If someone was to ask me some of my favorite memories in life thus far, the majority of them would be about sports. Whether it was dancing in the lockerroom before a game, or a big upset where nobody thought we would win- all of these situations provide a certain thrill and sense of belonging that's difficult to emulate. Being an undersized athlete, I often had to overcome a lot of odds to get to where I am, which made each victory even sweeter.
The impact of helping teammates overcome obstacles together is one of the coolest feelings in the world. I'll never forget upsetting two ranked opponents in college in the same weekend, and the dog pile from my teammates that followed. We celebrated together, in front of a packed home crowd, and continued that celebration into early hours of the next day. I remember thinking to myself, how can it get any better than this? My senior season during our pre-season conditioning testing, all but a few girls passed on the first attempt. Our sprint test is very difficult for a sport that requires bursts of speed, not long distance at a high speed which this test is. It is more a test of your mental strength than your physical strength, silencing the voice in your head telling you to stop. Running it with your teammates who are all helping pace you makes the world of a difference, and you know if you can stick with them, you'll make it on time. So it is VERY difficult to pass your second time, just one day later, with nobody to pace you except others who also did not make it their first time. I volunteered to run it again with two of my younger teammates I had trained with all summer, and mid way through felt my groin tighten up into a giant knot. I had already passed the test, so didn't need to finish, but worried that if I quit, they wouldn't make it. I silenced the voice telling me to stop, and they both passed the test this time, and I went on with a pulled groin muscle to start my senior year pre-season. Having them come up to me after and thank me for running with them, had me question if I could ever feel this way again.
The truth is- it may not, and hasn't for me. Being an athlete ingrains a certain way of thinking in you. We love pressure situations, and will sacrifice anything for our team- from nights drinking like our other classmates, to our bodies when we question if we can survive this much pain. The sense of community and togetherness is one that no personal accomplishment will fulfill, as my teammates have had my back, both on and off the court, on numerous occasions which made want to be better, and push through indescribable pain at times to get the job done. Whether our goal was to upset an opponent, win a national championship, or survive the season- whenever doubt crept into my mind, I could look around and they were there to pick me right back up and remind me who I was fighting for.
This past weekend I competed in the Chicago Marathon. A big goal for someone who was never much of a runner, but it gave me a sense of purpose in my day and something to train for as I talked about in How To Define Your Life After Sports. I cringe using the word competing, because I had to quit at mile 21/26.2. I started off great, and my pace was where I would hope it would be after the first 10k- then I felt the slight tightening in my back around mile 8 (that I became accustomed waking up to everyday my last two seasons playing). I trotted on, took a few stretch breaks, and continued when the back pain returned to a manageable level. Passing people cheering with comical signs, and running along side people who were blind, disabled, and much older than me gave me motivation to keep going. Although my back did bother me on some of my training runs before yesterday, it was not any worse than what I had competed with before during my athletic career. My Tylenol PM these past few months didn't have quite the same effect as my Muscle Relaxer/Oxycontin concoction that helped me survive in college after a long day- but I also wasn't diving, jumping, or lifting weights- so I figured I would be okay.
Around mile 17 I began to question my ability to finish, and my stretch and walk breaks began to take longer than my brief spurts of running. The stabbing pain slowly returning, and my book on tape I was listening to which was able to drown out my breath, wasn't able to distract me from the stabbing feeling in my back. So as I made the turn on mile 21 to China Town and saw the aid station, I decided to take a little longer stretch break with some assistance- and when the sharp pain didn't subdue, I didn't want to risk any more damage and called it quits and walked to meet up with my cheerer to head home.
Although today I am quite sore, it really is nothing like some of my soreness in preseason. Instead of going back to practice with the rest of my team the next day after a big win, I decided to take a personal day at work, because I could and nobody was depending on me. And although the pain I had yesterday was quite bad, it still didn't compare to some of the pain I had my senior season. The difference, was however this was for my own achievement, my own goal. That is everything that being an athlete is NOT about. If I had a teammate waiting for me to pass a baton off to I have no doubt in my mind that I could have continued and silenced the voice in my head telling me to stop.
Like I mentioned before, I question if I'll ever feel the way I did again as when I was an athlete. Fighting with your teammates, for your teammates, is something that is pretty unique. I feel as though looking over this past year at all the awesome things that have happened to me, still leave me with a void. From participating in a marathon, landing a great job, and getting engaged- all these things benefit me, and honestly not many other people. As an athlete where my results directly impacted those around me, made a difference if they succeeded as well is completely different mindset than worrying about your own happiness. Before my determination and drive was motivated by others, and is now more of an internal struggle, which is immensely more difficult to accomplish with an athlete's overly high standard we hold for ourselves. I was hoping the marathon would show me that I could feel that sense of accomplishment again, but accomplishing things for just your self is completely different. So although this experience has helped me get a better grasp that maybe this void isn't meant to be filled- but rather accepted as those feelings are part of the past.
Side note- I do not recommend a marathon for ANY ex-athlete who's sport wasn't cross country or have experienced any foot/ankle/knee/hip/back injury during your career. Then again, if you've survived without any of the mentioned injuries, I question calling yourself an ex-athlete, therefore still can't recommend you sign up for a marathon.