A Reflection on the Trials

By Ann Gaffigan

(From www.SteepleChics.com with permission from Ann Gaffigan. Photo by Eric Naslund)

Saying Goodbye to Running and Hello to…Running

I know I’m supposed to believe in myself. I know I’m supposed to have positive thoughts and really believe that I can achieve my dreams. But I’ve also learned that you have to have a backup plan. Because the reality of it is, only a small fraction of athletes achieve their goal of making the Olympic Team. There were only 3 spots available on the steeplechase squad, and I wasn’t the only one who thought she had a right to one of those spots. I wasn’t the only one who had made sacrifices, who had worked hard, who had tried to do everything right. I wasn’t the only one who believed in herself. I wasn’t the only one with great support from family and friends. So while I did everything I could to get mentally prepared for the final of the women’s steeplechase at the U.S. Olympic Trials on July 3, 2008, I made one mental note that acknowledged the possibility that I might not make the team: if things are not going your way, you better at least give it your absolute all.

Why?
Because people are watching you.
Because people invested in you.
Because they gathered at a sports bar in your hometown to watch the race live and see if you could make it.
Because they stayed up late to watch the race on TV.
Because they, without being asked, put work on hold for you until you returned from the trip.
Because they wanted to interview you about your experience, whether you made the Team or not.
Because they saw what you did in 2004 and wanted to see if you could repeat it, this time with the Olympics including the steeplechase.
Because they cared.
Because they traveled across the country and wore pink leis during the final to match your uniform and spent a lot of money on flights and hotels and rental cars and tickets.
Because they barely got to see you while they were there.
Because they dragged you out on your runs a year ago when you had hit rock bottom and didn’t know if you wanted to keep running anymore.
Because they coached you without pay, staying late for your workouts and driving you all over town for tempo runs, cold runs when you needed the wind at your back, and hill workouts.
Because people you are close to and people you don’t even know wrote you letters and e-mails of encouragement.

For these reasons, I made a mental note to not give up and pout if the race wasn’t going well. Nope, you’d better RUN.

By about the 5th lap, reality had set in. The leaders were pulling away and I was not able to keep up with them. That was the reality. No positive mental attitude was going to propel me to their level on that day. I wasn’t in their league, physically. I watched the three spots on the Olympic team run away towards record-setting times. It would have been so easy to just “finish” the race. But I yelled at myself in my mind:

“You’d better keep running and you’d better run hard. You did not stick around for the last 4 years to come here and feel sorry for yourself.”

So I ran. Every time I ran by section U, I could feel my family watching me, begging me to finish with dignity so I wouldn’t have any regrets. Begging me to not fall apart so I wouldn’t be embarrassed. Wanting me to know they loved me no matter what. When I ran by section K, near the water pit, I heard my roommates and friends and sister-in-law screaming their heads off, bare abs of steel painted with “GO ANN!”, willing me to accelerate into the water jump, to run hard and finish well, even if it didn’t mean making the team, wanting me to know they loved me no matter what. I could feel my coach clicking off my splits, finding the positives, which were that I was holding it together better than I had been recently, that I was running one of the best races I’d run in years. Hoping I wouldn’t be too upset with the result. Wanting me to be happy. Knowing I have high expectations and am not easily satisfied. Knowing I’d shown signs of my old self this season and wishing it could have been my day to prove it.

I finished and was spent. I think I laid on the track. I think someone helped me up. I hope I congratulated some of my competitors. I think I looked up and saw my dad leaning over the rail in section U. I blew him a kiss, which felt right in the moment but is not a normal action for me, especially with my dad. Or did I do that before the race? I know I saw my sister as soon as I stepped off the track. She always finds me somehow. She gave me a big hug. She told me she loved me. She handed me her phone and I heard my brother’s voice. He told me he loved me. I held back tears. A crowd waited patiently for me to get off the phone so the official could walk me to the mixed zone and they could let the spectators pass. I didn’t realize I was holding everyone up because no one complained. They just looked at me patiently with….Respect? Pity? Empathy? All of the above? It was touching.

I walked through the mixed zone, not expecting anyone to want to talk to the 10t- place finisher. But Amil from the Husker athletic department wanted to. I don’t know what he said, but I know I choked up when I answered. I talked to Bryan Burwell from the St Louis Post-Dispatch. I don’t remember what he asked me, but I remember his kind smile and his compliments on the SteepleChics site. I thought that would be it, but then Ryan from Flotrack stopped me. By now, I wasn’t as choked up. He started asking me questions and as I talked, I started to feel better. It wasn’t the end of the world that I didn’t make the team! Wow, I thought it would be! But it wasn’t. I had done everything I thought was right. I kept going even when it seemed pointless. I came back from a terrible season in 2007. I don’t have any regrets. And now I can say I tried. The interview went on for almost 8 minutes because my endorphin high was kicking in and I wouldn’t shut up. Mark, founder of Flotrack, came over asking if this was the longest interview ever. He said, “Where were you last year at this time?” I said “Not competing because my season had gone so terribly.” He said “Yeah, see? You’ve come a long way.”

I left the mixed zone with a smile on my face. I had come a long way, in more ways than one. I had learned so much about life in the process. I am proud of myself, not because of what I achieved, but because of how I faced the challenges along the way. I feel like I want and deserve a mental break from “Running” as I’ve known it: the Running that meant planning trips around workouts; agonizing over the decision to stay home or have a little fun on birthdays, New Year’s Eve, or the 4th of July; experiencing both my greatest triumphs and most devastating disappointments; constant self-evaluation and perfectionism; and last but not least, the feeling that I was attempting to do something extraordinary. I now am getting to know, for the first time in my life, the Running that means spending time with a good friend, talking for a solid hour (and solving all of our problems) as we run the in-town MOPAC trail; putting in just enough mileage to keep mood swings at bay while allowing for enough energy to be leftover for things like sand volleyball, mowing my lawn, and painting my living room; feeling extra-motivated one day and adding in some sprints, lunges and squats without the fear of overdoing it and getting too sore before my next hard workout; choosing (guilt-free) not to run when it’s thunder-storming or the heat index is too high; having no particular goal in mind at all.

For once, I’m not going to try to do something extraordinary.

I’m interested to see how long this lasts…


HardyBreed would like to Congratulate Ann and thank her for her story.
You can find out more about Ann Gaffigan on her website www.SteepleChics.com.

 

Listen to her interview from after the Trials below: