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So I Guess I’m Allowed to Dream Now?

One of my favorite talking heads in sports, Bomani Jones, frequently jokes about how it’s always the little guy in sports who stays ready to fight, because five-foot-nine dudes like Nate Robinson, who despite his freakish athleticism wouldn’t stand out from any other group of average-height brothers who played football or basketball in high school, that kick it and compete with dudes that make the Rock look like this: https://goo.gl/images/i1oHqw (and who make Kevin Hart look like this: https://goo.gl/images/DvGkTF) all feel like they’ve had to scratch and claw for everything they’ve accomplished. So, these guys stay ready to fight when someone tries to tell them what they can’t do, because somehow across years of learning and speaking fluent English they never picked up the meaning of phrases like “back down” or “let it go,” even if they can identify each of those individual words those terms comprise.

Maybe it’s because I was a late bloomer, entering high school at a height something like 5 feet and the scrawniest 100 pounds you could imagine (here’s a video of me, fro’d up in the 8th grade chasing down some guys in the final straight of a cross country race https://youtu.be/BwaaMWbQyug?t=1m7s), or maybe it’s because of my suddenly well-known history as a high schooler who ran a meager 4:29 and 9:34 in the 16 and 3200, respectively, who always played second-fiddle to the twin brothers at the school down the road. But when it comes to people telling me what I can’t do, I have an also suddenly well-publicized, salt and vinegar Lays– because I’m that salty when someone tries to disrespect me– chip on my shoulder and I am the embodiment of a stay-ready all star.

So maybe that’s why, as a close friend of mine always likes to tease me for, I feel an inexorable compulsion to remind the 8:40 flat-3k guys who jokingly say they’d beat me of exactly how obtuse that notion is, given my steeplechase time– oh wait, I can do that with 8:30 guys now– even when I know that drawing out the absurdity of my need to respond is the source of humor behind their their wisecracks; maybe that’s why, when the head track coach from my high school texts me about aforementioned twins after my performance at USAs, “what have they done? You win!” I respond proudly in the affirmative (hiding a sliver of resentment over the fact that one of them still has a 5k PR that’s two seconds better than mine) instead of that I’ve moved on to bigger and better things, and maybe that’s why I delivered that speech at the senior cross country banquet in which I passionately indicted my teammates for what I felt was a lack of support after that last-place-at-heps-xc race the year before, a race that affected me to the point of posting the number 95 on my wall in the largest font that fit on a piece of paper–because if no one else but my dad and Ben Halpin believed me, I knew I was gonna come back and be better the next year. Shoot, maybe for a guy like me who isn’t all that naturally competitive (perhaps contrary to what you’ve just read, but trust me 😉 ) maybe this attitude is why I’m even good at the sport of Track and Field.

Of course, I feel like realism has a place in athletics as well, so you definitely won’t find me out here telling dudes I’m trying to be world champion (I was there in that prelim. I saw the gap between Evan Jager and myself: it’s a lot), and, as it follows, you definitely won’t find me getting mad if you doubt me there, either. To me though, way more than it’s about shutting up the people who think they know my limits better than I do, Track and Field is about self-expression. About that last 200, 100, 50 meters where you can push yourself to the point of crossing that finish line like, “whoa, I just tried at something really freaking hard.” It’s beautiful, and it’s not something you can just find elsewhere on a whim.

It’s also why, no matter the result in that final, I was going to be happy as long as I left it on the track. Don’t get me wrong, the NACAC vest is a nice reward that means a lot to me, but Team USA caps are not why I’m in the sport. I’m here for that feeling after the race when everyone has endorphins flowing, when everyone’s barely functional and flopping around in the finish area, when that mutual love and respect between competitors is flowing because we all just tried hard af to accomplish the same thing, and no matter the result, we all know how amazing it is to feel that sensation. That’s both why I’m still happy after bad races and why I’m overflowing with joy when something ridiculously good happens. Ask anyone who races me a lot: that interview–as much as it may have embarrassed Ray–that was just this dude. Yes, I’ll set my sights on new accomplishments in the future, but rather than defining our worth, pride, and happiness on the track; moving on to new external goals should serve as a means to motivate ourselves on the track such that we can find that pure, internal joy in sport.

Well, as it were, my latest result was a breakthrough of sorts, so it’s time to do just. Of course, as I wrote earlier, there is a place for realism in our sport. If you run that race in Des Moines 100 times, there are surely some outcomes in which I notice Kebenei falling off, kick a bit earlier, and finish fourth, but there are likely more in which one or a few of my fellow B-circuit bros beats me and I finish like, 8th. Consequently, my goals for the coming year are more likely to look like “run in the low 8:20s” and “establish myself as a consistent player in the top 5 or 6 in the US Steeplechase” (i.e. go on an ‘it wasn’t a fluke’ tour) than “make a world team” or “go to the Olympics in 2020,” though Pan-Ams 2019 is probably in the former set.

But for all the years I spent telling people definitively that I’m not gonna make a World or Olympic team, joking about finding European women to marry for citizenship or going to one of the countries that buys athletes– for all those years of “no I will not make the Olympics please stop asking,” I did just finish fifth in the US in the steeplechase. I could have finished fourth. If one guy had retired, been injured, or, as is not exceedingly unlikely in my race, had fallen–though that person has far too often in the past been me–it’s suddenly not impossible that I’m third.

So no, going to the Olympics or whatever isn’t really a goal of mine. It’s not why I’m in the sport, and it wouldn’t somehow validate the blood, sweat, and tears I’ve shed on the track.

But hey, suddenly, I feel like I’m allowed to dream. And to me that, in itself, is quite cool.

Year-in-Review: Call me a Pro (Insights)

Year-in-Review

Well, my first year of post-collegiate running is officially in the books. Full of electric highs and disappointing lows, of thrilling victory and crushing defeat, my first year as a professional runner proved nothing short of sensational. This series of blogs will detail the highs, lows, and the final takeaways of my first year as a professional runner.

Three key Takeaways from the Year

Plan

You’d think I hadn’t really learned this considering the number of near-mishaps Julian and I experienced in Europe, but my first takeaway from this year is the need to meticulously plan travel trips. As you may have read in my post about Tallahassee, exceptionally poor planning once cost me not only the chance to maximize my ability in a race, but also about half of my meager monthly paycheck as a graduate assistant at Providence.

From that point on, I resolved to plan my future trips as far in advance as possible, with the maximum level of flexibility I could afford, in order to give myself the greatest chance of success. Soon after Tallahassee, I booked Southwest flights for my California trip. Buying these tickets five months early both saved me money and allowed me the flexibility if something happened, like an injury or a change in my race schedule. Especially for an athlete who doesn’t have an individual salaried contract, who’s ballin on a budget in every sense of the phrase, clear planning and flexibility will help me successfully both make the most of my money and my running. While the trip to Europe certainly had a few near-disasters (though I honestly think that Aer Lingus or Google Flights both had to be somehow at fault for the 6 AM/PM flight mishap, and Europcar closing at 4 PM is clearly a cultural inconsistency, but I digress), our planning of the trip contributed instrumentally to our success, and we’ll be back to do even better next year!

Be Selfish

In the fall, when I’d taken on too many responsibilities in too many places, I spoke to Ray not long after I’d posted this blog. Looking back at the schedule, it really was something ridiculous, but my overconfidence at the time caused me to shrug off Ray’s warnings: if I could get to bed by 9:30 PM, it didn’t matter how impossibly busy I made myself during the day, right? Obviously, I was wrong, and while I should have taken greater heed of his words at the time, one piece of advice Ray gave me during that conversation stands out in retrospect as I contemplate how to further my success on the track— “you have to be selfish.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean I need to start mistreating my friends or stealing my roommate’s ice cream or anything like that, but it does call for me to make decisions conducive to my success in running even when they conflict with social temptations or opportunities to devote my time to other people. Any time I’m not running, eating, or working at whichever job that allows me the financial flexibility to continue to pursue this dream on the track, I can be resting, and I should probably consider that anytime I find myself partaking in the frivolity of normal 24 year-old life.

Or, y’know, something like that. That last paragraph is probably a bit dramatic, to be honest, because if I didn’t have a social life or other interests and hobbies, I would probably get far too bored, too obsessive, and too swept up in the pressure of running to actually have success. Nonetheless, I need to construct my social life and the activities in it around my athletic schedule, and I can’t afford to donate too much of my time to anyone that can’t make it equally worthwhile for me. And of course, I can’t devote too much time to dating, either (See February or March). I’ll still have my fair share of fun, do my fair share of dancing, and eat my fair share of bananas foster waffles, especially in the fall, but when it comes down to it, my decisions will have to serve the best interests of my running before they serve anyone else. This whole thing would be a complete and total waste of my own, Ray’s, and the time of the people who support me otherwise.

Professional Runner

Over the course of the year, I haven’t really known how to refer to myself when explaining to people what I’m doing with my life. At first, I told people I was a postcollegiate runner, finishing off his graduate degree while chasing a few fast times. This probably made sense at the time, considering I was in the midst of a pretty crap fall season and running in an old saucony singlet that had “AC Don’t Test Me” and “Shoes Pls” scrawled in black sharpie on the front and back of my kit, respectively.

By the end of February, my identity had rightfully evolved. I’d demonstrated a bit more fitness, laying down another 7:58 in the 3k; I’d just flown, or rather, I’d been flown by the meet director, to an all-expenses paid race in Northern Ireland, where I’d finished in the top 10 of a relatively elite field, and Shane and I had self-designed team singlets that actually had our club name printed on our new team crest on the top left chest. After all that, Ben Sutherland told me, “the correct designation is probably semi-pro.” And like a probably underrated Will Ferrell movie, it stuck for the next few months: no, I can’t pay the bills through running, but I do get some pretty cool stuff from the whole endeavor.

Then, Letterkenny happened. And I’m like, semi-pro? Forget that. Yes, I still gotta work a part-time job to keep the lights on; yes, my club’s newly official partnership with New Balance basically consists of some shoes and gear I split with my teammates; yes, you will still see local events and crowdfunding from me when I get ready to try and fund another year of traveling around the world for races— but I am a professional runner. At Letterkenny, I looked down the list of dudes I’ve beaten this year and saw a bunch of guys with shoe companies funding their lives, dudes who have run sub 7:50 on the flat and dudes who have run 8:31. I looked around me at races and saw former All-Americans, Olympians, and world champions that I could never dream of beating. And then there’s this photo:

look back at it

That’s the last water jump in the prelim at USAs. While the top guys were far from all out, and while I did finish last out of everyone in the foreground of this photo, none of that really matters. Four years ago, it would have felt like a fantasy for Donn Cabral, already an olympian, to give me me a concerned look back 150m from the finish in the prelim at USAs. This year, it happened, was documented, and I came out wanting more. For 15 minutes, I had a better-than-50 percent chance of making the USATF Steeplechase final, and next year, I’m out there to make the final and perform well in it.

It doesn’t take a genius to look at my current PRs and progression over the last few years and predict my ambitious goals for the next few seasons. I’ve never been one to set unreasonable goals for myself, so I expect to pursue them wholeheartedly and make an honest step towards the next level of track.

While I still stand by my claim that all of this is a bit arbitrary anyway: I love track and have enjoyed my success, but it doesn’t define me— there’s nothing especially more noble about competing at my level than there is being a kid who works incredibly hard in an attempt to make the varsity team at his high school. But still, it is kind of cool to wake up and think, I’m a professional runner. I’m out here doing it. And I can’t wait for more.