what I have learned as a college athlete

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“Hold still, Mary,” Ernesto said as he adjusted the lens of his very spiffy camera. “This is the last time I bring you a pumpkin spice latte before the photoshoot.”

I was jittery.

Cold sunlight was just beginning to break over the concrete tips of the football stadium and where we stood on the red and gold turfed endzone it was still chilly. My cross country uniform wasn’t doing much for warmth and the PSL hadn’t settled my nerves the way we had both hoped it would.

“I just feels weird,” I said as Ernesto finished setting up the lighting tripod. “The whole team is wearing this uniform right now because they’re at an actual race, and here I am with the uniform on getting my photo taken like a fake, wanna-be athlete.”

“The school thanks you,” said Ernesto crisply. He works for the PR department and was doing a favor for his latest project. We’ll see in a few months how much I’m going to regret it.

“What’s it like anyway?” he asked me, adjusting some knobs on his camera and then directing me to stand closer to the lighting pod.

He must think it’s odd, watching me make the transition from fully-fledged nerdling to almost-athlete. Those are two different worlds and we’ve both spent a long time in one, giving quizzical looks at the other.

“I mean,” I paused. “It’s different. I’ve been injured for most of it so it’s hard to say.”

“What have you been learning?” he asked as he directed me into position. “Tilt your head. Besides running, of course. Hand on your hip. Or do they even teach you that? What do they do? What do you do at practice? Okay, too much hip, Mary. Calm down.

I let him push me around from this angle to that and thought about his question. What have I been doing? What have I been learning?

It’s a question that has followed me into every practice, every ice bath, every hot shower, every evening class I sit through with nothing but food and sleep on my mind. And, eight short weeks later, as I sat on a sunny slope in Irvine, the bib number from my very last race still pinned to my jersey, it was there still.

For weeks since then, I have tried to write everything down. I’ve tried to explain what this season has meant to me. And I can’t. There just aren’t words for it.

So instead, for the sake of just finally getting this off my chest, I’m going to answer Ernesto’s question as best I can in just a few highlights.

As a nerd, trying to be an athlete, this is what I’ve learned from one semester of college cross country.

Firstly, ice is amazing.

Ice is the great healer. Pulled a muscle? Ice it. Feeling sore? Ice it. Shin splints? Ice it. Break a leg? WHY DO YOU KEEP GETTING INJURED? GET YOURSELF TOGETHER, KID!

I have been injured so much this semester, so I would know. It’s painful, strapping an ice pack to your leg for twenty minutes or immersing your body in a frigid whirlpool till your skin is all red and numb. But I guess sometimes the healing process requires a little pain before the gain. And there is so much to gain.

Secondly, the “Dumb Jock” stereotype is a lie.

My grades have really taken a hit this semester. ‘A’s used to come so easily to me. This semester I’m relieved if I pull out a ‘B’. I used to think that athletes who were allowed to slide by with ‘C’s were just “dumb jocks” – probably just laziness or poor priorities or too many hits to the helmet region. I was wrong. It’s hard to be a student athlete! It’s not just that you’re losing three to four hours every day for practice that you could be using to do homework or study, it’s that after practice, all you want to do is eat and sleep! I don’t think I’ve been awake for a full biology lecture all semester and I spend half of Spanish class distracted by how hungry I am. I eat all the time and I feel like I should be sleeping a lot more than I have time to.

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Exhausted after a race.

Last week, I heard some of the football guys talking about how stupid they all were. I turned immediately and reminded them that anyone who balances athletics and academics is superhuman and they should all be super proud of themselves. Someone had to say it.

Thirdly, every second counts.

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Sprinting the finish of the Pacific Coast Conference Championship.

After every race this season, I have spent the next several days reliving each moment, trying to scrape out the missing seconds. Where could I have gone faster? Where could I have pushed harder? The obvious truth is that every step of the race matters. This becomes painfully clear when you look at winning times separated by fractions of seconds. You think, why didn’t he just push a little harder during mile two? Why didn’t she concentrate on her technique a little more – over the course of a 5K, that would have made a winnable difference!

Learning this lesson on the course has been brutal, but applying it to life has become a joy for me this semester. Details mean a lot in the real world too. If every day is a long run that you have to get through, technique becomes important and it is produced by force of habit and continual concentration. Things like being nice to people. Assuming the best. Trying your hardest. If remembering to pace your breathing gives you an extra edge on your race, appreciating the pina-colada scented shampoo in the girls’ locker rooms is the extra edge your day needs. So are fresh towels and packed lunches and Sergio, the rubber ducky who floats in the ice baths in the trainer’s room. Little things make a winnable difference.

Fourthly, the human body is literally just so cool.

I eat a lot these days. I have portioned out a part of my budget for protein bars and gatorade and calcium supplements. I fastidiously pack lunches every night. I stretch. I do yoga. I sleep literally whenever life doesn’t insist on my being conscious. The harder I run, the more I realize where and how my body needs to be strengthened. And I think that’s pretty cool. Despite the injuries, despite the exhaustion and the extra work of trying to care for this body that I’m running into the ground, the decrepitation has been delightful. God gave me this amazing body that functions like a machine – the better the materials I put in, the better the product that comes out. I don’t take it for granted anymore when all my muscles and joints work, when nothing hurts. I don’t take it for granted that I can run right now. What a precious gift, to have a body that allows me to do that.

Fifthly, ego is not your friend.

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You may have picked up on the fact that I’ve been injured most of the season. I don’t know, maybe I’ve mentioned it a few times.

I’m super competitive and I joined Cross Country to compete. And I compete to win. It’s not like I’m expecting first place (though that is always what I aim for, and I’ve had visions of crossing the finish line for a first place medal since June), but my “reasonable target” was to make the top twenty in a race. I need about a seven-minute mile for that. With hard work and blood and sweat and tons of tears (because it’s me, and I cry over everything), I thought a seven-minute mile was doable.

Well guess what. It’s not actually super doable if you spent the whole season sitting on ice packs in the trainer’s room.

This season has not lived up to my hopes for what it could be. Mostly because when I am able to run with the team, I’m not fit enough to keep up with them, and I’m always nursing an injury so I haven’t been able to chase after their times.

This has been one of the hardest lessons I’ve learned this season. My ego – my desire to be running with the front of the pack – will not help me win a race and it will not help me heal my legs. Why? Because ego is what stands between you and the critique you need from a coach to improve. Ego is what stands between you and the rest you need to power up. Ego is what stands between you and the people who could be your friends, friends you will need when the race gets tough and the season gets long.

Let passion be your fuel, and wisdom your coach, and leave your ego off the field. There is no place for it here.

Sixthly, everyone has a voice inside their head.

The few times this season I have been functioning well enough to join in team practices have been the few times we have been doing the most ridiculous workouts. Sprinting up the football stadium’s sixteen stairwells for forty-five minutes (that’s how I got my second injury this season. Goodbye soleus!), 500 meter sprints, Indian runs, etc. I think that’s when I began to appreciate how hard Cross Country really is. It’s not just running. It’s not just endurance. It’s not just toning and speed and technique. Cross country is a mind game, and you can be prepared for the distance, the heat, the waves of competition, but you cannot begin to understand the battle that will happen in your mind until you’ve been in it. This incredibly loud, convincingly desperate voice will tell you to hold back, to take it easy, to give it your all next time, to stop, to quit, to give up. It will tell you that you cannot do it. You must prove it wrong.

Seventh-ly? They’re not kidding about team bonding.

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Picture day! Trying out our new uniforms for the first time.

It’s hard to explain the dynamic of team spirit. It sounds like such a cliche. I never would have thought that genuine friendship could actually infuse strength and energy into a team, but it does. As soon as we all started making an effort to get to know each other, to spend time together outside of practice, to invest in each other, our times started improving. Our energy picked up. Our drive improved. It was like, suddenly, instead of being alone on the course, there were these forces of goodwill pulling me along, insisting that I believe in myself, because they do.

There has not been a single day this season when someone from the team hasn’t come up alongside me and shown me what it means to be a teammate. Sergio taught me how to spit while I’m running. Janet taught me how to breath properly. Jesse taught me to fight through the injury. Cristal taught me to keep pushing. Joe taught me how to pull my shoulders back. Agustin taught me how to open my stride. Melissa has beaten self-confidence into me with a horsewhip and then given me a good kick just to make sure it sticks. And everyone else has just been there, every day, all season.

So I make time for the outings. They want to go play laser tag on Saturday or carb up at a restaurant before a race? Count me in. Weekend runs? Let’s do it. Heck, they even talked me into getting a Snapchat, which I more or less regret. But there’s just not a lot I wouldn’t do for these guys. They’re my team. They’re the first one I’ve really ever had. And they mean a lot to me.

Lastly, disappointment and failure are not the same.

This season feels like a disappointment to me. When I first thought about joining the team in March of last year, I had visions of being competitive, of being a dark horse coming from nowhere to sweep up. All summer long, I trained nearly every day, despite travel and extensive time-commitments. And the more I ran, the clearer I could see myself crossing the chalky white finish line to take first. I’ll be honest, a lot of what I saw myself accomplishing may not have actually been physically possible, but I’ve always had my head a bit in the clouds. I may still be telling people I just wanted to be in the top 20, but I wanted first. I compete to win.

So the string of injuries, the missed races, the increasingly frustrating practices made for a long, sad season. And up until the last moment of the last race, I still had my sights set on qualifying for state. As a team, we had qualified for the Southern California Championship, and as we warmed up in the foggy morning, the other girls joked about blowing their times so we wouldn’t have to go to Fresno in two weeks. So many better things to do with a weekend.

“No don’t,” I whimpered, even though I knew they were mostly kidding. “I need you guys to qualify or I won’t be able to go!”

The girls laughed, but I could hear they were tired. They were at the end of a long season, one of many they had had. This was my one and only, and I had only been able to race half of it.

“Qualify as an individual,” they told me. “You only have to be in the top hundred.”

So from the moment the starting signal sounded to the last pounding beat of my heart as I crossed the finish, I argued with that voice in my head. I want this, I said. I want this as much as the girl in front of me. I want it more than she does. I want to go to Fresno.

I finished tenth from the bottom.

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Disoriented after finishing my last race, I was escorted from the finish line to a water table where I promptly threw up behind a nearby tree. What a way to finish.

Coach walked up to me with a smile on his face and said, “Well, did you have fun?” And that’s when I knew my season was over. And this incredible sinking feeling clamped onto my stomach and it hurt.

It hurt because I fell so far from where I had hoped to land. But it also hurt because the end of this season means the end of this time I’ve had as a college athlete, and I have so loved every minute.

Maybe thinking I could jump into college sports was a ridiculous notion. Maybe seeing myself as a state champion was laughable. And maybe the disappointment and the gut-wrenching, anxiety-inducing frustration and heartbreak of this season could have been avoided if I had been realistic from the start.

Why did I even join Cross Country? I thought to myself on that sunny hillside in Irvine, the race finished. I had walked away from the rest of the team, sat down on the edge of the course, and stared out at the big, empty hills in front of me. Ernesto’s question from early September still simmered in the back of my mind. At least this time I wasn’t just wearing the jersey for a photoshoot.

How short the season has been.

I shook my head. It’s easy to feel sorry about the outcome. Easy to fall into despair. Easy to feel like I have nothing but disappointment, foolish hopes and a couple of big “I told you so’s” coming my way. But I know better.

This season of running has challenged me. The struggles with injury have pushed my boundaries, opened me up to new possibilities, helped me forge friendships and inspired me to levels of humility I didn’t know existed. The pursuit of this unachievable goal has driven me to the peaks of self-mastery and instilled in me patience and persistence. The failures, setbacks and losses have taught me kindness and empathy, and I am stronger for it.

I may spend the rest of my life on a continuous wave of disappointments, but this season has taught me for certain that I am a better person for having chased impossible dreams.

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