After getting hooked on running marathons and ultramarathons my first two years of college, I transferred from the University of South Carolina to a smaller DII school about twenty minutes from the SC/NC border to run cross country and study liberal arts.
Proud of my running experience, I expected a smooth transition to competing at the 8km distance. My thought was that if I could run 40 miles, then 5 miles would be easy. Could not have been more wrong…
I began training with the team early in the summer to put in the base mileage. For the non-runners, this means running every day at a pace that is about 75% of max effort. You don’t want to go too hard because the goal is to prepare your body for the hard interval training sessions that will come in the fall competition season. Following this model allows you to hit peak fitness about the time of the most important races in the late October/November time frame.
I found that I could hang pretty well with the other guys on the team. Most of our summer miles were around a 7–7:30 per mile pace. As we progressed into August we began to incorporate interval training — going to a track and completing a specified workout like 6x800m repeats, 10x400m, etc — it changed as the season went on.
Our first race was the first week of September, a 5k in western North Carolina to serve as a tune-up. There were DI and DII schools there, I remember seeing some dudes from the University of Florida (spoiler alert: they were way faster than me). I finished the race in 18:05 at the back of the pack and talked with some of my teammates afterwards.
A 5k time of 18:05 may seem good to the recreational runner, but was not great for a collegiate environment. My buddy told me that he was confused — I had kept up on the track workouts, but he had smoked me on the 5k that day. He told me that he thought I wasn’t trying hard enough, if I had really given everything then I wouldn’t be speaking normally that soon afterwards.
This offended me a little bit. I was used to others congratulating me on my achievements, not critiquing my ability to push through pain. I took it personally and used it as fuel to train and try harder on the next race.
Next race was two weeks later. I entered a zen-like state and prepared myself for the upcoming lesson in pain, using all the visualization tricks I had learned. The race started and I braced myself to set in for the next 8km (technically 4.97 miles). I gritted my teeth for the final kick and crossed the line in 29:42.
After a fist bump from my coach, the same buddy that had critiqued me at the 5k strolled up (he had watched me on the final kick). He informed me that if I had that strong of a kick for the last 400m, then I hadn’t tried hard enough for the miles preceding it. I was annoyed but saw his point.
I took his comments and continued to use them as fuel to train. Next race was at the Citadel in Charleston, SC. It was hot — the air was sticky and humid and the ground was muddy on the course. I performed my pre-race rituals, trying to enter a zen-like state. This time my strategy was different — I was going out hard and trying not to fall off.
I stayed three feet off my buddy (the one who made the encouraging comments), eyes on his shoulder and tried to stay relaxed and focus on my breathing. After the first mile I was starting to hurt but was expecting that. Stayed with him through mile three, then he pushed on a hill and dropped me. My heart felt like it was beating out of my chest, vision started to get blurry, and I could taste blood in my mouth. I continued to focus on my breathing and put one foot in front of the other in the muddy ground.
I didn’t end up with a great time, but finished 8th overall in the DII field (the heat had gotten to a lot of the other runners) and my buddy placed 3rd. It took me a couple hours to feel normal after the race, as I had exerted myself past my previous limits.
I got better and better as the season progressed because of my teammates — the expectations for improvement were high. That season taught me a lot about the importance of surrounding myself with the right people. It’s not always comfortable, but the rate of growth is drastically higher as a result of being around honest people who aren’t afraid to acknowledge shortcomings.