Fast Starts and Water Jumps: What I Learned From My First Steeplechase

After my first race of last cross country season, my coach asked me my thoughts.

“I definitely started out too hard,” I said.

“Good. Keep doing that,” he replied.

At first his response baffled me, but when I thought back to my high school days, I realized that starting out harder than what seemed reasonable was a key factor in my ability to get faster and better. A fast start can easily sabotage an entire race and result in chronic fading, but eventually, a fast start will lead to a fast middle and a faster end.

My dad always told me that Galen Rupp’s strategy was to hold on to Bernard Lagat’s pace as long as possible, and each race he held on a little more. Rupp didn’t beat Lagat for their first 12 races against each other, but on his 13th try (which happened to be at the 2012 Olympic Trials), he won. The first time Rupp tried to hold on, he probably looked a little crazy, but all that mattered was his belief in himself and his refusal to give up.

Last August, I had a week almost entirely to myself because my parents were on vacation, all my friends were out of town, and I was done working for the summer. I had a lot of time for self-reflection, which resulted in borderline insanity, but it also resulted in an important, tri-fold revelation. Three thoughts entered my mind and have continued to swirl around it ever since: mountains, majors, and steeples. The first led to a tattoo and other adventure plans. The second led to a switch from zoology to English (the best decision of my college career so far). And the third became a reality last Saturday, when I ran my first track race of the year, and my first ever steeplechase.

Once again, I started out too fast, and after two laps of decent hurdling form and well-executed water jumps, I pretty much fell apart. Most of the race was a blur of splashing water and approaching barriers, but it was incredible. After the race, I explained to my coach that my over-confidence and over-excitement in the beginning led to my quick demise, but like before, he seemed pleased with my attempt.

(Photo credit: Irish Rose Photography) Look at how much fun we're having! Who wouldn't want to do that?!

(Photo credit: Irish Rose Photography) Look at how much fun we’re having! Who wouldn’t want to do that?!

The thing about steeplechase is that there are water jumps involved, and to clear these water jumps successfully the only option is to approach them fast and without hesitation. Otherwise, there are a plethora of things that could go wrong (and did go wrong in our practice in the weeks prior): accidentally hurdling it, falling forward on the landing, not making it out of the deep part of the pit, etc. Even successfully placing a foot on the barrier is not a given, so any good water jump requires, quite literally, a leap of faith.

This is probably why, when I first discussed becoming a steeplechaser with my coach, he made it clear that to be a good steeplechaser, you have to be a little nuts. I assured him that I was more than a little nuts, and he agreed that steeplechase could become my new event. After a single experience with the actual race, I still very much have no idea what I’m doing. My strategy to learn is to put myself out there in every sense of the phrase and hope that along the way, I’ll find out what it takes. Consequently, this is also my strategy for life.

Vulnerability is a terrifying thing. It can result in quite a bit of anguish and frustration, but more importantly, it also leads to some incredible heights. And to me, these heights are worth all the heartbreak along the way. Sometimes, when these ratios are skewed, it feels like I’m living in a state of perpetual heartbreak. I often care too much, so I am often disappointed. But alongside this comes euphoric (drug-free!) highs. This is also the reward for the leap of faith in a water jump; for a few moments, you get to fly.

Just like steeplechase, I think that to be okay in life, you have to be a little nuts. The world is a big, confusing, intimidating place. A lot could go wrong, so putting yourself out there seems counterintuitive to protecting yourself. Why risk feeling too much when there’s already so much outside of our control? Why add in barriers and water jumps to an already excruciating race? My answer, of course, is because it’s worth it. Because imagine the possibilities that exist when you leap without knowing what’s next. Because if you really want to know what it feels like to fly, you can’t hesitate. You have to just go, and you have to start out way too fast.

Instant Gratification Begets Spontaneity Begets Adventure

Back in my Sunday School days, my teacher once asked the class to identify our biggest vices. She provided us with a neat list to choose from that included the usual culprits–greed, envy, gluttony, pride, sloth–but also one I had yet to encounter: instant gratification. My ten-year-old self dismissed the mainstream vices partly because they did not seem accurate and partly because the budding hipster in me wanted to avoid conformity. Instead, I picked the two big and semi-mysterious words that meant nothing to me besides their uniqueness.

When I asked my mother to explain this term to me later that day, I soon learned that it described me all too well. Instant gratification, in its simplest terms, meant that if I wanted something, I intended to have it at that moment. When we went to Costco that same day, the moment my eyes saw the advertised $1.35 smoothies, it became absolutely essential that I hopped into line and acquired that liquid sugar long before my mother even made it to the check-out line.

I continued to identify my need for instant gratification in other realms, and almost all of them involved either spending money or experiencing something awesome. Since I am now almost twice as old and immeasurably wiser, this whole instant gratification business has evolved into a much gentler and respectable virtue: spontaneity. When adventure calls, I must answer immediately lest any opportunity go unexplored.

While visiting a friend in Berkeley recently (via a 16-hour train ride booked five days in advance), she said, “The best plans are those unlaid.” I took this to heart when I woke up that Saturday still groggy from the night before and fumbled my way through public transportation until I reached San Francisco. Once there, I feigned energy with a chai tea latte and googled “vegan food San Francisco.” Within minutes, I learned about and arrived at an annual street food fair in the Mission district. There, I fell in love with San Francisco culture and consumed the best avocado fries and vegan chik’n and waffle out there.

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I also found (and ate) this coconut

 

The no plans theme continued for the rest of the trip and resulted in a poem about my future choices, a hike up the Berkeley hills to listen to Rebelution live, and city walking tours complete with street opera singers and hidden memorial fountains. Since we planned exactly none of this, each moment became an opportunity and each opportunity an adventure. I hopped on the 16-hour train ride back feeling full from the bay area experience (and insanely good thai food) even though I did not see any tourist attractions.

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Two weeks later, another friend asked me on a Sunday evening if I wanted to hike the next day. Since in Eugene a hike typically means a 40-minute jaunt up either Spencer’s Butte or Mt. Pisgah, I agreed. When he picked me up the next day and we drove over two hours to the trailhead, I suspected that this might be a hike that required more footwear than my usual Birkenstocks. We set off with no plans other than to follow the trail and soon emerged into an opening that displayed Clear Lake, named after its sparkling turquoise waters. The trail led around the entire perimeter of the lake, but when we reached the halfway mark we instead detoured onto Waterfall Trail because the name promised something spectacular and our theme for the day was improvisation.

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Several miles later, we paralleled the McKenzie River and the rushing water began to intensify. At last, we reached a look-out point that rested just beside the top of a cascading waterfall at least 100 feet tall. We scurried to the bottom and trekked out to a point so close to the waterfall’s base that within one minute we were drenched from the spray. Now 5.5 miles from the car, my little afternoon hike had officially evolved into an all-day affair, but the result was breathtaking.

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Once again, spontaneity championed the day, and I exited the trail giddy at what the world around me could offer. I may still possess that need for instant gratification, but when that so-called vice leads me to such dazzling adventures, I do not anticipate any attempts to expel it from my character.

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Besides, I no longer prescribe to a philosophy where vices and virtues can classify a person. I believe in complexity and the value of time, so I plan to spend mine capturing moments that, above all else, make me feel alive.

No Trespassing: Subtle Rebellion for the Sake of Autonomy

On a recent run, I pranced through no less than three “No Trespassing” signs at the end of a dead-end country road. Desperate for dirt to escape the monotonous asphalt and charged by the early morning sunlight, I found the risk worthy, if not essential.

I knew that the dirt roads were there because I had ignored these signs many times before. In fact, in my previous escapade through the prohibited area, I returned to the normal road to find a man dressed in camouflage standing in a field holding a shotgun. I tried to stride by unnoticed, but he stopped me.

“There were three coyotes sitting up on that hill watching you,” he said.

I could not decide which unsettled me more: the man talking to me with a gun in his hand, or the image of three predators stalking me while I ran oblivious.

“The coyotes have been killing off the deer lately,” he continued. “I’m trying to get them.”

Though I despise hunting and thought the man’s attempts were likely quite illegal, I made the wise decision not to argue. Instead, I smiled politely and began to run again, wary that I had just turned my back to a gun and that, compared to a coyote, I was probably an easy target. Alas, I survived the rest of the run with no gun wounds and no trespassing violations, but I did not return to that route for a week.

This view is great, until it never changes.

This view is great, until it never changes.

When I did, I again had no qualms about the signs. Until I reached the point on the road where I could connect to another dirt road that is much less prohibited. To make that connection, I had to go past a bridge that often has construction remnants strewn about but rarely has human life present. I usually pass through that area without a problem, but this day, right before I turned the corner, I heard construction noises and voices getting closer with each step.

I darted off on a side trail, hoping it would spit me out onto the less prohibited trail that I sought. When it instead gave me a dead end, I navigated over loose rocks and scrambled up a dirt hill that did not, in fact, lead me to the trail. It took me to the area I had been avoiding all along; the area with real live people who definitely knew that there should not be a running girl emerging from the heart of their construction. So I ducked down and, in lieu of braving the rocks again, chose to bound through the knee-high grass as fast as possible because I am terrified of snakes (and I saw one on a hike the day before so clearly they were after me).

When I finally returned to that damn country road in safety, it became apparent that the lengths I took to avoid human interaction–and, likely, repercussions–were slightly ludicrous. I chose the possibility of encountering a snake or rolling an ankle over the possibility of getting in trouble with a random person I would never see again. But it also became apparent that I did all this because the ability to run on that dirt road–albeit illegally–means my own liberation.

The only thing missing here is some dirt.

The only thing missing here is a dirt trail.

Not only is it an escape from the road and a cushion for my legs, but it is a step into a path that I would guess not many brave. The “No Trespassing” rule is in place for a reason, but like many rules I find it unnecessary and intend to break it. I do not think that my running presence on a dirt road three miles outside of a small town will cause any trouble for anyone or anything, so the fact that a rusting sign can imply this irks me a bit.

I’ve never been one to thrive on excessive rules and regulations, or even societal norms for that matter. Things like school dress codes and texting games do not appear to advance civilization, so I do not prescribe to their influence. Even the obligatory greeting conversation (Person 1: “Hi, how are you?” Person 2: “Good, you?” Person 1: “Good.”) seems like a meaningless formality. These rules simply encourage people to embrace conformity and avoid intentionality in their thoughts and actions.

Even really big, really important rules are often wrong. After women could finally vote, they still could not compete in collegiate athletics or even run road races. We put way too much trust in our executives to make the right decisions and spend too little time considering their impact. I’m not advocating for anarchy here; I am simply calling for more thought about the guidelines and expectations that govern most details of our lives.

The feelings I got when I avoided that construction worker were the same I’ve had when I’ve pulled borderline all-nighters mid-season or loitered in dark parking lots until cops kindly request that we leave. Uneasy about the technical wrongness of the situation, yet thrilled that the incident will succeed without any formal consequences.

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Hay fields tend to go on forever.

There is a certain elation that accompanies getting away with something, and if it is a silly rule then this elation comes guilt-free. If you’re sneaky enough, you might even inspire others to go out and be the rule-breakers they wish to see in the world. Because civil disobedience is in.