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.

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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.

Streaking and Other Forms of Freedom

Last Saturday night, at approximately 9:28 p.m., my best friend and I ran down a dark path completely naked. This was not my first experience streaking, but it was hers, and it was glorious.

Ten minutes earlier, we sat in her car in a parking lot contemplating what the night might present. We had already devoured sushi and coconut ice cream, so we were energized and prepared for adventure. The rain pelted her sunroof and she considered opening it to see what would happen, but ultimately valued the function of her possessions over the unknown of the experiment.

“You know, I’ve never just laid in the street in the rain before,” she said. “Like that’s something I’ve never experienced.”

“Let’s do it,” I replied, then added, “Naked.” We laughed, but then the conversation continued. Eventually, we agreed that streaking was an excellent idea, so we drove to an unlit bike path with racing hearts.

After several minutes of coaxing and pep talks, we were off and running. We danced and hollered and revelled in our freedom before ducking back into the car fully clothed and giggling. Three minutes later, a group of people strolled by completely unaware of the scene they had narrowly missed and our adrenaline escalated once again.

The rest of the night naturally progressed into a Beyonce dance party and I fell asleep feeling more exhilarated and free than I had in weeks.

The whole concept of personal freedom has occupied a significant portion of my brain space lately. Between school, running and relationships, I often feel that my ability to exist in my preferred free state is virtually impossible. In typical stubborn fashion, I struggle to accept anything less than that and blame the world for my lack of internal content. Obviously, it is completely my own fault, but I live for moments and stories, and the best of these occur when I am entirely uninhibited by societal expectations.

I tell myself that amid midterms and responsibilities I simply cannot reach adequate freedom and must wait until summer to capture these moments. I have become obsessed with songs that confirm this. Songs like Free by Rudimental and Cactus Tree by Joni Mitchell that figuratively stab me in the heart. I firmly believe in this lack of freedom most of the time. Except when I prove myself wrong, like Saturday night. Because in that moment, I thought of nothing but the steady rain and the glowing moon enveloping me in the infinite night.

In all honesty, I will never be as free as I want. The only way to achieve this would be to follow in Chris McCandless’s footsteps and abandon everything. But I cannot do that, or at least not right now. I value the people in my life too much. I enjoy too many benefits from my academic and athletic time commitments. And I am too happy in the situation that is presently my life.

So for right now, I will accept the freedom that I find in my life’s snapshots for everything it entails. I will frolic naked in the rain; I will spontaneously pierce my ear; I will dance unrestricted at concerts; and I will savor every one of these moments with all of my senses. Because when I can be that free, I want to remember every detail.