Bent But Not Broken

“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.”

~ Carl Gustav Jung

I’ll be honest, the weekend after my disastrous race at the Stumptown Twilight meet, I was seriously regretting John and mine’s decision to go watch the Olympic Trials. Obviously we still ended up going, but even as we boarded our flight out to Portland, I still wondered if we had made a mistake.

Although the main purpose of the trip truly was to celebrate our impending marriage, I would be lying if I said a part of me wasn’t hoping that I would be at the meet as more than just a spectator. After coming up just short of that goal, I was afraid that watching the races in person – specifically the one I wanted so desperately to be competing in – would make me miserable. I’ll admit, the day of the women’s steeple prelims I did have a moment involving some tears, though, most of that emotion came from memories of the disappointment I experienced the last time I was at Hayward Field (2014 NCAA DI steeple final), but on the whole, I felt no such misery.

What I felt while at this year’s US Track and Field Olympic trials was excitement and inspiration and true sense of belonging.

Now that we’ve been back home in Boston for a few days and the effects of the red-eye flight and post-Trials haze are finally wearing off, I’ve been reflecting a lot on my experience as a spectator at the Trials and how it affected me as a both a runner and a person. Every single person that I spoke to who had gone out to watch the Trials before said it was an absolutely incredible experience, and they were all right. The Trials truly was unlike any other track meet, or sporting event for that matter, that I have ever been to. The energy in the stadium was electrifying and all-encompassing. The rise and fall of the crowd’s cheers, from the silence before the gun to the moment the official results were displayed on the big screen, was captivating. Every person in that stadium, regardless of whether they were competing on the track, on the runway or in the circle, or sitting somewhere in the stands, experienced the incredible range of emotions that was the 2016 U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials.

One of the best parts of being there, for both John and I, was being completely immersed in the track and field community. Everywhere we went in Eugene, there were people who truly enjoyed, respected, and supported the sport of track and field. While riding a train we struck up a conversation with a meet official about the importance of athlete’s rights and rule 40. While walking down the sidewalk, we ran into a older gentleman who shared with us his journey of post-collegiate running and encouraged us to keep pursing our dreams. While out at Nick Symmonds Straight 800 road race, we met with the founders and representatives of several ‘for runners, by runners’ brands – including Roll Recovery, Run Gum, and Picky Bars – and saw firsthand their passion for improving the performances of athletes in our sport. Being around so many people who understood and appreciated what it is that John and I do – why we wake up at 6am and go to bed early and skip out on after-work drinks – was so refreshing. It made us proud of what we have accomplished so far, and gave us the motivation we need to keep going.

But what I loved most about the Trials was not a particular experience or conversation, nor a particular race or moment in time. Rather, what I found most rewarding and inspiring was the embodiment of something that I hold most dear and believe to be of the utmost importance to success, not only in running, but in life: resiliency.

Resiliency: noun

1. the power or ability to return to the original form, position, etc., after being bent, compressed, or stretched; elasticity.
2. ability to recover readily from illness, depression, adversity, or the like

Again and again and again, the athletes competing before my eyes embodied the above words. There were so many inspiring performances throughout the week, so many athletes with incredible stories of overcoming adversity and beating the odds to achieve their Olympic dream, but there were three in particular that stood out to me: Kim Conley, Abbey D’Agostino, and Brenda Martinez.

Kim Conley, a 2012 Olympian in the 5k and a heavy pre-race favorite in the 10k, had her shoe ripped off 2 miles into the 10k. With 17 long laps still left to be run, she was forced to stop, sit down on the track, and put it back on. When she got up, the lead pack had gapped her by 7 seconds, which, even in a race that’s 6.2 miles long, is an enormous deficit. She gave a valiant effort in trying to catch back up, slowly working her way passed the runners who had dropped off the pack, but once the leaders picked up the pace it became painfully clear that her pursuit was in vain: there was no way she was going to catch them. Just after mile 5, she dropped out.

To have any outside factor, anything other than your body or mind, be the thing that holds you back from achieving your goals is frustrating, but to have that thing be something as simple as a shoe must have maddening. With her opportunity in the 10k having literally been ripped away, she was forced to compete in the 5k in order to keep her goal of making the Olympic team alive. The 10k / 5k double is a tough one as it is during the regular season, but in championship racing, when the 5k includes both a prelim and a final, it is a grueling undertaking. With only a few days to recover from the hot conditions of the 10k, she would be one of only a handful of women to accept the challenge of the double and return to the track.

Like four years ago, the women’s 5k Olympic team was decided during the final 400m, but unlike four years ago, there was no ambiguity as to where or not Conley would be on the team. Running smooth and strong that last lap, she grabbed both the third place spot and an Olympic berth.

Abbey D’Agostino was diagnosed with a stress reaction on May 1st of this year, 67 days before the prelim of the Olympic Trials 5km. To the majority of runners, this would have been the death kneel, the end of their Olympic dreams, but not to her. Rather than give up and accept defeat, rather than let fear and doubt dictate her life, she soldiered on. She achieved incredible fitness in the pool while her injury healed, which, as anyone who has ever aqua-jogged knows, is a testament to both her physical and mental strength. In the weeks leading up to the trials, the only days she ran on solid ground were workout days. With little time to train, let alone get in competitive races to sharpen up, all she could do was wait and hope that when the time came, she would be ready.

As if getting injured so late in the season was not enough to stress about, there was, of course, the memory of the 2012 Olympic Trials Women’s 5k final still looming. After coming so close four years ago, and then achieving so much success in the years since, I can’t even begin to imagine the amount of pressure she must have felt leading into the Trials. While I have always been incredibly impressed with the poise and confidence that Abbey shows both on and off the track, I know that she is still only human, and that the burden of those expectations must have been great.

But despite all that, despite everything that was seemingly working against her, she found a way to overcome. She placed 5th in an incredibly deep field and, after  the 1st and 4th place finishers decided to only contest the 10km in Rio, officially earned her Olympic spot

And then there was Brenda Martinez. Although we will never know for sure what would have happened those last 100m of the 800m final had the contact and tripping and fall not taken place, if I was a betting person, I would have bet on Brenda. She looked great coming off that final turn – strong and smooth and in control – and there is no doubt in my mind that should would have been at least top 3, if not won the whole thing. For her to have been robbed of the opportunity to represent the United States in the 800m in Rio was absolutely heartbreaking and utterly unfair but, as she so graciously said in her post-race interview, “that’s track and field”. What happened was out of her control. Yes, it was devastating, but there was nothing she could have done to avoid it. And, once the race was over, there was nothing she could do to change it.

She could have given up then and there. Physically exhausted from the rounds and emotionally exhausted from the final, she could have just packed it in, and no one would have blamed her. Her only other chance at making the Olympic team was the 1500m, but that would require 3 more races, giving her a total of 6 races in 9 days if she made the final. It was the tallest of orders, one that would push her to her absolute physical and emotional limits, but it was one that she took on without hesitation. Rather than sit and wallow in her misfortune, she immediately gathered herself and focused on the opportunity that still  lay ahead.

Six days later, after comfortably advancing through the two qualifying rounds of the 1500m, she once again found herself on the line of a final, ready to compete for an Olympic berth. Running with poise and composure throughout, she threw down with 200m to go and literally laid it on the line to nab that third spot and earn her well-deserved spot on the U.S. Olympic Team.

Sometimes life is going to knock you down. Sometimes things are going  to go horribly wrong for no reason at all. Sometimes the plans you made are going to fall through, and you’re going to be left lost and disappointed. When that happens, you can either give up and go home defeated or you can regroup and find another way to keep moving forward. You can choose to either bend or break.

These three woman choose to bend. They chose to weather the storm. They were strong and brave and truly inspirational.

What I will remember most from my time as a spectator at the Olympic Trials is the importance of resiliency and never, ever giving up on myself or my dreams.