Watching the extreme emotions of the athletes at the USATF Track and Field Olympic Trials earlier this month, from the excitement of making the team, to the heartbreak of falling short, left me wondering if any of them questioned if it was worth it. “It” being the years of sacrifice and dedication all for those few seconds or minutes of racing.
Katie Mackey, who finished sixth in the 5K, summed it up well:
Everyone else out there has seen themselves achieving that goal in their head a thousand times. And everybody believes it’s going to be them. You have to believe it’s going to be you, like 100% with all of your being. And when it doesn’t happen it’s like the elation from celebrating your goal is equal to the devastation of it slipping through your fingers.
This wasn’t the Academy Awards, where “it’s an honor just to be nominated.” To some degree, every athlete at the Olympic Trials had a dream that the day would be magical and somehow, some way, they’d place in the top three. They needed to have that dream to motivate them to strive day in and day out, to make the sacrifices necessary, and to focus on putting in the training it takes to compete at the highest of levels. Statistically, just by qualifying to compete in an incredibly limited field, they had a chance at placing.
But, if they didn’t make it into those magical top three spots, whether they missed their goal by a hair or by a mile, did any of these athletes pause and feel regret that maybe all the training and all the sacrifice had not been worth it?
Did Sarah Brown regret running intervals and working so hard throughout her pregnancy, to not make the final in the 1500? Did Allyson Felix, who only qualified in the 400 meters, wish she had solely focused on defending her 200m Olympic gold medal, after successfully petitioning the IOC to change the schedule to allow a 200-400 double? The early bedtimes, missed social events with friends, the strict diets that didn’t allow for dessert, the countless hours spent training on the track, on the roads, in the gym, and in recovery. Did they regret not starting different, non-running, careers? Having children? Spending more time with their existing friends and families?
After crossing the finish line of the 2016 USATF Olympic Trials Marathon, while I statistically did not have the same chance to make the team as the track athletes, I found myself wondering if it was worth it. Although I had zero expectations of coming anywhere close to the top three, I did have the goal of running a great race and PR, but ended up running one of my slowest marathons ever. After qualifying the previous August with limited training, I thought with actual focused training I’d run much faster.
It was the first race I had seriously trained for since the 2012 Trials, and the most I had trained after having two kids. I started working with a coach and amping up my training. I regularly attended track workouts for the first time in years, ran plenty of local races to sharpen my speed, and tried to get back into training mode as much as life would allow.
And the effort it took to train that way was a sacrifice. I stuffed my kids in the running stroller as much as they could handle and dragged myself out in the evenings after my husband got home to get in a second run when all I really wanted to do was relax and watch TV. Oh, it would have been nice to meet up with some of the neighborhood moms looking so cute at the park! But, nope, I was the one showing up sweaty in running clothes because it was the only way to get all the miles in.
And then, I had a horrible race, almost a personal worst. In the analytical weeks after, my main thought was, I could have run that time with much less training and sacrifice. Actually, I did run much faster in my qualifying race, with much less training and sacrifice. I really questioned if all my training had been worth it to run a slow time.
Thinking about the track athletes, and watching the tears and disappointment of those who didn’t make it, I wondered if they would come to the same conclusions that I eventually did. The training, dedication, and sacrifice was most definitely worth it. Why?
It really is about the experience, not just that one race. Although it was a sacrifice, I enjoyed getting into competitive running again. I had a great time getting back on the track, and was fortunate to team up with a great coach and training partner that made track workouts something to look forward to. Plus it was fun to have my kids come to local races and call me “Speedy Mommy!”
It is not just that one race. Even if you have a huge goal race, unless you’re planning on retiring from competitive running immediately after, it won’t be your last race. Your training won’t be a loss, even if you don’t reach your goal, but will give you something to build on to achieve a different goal later on. Molly Ludlow, who finished a heartbreaking .04 away from making the Rio team in the 800, rebounded a few weeks later to run a PR and become #7 on the all-time U.S. list in her next track meet.
If it’s just one race, at least know you tried! Finish with no regrets. Let your sacrifice and dedication build your confidence going into your race. Feel satisfied knowing that even if you didn’t achieve your goal, you did everything you could to try, so at least you don’t have lingering questions of “what if.” If you didn’t make the BQ in your final attempt, you can watch it next year with even more admiration knowing what it took for the runners to get there.
Maybe Sarah Brown needed that goal to get her through her unexpected pregnancy. Maybe Allyson Felix needed to set higher goals to stay motivated in a sport she had dominated for so long. Maybe these athletes take comfort in knowing their efforts brought them to a level that very few achieve, and even if they didn’t make it to the ultimate sporting event, they gave it their all.
Does failing to achieve your goal in a race leave you questioning if the preparation was worth it?