Lilah Drafts-Johnson: Run Your Own Race. Here's Why.



"Failure is a necessary part of the process, an effective if harsh teacher. This balanced approach to racing also meant that when it was time to compete, I knew how to keep my composure."



By Lilah Drafts-Johnson - MileSplit Correspondent


    Back in high school, I thought my career had peaked before it even had begun, simply because I wasn't achieving the same milestones as my peers. 

    I want to tell my younger self the same thing that I'd say to current high school athletes who struggle with plateaus or setbacks: Try to look beyond the finish line and seek out ways of measuring progress that are more nuanced than wins and losses. Continue to build your self-knowledge as an athlete by embracing challenges and learning from your failures. And when your moment arrives, remember: run your race.

    It took me until halfway through my collegiate career at Oberlin College -- a Division III program -- to accept this adage, but once I did, I never glanced at the lane next to me again. 


    More On Lilah: 

    Lilah Drafts-Johnson is a graduate of Oberlin College, where she was a double major, and a 2018 NCAA Division IIII champion in the 400mH. She is currently a PhD student at the University of Maryland and has written for D3 Glory Days. 


    I arrived at Oberlin with a PR of 69.7 in the 400m hurdles. I left with a PR of 59.34 -- a top 400 time in the world for that year -- four All-American trophies, a No. 10 time in Division III history and an NCAA title. I hadn't been recruited for my talent in the event--it was my triple jump marks that had caught the program's attention.

    No one could have predicted how my collegiate career would take off based on my high school MileSplit recruiting profile, which mostly featured my backwards progression in the two-mile race at Melrose High School (MA).

    Things seemed promising at first: I was a league all-star and state championship qualifier my freshman and sophomore years. As my body changed through puberty, my two-mile times changed, too. In the span of a year, I went from easily running sub-12:30 times to barely being able to break 14-minutes. At the ripe age of 16, I briefly feared that I was already in the home stretch of my running career. It was difficult not to, comparing myself to teammates with more linear progressions who steadily improved in their events. 

    I quickly embraced a new identity as a team player. In addition to the two-mile, I began competing in the 400m hurdles and the triple jump, two events that lacked depth on my team due to their technical difficulty. I didn't have sufficient time in high school to explore my full potential in these events, but I arrived at my collegiate program with a broad training background and a love for the sport. 


    At Oberlin, I trained with the 400m group and was surprised at how quickly my body adapted once I asked it to specialize in sprinting. Within my freshman year, I lowered my 400m hurdles PR from 69.7 to 62.82 seconds. I was one of only two freshmen to qualify for the outdoor NCAA Division III Championships, where I finished 17th.

    It was during my postseason meeting that I made a bet: If I can qualify for this meet as a freshman, I can win it before I graduate. 

    I knew a goal this big would require a shift in the way I approached my workouts and competitions. In my first two years of college, my athletic conference was stacked with All-Americans in my event. This meant I was frequently racing women who were older and more experienced in the 400m hurdles than me. My reverence of their dominance in the event often compromised by own self-confidence. 

    I would be too afraid to take a race out harder than them, inadvertently imitating their racing style instead of trusting my own training. Eventually, I realized the mistake I was making. I didn't want to become my rivals; I wanted to be better than them. I needed to learn to run my own race. I stopped comparing and instead worked with my coaches to identify my individual strengths and weaknesses as an athlete and develop a game plan for improvement. 

    The way I approached my own goals reflected the blueprint offered by my coaches and teammates. We had big goals as a team but were taught that the road to success would be paved with small, accumulating wins from everyday practice. 

    Our job was to show up, execute in workouts and drills to the best of our ability and leave a little bit better than the day before. I watched as this formula produced the first female NCAA champion in my school's history -- my teammate Monique Newton -- and subsequent back-to-back indoor and outdoor conference titles for our team in my junior and senior year. 

    Fifty-nine-point-thirty-four seconds and ten hurdles later, I made good on my wager three years prior. I became a national champion and clocked a personal best in the most high-stakes race of my life.

    While I still kept an eye on my competition, I trained my focus on the factors that I could control. I let go of the need to win every race and reframed meets as a testing ground where I could take risks and explore my potential. Sometimes, these risks paid off with tangible podium finishes and shiny new personal records. Often a race wouldn't go my way, but I gained valuable insight into what I needed to improve. 

    Failure is a necessary part of the process, an effective if harsh teacher. This balanced approach to racing also meant that when it was time to compete, I knew how to keep my composure.

    I was ready when the nerves washed over me as the starter called us to our marks for my final collegiate race at the 2018 NCAA Championships. 

    Eight excellent competitors stood in the lanes ahead and behind me, each with stories and dreams of their own. As I stepped into the starting blocks and bowed my head, ready to surrender to adrenaline and muscle memory, my final conscious thought was, "Run your race." 

    Fifty-nine-point-thirty-four seconds and ten hurdles later, I made good on my wager three years prior. I became a national champion and clocked a personal best in the most high-stakes race of my life.

    That final race basks everything that came before it in a golden glow, but it took almost six years and constant trial and error for me to truly find my stride as a sprinter. Comparison is inevitable in a sport grounded in personal records and qualifying marks, but it's not always the most reliable metric.

    Everyone develops differently--the important thing is to learn how to run your own race.


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