North: The Brecksville Dip

“It’s the middle of the [race], when the excitement of the starting gun is a dim memory, and the joy of the finish line is a distant dream.”

– Seth Godin

Caitlin
Caitlin

They all knew it was coming. After nailing season or personal bests in every race so far this season, the North girls knew the Dip lay ahead and their streaks were likely coming to an end on the hills and in the mud of Brecksville. But even knowing it would happen did not take the sting away when they experienced it.

It doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter how much talent or how hard you work, and it doesn’t matter how much luck is on your side, you will experience the Dip. You’ll experience the Dip or maybe many Dips over your running career, in one season, and even in each race. While often uncomfortable, if not downright painful, these Dips define us: are we going to be our best or are we going to settle?

What is the Dip?

The Dip comes from the book of the same name by Seth Godin and is a specific type of rough patch. In some things we do, when the going gets rough, we quit. Sometimes quitting is the right answer because that rough patch isn’t a patch at all, but the beginning of a path that doesn’t really lead anywhere (Godin calls this a Cul-de-sac). But for many things, like running, we hit a temporary rough patch on our way to success. This is the Dip. We might not see it coming or we might. While we’re in it, we often cannot see the end of it. We don’t know if it will ever end or if the patch is short or if it will actually lead to our goals. The time we spend in this rough patch can be uncomfortable, scary, frustrating, and painful. We will often feel an overwhelming sense of futility, the why bother thoughts pounding away at the drive within us that brought us to this place. Most people, yes most people, quit when confronted by the Dip.

Straight from the source.
Straight from the source.

As the above diagram demonstrates, when anyone pursues a worthwhile endeavor, works to improve at something, or strives to attain a big dream goal, after a period of mounting success, there is a drop off in results that may feel frighteningly like failure. But only by pushing through the Dip can one achieve real success.

Running and the Dip

Like many runners, this is how it starts. We start getting serious about training and racing. Over time, that focus and hard work pays off with one PR after another. We continue to make steady gains, until, ultimately, there is the Dip. No runner, none of us, can improve in every race. Most will get injured, burned out, frustrated, or plateau somewhere along their way. Even in one training cycle, one good workout after the other will eventually lead to one tougher than usual workout, then another, until you question your abilities and your sanity and suddenly, even the most self-motivated of us finds herself wanting to skip that tempo run, crawl into bed, and binge on Netflix. Every striving runner will experience many Dips, and on Saturday in Brecksville, Sydnie, Ashleigh, Natalie, Lydia, Hannah, Mollee, and Caitlin experienced their own. But each runner handled the experience differently.

Previously on North

Last we left you at the third meet of the season in Mentor, seniors Sydnie and Ashleigh raced for the first time. While Ashleigh had a solid start to her season after missing many team practices as she wrapped up her summer job, Sydnie, the team captain and number one runner on the team, was recovering from illness and did not have the breakout performance she was hoping would kick off her final season.

Freshman Cheyenne made her debut, junior Vidhi missed her first race of the reason due to a sore ankle, and sophomore Calina was sitting out one more meet to allow her knee injury to heal before introducing racing.

Meanwhile, for the rest of the squad, Mentor was the third meet of their season. It was the third meet where Lydia pushed Natalie who, in turn, pulled Lydia to a season best time. It was the third meet where Hannah overcame her fears and bravely started. It was the third meet where Mollee pushed herself to the edge striving towards her sub-30 goal, and where Caitlin pushed on through her doubts and gained valuable experience. For everyone of them, the meet in Mentor was the second consecutive significant improvement upon the race before so far this season, whether veterans like Natalie or newbies like Caitlin, every girl had managed to up her game each time she took the field.

Hannah smiling before the race
Happy Hannah before the start.

Monday’s Practice – Looking Ahead

“I know I won’t PR in Brecksville. It’s a tough course … and muddy,” said Lydia at practice on Monday, which seemed to be a sentiment shared by all who have raced there before. Sydnie and Ashleigh were both cautiously optimistic about their prospects for good performances. Mollee pragmatically put her sub-30 goal aside for the weekend as far as expectations go, but was still going to give it a try.

But there was one girl who was gleeful that Brecksville was up next on the race calendar: Hannah. “I can’t wait for Brecksville! I love mud!” she declared, somewhere in the middle of regaling the other girls about how much she loves Christmas. Hannah at practice is a much more relaxed and vivacious Hannah than the Hannah who races. Over the course of the season, Hannah has relaxed a teensy bit more each race and her performances have correspondingly improved. Would her mud-love coupled with her slightly increasing ease translate to a smiling Hannah crossing the finish line on Saturday?

Saturday Morning – Race Day

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(From left) Natalie, Lydia, Ashleigh get ready to race for their team.

Sydnie led the girls, fanned out behind her, to the start. Nick, the top boy for the team, fresh off of his race, came over to tell Sydnie what he learned about racing the course. With the hills, turns, mud, and the added feature of heat and humidity this year, Brecksville is a highly tactical course. Everyone knows it’s not a course you race for time, it’s a course you race. Any little bit of information could mean a better place or two.

Back at the team tent was Cheyenne with an aircast encasing a sprained ankle, crutches leaning on the chair beside her and Calina, with fear in her eyes as she took the tell-tale wheezy shallow breaths of an asthma attack. She’d have to wait another week. Vidhi, while recovered from her minor injury, was taking the ACTs and had to miss her second meet in a row.

At the start Natalie seemed more quiet than before Mentor, and maybe even ever-so-slightly less into it. In contrast, Lydia and Ashleigh looked excited, confident, and ready, but then again, that seems to be their default. Hannah was smiling, happy, and having fun. Still more tense than on Monday, though. Today, and at every race, Mollee quietly gets down to business. Caitlin, although ever tentative, was hopeful her new spikes would lead to a breakthrough day.

Sydnie

For Sydnie the Dip is a little different than it is for the rest of the team. She seems to be rising out of hers, while they are newly arriving to theirs. Compared to Mentor, Sydnie was more in command from the gun. She looked stronger, more focused and less frustrated overall, but there was still a hint of frustration with a little less than a mile to go as she tried to break free from a small pack of girls fighting to break into the top dozen scorers.

Sydnie off to a good start.

In the end, she placed 15th. Better than last week, but still a little disappointing. “I ran a minute slower than last year,” she said, exasperated after the finish, only somewhat assuaged by the reminder that the weather was much cooler then. But, likely because she’s been at this for a while now, she seemed to know she’s on her way out, that it’s better to struggle through the Dip now, when the other side could mean a stellar post-season leading to the State Championship berth she so craves.

Natalie, Lydia, and Ashleigh

For three races, it was Natalie, with her experience and natural athleticism, leading Lydia from start to finish. On paper, Ashleigh should be capable of racing with them, but she finished a good minute behind them last week. So it was a little shocking to see Lydia significantly ahead of Natalie at the mile, with Ashleigh hot on Natalie’s heels.

Lydia fights her way up a hill mid-race.

Was Natalie having an off day? Was she not feeling it, the pressure to outperform her teammates or racing at all? Or was Lydia going for it, diving straight into the Dip, bravely chasing a breakthrough in not only the team’s finishing order, but for herself? Was Ashleigh going to rise to her teammates or crash and burn? Or maybe it was some combination of all of the above.

Flashback to Monday’s Practice

Natalie couldn’t make it to the team’s hill workout: 3 x 3 sets hard up a gigantic hill with degrees of elevation ranging from not-too-bad to WTF! For the first set, I chased Syd while the rest of the girls mostly did them independently. For the second set, I joined Ashleigh who worked hard. With her schedule, she hadn’t been doing workouts at all, yet she very impressively nailed this one. On Syd’s second rep of her second set, Lydia happened to be about ready to start hers, so she jumped in and glued herself to Sydnie as long as she could for the rest of the workout. Did I mention Lydia is driven?

Back to Brecksville

Around the two mile mark, instead of the usual Natalie with Lydia chasing right behind, there was Lydia with Ashleigh chasing right behind! Ashleigh had moved way up to get there. And so did Natalie who was just a few seconds behind Ashleigh. Could Natalie use that natural speed to catch her teammates? It was certainly possible.

Before the finish Ashleigh passed Lydia, but then Lydia passed Ashleigh right at the line for second place on the team, a huge achievement for the sophomore! Natalie crossed the line just 18 seconds behind Ashleigh.

After finishing, Lydia and Ashleigh exuberantly recapped their races, but Natalie was nowhere to be found. Sydnie and the other girls waited in the finish area thinking maybe she went to the bathroom. They looked back at the tent, but Natalie was gone and won’t be back until three meets from now.

Hannah's struggles began early.
Hannah’s struggles began early.

Hannah

By a mile in, the smile had disappeared from Hannah’s face. She looked even more tense than usual, tentative, defeated. This was not supposed to be Hannah’s Brecksville! In Mentor, Hannah seemed like she was warming up to the idea that she could push through a little discomfort, that letting go might not lead to disaster, that a little Dip wouldn’t last forever. But here was Hannah, wallowing not in mud, but in misery. Each mile was worse than the one before it, culminating in a shuffle to the line. After finishing, she slumped onto the concrete wincing in pain from cramping calves.

The Dip is a concept made for Hannah, who does not seem prone to optimism. Optimism! You can do this. Hannah! You can struggle, even fail, and survive. And not only survive, get better, improve, but transform into Super-Hannah, lover of Christmas and mud and making movies (her hobby).

The Dip is not permanent; it’s part of everything she will ever endeavor to do. While it’s true for all of us, some of us need to understand it explicitly: if every time she dips a toe into the Dip, can’t stand the way it feels and retreats, she will never know what she can become.

Caitlin chases Mollee down a hill before the first mile mark.
Caitlin chases Mollee down a hill before the first mile mark.

Mollee and Caitlin

Mollee. It’s easy to not worry about Mollee. Of all the girls, she may be the most level-headed, the most in it for her own personal excellence. She works hard, she gives it her all, and she doesn’t seem to look back. She’s there to do a job. For Mollee, The Dip is a matter of fact. She accepts it. She enters it. She gets through it. She’s committed.

Maybe that’s why she’s the perfect counterpoint and mentor to Caitlin. Caitlin approaches running like she’s rationing energy, that if she expends too much too soon she’ll run out. She’s afraid to run too far in her warm-ups or really run her strides at a hard effort. I can’t blame her; I know she would do anything not to come in last and wants so badly to be able to run faster.

Of all the girls, Caitlin’s Dip is most clear: the newness of running is over, now it’s all hard work, struggle, frustration, discomfort, and even embarrassment as she’s going through this process of growth in public, in front of spectators at cross country meets! It’s so hard. SO HARD. It takes a very special person to press on.

On this day, Caitlin mustered up a little extra confidence from her new spikes and went out with Mollee. She stuck with her for almost a mile, but fell back when she feared Mollee’s pace was too fast. Without each other, the two were at the back of a competitive varsity race, essentially running alone. Caitlin had the additional frustration of a Gator just off her shoulder, seemingly pressuring her to finish sooner so they could move on to the next race. Mollee, in typical Mollee fashion, finished with pink cheeks and glistening with sweat, having given it her best effort and more or less indifferent to the fact that her time was almost seven minutes slower than her last race.

Caitlin finished two minutes later and in last place once again. She walked through the finish area defeated, with tears streaming down her face. As she exited her parents swooped in to hug her and tell her how proud they are of her. How could they not be?

***

“Almost everything in life worth doing is controlled by the Dip. The Dip is the long slog between starting and mastery. A long slog that’s actually a shortcut because it gets you where you want to go faster than any other path.”

– Seth Godin

Have you weathered a Dip?

***

Weโ€™ll be back next week with our next installment of North.

For past posts in this series, go here.

You can see the full results of the Brecksville Bruce Lerch Invitational here.

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life. Currently recovering from my third pregnancy, heart surgery, diastasis recti, low iron/vitamin D, sciatic nerve impingement, overtraining, mono. What can I say? I'm stubborn.

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12 comments

  1. I love this series, and you North girls are really inspiring. Dips are part of everything we do, but learning to dust yourself off and come back even stronger is so rewarding. Just have faith that it will happen, and keep pushing through. I played field hockey in high school – and I was a goalkeeper – so I know what it’s like to have a bad game and beat yourself up about it. But you’ve got to have a short memory – learn what you can from the experience and use those lessons to get better, but don’t dwell on the frustration. This is part of what is great about running and sports – if it were easy, everyone would do it. You ladies can do it, so keep your heads up!

  2. Such a good post. I think we’ve all faced the Dip in running (and life). I loved reading about this race and what it’s like to have that much strength and courage in high school. “Far better it is to dare mighty things….” I continue to root for you gals from Canada!! Looking forward to the next instalment. Keep up the great work.

  3. I feel you, ladies. I think I’m in the middle of my dip right now. It all started in November when I was benched with my fracture. Some days it seems like I will never improve and regain my pace that once felt effortless. Every week that I read about you, I feel a new motivation. Each of you are hardcore, whether or not you realize it! Keep getting out there and working it out. Like Basil said, your day is coming!

    And running is scary because it IS so public. But it’s so brave to be able to share your ups AND your downs with the world. That’s what makes us runners!

  4. What’s that saying….something like “A master has failed more times than a beginner has even tried.” To be your best self, to master difficult things, failure (though I hate to call it that) is the only way through. What I find so inspiring about these young athletes is their bravery in putting themselves out there. It takes courage just to line up!
    Chins up, North!! You girls are so impressive, not just for your times or accomplishments, but for your resilience in pressing on, in showing up, in overcoming tears and disappointment and embarrassment, believing that your day is coming. And it IS coming!

  5. Chin up, North ladies!

    Sometimes my entire running experience has felt like one big Dip. Early on, when I first added speed workouts to my schedule of plodding around the neighborhood, I saw some huge gains. But since then there’s been some frustration, equal in proportion to the success. I’ve never been the most athletically gifted person. Why do I keep running, then? Because doing challenging things gives me purpose. Achieving my goals wouldn’t be as satisfying if it was easy.

    There’s a saying: ‘Look where you go, and go where you look.’ If you’re riding a bike and going fast, don’t look at the tree or the pedestrian – you’ll crash into them. Find a clear path and focus on it. Same with getting out of a Dip. Look where you want to go. Figure out where you want to be. Why you’re on the team. Where you want to end the season. And concern yourself only with that. That might lead you to different race strategies, different workout or nutrition strategies, or just a renewed resolve to work hard. You’ll get there.

  6. Stick with it North! Dips can be so frustrating, but you’ll eventually break through them. I remember in high school I ran the exact same time for my 2 mile PR 3 different times before I finally set a new PR. Steadfast, continued hard work will get you there physically, and don’t be afraid to take risks and just go for it- now is the time to try out different race/mental strategies, which could help lead you out of the dip.

  7. The lows are much much much less fun than the highs. When I started running, I had those strings of breakthroughs, because I didn’t run in high school or college. I moved up to the marathon and had an enjoyable, trauma-free experience and ran a respectable time. I ran six in a row, PR’ing every time except for my fourth one (which was just a minute slower than 4 months before but much warmer).

    At number 6, I hit a milestone time goal I was proud of and I was confident I’d hit my next time goal at the next one. I felt unstoppable, that I’d keep knocking off multiple minutes.

    Instead, I got hurt. Anterior tibial stress fractures in both legs, and a strained hamstring that ultimately proved to be the worst of the injuries. I barely ran for two years โ€” I was no longer in the shape I had been in, my friends were all now faster than I had been when I got hurt, my motivation was extinguished.

    I finally found enough motivation to run another marathon, 2.5 years later. It was faster than my first two marathons, although not by much. I did it again, not doing much more than the bare minimum I had to. And another.

    After that one โ€” technically marathon #9 โ€” I found the motivation again. It was a long dip. But the fire was reignited and marathon #10 TIED my PR from 2010. The PR I never thought I’d get close to again.

    And then, you know what happened next? I shattered it this spring.

    It took time, it took being miserable and feeling bad for myself, it took stepping back and reevaluating myself and my passions. And now, I’m higher on the hill than I was before the dip.

    Keep your heads up, ladies! The season’s young, and if it’s not this season, that’s okay too.

  8. I have definitely weathered some dips throughout my career. Sometimes it’s hard to accept your “mid dip” while going through it, and usually I can say I went through one in retrospect. So I respect these ladies for knowing it’s coming, and for some, even embracing it! I was not that level headed in high school, or even (early) in my college career. But beyond the dip, comes the surge. Great job to the ladies, and keep pushing through!

  9. Great post, and what an amazing group of girls.

    Writers say you have to write like half a million words of utter crap in your lifetime before you start to produce anything “good”. So sometimes if I’m writing and not happy with it, I remind myself that even unreadable word soup still has a purpose. In the same vein, terrible-feeling races have a purpose too. Every crappy mile is still getting you a little closer to mastery…