Stay The Course

One of my family’s all time favorite movies is The Patriot, a historical fiction war film set during the American Revolutionary War. During any given family gathering, it’s not uncommon to hear one or more quotes from the movie tossed out: “A dog is a fine meal”, “If I die, I will die well dressed”, “Very well, it’s nice horse blanket”, “Damn him! Damn that man!”.

Our favorite quote, though, is more than simply a one-liner meant to get a good laugh. This quote, though only a brief three word phrase, has become something of a mantra for us, one that has carried us through many tough times: “stay the course”.

Stay the course (idiom). to continue doing something until it is finished or until you achieve something you have planned to do, even when it is difficult or takes a long time.

Although this phrase is a common one, applicable in many situations throughout life, the context in which it is used during the movie makes it all the more powerful. The phrase is actually a mantra of sorts for the film’s main character, Benjamin Martin, who is played by Mel Gibson. As a colonel of the local colonial militia, Benjamin’s ultimate mission is an enormously challenging one: to help the colonies win the war. Throughout his journey to accomplish his goal, he is met with many devastating hardships, including the loss of his home and fortune and the murder of two of his sons. There comes a point where he is so beaten down and emotionally drained that he has almost lost the will to carry on, but it is the utterance of this phrase by a dear friend that pulls him back from the edge. Those three words, and the determination and perseverance they embody, provide him the strength he needs to keep moving forward and ultimately, to achieve his goal.

Prior to this week, I had hit a bit of wall in my training. It all started in the first week of January when I came down with a nasty cold, but stupidly decided to force myself through a difficult workout before I fully recovered, which proceeded to set me back even further. Just after I finally kicked the cold the following week, I made another stupid decision: wearing spikes for the first time all season during a short but very fast workout. As soon as I finished my last rep – a completely unnecessary 32.5 200m – I knew my left calf was tweaked. I wound up needing to take a full 6 days off from running in order to let that die down.

My first workout back after that went surprisingly well – 3 x 2 miles at 5:50, 5:40, and 5:30 – but it was clearly too much too soon. The following Wednesday as I attempted to begin that week’s track workout, I found myself feeling lead-legged and totally flat. Though I initially intended to just push the workout off until the next day, I ended up skipping it entirely in an attempt to recover. Although I was able to workout the following two Wednesday mornings, the soreness and tiredness persisted, which resulted in one workout that had to be cut short and another that was significantly off-pace.

I capped off a woefully disappointing month of running with a sub-par performance in the 2 Mile at the GBTC Invitational. Although I did still put down a solid time – 10:16 was technically a 62 second 2 mile PR from sophomore year of high school – I was not at all happy with the way I raced. I positive split my miles by 10+ seconds, totally gave up in the 3rd 800, and, worst of all, let myself be intimidated by my competition.

The obstacles I faced during those first few weeks of 2017, and the fact that they simply kept coming one after another, left me completely out of sorts. For starters, it was a pretty demoralizing way to start off the new year. I wasn’t expecting that, at the stroke of midnight on December 31st, I would instantaneously morph into a new, better version of myself capable of achieving all my goals and exceeding all my expectations, but having so many things go wrong right off the bat wasn’t what I had in mind either.

Adding to my distress was the fact that, at the very beginning of the year, before things started going down hill, I committed to compete at the USATF 15k Championships being held at the Gate River Run 15k on March 11th in Jacksonville, FL. Since graduating from college, I have tried my best to keep my training and racing relatively flexible – not making plans too far in advance or getting hung up on being absolutely prepared for any specific races – but when the purchasing of flights is involved (expensive ones at that!), planning things in advance is a necessity. Also, considering how much time and effort the elite athlete coordinator Richard Fannin was putting in to prepare mine and my competitor’s accommodations, the idea of suddenly pulling out of the race, effectively wasting his time and taking an opportunity away from someone else, simply wasn’t an option. Ready or not, I was going to toe the line in march. But the thought that I would be closer to not than ready was definitely stressing me out.

But what had me lost more than anything was my inability to stop my mind from wandering through toxic pools of doubt and negativity. 2016 hadn’t quite gone the way I had hoped; despite being in what I thought was fairly good shape several times, I was never able to put down a time that was truly indicative of my fitness. This, as an incredibly goal driven individual, was particularly frustrating. In the running world, as it also is in the legal system, it’s not about what you know, it’s about what you can prove. And, despite the emergence of digital training logs such as Strava and the transparency of training that they foster, the fact is, the things you accomplish during your training are largely irrelevant. To make it real, to validate your training and your fitness, you’ve got to do it in a race. Unfortunately for me, the validating race never came.

In the waning days of fall, I found myself wondering what was I doing wrong? Why didn’t I achieve any of my goals? Were they too ambitious to begin with? Is it simply not possible to run at an elite level while having a full-time job? Am I just not cut out for these longer distance road races? Are my best race really behind me? Those questions lurked in the back of my mind as the new year began, and the apparent stalling out that I experienced in my training during the month of January only heightened the sense of uncertainty and fear they instilled in me.

Just like Mel Gibson’s character in The Patriot, I found myself feeling beaten down and emotionally drained. In that moment, the goals I had set for myself seemed impossibly far away, and I wasn’t sure that I had what it took to achieve them.

But one day last week, as I was biking at the gym, everything changed. I was flipping through the channels, desperate to find something to distract me from the torture that is cross-training, when I saw The Patriot airing on one of the random movie channels. While I’d like to say that I arrived at that channel at the exact moment that Mel Gibson’s character is brought back on track by his friend, the truth is, I came into the movie way before that scene. I did, however, extend my cross-training session by a good 12 minutes (something I would not do under almost any other circumstance) in order to reach it.

Stay the course, the man said.

So I decided, that’s what I am going to do.