Where Your Dreams Become Reality
Ask Wejo 3: Did You Ever Think Why Am I Doing This?
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We received the following email from a runner who has run at the USATF nationals before but at the back of the pack.
i was not sharp this weekend at **** nor did i really prepare much for this
particular race, but i kind of left with this feeling that there is a
difference between me and the elite guys that is not going to
change. i enjoy training and racing and following the long term
path in the hope of long term success. i really enjoy running,
and i won't stop until i'm too injured to run. but i have this
hope that eventually i will run at least in the middle-back of the
elites. obviously, i dream big relative to my rather modest
accomplishments, but i have to be rooted in reality in my training and
Your email brings up some good points.
You asked if I ever wondered, "why am I doing this?" At first I was going to say I never asked that question, but I now realize I did. I knew I could run much better than I had in college and that I could continue to improve. I guess I did have a burning desire to get near the top of the sport but I was so far from that point that I just primarily focused on enjoying it and getting better. The one thing going for me was that I had total confidence in my coach, JK. I was a 30 minute 10k guy but had 100% confidence in his abilities and his judgement. In 1996, I asked him how good I could be in 4 years and to lay out a plan for me. He said I could run 28:30 for 10k in 4 years and also put out intermediate goals and times. I asked him if he really thought that was possible. He said yes, and that was all I needed to hear. So clearly by asking him how good I could be, I must on some level have been wondering, "Should I really sacrifice all this time and effort if I'm not going to be national class?"
But once he said I could run 28:30, I did not focus on the long term goal of being national class. I focused on the task at hand, enjoying what I was doing, and continuing to improve. I remember breaking 30 minutes for the first time, calling JK on a pay phone from the 7-11 outside of Mt. Sac, and just being ecstatic (the next year I did not break 30 minutes at the same race but went on to make the World Half Marathon team). I remember thinking if I never accomplished anything else in the sport, I could be proud of this (it's also the same thought process I had when I ran 16:30 for 5k in high school).
I did not hit any of the single times JK said I could hit on the piece of paper in the intervening years until 2000. I was often a long way away from being national class and I sometimes must have questioned if I was going to have that breakthrough to the "elite category" as you say. But I considered myself a good runner and always had the long term belief I could succeed. All of my roommates ran for the Reebok Enclave, the only big post collegiate group going in the 1990s, which featured Steve Holman and Rich Kenah. I probably could have latched onto the back of the group but was 100% confident that training with my coach was the way to go, so I trained on my own.
I remember having a conversation with one of the Enclave guys after I won a local road race. I don't remember the exact words he said, but basically he assumed that I was not that good a runner and at a whole level below him with no aspirations to get to the top. The thing is he just accepted this as fact, and assumed I did as well, otherwise he would have realized he was insulting me. I remember being pretty shocked. Then I thought about how little I had accomplished, and I couldn't really blame him for thinking I might never get to his level.
And in the short term things were difficult as each race it seemed I came up just short of accomplishing what I wanted. I generally went after low hanging fruit and tried to accomplish things that were in my stratosphere, but still seemed to come up short a lot. After every race, I remember saying to myself, "I just didn't push myself hard enough" (When I got 'good', I never said that when I was running my best after moving to Flagstaff. I'm not sure if I pushed any harder but the difference then was there was no doubt in my mind about what I was capable of. Thus when it hurt in the race like it always does, with a little more confidence it was easier to keep going).
One of my main goals was to make the US Half Marathon team. It was the easiest team to make and a realistic goal for me (unfortunately due to the Fall Marathon Trials, the US is not sending a men's team this year). The Trials race was always in Parkersburg, WV, which is a very hilly course. At the time, I didn't know what the course was like. All I saw were the slow times that made the team and figured I could run that fast so I started training for that. That seemed a lot more attainable than suddenly becoming the next Adam Goucher.
And I did believe the guys like Goucher and Culpepper were superhuman. (I still think of them at a whole different level). I would read about workouts these guys did, and kept thinking I would need to run these sick workouts before I raced well. I would constantly wonder what I was doing wrong in my training. I constantly told my coach I thought I needed to run harder on my easy days. He told me that was the last thing I needed to worry about and he was right.
What I really needed to do was to continue to develop and improve year to year and to actually perform to my absolute best on race day. Other guys may be more talented than me but if I ran my best when it counted I could make up for some of the difference. The key was to be totally confident when I toed the line. Confidence and lack of doubt goes a long way (don't get me wrong, I'm extremely nervous and don't know how things will turn out but I don't doubt I'm talented and will do my best when I race).
A few things helped me along the way. Winning the Marine Corps Marathon (slowest winning time ever at the time but also the biggest margin of victory as it was hot) was a big boost. People in DC don't distinguish this from winning the Boston Marathon. You constantly hear what a great runner you are and you kind of start to believe it.
Also I won the Rockville 8k one year. It's a top local road race that attracted some of the local Enclave Guys and some "C" level Kenyans. With about 800m to go I was in second place but some guy came up behind me. I didn't want him to pass me so I started sprinting like mad. First was way ahead of me. The race is at twilight and there is a huge crowd at the downhill finish as it is a big community event and is not at the crack of dawn. Anyway I had no intentions of winning the race at this point but was running scared. Next thing you know I came up on the leader like a bolt of lightning. The crowd started to go nuts, but the guy in first had no idea it was because I was getting close. I nipped him at the line, got the win, beat a few Kenyans and some of the Enclave guys who really weren't that good. It slowly in the back of my mind got me thinking that these guys were no different than you and me - they still put one foot in front of the other. Putting them on another level is something I - like you - did, but on race day, you have to realize you can beat them no matter their credentials.
I remember toeing the line at the Parkersburg Half Marathon in 1999 and saying to myself, "This is it. I have to run well today. I put so much into this, I had better start seeing the results or I'm done." Perhaps it was more along the lines of . "This is it, I have to - I AM GOING TO - run well today." I went out and ran a great race and made the US Half Marathon team that day. Up until then I often came up short but I think that day physically and mentally I was more prepared to put it all together. Running fast is an acquired skill.
To be anywhere at the top you have to have some physical talent, but the true superstars of the sport often are mentally stronger than a lot of us. That is why some of them are so consistently good.
You asked, "how does one balance 'dreaming big' with the sometimes sobering reality? who do I count on for affirmation that I'm on the right path? "
I think a lot of it has to come from within. Long term you need the big goals to perhaps justify the sacrifice but short term you need more attainable goals along the way. A lot of people think it is all or nothing but with distance running being an aerobic sport, I'm living proof that with continued smart training and a lot of work, you can incrementally improve. So I would suggest coming up for some intermediate goals as post-collegiate running is super difficult for the non-collegiate stars, and is virtually impossible for the person trying to do it alone. The fire has to come from within, but you have that. It is natural to question along the way if it is worth it, but you need to come up with some attainable goals to prevent frustration from coming in. A lot of all-Americans struggle trying to crack into the professional ranks, get frustrated and quit. It is even harder for the guys right below that level. The good thing for me, besides total confidence in my coach saying I could be a fairly good runner, was that I had never been a superstar even as far back as high school. My high school teammate was top 15 in the country and cleaned my clock every single race. From the get-go I was used to focusing on my own goals, my own improvement, and trying to enjoy as much as possible the moment.
As for a coach, I think you might benefit from one. I don't see how guys do it alone. Sure I could probably draw up some workouts for myself but it just brings another level of doubt into the equation. There is enough doubt in running to begin with. When the pace starts to hurt, it is natural to question how long you can take it. If you're not quite as confident in your training then that cracking point may be moved forward in your head. But if you're 100% confident going in, then you might push those thoughts of cracking farther out of your mind and try and relax more.
I hope this helps.
Weldon Johnson, aka Wejo, finished 4th in the country at 10,000m twice and ran for the US at the 2003 Pan American Games.