If you’re following the World Track and Field Championships, you may notice a few high profile Olympians missing. Around any Olympic year, many high-profile athletes tend to announce their retirement. Lauren Fleshman, Nick Symmonds, and Meb Keflezghi all announced their retirements shortly before or after the 2016 games. My initial reaction is always disappointment; they’re retiring at the primes of their careers when they could still achieve so much more. And they’re professional athletes! Life doesn’t get any better than that! Why give it up? How can they walk away from a dream job?
But as all pro-running retirees end up saying in one way or another, they no longer have the energy and drive to train and compete at that top level. They want to live normal lives not consumed by their sport. In no way am I comparing myself to these great athletes, but I can relate from my own much slower, smaller-scale experience as a full-time runner.
In what now seems like another life, I was once a full-time runner for the Army. It was a dream job. The Army was essentially my sponsor, and I was able to train full-time and still get paid my Army salary and benefits. They provided me with a coach, travel funding, and resources to help with training. It was an amazing experience and one I know I’m incredibly fortunate to have had. But as far as my passion for running at that time, well essentially, even though it was a dream job, it eventually felt like a job.
You see, when something becomes your job, it can take the joy out of it. First there was the explicit pressure to meet the requirements to remain in the program. It is certainly understandable they have tough standards to maintain the integrity of the program, but performing with your job on the line adds a lot more pressure than I expected.
I learned I don’t perform as well under that kind of pressure. Having strict time goals for every race messed with my head. Then there was the added pressure every time I traveled to a competition, thinking about how much money they spent to send me there. I felt I’d better perform well to not let anyone down. At least I had the reassurance of knowing that if I did have to leave the program, I’d maintain my current salary and job security with another Army assignment. Professional athletes with corporate sponsorships do not have that luxury; many have the pressure to meet certain performance place or time standards — or else.
And although running was my dream job, it became an all-consuming job. Looking back there are ways I could have maximized my opportunity better. Leading up to 2008, I was still concurrently training for the modern pentathlon, which certainly sapped my time and energy.
Also, heading into the 2012 Trials I was training alone in muggy central North Carolina. But of course it is always easy to look back and say what you should have done better. The fact is, at the time, I felt like I was giving it my all.
In addition to simply running, giving my all required attention to everything that could affect my running: core, strength training, recovery, nutrition, sleep. I focused on performance almost every single day without exception — it was literally my job! I had to plan my life around running and the extras, and eventually that made it feel like a requirement, not something I always wanted or enjoyed doing.
There was also the day-to-day mental struggle of self-worth from job satisfaction. Many of us inherently link part of our identity to our job. With running, aside from meeting race goals or nailing a hard workout, there isn’t a huge sense of accomplishment on a daily basis. Chugging along on a recovery run doesn’t fulfill the same sense of accomplishment as meeting a sales quota, delivering a killer presentation, or successfully treating a patient.
Of course now that I’m a stay-at-home mom of three young kids, it’s hard to find time to get in a run at all, and I miss the luxury of having unlimited time to train. But it’s different when you’re in the thick of it — kind of like parenting young children — and it blurs the lines between your job and your life.
Would I do it again? Absolutely. If I were younger and faster and had the opportunity to run full-time again, of course I would. It was a dream. But, it was also a job, which changed things. Running was different for me during that time, and I actually set PRs at several distances afterwards when it wasn’t my job, probably because I performed better without the pressure.
Based on my experience, I think it’s safe to say, professional runners have many more demands and obligations than I did, both because of their higher-level of performance and the added pressure of the public eye. I hope when Lauren and Nick and Meb and others look back on their pro days, they feel like they gave it their all, and, of course, find new dreams to chase.
Has running ever felt like a job to you?