The Road Less Traveled – Part 2

Continued From: The Road Less Traveled – Part 1

The day after flying home from NCAAs, I got on another plane and flew to the UK to take part in the Trans-Atlantic Series. The Series is an exchange program between the Cornell and Penn Track Teams and the Oxford and Cambridge University Athletics Teams. It takes place every 2 years and alternates between us going there and them coming here. It was an incredible cultural experience, and I truly am glad that I was able to take part in it, but I would be lying if I said the trip was as relaxing and enjoyable as it was intended to be.

The moment I stepped off the plane, all the emotion I had kept welled up inside me leading up to graduation and NCAAs finally poured out. For months I had pushed everything aside, my pride and regrets about the past, my hopes and fears about the future. I was trying so desperately to give one final push and finish strong, both in my graduate classes and on the track, that I couldn’t afford to be anywhere but in the moment. I couldn’t afford to feel too much and lose focus.

I spent the entirety of the trip contemplating my future. Just because I had decided that the path of full-time professional runner wasn’t the one for me, didn’t mean that I knew yet which path was the right one. I knew I still wanted competitive running to be a part of my life, but I had no idea in what capacity. My mind was a sine wave. I would have moments of absolute clarity, ones where I would conjure up all these ideas for what I wanted to do with my career and how running would fit in so perfectly around it. But other times, I would find myself utterly lost, unable to see or plan the next couple days, let alone the next couple months or years. I would question my decision, convinced that the path I had chosen meant an exclusive choice between my career and competitive running.

On the last day of the emotional rollercoaster that was the England trip, the universe gave me a definitive sign as to what my next step in life should, or rather shouldn’t, be. In my final race ever representing Cornell University, I sprained my ankle in the water pit on the second lap of a steeplechase. It was the first race in my entire life that I did not finish.

Returning to America with a limp and a softball sized ankle was not the way I imagined my post-collegiate career beginning. I had planned on taking some time off after the UK trip, but not running because I physically couldn’t was infinitely different than me choosing to take a break. Instead of relaxing and letting my mind and body recover, I ignored the sign I had been given and I forced things. I worked like crazy to get healthy again. I went to the trainers every day, did my ankle strengthening exercises three times a day, and iced as often as I could. It was a full 3 weeks before I could walk around without any pain, and another 3 after that before I could actually run. It was a frustratingly slow process, full of lots of trial and error, but the moment my ankle was solid again, I was off.

My compulsion to get started running again was largely out of habit – it was mid-August, and in mid-August, long distance runners get ready for the fall season. It’s just what they do. I was craving a sense of normalcy. So much in my life had changed recently, but running was one of the few things I could still hold on to. When I laced up my shoes and stepped out onto the road or the track, I always knew what to do and how to do it. The sense of control and capability that running gave me was always something I drew strength and confidence from, but that semester, it became absolutely essential.

The 4 months I spent completing my masters was the most trying period of my entire life. It was so different and so much more challenging than I ever anticipated. Academically it was great, in fact it was my best semester ever, but in almost every other aspect – socially, mentally, emotionally – it was unbearably difficult.

I was lost. I was stuck in limbo – like Tom Hanks in that movie, The Terminal. I could not go back. The rules of Cornell and the NCAA and the universe forbade it. I would never again wear the Cornell Uniform. I would never again be a wide-eyed undergraduate student with all the time in the world to do everything and nothing. But I could not yet go forward either. Everyone else had moved on and left – my boyfriend, my friends, my housemates, and many of my teammates – but I was left behind. I wasn’t moving to a new city. I wasn’t starting a fancy new job. I was still trudging through the daily grind that is the life of a student. But it was grad school, which I quickly realized was nothing like undergrad. It was very individualized and focused. It was much more serious and intense. It was very lonely.

Any free time I gained from not being a D1 athlete in training was effectively consumed by my job search. Trying to find a job WAS a job. Day after day, week after week I spent researching medical device companies and positions, filling out applications, writing cover letters, and tweaking my resume. It was exhausting. And after a while, when the number of replies began to pale in comparison to the number of applications I sent out, it became demoralizing and downright depressing.

I remember going home for break sometime in October. I had never been so happy to be in my house and sleep in my bed and be with my family. On the last day, I literally cried to my Mom because I didn’t want to go back. She hugged me tight, said she loved me, and told me to stay the course. And back I went.

During those dark times, running was my release. It was the one thing that kept me sane.

After a month or so of building my mileage back up, Arthur and I developed a loose training plan and I started doing workouts again. To my surprise, they went incredibly well, and before long, I found myself in really good shape. Excited about where I was at with my training, I started making plans to run a bunch of road and cross races. I wasn’t planning anything too crazy, but I was preparing to officially launch myself onto the post-collegiate scene.

With running and training going so well, I thought for sure that I was ready to get back into racing, but that sadly proved untrue. Adding in the race component was just enough to tip the scale backward. All at once running stopped being the healthy release from the stress of grad school and the job hunt grind, and instead became a source of confusion and anxiety. I once again started worrying about the future too much and trying to make too many plans. A week or so out from each race, I would start having doubts and second-thoughts. I would go back in forth in my head continuously, debating whether or not I should race, until finally I had convinced myself I wasn’t ready. Race day would come and race day would go and I would just stay put, my feet cemented to the ground.

The last week of October, I ran my one and only race – Cornell’s last home cross country meet, the Reif. Despite the awful memories I associated with that particular race (literally crawling out of the gorge my freshman year to conclude an abysmal first collegiate season), I actually had a good time. The team was really supportive. People cheered me on the whole way. I ended up winning the women’s race and running essentially the same time I did from the year before. It felt just like old times. It was the one and only high point of that season.

But the high was short-lived. A week after running that race, I started feeling pain again in my left knee, the same pain that kept me out during indoor the previous year. And suddenly everything came crashing down.

It was another sign, one I could not ignore – I still was not ready.

I realized then that I was going about things all wrong. I was trying to put together a puzzle that I knew absolutely nothing about. I didn’t know how many pieces there were. I didn’t know what any of the pieces looked like. I didn’t even know what the final picture was supposed to look like.

I needed to stop trying to figure out everything all at once. I needed to figure out one thing at a time and trust that everything would fall into place as I went. I needed to fit running into my life, not force my life to fit running.

So I stopped running.

I told myself I had to wait to start again until I was truly ready, no matter how long it took.

My tendonitis flare up subsided, and I waited. I finally got a job, and I waited. I graduated from grad school, and I waited. I got feeling happy again, and I waited. I moved to Boston and was reunited with John, and I waited. I got settled in my job and my new home, and I waited. For 3 months, I waited.

Only when I finally created a new life and identity that had absolutely nothing to do with running, did I know I was ready.

I texted Arthur that it was time. He had been waiting patiently, confident all along that I would find my way. And so began the spring experiment, the official start of my post-collegiate career.