Whether faith in God, country, processes, others, or ourselves, faith is believing in something even when there’s no proof that it exists and often when there is evidence that it doesn’t. Whenever we work to improve at something or strive 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. This, as you might recall, is the Dip and when it comes to running it’s faith in our training, our coaches, and ourselves that delivers us from one side of it to the other.
On Friday, as the North girls and their coaches walked off the field behind Gilmour Academy, the edge of a rainbow rose up from the field house roof and disappeared into a giant puff of a silver cloud. There could be no better cap on this afternoon of cross country.
Gilmour is a Catholic prep school in the tony eastern suburbs of Cleveland and the host of this Friday afternoon cross country meet. The Gilmour course is two loops winding through the grounds, past the old Tudor main building and around the residence halls and soccer fields before entering the fenced-in track for the final 300 meters to the finish line.
This Friday, seven of the North girls huddled in a pile of blankets under a sad nondescript white pop-up tent as they waited for warm-up time. Their usual big, sturdy, black and orange tent had been co-opted by the football team, who were playing their cross-town rivals later that night. Lone freshman on the team, Cheyenne is out for the season with an injury. Juniors Mollee and Natalie were also missing in action. That left seniors, Sydnie and Ashleigh, juniors, Hannah, Caitlin, and Vidhi, and two sophomores, Lydia and Calina present, but only six of these girls were ready to race. Hannah fell on the trails during her Monday long run, and with a seriously bruised knee, was sitting this one out.
Previously on North
Last Saturday was the morning before the homecoming dance, which combined with injuries and other issues left only four out of the team’s ten girls in Strongsville to compete for the team: Sydnie, Lydia, Calina, and Caitlin. Luckily, Vidhi accompanied the team on her mosquito-bite-infected foot to provide the team with the five runners required to race, so the four were able to at least run for themselves. Everyone there was disappointed by the no-shows, but team captain Sydnie seemed particularly disappointed by it.
Strongsville is known as one of the area’s fastest courses, and with the season past the halfway point, Coach James told Sydnie to try to go out with the leaders. She didn’t hesitate to follow his instructions and went out in a blazing 6:01 mile (18:40 5k pace). She held on mightily as long as she could, but by two miles she was toast. Essentially jogging the last mile, she finished in 21:25, defeated.
Lydia, meanwhile, raced her guts out and finished less than twenty seconds behind Sydnie, with a new PR of 22:05. Calina pushed herself a little more than her first race and finished many minutes faster and Caitlin came within twenty seconds of breaking thirty!
We talked about the Brecksville Dip, but Strongsville seemed like a low point in the girls’ season. Sydnie seemed particularly frustrated with what sometimes feels like a lack of commitment among some of the other members of the team, but also with her own crash and burn in the wake of the season’s many setbacks. .
Faith is not something that comes easy for me. When I was 11, my father died suddenly at his own hand. Losing someone so important to my foundation left me incredibly unsteady. How could I ever have faith in anyone when my own father would do that to me? How could I have faith in anything when at any moment something so horrible could happen? How could I get my hopes up? How could I trust in anyone or anything? How could I when life is so unfair?
Yet thirty years later, I have faith. Through years of struggle, persistence, and healing, I found it deep within myself and, while it’s not always easy, I believe fervently in its power. Whether in school, career, running, relationships, it’s goals + hard work + patience + persistence that equal success as long as we throw faith into the equation. We can’t prevent bad things from happening, but holding on to faith is the only way to make good things happen.
Out of the Ashes, Plans
When I say Sydnie was frustrated after Strongsville, I mean in the way Sydnie gets frustrated. For her it’s only a surface emotion, but what runs underneath is an unwavering commitment to run her best for herself, her team, and her school. Reacting to this frustration, she reflected on the failings of her previous race strategy and she and Coach came up with a new plan. Sydnie is a smart, strong runner, who unlike many high school athletes, can be patient. So, instead of going out in the front, this time Syd would hang comfortably back, then at the mile, she’d start chipping away at her place.
Ashleigh and Lydia were ready to get out there and push themselves from start to finish as they always seem to do. Missing three races this season left Vidhi feeling more grateful about her ability to race and vowed to translate some of her off-the-course cheer into her on-the-course attitude.
In contrast to Sydnie’s experience, Strongsville was a good meet for Calina and Caitlin. Both girls pushed themselves harder than ever, but both realized they might even be able to push themselves more, especially if they worked together. Much like Natalie and Lydia did earlier in the season, Calina and Caitlin decided to push and pull each other as far through the course as they could. While Calina ran 28:58 last week and Caitlin ran 30:20, that was on a fast, flat, dry course. Gilmour’s course, with all it’s tight turns, was also full of big puddles, and slippery mud – definitely not a fast one.
One incident about thirteen years ago, was a defining moment in my quest towards faith. In law school I cared so deeply about learning and pushing myself intellectually, but I also cared deeply about preserving my GPA. This meant I often took classes that were challenging to me, but because I cared so much about that final grade, I’d experience a point late in the semester in which I’d fear this class would be the one in which I’d pay for my ambition. Sitting in my advisor’s office one morning, feeling this fear very acutely, I told him about it. With a chuckle he said, “Laura, cream rises to the top.”
Those words, so simple and obvious to him, were revelatory to me. They illustrate so succinctly that if we put in the work, listen and learn from critique, commit, dive in, and try, then success will follow – even when in the middle of the process it really feels like we’re failing. It’s believing that the cream always rises to the top that allows us to feel safe, take a risk, have faith in our abilities, our intentions, the processes, and ourselves. It’s faith that allows us to keep going when we struggle the most. It’s faith that gets us to the other side of the Dip.
To the Top
For someone who is known for her love of mud, Hannah seemed content in her folding chair under the cover of the sad white tent. Rain steadily streamed down, making the sixty degree air feel cold in the aftermath of recent summer heat. The girls finished their warm-up to the starting line, did their usual routine of drills and strides, and disrobed – well, all but Ashleigh, who, despite several people advising her otherwise, wore her shorts and singlet over a long sleeve shirt and full tights, with a knit ear band and funky thick socks completing the look.
The rain was relentless, continuing straight through the gun. Sydnie went out as planned, followed closely by Lydia and Ashleigh. Then toward the rear of the large field was Vidhi followed by Calina and Caitlin, who planned to stay with Calina as long as she could.
Sydnie goes out conservatively at the 2016 Gilmour Paul Primeau Invitational.
A mile in Sydnie was 25th place, but as planned, that didn’t last long. As soon as she hit the mile mark she took off on a mission to move up as many places as she could in the 2.1 miles left. Lydia looked strong as she almost always does, but Ashleigh, who usually exudes energy and joy as she races, seemed flat, heavy and was much further behind Lydia than we’ve all come to expect.
Ashleigh looking uncharacteristically flat at the 2016 Gilmour Paul Primeau Invitational.
Two weeks ago, we showed Vidhi photos of her racing and looking, shall we say, miserable. It’s quite ironic that one of the smiliest, most cheerful members of the team when not racing, looks the most miserable while racing! But today, every time she ran by, Cinnamon and I reminded her to smile. And it was working! She looked so much better! At a mile in she looked great and Calina and Caitlin were together and pushing each other.
With a little less than a mile to go, Sydnie passed a small pack into sixth place. But more impressive, she looked more focused and fierce than we have ever seen her. She looked hungry. As we cheered for her and screamed reminders (ok that was me) that she is so tough and capable, she took it to heart and she visibly found another gear. Even though there was a significant gap, she began hunting for fifth place.
Meanwhile, Lydia continued to gain ground on poor overheating and water-logged Ashleigh. The rain was still coming down and every drop added more weight to all her extra clothes. Vidhi was holding steady and on pace to approach a season’s best despite the muddy sloppy course conditions, and Caitlin was still with Calina and they were both working harder together than either of them ever had before.
As the leaders approached the track for the last 300 meters of the race, I high-tailed it to the back stretch to get the best view. And just as I arrived, I saw Syd and I saw so much raw passion on her face, it was shocking and exhilarating. To see a seventeen year old girl, listen to advice, make mistakes, learn from it all, make an intelligent plan and execute it flawlessly and in so doing, dig so deep within herself, gave me goosebumps.
As she rounded the corner she unleashed all that pent-up frustration she took from Strongsville and every other setback she’s experienced this season and she opened her stride, twisted her face, and sprinted past 5th place to the chute, finishing in 20:26. I think I cried and as I stood their in a state of shock and joy I heard “FINALLY!” I couldn’t believe someone else could feel what I was feeling right then until I turned and saw Sydnie’s dad right next to me! It was such an incredible moment and I was so happy that he was there to see his daughter kick so much you-know-what in that moment.
I stayed and cheered for Lydia, who looked so toasted as she swayed back and forth, grimacing as she tried to empty herself of every last ounce of energy before the finish. And as she rounded the corner by me and heard my cheers – that girl! THAT GIRL! She dug deeper! I couldn’t believe it. And she decided to try to pass one more girl and she ended up passing three!
Lydia with about half a mile to go at the 2016 Gilmour Paul Primeau Invitational.
Ashleigh came onto the track with none of her usual joy or pop or zest. There was barely a kick, and more of a just-get-this-horrible-experience-over-with push to the finish. As expected, she said she was so hot in all those clothes and they were so heavy by the time she finished, like sponges soaking up twenty-three minutes of steady rain. But even so, she was satisfied with a decent time on a muddy course.
Vidhi ended up nabbing that season’s best time! We’ll chalk it up to the smiles.
Vidhi looked far more relaxed, happy, and focused leading to a season best for her at the 2016 Gilmour Paul Primeau Invitational.
As she rounded the track to the chute, who should come around the corner with a half mile to go but Calina with Caitlin, still just a few steps behind! Cinnamon, the coaches, and I cheered our faces off!
“Come on Caitlin! You got this!”
“Come on Calina! Push yourself!”
To see Caitlin pushing herself so hard to keep up, to see her believing in herself, seeing her bravery, her commitment to her plan, her overcoming the fear of running out of gas or failing, and push herself and Calina, was nothing short of breathtaking. After coming in last twice, after being almost swept off a course by an impatient course marshall, after all the doubts and the tears, to see her find faith, Caitlin looked like a completely different runner than the defeated one in Brecksville. But that’s not all.
Caitlin dug deeper. She did push the pace. Calina responded and the two of them upped their effort as they entered the track. With three hundred meters to go we all looked at the clock and it was going to be close. As both girls pressed, the clock ticked ever closer to 29:00 and then it was on. It was going to be close. For race after race Caitlin attempted to try to keep up with her teammate Mollee. As Mollee chased a sub-thirty goal in those early races, Caitlin struggled to finish several minutes later in Mollee’s dust. And now, here was Caitlin, on the cusp of breaking thirty herself. Could she do it?
29:40, 29:41 … Oh man! Oh man!
29:47 Calina crossed the line.
29:48, 29:49. Come on Caitlin!
29:52. She did it! She did it!
Finally! From left: Two of the boys from the team, Sydnie, Coach James, Calina, Caitlin, Vidhi and Coach K celebrate a great afternoon of cross country at the 2016 Gilmour Paul Primeau Invitational.
We’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 Gilmour Academy Paul Primeau Invitational here