EUGENE, Ore. – Recently, I traveled to the USATF National Junior Olympic Cross Country Championships in Albuquerque, NM. I was invited there to give a speech to more than 3,000 athletes, ages 8-18, the night before the big race.
The subject of my speech was pain. In high school, I remember that the fear of pain was the single biggest mental hurdle I faced heading into a race. It took years of experience and maturity to develop the mental toughness that would enable me to perform my best. On this particular evening, I thought I would connect with this young audience by sharing a simple tactic that my younger self had developed to cope with pain.
I spoke about how, when I felt a moment of weakness or fear in a race, I learned to pretend I was something else, something much more capable. Specifically, every time I faced a hill, I pretended I was a robot-dinosaur who could conquer the obstacle with ease. This mental visualization helped me tremendously, and I hoped that it might help the kids find joy and smile in the middle of their upcoming race.
After the championship race, which came with an onslaught of rain, wind and altitude, I asked one young wide-eyed, muddy boy what he thought about during his race. How did he deal with the challenges that he faced? Did he pretend to be a robot-dinosaur? He looked at me and said, very matter-of-factly, “I thought about nothing. I just ran.”
He put it simply, as if rain and wind and not being able to breathe during a race weren’t worth two thoughts – as if running were simple. He didn’t need to play tricks on himself or do any of the mental games that helped my teen-age self get through races. He just ran.
And the truth is, running is simple.
It’s about getting somewhere as quickly as possible. And amongst all the younger kids I met that weekend, the most common answers for how they got through the tumultuous conditions were, 1. They wanted to win, and 2. They wanted to get out of the rain and wind as soon as possible. These basic instincts – to win and to survive – were all that played in their minds. When I watched the 8-and-unders run, most of them finished the race crying; it was, after all, rain-bordering-on-snow outside. But they found the finish line so they could be done with it, or, so they could win.
“These kids don’t know what nervous is, yet,” I heard one parent say. And that was it – the kids were missing their nerves. Or at least, they were missing the kind of nerves that so often grow into barriers for runners later in life. They weren’t thinking about getting recruited to a good college, or landing their first professional contract, or making any particular team. They just wanted to get across the finish line.
I love to win, and I do enjoy escaping the wind and rain. But it’s true that I am also in part consumed by other noise. I think about the people who traveled so far to see me race, how far I traveled to be at a race, how different this place feels from home; meanwhile, in Albuquerque, one 7-year-old I spoke with asked me if we were still in California, where she is from. She didn’t care or have any idea where she was – she only knew that she would be running a race.
I remembered the feeling of driving to a cross-country race when I was young – when it was just my dad and me driving to some random park in the Bay Area. I usually didn’t know where we were and it didn’t matter. I would just get out of the car and race. I remember crying after my races, too. I didn’t like the pain and in fact resented how I felt at the beginning, middle, and especially the end of the race. But I did understand that the pain ended at the finish line and it would feel a lot better to be done, and hopefully, to win. I liked to win. And I won, every now and then.
After watching so many young runners chase the finish in Albuquerque, I understood. While there may be a screaming kid on the outside, there is inarguably less noise inside. I thought about the bit of advice that my coach, Ian Dobson, often gives me when I am preparing to run a particularly fast or challenging interval, which is that I should “try to run like a 12-year-old boy.” By this, he means that I should not overthink it, instead running like a young kid chasing down an ice cream truck. (And the 12-year-old boys I met whose team won one of the championship team titles told me in the most wonderful 12-year-old way that the thing they were most excited for after the race was going to get Blizzards from Dairy Queen. So, I guess I will imagine I am them from now on.)
But it would be naive to say that my lesson this month is to just, “forget about everything and go run!” It’s never that easy. Nor should it be – it’s important and perhaps even more compelling, as an athlete gets older, to keep larger goals in mind like going to college and making Olympic teams.
A group of very lucky young athletes may very well be faced with their first taste of this larger purpose this March at the 2016 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Portland, Oregon.
For the first time in the history of the event, high school athletes will be able to race during the actual competition. Meet organizers have scheduled six 4×400-meter relays during the meet, providing 144 high school athletes with the opportunity to run on the same track as the world’s greatest athletes. Some of them will be sitting in the hallway warming up, only to have Ashton Eaton or Genzebe Dibaba stroll by. This will be their first taste of really, really high-stakes professional athletic competition.
The young athletes who perform the best, I think, will be the ones who will be able to filter the noise of the event from their mind and run like their best 12-year-old selves. No matter how much wind, rain, or other elements we might face, if we can convince ourselves we are robot-dinosaurs (or other capable creatures), we may find ourselves a little closer to the childhood instincts that enable us to run the best race we can.
Previous TTUSA stories by Alexi Pappas
Alexi is an avid tweeter and her thoughts can be found @alexipappas.
Alexi Pappas graduated magna cum laude from Dartmouth College before running off to compete in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene. Alexi then joined the Ducks as a University of Oregon fifth-year student, helping lead the team to two NCAA championships in 2012 and 2013. She currently runs professionally for the Nike-sponsored Oregon Track Club Elite in Eugene, Oregon, with her eyes on 2016.
Alexi is also a writer, filmmaker, and actress. She co-wrote the script for the award-winning feature film Tall as the Baobab Tree, and is currently in post-production on her second film,Tracktown. Alexi was a Top 9 Nominee for the 2012 NCAA Woman of the Year Award, and is also a graduate of the UCB Theater improv program in LA/New York City.