One day, a very long time ago (all the way back to the 1980s my friends) an author visited our elementary school. There was much celebration and commotion. I assume the author was famous. then again “published author” would have easily hit my benchmark for famous. The highlight of the visit came when we, the hyperactive elementary school students, got to write our own story. But it wasn’t just any story. The author had brought a whole collection of items in plastic wrap. We each picked one and smelled it. What did it smell like? What did the smell remind us of? That was what we were supposed to write our story about.
As I picked up one of the last carefully wrapped pieces, I inhaled deeply. What was it? “I think it’s moldy cheese,” I said aloud, probably two or five times just to make sure someone heard me. A classmate of mine picked it up and smelled it. “No way!” and laughed heartily. “That’s cat food!”
Unconvinced the two of us marched to the author who was very busy and in high demand. We asked her what its. She took a whiff and said “cat food.” My classmate was very pleased. I was discouraged. I didn’t want to write a story about a cat. I didn’t know anything about cats. I didn’t have a cat. I wasn’t particularly enamored with cats. I also still thought it smelled like moldy cheese to me. And food, well that’s something I knew.
So I sat down and wrote a story about moldy cheese.
The task wasn’t about being perfect, or even accurate. It was about creativity and intention.
As I sit in the present around 30 years later, the story comes to my mind as I review my 2015 athletic season.
This was my eighth season as an endurance athlete. One of my friends calls me an “adult onset athlete.” After the initial love affair with triathlon and distance running, something started to shift. I started to listen to the nosy classmate who wanted to know my average pace, my 5K PR and mockingly smiled when I talked about my swim times. I started to think about outcomes. I started to train for PRs and became frustrated when they wouldn’t come. “Yes I love the process,” I’d say. “It’s not about the result,” I’d add. I wanted to believe that. I really did. But I wasn’t living from that place.
My 2014 season became about letting go. I stopped paying for coaching. I stopped trying for PRs. I hit up my non-competitive bucket list and climbed Mt. Marcy and rode my bike along the Erie Canal from Buffalo to Albany. Then I registered for an Ironman 70.3 and focused my training on process. All of my runs and bike rides were time-based not distance or pace-based. All I wanted to do was finish. And finish I did.
Which brings me to my review of 2015 — the year I finally stepped into creativity and intention for my athletic season.
I started the year by registering for the Hatfield-McCoy Marathon, ranked one of the toughest in the U.S. for its hills, heat and humidity. I set a time goal that was, in hindsight, ludicrously slow but also infinitely attainable. This marathon was as much about soaking in the history of the Hatfield-McCoy feud and traveling to a new place as it was about running 26.2 miles. And because of my mental approach I had a ridiculously good experience. Oh yeah, and I finished the marathon 30 minutes faster than my goal time. So there’s that.
A few months before the Hatfield-McCoy Marathon I started working with a strength coach. It was time for me to get back to some organized, formal coaching but I wasn’t interested in a running or triathlon coach. Instead I found a sports performance gym which felt like my happy place. (For those in Western New York, it’s IMPACT Sports Performance in Buffalo.) I started strength training three days a week, surrounded by people who treated me as an athlete regardless of my times in a running database. As I progressed through the workouts I became stronger — physically and mentally. Suddenly my self-prescribed run workouts were getting faster. I was able to push through more. I was able to try more.
And most importantly, I was able to fail more.
I would do a workout or get to a 5K race I was using for training and think, “so what if I blow up?” I drifted away from caring about the people who would look up my results online or the friends who would give me smiles and words meant to be encouraging but dripped with condescension.
This wasn’t about being right or being perfect.
This was about intention and creativity.
I immersed myself in intention — to run strong and be fit and embrace challenges and clear my heart. I embraced creativity — loving the constant evolution of my strength program and drawing on different running plans to cultivate training as an expressive part of my life. I still had goals for my major races, but I no longer feared falling short. Running helps define me, not how fast I can run 13.1 miles.
I went into my final race of the season, the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Half Marathon, with zero expectations. I had a general idea of what time I’d want to run, but I had already hit my half marathon goal four weeks earlier. This was just for fun. This was just to run in Toronto and find Coffee Crisp hot chocolate mix. This was, more than any other race I’ve done, just for me.
So a funny thing happened. As I focused on intention and creativity and joy, my pace was ridiculously fast. I’d blow up at some point. I knew that. But I figured I’d run hard until I did. Things started to get hard around Mile 10, but a check of my watch and my pace hadn’t slipped that much. By Mile 12 I was toast, but I was also almost done. I dug deep, crossed the line and wanted to hug everyone in sight. I had just run my half marathon PR.
My elementary school self was pretty smart and more self assured than I give her credit for. She knew the assignment was to write what the sensory experiment brought to mind, not about what it actually was and despite being shown up by her classmate, went and wrote the story she wanted to anyway.
My adult onset athlete self is learning. The assignment is to do what I love, what brings me joy, what brings me in line with my intention of living active and outdoors. The results, well, they will take care of themselves.