“Should I race?”
As a lifelong athlete, I’ve butted up against this question a few times. Maybe you have, too.
I know these aren’t unique, but all are valid causes for a literal slow down in running and life. Except, we often don’t slow down—at least not in the competitive sphere, anyway. I never really questioned that until recently.
Who draws the lines?
Sports culture, including running, is shaped by the ethos of pushing through anything and “taking one for the team,” even in individual sports such as running. But how far does that obligation go? And where does it come from? We’re used to overriding self-preservation in efforts to win, but is there a line too far in that as well? When does challenge become harm, and why do we try to deny those limits so often?
My gut reaction during these times in my own career was to tough things out; that’s what would be best for everyone around the situation, that’s what would be respected, and that’s what the sport heroes I looked up to did.
In part, it’s what sports legends were made of. We still pay homage to Curt Schilling’s bloody sock, Kerri Strug’s broken-legged dismount, and Michael Jordan’s flu game. I see how we internalized that messaging, and how we retell the stories with awe.
In some way, I’ve been paid to race since I was 18, so I was always aware that it’s an obligation as well as a passion. Racing through anything always seemed like the right thing to do. But was it really? Looking back, through the perspective of age and experience but also the prism of collective conversations happening recently, there were times it was clear I shouldn’t have run.
“WHEN DOES CHALLENGE BECOME HARM, AND WHY DO WE TRY TO DENY THOSE LIMITS SO OFTEN?”
I’m unsure if this underlying rationale was shared by other athletes, but I operated under the idea that it’s not enough to just show up when you’re healthy. For a long time, the idea of maintaining boundaries around mental or physical health came off as acting selfish or lazy. Whether it was reading into a coach’s comments or reactions or taking sports movies too seriously, I thought I was obligated to race through almost any scenario on important days.
The culture is changing
Athletes at the top, such as Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, have recently pushed back on this mindset, recognizing the need to protect their mental health and unique talent. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they’re being met with resistance as female athletes, because this idea of doing what everyone wants you to do with little thought of self-preservation is the norm for a lot of women in many societies.
I recently saw this tweet by Goals Sports founder Caroline Fitzgerald that said, “Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have taught women that setting boundaries is an essential part of being successful and that impact will be felt for generations to come.”
As important as opening up the topic of mental health is, so is this! So are the boundaries. From the top, these athletes are giving permission for others to make better decisions in the game. For example, Alexi Pappas recently talked about her decision to get hamstring surgery rather than soldier on to the echoes normalizing chronic pain in our sport.
Sports provides tolerable challenges that we can grow from and that empower the person playing the game or running the race—which is the great thing about sports. But there’s a line at which they become disempowering. We’re starting to see athletes talk about that, and it’s raising some interesting points about sports culture and what we normalize.
How much do you owe your team, or the fans? And is hurting yourself to play now short-sighted for everyone involved? Why is taking those risks applauded? Under what conditions are you allowed to take a step back? Sure, the healthy sting of a hill repeat or long run ache is good, productive pain, but why do we normalize other things like competing through mental or physical injury?
We’re only human
I think sometimes we’re conflating selfishness and taking care of ourselves. The best teammates show up for each other and strive for the benefit of the team, of course, but also make sure they’re first showing up as their healthiest, most productive and reliable self. We appreciate and are inspired by teammates pushing through something difficult, but times are going to come up where you have to step back to repair something. We’re people, and sometimes pieces of us break.
Like anyone, I’d hate to see the inspiring synergy that happens on teams that are dedicated to working well together fade in the name of individualism, but this isn’t that. There’s a line at which you can ask too much of yourself. Like your pace in a race with no finish line, an athlete with no boundary can become weaker because they don’t stop before damaging something or burning out.
I recall times when I shouldn’t have raced. During cross-country season my junior year of college, I was in great shape and excited to try to top our previous podium finish at NCAAs and reach it individually as well. But I suffered my first major injury less than three weeks before the NCAA meet. I was devastated and in denial, looking at my broken foot as it slowly swelled to resemble a latex glove water balloon—a spherical blob with five skinny toes sticking out. It wasn’t a stress fracture; it was a fully displaced metatarsal fracture, and it woke me up at night throbbing in pain for the next week and a half.
I knew I was still fit enough to help our team score, so I begged to race anyway in a few weeks. It’s what’s best for the team, I thought, calling on my sports hero index. This was a new kind of challenge, I reasoned, naively reframing and minimizing the injury. What would Kerri Strug do? (I learned that full backstory much later.)
Seventeen days later I was allowed to race the NCAA meet, as my first run back. I taped up my foot, finished 41st, our team placed fourth, and I had to start the healing timeline all over from square one. Looking back, I definitely shouldn’t have raced. I even repeated this whole situation a few months later at the Big East indoor championship!
Whatever I thought this proved, it was outweighed by the cascade of imbalances that came from my now crookedly healed foot. I’m lucky I was able to find my form again a few years later, but it’s not without issues. I feel like a lot of us can remember something like this.
When I look back on it, I’m no longer proud of these decisions. That’s true even though I used to advise such things. “Look, anything is possible!” I’d say, reframing what in hindsight was somewhat traitorous to my health and future in the sport in exchange for an imbalanced level of obligation to my team. I’d have served them better running fully healthy the next time out, even if it took two or three months.
On the flip side, I have new appreciation for the times I was held back. I remember getting food poisoning at the Prefontaine Classic in 2014. The morning of the race, I couldn’t stand for more than 15 minutes without getting light-headed and needing to sit down, but I wanted to start the 5,000 metres anyway. I also didn’t want to forfeit a rare track appearance fee, which I almost never saw at the Diamond League level.
My coach was having none of my nonsense. He said no. He put the boundary there for me, which I appreciate, even though I was mad at the time. (I’m unsure if his “no” was out of concern for my health or just him seeing through my total delusion that it would go okay, but the protective effect was the same!)
I’m not sure how the culture of “no pain, no gain” and “taking one for the team” became so misconstrued in sports, but I do think it’s changing. I think the athletes in the spotlight now are modeling a different approach and, despite the resistance from some, others are taking it in as a new standard. It’s definitely reframed the way I think about decisions I’ve made in my sports career, and what I’d tell someone else who asks for advice. It changes what I see as valuable.
I hope we’re becoming more interested in what healthy talents, strengths, and tools you can bring, instead of what you’re willing to lose or damage. I think we’re starting to see how admitting that those strengths and skills aren’t indestructible isn’t a weakness.
I think we’re also starting to realize that, by admitting what and where our boundaries are in sport, at any level, we’re able to play the longer game. It’s a smarter one, and a healthier one. I’m good with glamorising that.