A quick warning to those who are about to read (or think they want to read): this is a long and boring account of the lessons I’ve learnt in running over the past six months. I apologize if you were looking for some entertaining stories, but if you don’t mind trolling through some of my reflections and the lessons I’ve learnt in running over the past six months…well, enjoy!
As I get to the end of another season, it is kind of ironic to consider that as runners, we all strive for the perfect race, yet in reality, the best lessons and some of the most valuable long term development comes from our worst races.
The second half of 2010 provided some great lessons for me; lessons I learnt the hard way. But what lesson isn’t hard? That is the challenge of learning – learning is never easy. I was faced this year with a similar challenge to the one I faced in 2009 when I backed up my college NCAA track season with the World Championships in Berlin. On that occasion, I overdid it after the NCAA season, and was quite “flat” standing on the start line next to Bekele. Certainly, I did the best training I had ever done in the period between NCAAs 2009 and Berlin, but our best training must be timed to perfection for it to have any benefit. In the end, it wasn’t my flatness that destroyed me in Berlin, but dehydration. But if it hadn’t been dehydration, I may not have performed any better than my 28:03 eight months earlier, despite the leaps and bounds in fitness I made. So from Berlin, I took the lessons of timing and hydration into the planning of the second half of 2010.
This time round, the race schedule was reversed: my big international race at the Commonwealth Games would precede my NCAA cross-country race. The challenge this time round was to arrive at the Commonwealth Games in great shape like I did for the NCAA 5k in 2009, but then also be fit and ready enough to keep going through till November for NCAA cross country. And so after a couple of weeks off after the NCAA track season, I embarked on cross-country training: higher miles, lots of threshold work, and weights. None of the training was remarkable, but I believed in the plan. After about 7 weeks of that, I returned to the US, and sharpened up for Delhi with more specific 5k training. This 5k training went well. I believed that this strategy would get me fit and conditioned enough to be at my best in Delhi, but also provide me enough strength to back up with three more cross country races. In theory, I think the plan worked…here is what went wrong though, and hence, the lessons I learnt:
I was indeed in great shape for Delhi, and in no way tired heading into the proceeding cross-country season. What got me though was a mild case of “Delhi-Belly” the day before the race. Although I took care of myself and just rested heading into the race, the Delhi-Belly had drained me of a lot of energy, and had prevented me from eating much. On reflection, the 5k in Delhi was my perfect race set-up – the race I thought I was most prepared for. It was slow, with a cranking of the pace over the final 4 laps. But without energy, it doesn’t matter how fit you are. The result was respectable, but I was left hungry, and disappointed that I had destroyed my chances with a chance encounter with the Delhi-Belly. I had heeded one lesson from the year before, but learnt another in the process: if you get sick before a race, don’t let your lost appetite fool you: you still need to energize!!!
I returned to Flagstaff after the race, but still brought the Delhi-Belly with me. Despite daily dosages of Immodium, the problems didn’t go away, and my training and confidence hit rock bottom. After 3 weeks of it, my doctor eventually prescribed me some antibiotics, and within 5 days, I was feeling good again. If only the antibiotics brought confidence back too. The disruption in training had obviously put me back a little, and it weighed heavily on my mind. Knowing that I was heading into my last college race without the shape I had built over the previous few months, I panicked a lot. I was always nervous, and training was a challenge. Luckily, I had a good couple of races before the Nationals (conference and regionals), which helped the confidence a little. But I was still nervous. The nerves were a product of the expectation I had put on myself. Despite the best efforts of my coach to remind me that I had nothing to lose – that I had already had a good year, deep down, I still wanted the perfect finish…
…It did not come. I got a stitch after 5k at the National Meet, and watched in sheer pain as the whole field passed me. There was nothing I could do. My college career ended just the way I hoped it would not. Like in Berlin, it would be easy just to say that it was the stitch that got me, but when I am honest with myself, my preparation and my mental state weren’t in the right place, and it would have taken a very lucky day to be in contention for the win.
Two more big races, and two more big lessons. No one likes a bad race, but as I learnt once before in a previous lesson, being humble in defeat is just as important as being humble in winning. My bad races were not unlucky encounters, they were my fault. I am taking responsibility for them, and in so doing, learning another lesson. And that lesson isn’t “don’t get sick” or “figure out why you keep getting stitches”, but rather, TAKE CARE OF THE LITTLE THINGS. We all know the value of hard work, but hard work is nothing with out piecing everything together properly. For me, that means getting my mental and physical health in check with my physical fitness. I do not want one of these factors limiting the other factors next time I run.
The good thing about where I am now, is that I am still David McNeill. I am still the perfectionist I have always been, but with a few more hard lessons under the belt. I have a way about doing things, and I plan on continuing to do that. I believe in myself, and I believe in the people that support me. Belief is half the battle, so I hope that the next time you see me race, the lessons learnt will pay off!