Facing the Ghosts of my Collegiate Running Past

Running in the State High School Cross Country Championships.
Running in the State High School Cross Country Championships, in the green and gold.

Conversation among runners often veers into the numbers-based territory of times, paces and distances.  I used to hesitate when asked about my 5K personal record, but not for the reason you might think.  You see, in a way, I have two 5K PRs. One of them is from 1999 and is much faster than what I can currently run. For a long time, I struggled with whether or not to share this time, thinking, Doesn’t the fact that I could once run that fast make me seem less of a legit runner now?  And in my most insecure moments, Am I even a real runner anymore?

I used to be able to run 3.1 miles in 18:56. I’m now a 23:32 5K runner. And I’m okay with that because I’ve recaptured the love I felt for running in the first place.

I started running in seventh grade and never looked back. I ran both cross country and track, specializing in the mile and two-mile. In that awkward adolescent time, running helped me to fit in – particularly since I was pretty good at it. I qualified for the state meet in cross country and districts in track, winning our 3200 meter league championship along the way.

Most runners I know tend to be pretty type-A, and I’m no exception. As time went on and my running improved, I was pretty hard on myself if I didn’t meet my own expectations. Even if I won a race I’d be upset if I didn’t get my goal time, turning the next day’s recovery run into one that pushed the pace. I relentlessly chased the two-mile school record my senior year, coming up less than a second short. It’s a testament to how much that goal meant to me that I can still rattle off the record all these years later.

In retrospect, I’m pretty sure I was obnoxious to be around. Don’t get me wrong – I loved running and my team! We spent time together doing everything from eating pasta to decorating each other’s lockers to watching bad movies. I loved moments of my running, but goodness, I really did expect perfection from myself! When I first started running, I loved it for the way it made me feel. For the times I was alone in nature. For the space it gave me to clear my head. Somewhere along the way, I lost sight of those things, and, instead,  let running get into my head in the worst way.

Sassy College XC
Posing at a cross country meet my sophomore year of college. That summer between my freshman and sophomore seasons is when I ran the 18:56 in a local road race. Unfortunately, I decided to ignore an injury that was getting worse and worse. Looking back, it’s crazy how focused I was on the short-term! I was convinced that if I could hide it from Coach, he would still name me to the team for the League championships. Spoiler alert: that plan did not end well.

After high school, I walked on to a Division I cross country team. Suddenly, instead of being leader of the pack, I was one of the slower runners. I also went from a coach who was easygoing to one who was much more old school and hardcore. Both are good in their own way, but making the coaching transition and finding my footing on the new team was quite a bit to handle at 18. Partway through my first college indoor track season, I dealt with my first overuse injury, a strained hip flexor.

I recently flipped through my old running log and was amazed at some of the workouts we did.  The pressure I put on myself was still so present that it was hard for me to read the entries. In one instance, I had six stitches in my knee and hand from a fall, but got permission to run if the stitches were wrapped up. After racing with the stitches in, I wrote, “I suppose my race was alright for having stitches and being so hot… I can do better.”  They say hindsight is 20/20, and I can really see now how destructive my pattern of perfectionism, overuse and injury was, both physically and mentally.

The pattern continued for a bit longer, but I’ll cut to the chase: I quit. I left the team and – for the most part – running for six years. I ran periodically as an attempt to stay fit and cope with stress and did the odd 5k here and there, but it wasn’t until 2006 that I laced up my shoes with serious intentions again, training for my first half marathon. I’m not as fast as I once was, but I’m out there running.

I’ll admit, I do sometimes wonder about the What Ifs. What if I had started running through the off-season earlier? What if I’d gone to another school? What if I’d never quit? Many of the women I ran with and against are competitive runners at the sub-elite level, with a few being elites.  One of my high school rivals placed in the top 25 at the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials. I’ll see their results online and wonder what I could have done.

Running makes me feel like flying again.
Enjoying running again! Flying in a recent half marathon.

For the most part, though, I’m happy with the runner I am now. Sometimes, someone I barely know will hear I ran in college and ask me about it. “Do you think you’ll ever be that fast again?” The answer is simple: no. I’m not 19, something which my gray hairs remind me of daily!  I run closer to 40 miles per week than the 70 I was logging back then. I also have a much more balanced life now. I used to say no to things I was worried would hurt my running (high heels and ski trips just to name a couple). Back then, my only jobs were to go to class and run. Now I have a full-time job, a husband, a dog, a home we’re fixing up, volunteer commitments, and the list goes on. Running is only a part of my life, not my whole life.

The thing that I’ve come to realize is the “What Ifs” will get you nowhere. My relationship with running is not defined by a number. The important thing is the role that running plays in my life.

Has your perspective on running changed over time? Have you dealt with running burnout? Why do you love to run?

Southern transplant who loves 90s boy bands, outdoor adventures and college basketball, although not necessarily in that order. Recovering running perfectionist.

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  1. Pepper posted this on the wrong post I think. I’m reposting it here for her 🙂

    Hugs. I think I am dealing with this in the opposite order 🙂 I wasn’t fast before, got fast, and now dealing with the burnout/injury phase hoping to move back into the fast phase before balancing life appropriately again. It is really hard to transition to a different approach to running. The getting fast thing snuck up on me. I am guessing the slowing down thing won’t unfortunately 🙂 Glad to hear you still have a passion for running even though it isn’t at the level you once were at.

    1. Pepper, hugs to you too! Dealing with injury can be so frustrating. Hopefully you learn something from yours like I did – although hopefully it doesn’t take you six years! I don’t know that there is really such a thing as balancing life “appropriately”. Everyone’s approach is different and obviously, what works for one person and their goals may not work for everyone. You are such a speed demon and hopefully you get back out there soon!

  2. Great post, Sassy. I find your perspective on running very refreshing. It’s often more than just about getting faster. If we focus more on the process and enjoying each run for what it’s worth, it’s likely that the times will come down anyway. And if they don’t, well, it’s great to know there are others out there that are ok with that! A lot can be learned from this post!

    1. Thanks Ginger! My first 5K “back” was in the 27s, so my times have gotten faster in the past 6 or so years. But while I try to work on becoming a better runner, and yes, get speedier, I also like to keep it in perspective that I am doing this for fun! Much like your GPS watch post, it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers.

  3. I had the same experience! In high school, I was a sub 19 minute 5K-er and now my fastest time is barely under 26 minutes. I hesitate, too, to talk about it because part of me feels like I don’t have bragging rights on it anymore. BUT, on the bright side, we never know what we are capable of! In high school I would have never considered running a marathon or more. So although I was a fast little thing in high school, I feel much stronger now!

  4. Great post! I often wonder if I love running because I’m “good” at it. And then I wonder if i’ll still love it when I’m slow. But it’s so much more than that! At the heart of it all, I just love hitting the pavement.