Race as a Metaphor for Life: Lessons Learned at Foot Locker Nationals

And just like that the energy is gone.  Twelve hours ago the island of Coronado, just across the bay from downtown San Diego, was pumping with life.  The Foot Locker Nationals event creates a magical atmosphere here that almost feels like we are all part of a single organism.  You can feel it.  You get caught up in it.  And it overtakes you.  Even on the unfortunate and rare bad weather years, like this one, it barely dampers the emotion.

Now it's Sunday.  And as quickly as it came, it's gone.  I didn't even have to rise out of my hotel bed to know it, the life force of 1000 enthusiastic cross country fans had left the island and you just know it in some new age collective consciousness kind of way.  As I made it down to the hotel lobby of the Glorietta Bay Hotel--across the street from the Del where their athletes stay--there was a fleeting second where I thought just maybe it might last another day, but the lobby that a day ago was filled with vibrancy is now empty.  Just another 363 days until I can feel that magic of being part of this wonderful oneness again.

So as I sit alone as one of the few cross country stragglers left on this resort island in its off-season, I reflect on this year's meet. 

There's something special about this sport that is different from the others.  Actually there's a lot of things.  But one of the most profound is how a race--along with the side stories preceding it and just after--seem to be a metaphor for life in a broader sense.  And just like a good Biblical parable, it can teach you a lot about yourself, others, and the way to be successful and happy.  I decided to pick out a few anecdotes that some of the girls that I covered this weekend taught me.  I also threw in some completely off-subject but completely on-target quotes from Henry Ford to go along with each story.

Get Up, Dust Yourself Off, Move On...

Adding the line "Foot Locker finalist" to your distance running resume is something that never goes away and those three words alone speak volumes to anyone who knows the sport.  That panache that comes with those powerful words is not without good reason.  If you are able to prove yourself worthy to make it here--tested by fire against the best of the best--you are in a truly elite club.  It's an odd feeling for some of the athletes especially.  Most of them are highly decorated in their states, record holders, and state champions.  In most every race they enter during the course of the year they are at the front of the pack, often out of visual range of the nearest competitor.  So sure some are favored to finish higher, expectations are a little different on each... but let's not forget these are all champions in their own right.  And even if on paper or us internet bloggers don't peg an athlete to finish highly, you don't get to this level by chance.  You get there because you are a competitor, who works hard, and sets high standards for themselves.  My point is... no one comes here without setting their sights high.  The internal expectations, if nothing else, are stacked and that leaves a lot of room to fall.

In interviewing hundreds of athletes over the years at this race, we have seen a lot of disappointment.  With so many great athletes, only a few can be at the top of the pack meaning probably the majority of the athletes are going to leave feeling like they have ruined their one chance, let others down, or just let themselves down.  It's so hard to see in those moments or even days following a race that didn't live up to your exceptions that the sun will indeed rise again and in the grand scheme of things you have to look back on all that you have accomplished, rather than what you haven't.

I was particularly touched this year by a young lady from my own state, Shelby Hayes.  After interviewing several such athletes, dealing with disappointment in various ways... some in tears, some in solitude, perhaps some in anger... then I decided to talk to Shelby.  Though I don't know her especially well, she hails from a school not 20 miles from where I live and I have seen her in numerous races over the years including my own cross country meet and some really impressive mile races!  A few weeks ago I saw her have a particularly high point when she won the state championship both as an individual and with her team.  She followed that up with a blow-out fifth place performance at Foot Locker South, a race that going in she was given an outside shot at qualifying. After a 20 second PR, she was on her way to San Diego.

With great mile speed and clearly peaking at the right time, now suddenly Shelby (and others) thought she had a legitimate shot at possibly cracking into the top fifteen and adding "All-American" next to that "Foot Locker finalist" on her resume.  It didn't happen.  Not even close.  She finished in 39th place.  With every reason to be disappointed, I approached her for an interview expecting possibly another tearful discussion.  Instead I was nearly brought to tears myself and given a life lesson.

"I didn't run nearly what I wanted to," she said, "but every day is not going to be your day and it's awesome just to be here."  With such a sunny outlook just minutes after the race, she showed that maturity that one would not normally expect from a seventeen year old.   It's far easier said than done (and usually only comes in sagely retrospect months or years later), but even when we have every reason to feel at our lowest often, given the proper perspective, we realize that maybe things aren't quite as dim as we thought in that moment.  Shelby recognized that her season was a huge accomplishment and remembered all of the many goals that she set out for and had achieved already--instead of the one she hadn't.  As we talked about her upcoming track season, I felt my inner optimist grow two sizes that day (it's Christmas season... alluding, probably poorly, to the Grinch's heart). Thank you, Ms. Hayes!

Quote from Henry Ford:  "Life is a series of experiences, each one of which makes us bigger, even though sometimes it is hard to realize this. For the world was built to develop character, and we must learn that the setbacks and grieves which we endure help us in our marching onward."

Run Your Own Race...

Chelsea Ley was one of the top returners this year to Foot Locker Nationals.  She has been here before and has big race experience to spare.  For whatever reason though, while she still had a season full of big wins, her times haven't quite been what they were in the past.  So for that reason, she really had lower expectations going in than one might expect given that she is the number three returner from last year's Foot Locker Nationals.  She didn't let that bother her though.

She was determined to push up with the leaders and believed in herself enough to know she still had the tools to do it.  However, even Chelsea didn't expect the race to play out the way it did.  Basically from the gun of the girls race, here was Chelsea Ley in the lead!  We were all pretty stunned... and apparently so was she! 

"No... that was not my plan at all," Ley said about whether she intended to lead the race. "I knew people were all kinda thinking, you know, what is she doing out there... she doesn't belong."  Those that have gotten to talk to the easy-going senior over the years would not be surprised to learn that she didn't let that realization bother her one bit.  She and her coach had set a plan in mind to take the pace out strong in around 5:15 to 5:20 and, when there was no one else taking that initiative, Ley decided to take that leadership role upon herself.

"I knew we weren't going that pace.  So (I thought) someone's gotta take the lead... so I kinda went for it." 

She continued to run hard until she was caught and eventually overtaken somewhere after the first mile, but she didn't let that phase her either.  It wasn't that she had let nerves get to her and spooked her into going out too fast.  She had just set out to run her own race, at her own pace, and if that meant leading so be it.  She wasn't intimidated by leading; she wasn't worried about following.  Chelsea showed the inner strength to remain cool and confident and blazed her own path in spite of what others around her were doing.

"I just raced how I wanted to."

Ley continued to chart her own course, falling to seventh just after the two mile mark.  She held her position, running strong throughout the race and looking great the last mile.  No one else passed her and she ended up one spot better than her eighth place in 2008.

There really are a lot of life lessons in her race and her attitude.  One of the best things, I believe, she taught us applies to both life in general and to the business world.  It's always good to remain cognizant of what those around you are doing, especially in the context of a competitive situation.  Too often though we can get too focused on that and lose track of ourselves:  our plan, our pace, our strengths, and our ideals.  When you focus on yourself first--whether that is in racing, in studies, in our relationships, in products we create--we are most able to live up to our potential and falter less often.

Quote from Henry Ford:  "The competitor to be feared is one who never bothers about you at all, but goes on making his own business better all the time."

Never Give Up...

Maybe it's cliche to talk about Megan Goethals' win, since that's what every other article on the meet will no doubt focus on.  But what a truly amazing close to that race!

Chelsey Sveinsson is the fastest girl in that race.  She has run a 2:07 800 meters and a 4:40 mile.  So when the Texan had the lead over Goethals with 400 meters to go, pretty much everyone who could see the race or the large jumbotron overhead believed the race was over.  And perhaps so did Chelsey.  Goethals herself almost believed it.  For the flutter of an eyelash she almost considered cruising in for second behind such an amazing athlete as Sveinsson to be an acceptable honor.  But not for any longer than that brief nanosecond in time.

Positioned with the other photographers just past the finish line, I saw Chelsey crest the final little hill.  With nothing but green grass and a finish tape in front of her, it seemed clear to me that my pre-race prediction of Sveinsson taking the tape would be correct.  There was a mere 200 meters to go and Goethals was not yet in sight.  In fact, one of the photographers to my side made a comment audible on the tape that she was alone.

About two or three seconds later, we saw Goethals come over the hill.  As we all in the sport know, that kind of lead with just meters to go in the race is pretty huge--especially when dealing with a speedster like Chelsey.  But Megan would not be deterred and would not settle.  With a feverish kick she inched closer and closer.  What happened next was unbelievable.

Though I have watched the finish video probably 20 times, I still don't believe it.  With probably ten steps to go to the finish, the win was clearly Chelsey's.  With seven steps to go, it was going to be an interesting close finish from a photographer's perspective.  With three steps to go, we just couldn't believe our eyes.  Megan pulled off the impossible and overtook the leader.  With one step to go, she threw up her arms in victory as Chelsey subconsciously hurled herself forward in one last attempt.

Megan did the impossible.  When everyone but herself and her coach had counted her out...  She believed.  And she achieved.

Quote from Henry Ford:  "Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right."