The Cognitive Dissonance of Progress

One year ago, I sold my ticket to the US Champs and volunteered to work at a road race in Central Oregon because I wanted to just get away from track for a little while. Even when the event ended and I could have swung through Eugene in time to watch the 5ks and grab a few beers with my running friends, I decided to go to Crater Lake for the day instead. My last season at Portalnd had ended unceremoniously, I had run a few sub-par races, 2 pretty good races, and right when I was rounding into form I got hurt. So there I was, pissed off and in a boot, hoping desperately to continue my career as a professional but not wanting anything to do with the sport.

Tomorrow I will run at the Olympic Trials with, what I feel, is a realistic shot to make the team. When you look at the progress I have made in the form of bookended anecdotes it seems like nothing short of a miracle. A jump in performance that should have exceeded even my own lofty expectations. But, when you’re in it, when you’re the one witnessing the progress on a weekly basis your expectations shift a tiny bit every week. You think, “I can definitely run 28:15” and then it becomes, “Maybe I can break 28.” Before you know it you’ve convinced yourself that you might have a shot to make an Olympic Team.

This shift in expectations is important, it keeps me diligent and informs all the little sacrifices I’ve had to make along the way and it gives credence to all the sacrifices I have asked the people around me to make as well. I am sure that my girlfriend would have loved to go on more hikes on the trails in and around Flagstaff. I am sure she would have loved to go to happy hour and sit on the porch of Criollo and drink margaritas instead of spending another night in eating salad and going to bed early. She understands, but I know she wants to those things and rightly so, they’re fun. I am sure when my family visited Flagstaff this spring they would have loved to explore Northern Arizona and toured the local breweries. I would have loved to do those things too, but workouts past and future took the front seat.

While this constant shift in my expectations and corresponding boost in confidence is vital to the progress I have been able to make, it’s not particularly conducive to the feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment you would think might come from a 43 second PR in the 10k or 55 second PR in the half marathon or a good race in front of my friends and family at the Bolder Boulder. When I was coming back from injury last August and running 20 minutes every other day and trying to gain some semblance of strength back in my right leg I would have eagerly chewed my hand off just to be competitive in a race again. If someone would have told me about the season that I have had, I would have assumed that each performance was followed by days where I glowed with pride over my recent breakthrough. However, I can assure you that was not the case. My 10k at Stanford where I PR’d by 43 seconds, PR’d in the 5k in the second half of the race, and qualified for the trials was followed by frustration that I couldn’t have squeezed another half second out of my legs in order to break 28 minutes. The second place finish at the US Half Marathon championships where I PR’d by almost a minute and beat a lot of very good runners with more road experience than me was followed by a bitterness that I hadn’t won and a reevaluation of every decision I made in the race. The Bolder Boulder, where, by all standards, I ran great, placing 6th in one of the most competitive road races in the country was accompanied by regret that I hadn’t pushed earlier or taken more risks or stayed with the leaders for longer.

This past month of training has been filled with hard workouts and convincing myself that I am good enough to run with anyone in the field this weekend. My coach Ben Rosario, has told me countless times that I am ready and can handle anything the race holds. I’ve imagined the race playing out and making the team on a great many afternoon runs.

Vince Lombardi expressed it best when he said “We are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well that we will not catch it, because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it because in the process we will catch excellence. I am not remotely interested in just being good.” I turns out that if you are chasing perfection, then good performances, or even excellent ones, just don’t quite seem to cut it in terms of personal satisfaction.

The training is over, the sacrifices have all been made, and the convincing has all been done. So, tomorrow I’ll walk out on to the track, soak it in for a few moments and race really hard. After the race, no matter where I finish, I will drink more beers than I have in the last 6 weeks combined, and as I am sucking down the first bottle of that sweet hoppy nectar, I’ll try to soak in the progress I have made in the last year. The next morning I’ll nurse a headache and my expectations will be sky high again, right where I want them.