It’s the spring of 2014, and I’m packed into a van with 9 other girls. I’ve just run 8 miles, 4 of them at tempo effort, and I’m sweating so profusely that it’s hard to sit upright in the leather seats; they are slick with my sweat, and my legs struggle to find purchase as the van bounces up and down on the dirt road. The weather is unseasonably warm for this time of year, and we have all paid the price for our lack of heat acclimation.
I clutch the row of seats in front of me, trying to avoid touching the sweaty bodies that flank me on either side. Hozier is playing in the background: take me to church, he sings, and in my half-drunk rest-starved post-workout state, it occurs to me just how appropriate that is. How the long, hot run I’d just coaxed out of my now-slack body had been a sacrifice of sorts; my daily devotional, laid down at the altar of pain.
At the time, I was a 22-year-old senior preparing myself for the last of my four track seasons at Kutztown University. In a mile race, this season would be my bell lap, and in the most ideal of scenarios, I’d be in the best shape of my life, readying myself to unleash a blistering kick.
Instead, my worst nightmare had happened. I’d fallen down the stairs in November of that year in a freak accident and sprained my ankle so badly that I was unable to walk without assistance for three weeks. A second of clumsiness had take me off the roads and relegated me to the indoor pool, where I “ran” in the deep end with a flotation belt strapped around my waist.
It was a new kind of pain; both mental and physical. I’d been injured before, but I had not been planning on it in this, my last chance at a successful track season and a podium finish in the steeplechase. Before I got injured, I’d come off of an unexpectedly encouraging cross country campaign. I’d run some massive PRs, and was expecting track to be more of the same. Now, I floated in the pool helplessly and tried to imagine coming back from this injury triumphant. I couldn’t.
Luckily, I had a great athletic trainer, an excellent coach, and the wisest of best friends and training partners. The day that I was cleared to run, I was barely able to limp through 10 minutes. It was agonizing, and when I finished, she held me while I cried. “It hurts,” I told her. “It hurts so bad.” She paused for a second before answering.
“Let it hurt,” she said. “Let it hurt every single day so for one day in the spring it doesn’t.”
I had been alone in the pool for two months, and when I rejoined my teammates I was put back in the distance group. At the time, that group was only four strong. Three of those girls were in the shape of their lives – one would go on to qualify for the national meet in cross country the following fall, and the other two set huge PRs that winter and spring in the 5k – and the fourth girl was me.
I was not in the shape of my life.
Easy runs were fine. I could run my own pace, or fall in with one of the mid-distance girls. But during workouts, there was no such easy out. We shared a track with the sprinters and the jumpers, the throwers and the hurdlers – the people who would be counting on us for points at the conference meet. There was no place to hide, and no way to take it easy.
It was, quite simply, awful.
It was the same story every time. I would start with the other three girls, then watch as they effortlessly sprinted away from me, even when I was running at maximum effort. On the rare occasion that I could stay with them, I was working harder than I’d ever worked in my life, just to hang off the back of the pack.
There were days where we’d finish and they’d launch casually into their cool down laps while I stood over a trash can, vomiting from the effort of trying to keep pace with them. There were workouts where I’d run all out just to finish more than 10 seconds behind, where I’d stand stock still with my hands on my hips, head back while I gasped for air and prayed to god to get me through the day. There were tempo runs where I asked my coach not to tell me my time, because it hurt too much to know exactly how far behind I was.
Most days, I’d go home and cry. And my friend would tell me: “Let it hurt today so that the one day that it counts, it won’t.”
I won’t lie to you. My story doesn’t have the happiest of endings. I did not end up finishing atop the podium that year. I missed placing at conferences by two places, five seconds.
But what I did instead was set a collegiate best in every single distance – from the 800 to the steeplechase – in the space of a month. I made myself a factor in a race that I wasn’t even sure I’d be healthy enough to start three months before. I had what was arguably the best performance of my career at the indoor conference meet, when I came from behind in the first leg of the DMR with a huge kick to hand off in third, in front of girls who went on to notch All-American finishes at the national meet.
And I was so, so proud of myself.
I read an interview with Kate Grace recently, in which she says that the biggest lesson she’s learned over the last year is that “improvement comes when it hurts”. I have to agree, because the year that I truly learned what it means to embrace pain was my miracle year: the year that I came from behind to do what no one – including me – thought was possible. The year that I learned the price of success is a daily sacrifice to that altar of pain; whether that means forcing yourself through yet another impossible workout, forcing yourself to get out and put the miles in when you’d rather do anything else in the world, or even just forcing yourself to start what seems, at first, to be an impossible task.
Take me to church, indeed.