it still scares me every time. When I figured out what had happened, my heart broke. I sat there sobbing. I hadn't made it to the destination. I felt completely broken.
While I was sitting there sobbing on the infield, a former competitor of mine, Allie Ruprecht, came over by me. She helped me up and offered me words of kindness and encouragement. She reminded me that one race does not define me. She reminded me that sometimes races won't go as planned. She reminded me that I'd have another chance. But most importantly, she picked me up when I couldn't pick myself up.
Eventually, I was able to make it back into the fieldhouse. I sat in the corner of a hallway crying, trying to figure out how and why so much work had just gone to waste. Trying to figure out why it always seemed that right when everything was coming together for me, I'd get knocked back down again.
I knew that I couldn't sit in that corner for ever and as much as it hurt, I knew that I had to go out and face everyone. What I experienced when I walked back out to the track was nothing like I expected. People weren't pushy and they didn't make me feel like I had to explain. My teammates told me the only thing I wanted to hear in those moments, "It's alright Gracie. You can say it sucks, because it does." I didn't want sympathy and I didn't want people to tell me "good job", I wanted people to be real with me, and my teammates were. After a scary and heartbreaking race, my parents, teammates, coaches, competitors, and the coaches and parents of my competitors were there to rally around me. Even though I felt like such a failure, they were there, reminding me of all the success that I had the rest of the season. They reminded me of the workouts I had crushed, the PRs I had set, and the gutsiness I had shown when I competed in the "death line-up". While their words didn't make it sting any less at the time, I'd find out a few weeks later how true their words really were.
In the following weeks, I tried to reflect and figure out why the race had hit me so hard (other than the obvious reason that it was to qualify for State), I realized that it hit so hard because I had put so much stock into that one race. It finally registered with me that my season is not defined by my section race. In fact, my season isn't defined by any one race. I had become so focused on making it to my destination, that I forgot to enjoy my journey. Instead of being grateful for every step of the journey, I became obsessed with analyzing every step leading to the destination. The result of the section meet changed my perspective and helped me realize that I'm not going to remember the times I ran or the places I got. I'm going to remember grinding out workouts with my teammates on a sunny spring day. I'm going to remember the pre-race fist bumps and laughs. I'm going to remember the people who picked me up when I was at my weakest. I'm going to remember coming into the homestretch and hearing my teammates chanting my name during the 4x4. I'm going to remember the joy that God allowed me to feel when I was running. I'm going to remember the journey.