Letter from a Board Member

Happy Halloween and Late Fall, Fellow Runners!

By: Hannah Taska

While I am not one to philosophize at length or offer a wealth of knowledge on running, I am curious about different people’s running experiences! Having met a number of people recently at club events who are getting into or back to running, or who have just joined the club, I have been curious, for example, how people have motivated through a changing running environment during various parts of the Covid pandemic. Also, I am inspired and impressed in any period by people who start running or pick it up again as adults through their own motivation and work, with or without family role models. In a future article I would like to interview Couch to 5K participants and other beginning and transitioning runners about these sorts of experiences.

For this article, with limited time for interviews, I wanted to think back to what was on my mind earlier in my own running life, so I dug into my late high school/early college running journals.

While I do not remember exactly how I decided to join high school track (my first official running season), I do know that my mom and dad had encouraged my participation in endurance sports through example and family vacations. We hiked most of the 4000-footers in VT and NH when I was growing up, and were lucky to get to do some extensive backpacking in France as well. I kept up my hiking motivation through playing word games and making up stories with my family, as well as looking forward to rock scrambles that would challenge me enough to be exciting rather than simply hard work. I once described the most grueling hikes as “too hard to be relaxing and too easy to be exciting”. Despite my tendency to seek distraction during hikes, over time I did take on a genuine enjoyment of the activity, both as a form of exploration, time in the wilderness, and a way to connect with my parents, brother, and friends. And I went into running and other sports with a fitness base that (I imagine, in retrospect) may have eased the transition into running training.

I also enjoyed the exhilarating feeling of running, as well as the excitement of competitions including running, from a young age, starting in informal contexts. My brother and I would do races and time trials in the swamps and on the roads near our house. I also took pleasure in being in close competition in basketball sprint drills with girls who otherwise had me beat with their ball-handling skills, particularly with those who picked on me (though I had some fear of the possibility they would be annoyed at me for matching up to them in any respect). 

A desire to interact with peers in a context appealing to me (particularly since I was homeschooling), and to engage in exciting physical activity, and perhaps also a desire for achievement, motivated a general desire to participate in high school sports. I initially chose soccer and basketball due to my liking of those sports and the participation of a sizable number of girls on those teams (as compared to the few girls who were doing cross-country early in my high school years). I also did track, both out of my own desire and my parents’ love of running and encouragement of me to try out the sport. My mom unfortunately had to forgo running for other sports at a certain point due to joint issues, but my dad was able to continue and remained a consistent summer training companion for me at this time, along with my brother when he was still slow enough for me. 

Over the course of high school, a number of factors motivated me to shift to more fitness sports: coordinating scheduling with my brother (my mom was driving us both to sports), my liking of the athletes and coaches in the fitness sports (and experiences with being picked on in other sports), my relatively higher level in running and cross-country skiing  capacity for individual achievement, potentially lower risk of the ankle sprains I’d gotten in soccer and basketball, and greater co-ed nature of the fitness sports at my high school.

When I switched from high school to college running, I went from a team of 5 - 10 (at most) women distance runners to around 20, and from near the front of the group to the middle. Mainly this shift was a positive one; I had the camaraderie of more peers, as well as the training and racing company of other fairly competitive athletes. There were, however, some challenges to my ego involved in this shift, particularly in comparing myself to others near my pace. I found it difficult at times when a team-mate of a similar level (especially one with whom I had reasons to be competitive) soared to a greater level of  success than I did during a season or perhaps for the rest of our college running seasons. Towards the end of the season we all had reason to be particularly aware of rank, since the top seven, or second seven, or top twelve, could go to certain end-of-season cross-country races. I was often around the cut-off point for these races, and was lucky to get to go to many of them, though sometimes I was less lucky too. At the time I dealt with the competition and periodic jealousy mainly by continuing to train and to appreciate the mutual benefits my team-mates and I gave each other. Also I enjoyed sometimes competing in events frequented by fewer runners such as the steeplechase, or running in conditions which some runners might shy away from.

I experienced changes related to coaching too. While I also liked my high school running coaches, I had particular respect and liking for my college coach, Deb Aitken. She cared a lot about each team member as a person and athlete, as well as about the team as a whole. She thought about our health while also being enthusiastic about competition. I found that she provided a smart balance of easy running with reasonably hard workouts with a basis in science. 

Pacing in college races was somewhat different from high school; in early-season cross-country races, Deb would assign us a plan for the first, second, and third miles in terms of who, if anyone, should start off in the lead, whether some or all of us should stick together at certain points, and how fast we should run at different points. High school had been every athlete for themselves in that way I suppose. While such a plan might grate on me now if imposed from the outside, at the time I did not criticize it in my running journal and largely cooperated during races. Given the potential of team members to pull each other along psychologically, such plans probably had some validity. 

Fast starts seem to have been standard practice in college cross-country races (both for our coach to assign, at times, and for many other runners to do as well), which was also probably somewhat practical given the large field of runners and sometimes-narrow trail. The pacing which I viewed as ideal was usually closer to steady, though I ended up starting fast often, and sometimes surprising myself with a strong race despite or thanks to the start, and sometimes suffering for the fast start. So my response combined going along with what everyone else was doing because in this case it could actually be helpful, and reacting against that and shifting my pacing in one or more subsequent races because I thought fast starts weren’t physiologically the best choice.

With the frequency of workouts and races at this time in my life, and perhaps other psychological factors, I often expended a lot of effort and/or felt significant fatigue, along with more energetic times, which was not only a challenge in itself physically but also a psychological challenge. Part of the challenge of tough runs for me despite their satisfying aspect was my fear of effort, as well as my fear of giving up and experiencing the shame and blow to self-esteem that would cause. Primarily I managed to push through the effort despite these factors, though there may have been an extent to which I was hesitant to give 110%, such as when a hard race came down to a sprint at the end. Over time, repeated examples of mostly managing to continue despite fatigue dispelled these fears partially, as did improved fitness.

As for injuries, I dealt with shin splints in one or a few seasons in both high school and college, due to some aspect of training transitions, I suspect: shoes? training surfaces? changes in mileage and training types? the impact following hurdling in the steeplechase? I saw a physical therapist in high school and was prescribed orthotics, which I wore sometimes but eventually stopped using, unsure of how helpful they actually were. I also switched to biking periodically when running caused my shins pain. I am as yet unsure what eventually caused the shin splints to subside, whether it was a change in training or footwear or simply general strengthening of the shins and surrounding muscles.

How have I progressed with the above running challenges, and are there morals to the topics above? Those are topics you can take up with me later if you like. I have a few questions for you as well: do any of these experiences resonate with you? Would you like to talk with me about the joys and challenges of your running beginnings or transitions and perhaps be featured in a future article? I hope to hear more about your running adventures soon!

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