Glory Days: the Role of a Runner’s Past in Her Present Success

College-age Barley sits on a number 1 podiumOnce upon a time I was a college track athlete, a heptathlete specifically. I had a good amount of natural talent for it, I enjoyed it, and I succeeded thanks to my beyond-stubborn streak. Notice I didn’t mention anything about working hard, being 100% dedicated, or making sacrifices for my sport. That’s because if I said those things, it wouldn’t be true.

A decade later, while I gave up the javelin when I graduated, I am still a runner and a successful one at that. I still possess the attributes that led to my collegiate success, but I attribute my post-collegiate successes to other things I didn’t have back then. Dedication. Sacrifice. Knowledge. Perspective. The Little Things. The paths college-me and adult-me took to get to success are intertwined but also distinctly different.

Who would I be now if I had today’s work ethic back then? How much better would I have been in college had I approached running with the same intensity and purpose I do now? Should I regret those naive and carefree years and wonder what if?

Are then and now linked, or are they two separate stories of success?

I have a box of medals, ribbons and trophies to prove I was a successful college athlete. Hell, I even have a Team National Championship and All-American tied to my name. But my success today has little to do with the trophies in that box or titles on my running resume. Back then, I did what I needed to do when I needed to do it. Looking back I did the bare minimum for success. I’d go to the weight room a few times a week without purpose, and went through a brief period where I worked out solely to burn calories. When I was at practice, I gave it my all and did what my coaches wanted me to. When it came to racing, I left my heart and body on the track. That was never a question. But outside of that, when my spikes or trainers were off, I wasn’t thinking about running.

For as much as I loved it, I never saw running as a long term thing. I never thought beyond the next meet, or maybe regionals or nationals at season’s end. I never thought about what I could do next year, or the year after, and I certainly never thought about post-college running. I never took the time to learn about training or to think beyond the here-and-now.

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2016 Hall of Fame Ceremony with my former Coach

A few weeks ago I returned to college for a ceremony to honor my coach, who was inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame. The ceremony also recognized my National Championship team. It was a fun day being around former teammates and our coach, reminiscing and catching up on our current lives. Some of us still run, and some don’t.

One thing that I realized was, these are the people who understood that running back in college is far different than running as adults; the two are not necessarily tied together. Consider that, as a sprinter, I once swore up and down that I would never run distance. Today my favorite race is the marathon.

These days, if people find out I was an All-American college track athlete they assume that has something to do with my current success. The thing is, I consider my college running and my running now to be totally different and almost unrelated. I don’t think being a college track athlete, especially a non-distance runner, had as much impact on where I am right now as some might assume.

“Regardless of where we all start in running, the road to our success takes a lot of hard work, sweat, and tears. Your experience, your background, your body type and your speed do not change the fact that it is a hard process to beat your own bests.”

When I was younger, I believed I was built for speed and strength. I didn’t have the long lean legs; I didn’t have the “body of a distance runner”. So when I started running road races a few years after college and after recovering from a serious illness, I felt like I was teaching myself how to run all over again. I didn’t have a lot working in my favor. I was not just going out and running 400m repeats every day, practicing my long jump take off, or doing sprints down the high school hallways doing exactly what my coaches told me to. All of a sudden I was learning to pace and that running more than a half mile takes some lung power and endurance that I did not have. I was learning how to do this running thing on my own terms, and that certainly meant tripping on my own two feet at times.

I consider my high school and college running days to be when I was the runner I naturally am. The runner I am today is the runner I nurtured myself to be. I have a deep appreciation for both of these runners, but am happier to be able to spend the next 40 years being the runner I built from the ground up. I also know that there will be other versions of my runner-self in the future, built from both my college self and current self.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t believe I left my glory days on some beat up college track in a small college town. Personally I’d like to think these are my glory days, where I can find ways to motivate and push myself while using all of the lessons I have learned over the years to help me. I’d like to think that the glory days are the times you can share with the friends and loved ones that you have grown to care for over the years, and not just people who happen to be in the same class as you.

slack-for-ios-upload-43Maybe this sounds like a soap box speech from a washed up college athlete who never even went to a big Division I school. Maybe this sounds like someone making excuses for why they didn’t do better, or why they aren’t somewhere else right now. The fact is, I don’t need to do those things. I went to a small school and was a big fish, and I succeeded by many standards and do not regret for one second how I got there or didn’t get there.

The fact is, I am so unbelievably grateful that when I was younger, something inside me kept running in just the right perspective so that I could love it so much now. I am grateful that I didn’t burn out in college, and that I didn’t push myself to the brink or let others push me there because I have enough self awareness to know I wouldn’t have come back from that. That big push, of striving just a little too hard, comes with chance of great reward, but it also comes with a lot of risk. I don’t know, nor will I ever really know, what it was that made me hold myself back — immaturity, laziness, fear? What I didn’t know then, was just how much I would need running later in life and all of the things it would give to me.

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These days, there are a couple of things that have stuck with me from college. I still get high as a kite on that starting line, just like I did for my very first track meet in seventh grade. I never want to lose that sense of innocence I feel at the beginning of the race, that hope that this will be the one where I make the magic happen.

But, I think the biggest lesson I took from my college running years and applied to now, is the importance of the little things. We used to finish practice most days in college with a core work session, a list of exercises that we’d read off a chalk board. Coach used to always say, “Past athletes have said to me they wish they listened and did more core strength training back when they were here. They wished they did the little things to build the bigger picture.” We always rolled our eyes and thought he was just using it as a tactic to get us to actually do the damn exercises when all we wanted to do was leave and go to the dining hall.

As one of those former athletes, I can honestly say he was telling us the truth. Do the little things. I may not regret much from college, but I do wish I paid attention to the little things more in running and in life.

How has your past shaped the runner and person you are today?

An Upstate, NY resident who loves the marathon, a good beer, and all of the numbers/nerdy things. I write about my journey to a sub-3:00 marathon, training tweaks for improvement, and finding that "running/life balance" unicorn. On tap Next: Training to be a first time mom, here we go 2nd Trimester!

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3 comments

  1. Barley, I love this piece. I’ve often thought back to my college field hockey days and wondered how much better I could have been if I had been as disciplined as I am now, fifteen years later. Field hockey was certainly the core of my college experience, and I had a very successful college athletic career, but, like you with running, I didn’t live it and breathe it in a way that I would have needed to in order to take it to the next level. Ultimately, though, I’m okay with that. What made college great for me was the variety of new experiences it opened up for me, and I’m glad I didn’t sacrifice that any more than I actually did. Would it have been worth it to sacrifice even more time with friends, forgo more social events, and spend less time on academics? I don’t think it would have been. But still, I do wonder sometimes. . . .

  2. I played varsity soccer three years and ran track for two — specializing in the 100m and 200m. Despite that, I never really considered myself an “athlete.” When I reached my senior year, I chose to focus on my four AP classes and my part-time job at a local newspaper — and quit sports. I didn’t think my middling athletic endeavors would do me much good. I was so focused on going to fancy school that I gave up doing a couple of things that I really enjoyed. And then it turned out I didn’t like the fancy school after all, and I transferred to a local state university and started running again on my own. My high school track coach didn’t know anything about running, and was really just there as a sponsor so we could have a team, but your post does make me wonder what it would’ve been like to have been encouraged to look at DIII or NCIA, etc.

    So neat that you had the opportunity to go back and write this retrospective for us!

  3. Love this reflection! I think I’ve mentioned on Salty before that I played varsity rugby in university – yes, all 105 lbs of me. It was through that sport that I learned to think like an athlete, how to train, how to recover, and how to push myself. I think the mental strength I gained from playing such a physical sport has helped me with distance running when I came back to it as an adult – I seem to be able to push myself when the going gets tough in a race.

    I also look back at that time and wish I’d had the joy of running then! We ran occasionally to get fit for rugby, but I majorly slacked off. If I’d known the joy of even an easy 5K a few times a week, I think I would have been a better rugby player!