Lesson 2: What Division I track taught me

In my first semester of college I was nothing short a miserable. I had been recruited as a walk on to run for the Penn State Varsity Track & Field team as a sprinter. For a short amount of time in High School I thought I wanted to run in the Olympics. Be the next Allyson Felix.

My mother said once in a parent teach conference that I was, “feeling myself,” because I was doing well in track. How could I not feel that way though? My team was winning back to back District and Regional championships every year, I continually qualified for the State Championships (though I never placed), I have enough hardware to weight down a body, I was being recruited by Division II and III teams, and  I ran at the Junior Olympics. I was a natural runner and a lazy athlete.

Given my high school successes I could have run on scholarship to a Division II or III (like VMI or Mary Washington that attempted to recruit me) but I wanted to challenge myself, be better, and go to a D-I.

Worst.mistake.ever.

It was a torturous experience that led me, and eventually 99% of the Freshman class, to eventually quit. Some lasted till their Junior year, I only lasted a semester.I guess you can only hear, “we don’t need you, there’s the door, your replaceable,” so many times before you stop seeing it as the coach trying to motivate you and just…leave.

Before I even set foot on campus the team was controlling my life. I had originally scheduled my classes during a summer trip to Penn State to see the campus but was later sent a new schedule in the mail. Somehow they had magically adjusted my times table to make sure I was done with class at 2:15 so I could be at practice by 2:30. They did it without my consent.

In the first week of school a team meeting was held. I sat quietly while I listened to the head coach ramble on and on about how PSU was the best, and we were the 100 out of 40,000 undergrads at PSU that were actually important, actually special, we were on the Track team. “Why be them when you could be one of us?” It felt cultish. I stuck around anyway.

In that semester I was up every morning at 4:30 am to get to morning practice by 5 am. This was the epitome of “rolling out of bed,” seeing as I went to bed mostly dressed for practice. Roll out of bed, put on my shoes, grab my spike bag and a granola bar, sneak out of my dorm so I didn’t wake my roommate, walk to the indoor track in the dark under the sidewalk lamps -bumping into the occasional ROTC member going to PT.

The older girls were in charge if the coach wasn’t there on time. We ran around the indoor track, people going at various speeds, the older girls taking short cuts behind the wall where the fountain and bathrooms were separated from the track, claiming they were, “sprinters not distance runners,” but the newbies, “had to pay their dues.”

Only once did I go too slow in morning practice that I had to keep running while the rest were able to stretch. It was humiliating.

After the morning run we did abs circuits and lifted weights.

Go back to the dorm, grab some food on the way up, roommate still sleeping. Take a shower or take a nap? Depends on if I want to head to class dirty.

Go to classes, make it to the track on time for 2:30 practice.
The sprint team divided into groups from best to worst runners. Guess where I was?
Two-a-day practices were a bitch.

Sleep, run,class, run, homework, sleep, run, class, run, homework, sleep, run, class, cry on the phone to mom.

Desperate for the validation to quit. I deteriorated quickly. College was supposed to be more fun than this. Eventually I was talking to my mom about it all the time.

“I hate it, I want to quit, but then what, I’m a runner, its who I am.”
“No, its what you do. Not who you are.”

The most validating words in the English language-but I needed more.
I made an appointment with my “Academic Athletic Advisor” Nate aka my future mentor and friend. Many a meeting was spent talking in confidence. A fellow (former) student athlete, he got where I was coming from. Helped me think through things. Make a big decision to walk away from the track.

“What else are you good at? Your clearly not someone who could just do nothing but sit around.”

I figured it out, but I’ll come to that later.
(Nate doesn’t seem to get much credit in this story but trust me, he’s an amazing person.)

When I decided to quit for good I was flush with excitement and sick, all at once. The final conclusion came to me after two events:

1. My first college meet. I did well in the slow heat of the 300, ran the best I ever had in my life and I only came in 2nd. It was close though. My coach complimented me. He said, “Good 300.”  I only smiled, still trying to take in air. “You gunna say thank you?” he ask. When I realized I was supposed to revel in those two words like they were a gift from God, I knew it wasn’t the place for me.

2. Winter break came and we were all told that those who were to come back from break early, so they could keep practicing for next meet, would get an e-mail soon. When I found out that the girl who beat me in the 300 (a fellow Penn Stater) got a “come-back” e-mail and I didn’t..I was happy. If I’d been just a stride or two faster it may have been me getting that e-mail. My happiness was a sign.

I went to see my Sprint Coach first thing. Well I sent him 2 e-mails to a set up a meeting and when he didn’t respond I just sorta dropped by his office.

He didn’t look pleased to see me, I think maybe he knew it was coming. Good’ol Coach Jackson. I told him in not so many words that I was unhappy on the team and I was quitting. He told me he, “Wouldn’t let me give up. I was getting better.” I remember saying, “You do realize I just won’t come to practice right? I’m not on a scholarship.”

I was told I had to tell the Head Coach and see what she says.

“Sorry to see you go. Yada yada yada. What will you do now.”
“I’m joining the Equestrian team.”
Shocked face.
“You know. Horses. I was raised with horses.”

She gave me 3 days of no practices to see how it feels to be “normal.” If I still wanted to quit I had to come back and sign the paperwork, and return the team gear. If I wanted to stay, I was to come to practice on the 4th day.

It felt…cultish or biblical. It’s the same to me really.

On the 3rd day I signed the paperwork, with a smile. I kept some of the gear. You know, as proof I was one of the “special ones,” once upon a time.

(I’d later take gym class, for the last of the required gym credits I didn’t get because I quit the Track team, with the Head Coaches husband as the instructor).

In the end I figured out that I was not dedicated enough to track to run at a Division I where the people their eat, sleep, and breath it in. I wanted to explore one of the other 1,001 clubs their were on campus, get to study abroad, and meet people who did other things besides run. All things you could not do when you ran twice a day. I also discovered that one major reason I even decided to carry on running into college was because sports was the only connection I really had with my father. We did not talk about anything else besides track really…oh and how the PSU football team was doing, but I sorta figured out why that was later on.

By the end of my Freshman year I heard from a fellow (former) runner that the NCAA had cracked down on the Track team for the amount of time the athletes were being forced to practice. In turn the practices hours were cut back drastically. On top of that, Coach Jackson was no longer Sprint Coach-he got a job at another university.  When I heard the news I wondered if I would have stuck around longer if I was not forced to practice as much and if the negative motivation techniques were gone.

The answer: Yea I don’t think so.

I don’t want to do something that constantly makes me feel like I’m suffering. Life is way too short for that, no matter how cliché that sounds. Now I like to make sure I actually enjoy everything I do, there is no point in spending years doing something you can’t stand just to feel like “one of the special ones.”

Lesson 2: If your not dedicated to the activity, stop trying to force it. Find something you actually love, aka ITS WHAT YOU DO NOT WHO YOU ARE.

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