A Weekend With Kara

Early October was a whirlwind between racing in the Chicago Marathon, playing my first Pink Feathers show in Portland, and attending Kara Goucher’s Podium Retreat in Tucson, Arizona. I’m still willing myself to write about Chicago (it was rough), so I’m kicking off with a recap of the retreat!

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This was my second year attending Kara’s Podium Retreat. I initially signed up for it because, duh, Kara Goucher. I’ve been following her career since I began seriously running and paying more attention to the competitive running world in 2007 or so. I look up to her the most out of any runner I’ve met or read about. She’s a fiery competitor on the road and track and unlike many athletes, shows unabashed raw emotion when sharing about her experiences with training, racing, and motherhood. I could go on and on about my favorite Kara moments, but I’ll just list two:

  1. The 2009 Boston Marathon. Kara’s goal was to win and she put herself in the position to. It came down to her and two other women at the end, Dire Tune and Salina Kosgei. I remember watching on TV and seeing Kara rip off her gloves somewhere in the last mile, throw them aside, and give everything she had to the finish line. She fought right down to the wire. She placed third, which was a huge feat for an American, but she wasn’t running for third. She burst into tears after crossing the finish line, and later at the press conference said “I’m proud of how I ran. I’m proud of how I did and I raced the best that I could, but I wanted to be the one who won for everybody.”
  2. The 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials. After two life changing years, in which she went public on BBC with accusations toward her former coach for unethical practices, left her former sponsor Nike for Oiselle and Skechers among others, dealt with multiple injuries, and even considered quitting the sport altogether, Kara rebuilt herself from the ground up into top form going into the marathon trials in LA. She was ready to show the world that she was back on her own terms, and she did, finishing with a time of 2:30:24 on a blazing hot day. Only, three other women were faster and she did not make the US Olympic Team.

My intention isn’t to highlight Kara’s losses, but her true spirit in the way she handled them. She’s a fighter, she’s resilient, she wears her heart on her sleeve, she has strong convictions, and she expects only the best from herself.

I went into last year’s retreat, held in Breckenridge, Colorado, excited to learn more about training, nutrition, and everything else that goes into being a world class runner. Those things were covered, but they quickly became secondary to the core message of the retreat, which was to examine the way you treat yourself, share your story, listen to others, and make friends with a bunch of kickass women. It was completely therapeutic in a way I wasn’t expecting. I told myself then that I had to come back the next year, which brings us to the 2016 retreat in Tucson.

I went into the retreat this year without the nervous butterflies I had the year before. I had gone solo before, but this time I paired up with two roomies, Kim and Cynthia. Upon arrival, I was greeted enthusiastically by Kara’s staff and longtime friends that I had met the first year: Lottie Bildirici, founder of Running On Veggies, Anna Paffel, Dr. Amy Oldenberg, Tracey Katona, founder of Katona Pilates, and Shanna Burnette, co-founder of ModCraft. They set me up with some great swag including gear from Kara’s sponsors, Skechers, Nuun, Zensah, and Oiselle.

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Holy runner swag! I love it all, but I will say that little addaday massage tool is my new prize possession. I use it almost every day.

The first evening kicked off with a happy hour and dinner outside under twinkling lights in the gorgeous Tucson evening.

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Happy hour welcome

I got to say a quick hello and give a hug to Kara, the woman of the hour, as well as many attendees I recognized from last year. I made an effort to talk to women that looked a little unsure or were standing alone, because I’ve totally been that person. It was like summer camp all over again, or the first day back to school. Later in the evening, former retreaters were invited to come up to the microphone to share about their past experiences. I thought, “no way am I doing that.” Public speaking is probably my #1 most dreaded thing. Then one by one, former retreaters were called up by name to speak, which I was not expecting. I thought it would be voluntary! Before I knew it, Tracey, who was playing host up on the mic, announced that there was a certain blonde singer-runner-model in attendance and invited me to come up. Gahhh! Tracey welcomed me with a big hug and likely sensing my panic, stood up there with me, offering an arm around my shoulder as I spoke. As my mind started churning with all the many things I wanted to say, I came up with something about how I had been a Kara fan since around the time I started running, how I was a singer but also painfully introverted, and about how last year’s retreat was so meaningful after hearing Kara’s life story and meeting so many amazing people, and how I knew I had to come back. I’d like to think my little speech was very eloquent, but it was not. It was full of rambling, nervous laughter, awkward pauses, the whole deal. Despite being slightly mortified by the whole experience, a few women came up to me and told me they thought I did a good job despite being nervous, some told me I was cute and endearing, and several women came up to me and told me that they can totally relate as they came solo to the retreat as I did last year, despite being shy or introverted.

The next two days were filled with sessions in which Kara and several staffers shared their life stories and lead presentations and discussions about nutrition, being race-day ready, and body image. I was particularly moved when both Lottie and Shanna shared their stories for the first time. It takes a lot of courage to revisit painful or difficult times from your life and share them with a large group of people, many of whom you don’t know. There was, however, an unspoken sense that we were all in a safe space to be open. There were more group activities throughout the day like pilates with Tracey, a dance session (my favorite), and of course running. We gathered for every meal including a buffet breakfast and lunch, followed by a more formal catered dinner in the evenings. All in all, there was a lot of sharing, learning, reflecting, and new friendships being developed. Throughout the weekend, Kara made an effort to speak to everyone and really listened to what we had to say. On two occasions she took the mic and allowed time for the group to ask her anything. She was very open and candid about her life and particularly how her year has been in the aftermath of this year’s marathon trials. While Kara was the one curating and hosting the retreat, I got the sense that she needed this time to reflect and heal just as much as any of us. Like, she has to know that she has a huge following of people that will love her and be in her corner win or lose, but like anyone, sometimes you just need to hear it and be able lean on your tribe when you need it. Being popular doesn’t mean you need to be any stronger or less sensitive than anyone else.

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Kara introducing her longtime friend and speaker Anna Paffel.

Since I was recovering from the Chicago Marathon, which I had run the weekend before, I opted not to participate in the group runs. Instead I enjoyed some leisurely coffee, reading, and writing time every morning. I did start to feel antsy, as it had been an entire week since I’d last run. I also felt like I had been missing out on the gorgeous scenery as most of my time was spent within the resort where the retreat was being held. So the final morning, I woke up early and drove myself to the nearby Sabino Canyon. I set off on a little hike, toting my purse and notebook, plus a to-go cup of coffee and a bagged cinnamon roll. Amidst all the serious hikers, runners, and cyclists out on the trail, I’m sure I looked positively ridiculous.

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No shame.

About a mile in, I found an offshoot leading to several pavilions and picnic tables among the shrubs, boulders, and cacti. I sat down, enjoyed my breakfast and the sunrise, then thought about what I wanted to write.

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That is the moon. It was stunning.

Per tradition, at the final gathering of the retreat which would take place later that morning, each attendee would be invited to share something they’re good at and something they’re going to do. I spent a long time staring at the blank paper in front of me. What am I good at? I thought of my running, I thought of music, I thought of how I was such a nervous, shaky mess on the mic just a few days before. Then I thought of the most memorable parts of the past year and what I was the most proud of, from my racing experiences, to songwriting, and musical collaborations and performances. There was one thing tying everything together. Here’s what I wrote, and later shared with the group on our last day:

I’m good at writing. While I’m probably the most uncomfortable when I’m on stage performing a song I wrote or hitting the submit button when posting a new blog entry, those are the times when I feel the most connected to other people and when I feel the most understood. Expressing myself through written word is also when I feel the most vulnerable because unlike when I’m speaking candidly, I say everything I mean to. As nervewracking as that can sometimes be, of all the things I’ve ever done, aside from maybe running, writing feels the most “right.” It took me a long time to accept it, but I’m good at writing- and I’m going to use my voice.

Okay, okay, yes that is super cheesy, and ironically not even well written (hello, grammar and run on sentences). For me, writing songs and writing out my thoughts is my way of processing and sharing my experiences. And in return, I often receive an outpouring of thoughts and stories from those that read or listen. It’s a beautiful way to communicate and understand each other. So to those that have reached out, encouraged me, shared your own thoughts and stories, or have simply read or listened, thank you.

After everyone in the group said their piece, we decided on one word that we felt embodied the theme of the retreat that we could take with us back to our everyday lives as a mantra or reminder of our time together. This year we chose “free.”

Huge thank you to Kara Goucher and her staff for putting on yet another excellent retreat. The experience was meaningful, powerful, and very worthwhile. I hope to continue returning every year as a chance to check in with myself, catch up with old friends, make new ones, and leave feeling ready to take on whatever life throws at me.

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Shanna Burnette, co-founder of ModCraft. She does Kara’s PR and they’ve also been longtime friends. I loved learning more about her beginnings and how she took a leap by starting her own business developed on principles she values.
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Yissel McCardie, a runner and mother of two beautiful daughters. We had some wonderful conversations and I’m so glad we met.
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Brenda Alvarez, Assistant Manager at Oiselle’s flagship store and my Volée teammate. Something she said that stuck out to me was that, yes, maybe she had some luck finding her dream job. But she’s the one that did it. She put herself out there and made it happen. Respect.
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This woman. Lottie Bildirici is a triathlete, health coach, and founder of runonveg.com. She has changed the way I think about nutrition forever and I learned this weekend just how strong she is.
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My roomies, Cynthia Martinez (left) and Kimberly Clark-Aguilar. I loved getting to know them more. They’re both talented runners and writers among many other things) with big ambitions. Even though we live far from each other, we’ve been checking in with each other and encouraging each other since the trip. I’m grateful for their friendship!
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The one and only Sally Bergeson, founder + CEO of Oiselle. I can’t think of enough wonderful things to say about her. She rules.

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Giving Myself Grace

The miles have begun to dwindle down in my preparation for the Chicago Marathon. As I build up to important races, I like to hone in on certain words or mantras. In the past they’ve centered around being brave, fierce, and relentless- very much of the “I am woman, hear me roar” variety. This time, preceding Chicago, I’m taking a different approach.

I began this year with a healing cracked rib and a fresh start to training after some forced time off. While that hiatus wasn’t by choice, it gave me a chance to rest and rebuild myself from the ground up. I wanted to become the runner I’d always been striving to be- not just dreaming of it, but living it. My coach Greg and I came up with a plan that would center around consistency, something I lacked leading up to the Berlin Marathon last year. I worked on my everyday and race day nutrition with a health coach and took up regular yoga and continued with ballet training to be strong and athletic in other ways outside of running. I strove for perfection this year in a way I never had before by meeting my weekly mileage to a T and preparing meticulously for every race, particularly Chicago. Every workout has been laser focused, every marathon pace run I’ve been visualizing as the final miles of the race, every long run mimicking the flat Chicago course. Once I attempted running 18 miles at noon in ridiculous hot weather so I could practice in case it’s hot on race day (it didn’t go well… I wouldn’t recommend it). Prepare, prepare, prepare. Visualize. Study. Recover. Focus.

In the midst of all the preparation, I didn’t really think of how much pressure I’m putting on myself. In the past week or so I’ve felt as if I’ve been on the verge of breaking. Every day is “go, go, go” then I go to bed exhausted, only to have wild dreams about being in the midst of a terrifying attack on a school campus, to being stuck in Portland in a post-apocalyptic state with no water or power, to simply hitting the wall in the Chicago Marathon, looking at my watch and having it read two minutes per mile slower than my goal pace. One of those things is not like the other! I am making myself crazy.

It occurred to me yesterday that bravery and fierceness is not resonating with me. I think I need to be gentler on myself. The pressure I face is coming completely from within. I fear my instinct on race day will be to beat my legs into submission by running at an unimaginable pace, only to have the wheels come off and live out my “nightmare”. Considering all of the training and preparing, all I have left is to rest and carry out my race plan… and enjoy it! Rather than force magic, I hope to set myself up in a way that will allow it. This isn’t about having the perfect race, as much as I’ll try, but bringing everything I’ve learned and gained to the start line. I will be kind to myself. I will celebrate no matter what. I will give myself Grace.

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When I Woke

Yesterday morning I woke up in that blurry line between dream and reality, when it’s not quite clear which is which. I had just received an offer for a job I’d be perfect for, with three years worth of pay upfront. The number was written down on a note and slid across the table to me, just like a scene out of a movie. I would have been crazy to turn it down. In reality, I devote my time to pretty difficult and obscure pursuits, one of which I may never be physically capable of reaching a high level at, and one of which I have innate ability and a lifetime of experience to match, but don’t necessarily have the entrepreneurial skill set or magnetism to make a viable go at it on my own. In my dream I was being offered an out. I woke up before I could make a decision, but still the choice weighed heavy on my heart.

It’s easy to romanticize difficult pursuits, especially when the outcome is picture perfect. Overcoming hardship makes for a great story, like Boris Berian going from working at a Walmart McDonald’s to becoming the 800m 2016 Indoor World Champ and a member of the 2016 US Olympic Team. But what if you take away the happy ending for a moment and go back a couple years? You have a non-sponsored college dropout working a minimum wage job while chasing a pipe dream. Put yourself in his shoes two years ago when asked the seemingly simple question, “So, what do you do?” Responding that he was an employee at a fast food chain certainly wouldn’t have told the whole story. But saying “I’m a runner” would likely have been met with curiosity (at best), a blank stare, a change of subject, quiet skepticism, or prodding for more information, leading to “well, I’m training to be a professional runner… no, I haven’t run a marathon… no, I don’t get paid…” I can’t speak for Berian, but as a fellow pursuer of feats in fringy terrain, conversations like those naturally happen all the time. As much as everyone loves a good story, not everyone is accepting or comfortable with the making of one.

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Boris Berian after winning the 800m at the 2016 Pre Classic! Read more about his incredible story here.

I left my full time job in 2012 to pursue music instead and it was probably the most awkward time of my life. I resumed taking classical piano lessons after a few years off since college, began writing and recording music under Pink Feathers, and signed on to tour with the first RAC live show in 2013. I was doing all the things that I loved and felt like I was taking my life in the right direction, but I was temporarily jobless and very uncomfortable talking about it. Former colleagues would ask “So, uh, how’s that music thing going?” with a hint of sympathy. When I’d mention the upcoming tour, it felt like a lie because it hadn’t happened yet. I thought of my parents, who had been completely supportive of my decision, when they would inevitably be asked by their friends or colleagues, “So, what’s Liz been up to?” and wondered what they’d say and if they felt weird about it too.

As the years have gone by and as I’ve put out music and toured North America and beyond with RAC many times over and even with Pink Feathers this past fall, I’ve come to better terms with what I do but often times it feels like a double life. It feels odd to tell people I’m a recording artist and touring musician because it’s not normal (on a related note, Alexi Pappas just put out a short film very fitting for this topic, “When Runners Don’t Have Real Jobs“… ha!). I’m not some big rock star, but I do make a living from playing music. One of my biggest struggles is putting off or holding back on sharing what I’m working on or being totally wild onstage out of some sort of self-preservation. The more you put yourself out there in any pursuit, the more likely you are to get torn down. I know from experience, and I have a hard time dealing with it. There are moments when I come out of my shell, but many more moments that I play it safe. Despite the constant self-doubting, the thought of accepting that perfect-on-paper job out in whichever alternative universe brings me no joy at all; it just presents an easy way out.

Two weeks ago I went to Eugene, Oregon to watch the US Track & Field Olympic Trials, where the Olympic Team was determined by the top competitors in each event. I can’t tell you how much of a thrill it was to see these athletes run (and jump and throw) their guts out in the pursuit of a dream they’ve been working toward for years and years. After witnessing the events in real life and meet some of the runners and hear their stories, I had a sort of revelation that these weren’t otherworldly superhumans, though they certainly looked the part out on the track. They were regular human beings that worked really, really hard to get there. Even innate talent needs to be developed. Seeing what they were accomplishing gave me a renewed belief that I can get to where I’m going too, however rocky, embarrassing, or heartbreaking the path may be.

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My friends and I randomly bumped into Mark Wieczorak at the US Olympic Trials. I remember when I first saw him compete at the 2012 Trials. He was an unattached (no sponsor) high school cross country coach competing in a stripey American Eagle t-shirt and matching sweatband. He surprised everyone by placing 7th in the 800m final with a crazy fast time of 1:45. Read more about Mark’s story here. Photo by Athena Delene

In a recent ballet class, my instructor observed me and the other students as we performed the adagio routine she had just taught us. I wobbled around as I struggled to hold my balance while performing a series of slow, controlled movements on one leg. Afterward she faced us and held her arms up, elbows drooped, back hunched, and chin jutting out. She asked as what looked better. That way? Or this way? She then rounded her arms, brought her chest forward, elongated her neck, and gazed out to an imaginary audience. We tried the routine again. With the simple correction of fixing my posture and presentation, thus looking the part of a confident and poised dancer, I completed the combination with ease. I was reminded that you can work and work at anything as hard as you want, but you need conviction and belief in what you’re doing to match or it will never come to fruition. On race day you need to believe you belong on that start line. On show day you need to believe in and emote the lines you’ve written.

I had another dream. This time I was literally rolling and crawling around the front edge of a stage, grasping onto the monitors, my hair wild and unruly, just singing my face off. Whatever I was feeling the audience was right there feeling it and singing it right with me. Even when I woke, I knew that was exactly where I belonged.

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RAC at the Fonda Theatre by Jesse DeFlorio

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Tales of a Slacker

Back in grade school, my classmates and I got to pick an instrument we wanted to learn and play in the school band. I chose the flute because I thought it looked the most delicate and pretty. The sounds it made as I was learning how to play? Not so delicate or pretty. I was expected to practice at home, but I hardly ever did. Well, my parents had something to say about that.

One day after school I was SO excited to watch the special Valentine’s Day episode of Family Matters (I have an uncanny talent for remembering very specific things), but my parents clicked off the TV and said “no more!” until I practiced the flute. Oh, the horror! Well, it turned out that one can actually get better at something if they practice. My breathy, squeaky efforts over time turned into clear, full, beautiful notes. By eighth grade, I was soloist and first chair. Thanks, Mom and Dad!

My main instrument has always been piano. I started playing when I was seven years old and continued to study through college. Throughout my earlier years playing, I practiced, but usually the minimum 30 minutes or so per day. I got by just fine and was happy with my progress, earning blue ribbons and high marks in local piano festivals and the Piano Guild. Then just after I turned 14, I started high school at a brand new school with all new classmates. One of these classmates turned out to be a very good pianist. I stumbled upon him casually playing a Burgmuller piece at blitzing speed for a small crowd of students and I think my jaw dropped. Piano was my thing! From then on, I was highly motivated to practice. A lot. While my motives initially came from a competitive standpoint, I began to move through repertoire more quickly and started learning more advanced works. I discovered my love for Beethoven’s Appassionata and Brahms’ Rhapsodies. I think it was then that I truly blossomed as a pianist.

That same initial period of time, when I was 14 and fresh into high school, I joined the cross country team for fun. I enjoyed it, but did the bare minimum at practice and definitely didn’t run over the weekends and the off season. My 5K times were stagnant from my freshman to junior year. I didn’t like finishing in the back of the pack, but I wasn’t really doing anything to change that. My senior year, fueled by some inner motivation and encouragement from my coach to set a better example for incoming freshman athletes, I actually tried in practice and finished my races without walking or DNF’ing. I also ran on weekends and even some mornings before school. Surprise, surprise- my times started dropping! My 5K personal record dropped to 21:15. If you had asked me three years earlier, I would have considered that an unattainable superhero time.

The theme through all of these stories is a pretty simple one. Put forth some effort, even just a little, and you will see results. Put forth even more effort, and you’ll see even greater results. But what comes after that?

I’ve been dedicated to running for years and years. I am very good at running- to a point. When I look at other aspects of myself as a fit, healthy human in general.. ehhh. Ask me to max out on push ups and I might reach ten. Ask me what I ate for breakfast and I’ll probably tell you I had the most delicious morning bun from the local bakery. I can suck at push ups and eat as many pastries as I want and pull off being a decent runner. But hold up- I want to be a great runner!

So in a way, I’m going back to basics. Like a true New Year’s Resolutionist, I decided to take up yoga in the beginning of the year to become more well-rounded in my core strength and flexibility. I’ve tried it in the past and thought, “yeahhh that’s not for me,” as I was terrible at it! When I went to sign up for classes at my local studio, my user history showed I had attended exactly one class. In 2011. I’m a little over a month in now and have gone to 13 classes. I’ve never been more aware of my physical limits. I am wound up tight and there are moments when I feel like I will never uncoil. The other day in class I couldn’t keep my balance, I couldn’t hold a plank, and my back would not bend. It made me wonder if it was all futile and wondered if I should throw in the towel (or in this case the yoga mat). Then something amazing happened during my next class. The instructor had us sit with our legs straight out with our sit bones on the mat, lift up using our breath and our backs, and reach forward. Not only could I touch my toes- I could reach beyond my toes! I definitely, definitely don’t remember the last time I’ve been able to do that. It was the smallest of victories, but significant enough to give me affirmation that this isn’t a lost cause.

On the nutritional side of things-I know enough to understand what I generally should and shouldn’t be eating, but I’m not above asking for help and accountability- which is exactly what I’m doing. This week I began working with Lottie Bildirici of Running On Veggies with the aim of developing better and hopefully sustainable, lifelong habits. So far I love Lottie’s whole food/plant based recipes. They’re super easy and not time consuming to make (this quinoa pizza crust is a winner). However, the struggle is super real when it comes to my cravings for a post-meal sweet treat. I hope it gets easier, though I’m not sure that it will!

In the same way that one mastering an instrument can add nuance on top of technical proficiency, my hope is that caring for my overall wellness will allow me the freedom to become a better runner. Or if anything, just a better human.

Great Expectations

2014 was a breakthrough year for my running. I spent the first portion of the year regaining my fitness after a setback from injury, then later in the year I knocked four minutes off my half marathon best and fourteen minutes off my marathon best. My train of thought was, if I can run those kinds of PRs after a setback, imagine the possibilities after uninterrupted training! So I charged into 2015 with very, very high standards set on myself.

So far, everything this year has gone swimmingly as I’ve prepared for the Eugene Half Marathon on May 10th. I’ve had solid workouts, long runs, and mileage. I ran a 10K personal best by 42 seconds at the Linfield College Icebreaker Meet on March 6th, then a week later lowered my 15K best at the Portland Shamrock Run by 9 seconds, drenched in rain. Yet, after every tempo run, speed workout, and race, I’ve found myself thinking, “Wow, that was really hard,” and was disappointed that it didn’t come easier or that I wasn’t faster. Maybe it’s because I’m an overachiever, or because I’m greedy, or maybe the two go hand in hand. With every milestone I reach, I am always wanting more. I pride myself by having ambitious goals, but comparing those goals with my current fitness leaves me feeling dissatisfied with the smaller successes.

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With that on my mind, I’ve found myself looking to the wisdom of athletes I look up to. I recently read “Run to Overcome” by 2014 Boston Marathon champ Meb Keflezighi. I wish I could find the direct quote (I tried), but he said something along the lines of practicing patience and looking to improve by bits at a time, rather than leaps and bounds. With that mindset, you can set yourself up for success rather than constant (perceived) failure, not to mention putting yourself at a much lower risk of injury by not over-training. It is very hard for me to practice this kind of patience. With running, my career, life in general, I’m constantly feeling this sense of urgency, like if I don’t accomplish all I want to by some arbitrary timeline, I will never reach my goals and all will be lost.

In a recent piece on Ryan Hall in the New Yorker, he was quoted saying, “Running can be such a beautiful sport…An amazing experience for everyone. But I’ve also been on the other side of that, where I’ve lived for the victories and the performances and I just—I know how shallow and fleeting and chasing-the-wind that is. So it breaks my heart when I see other people doing that same thing I’ve done, and knowing what they’re in store for…It’s like, ‘Dude, no matter what you accomplish, it’s not gonna fill you up. It’s not what you’re looking for.’”

When asked why he keeps racing if victory has had a diminished meaning for him, Hall’s response was, “To never compare myself to myself or anyone else. I think comparison is bad. It’s bad in sports, it’s bad in life, it’s bad in writing, it’s just bad. But it is called a competition, so how do you do a competition the right way? For me, that’s where it comes back to excellence. I try and get everything out of my body that God’s put in me, the best I can. You hear it a million times—‘Just do your bestbut, really, that’s all you can do.”

I took away so much from what Hall said in that article. Driven people, no matter what career and no matter where they are on the spectrum within it, are always looking to reach that next level. If that’s their only motivation, they will never be satisfied. I don’t think that should diminish anyone’s ambition, but I do think it’s important to dig a little deeper and really understand the motivation behind it.

Here is my motivation. I want to be a living example that a slacker high school kid with little talent can go on to work really, really hard and accomplish amazing and impossible things. I want to bridge the gap between art and athleticism. I want to show that people don’t have to pigeonhole themselves based on their interests or occupation. We are limitless! We can do our best.