On Believing in Yourself

When working towards a goal, there is, if you're lucky, a magic moment in which your goal ceases to be an inspirational figment in your mind and transforms into something doable - something real. It's kind of like a new pair of shoes: at first, they look fantastic, but the fit is a bit uncomfortable. It takes a bit getting used to to get the fit just right. Sometimes there's some trial and error. Sometimes there are blisters. But once they fit just so, they may take you places you've never been.

When I first signed up for the NYC Marathon, I had no idea in hell how I was going to follow through. It had been a long time since I had followed through with any sort of goal I had set for myself. I never would have guessed that that snap decision in March would lead me to the place I am in my life now, but I am grateful it did. I remember the exact moment in which the marathon stopped being a nebulous date, time, and distance, and  became reachable - the choices I made each day would directly impact my outcome, and I knew I could finish. But looking back, I realize that I've been writing this narrative for most of my life.

At age 12, I started swimming year-round. In order to gain entry to the first tier of selective swim meets, one must meet the minimum age-group qualifying times in three events. In my first meet, I missed my qualifying time by several tenths of a second. I was bummed, but got up the next meet and made that one, and one more. Once I turned 13, I remade those qualifying times in my new age group, but couldn't quite get the third. And not for lack of trying. I still remember one ill-advised decision in which I stayed several hours after the conclusion of a meet in the Arizona summer (about 112 degrees at 3 pm) to time-trial the mile swim. While it was gutsy, I didn't make the cut. Nor did I make it the next meet, or the next. I spent the entire summer swimming the mile (1500 meter freestyle) and 100 meter butterfly over and over, each time missing the qualifying cut by a matter of seconds. Always close, but never close enough. Then, one morning, towards the end of the summer, I had had enough. I was going to make that damn cut if it killed me. I had missed the 100-meter fly cut in the event the previous day, so my only possibility was another time-trial. I showed up the morning of the time trial and quietly readied myself for my race, steadied myself on the blocks, and at the starting gun, I was off. There was nothing different about the first 50 meters, but I distinctly remember the moment as I pushed off the wall on my turn to my final lap when I dug deeper within myself than I had ever done before and powered to the finish, smashing the qualifying time by a couple of seconds. 13 years later, I still remember  the feeling when my goal had become a reality in my mind, and then was translated into my actions.

As I became more serious about swimming, my goals became more focused, and I became fiercely attuned to  what it would take to achieve them. And for the most part, achieve them I did. If people told me that they didn't think I'd make the cut on my high school swim team (and they did), I'd not only make the team, but be the only freshman to score points at the state meet. If no one thought I could achieve Junior National time standards, well, I'd just have to prove them wrong. And I did. All through high school, much of my identity hinged on the persona I had developed over the years as the scrappy underdog, and I thrived on it. Until one day - the first weekend in November, at State finals, my senior year in high school. So often, the things that change the course of your life aren't what you'd expect. For me, one bad swim had the perfect storm of elements to take the wind out of my sails. Looking back, I realize that after that swim, I didn't achieve a single goal I set for myself - not athletically, not academically, not personally. To say I was stuck in a rut would be an understatement, unless that rut was the size of the Mariana Trench. I stayed in that rut throughout college swimming, where I drifted around, rudderless, directionless.

Moving to New York gave me a chance to leave behind all of the athletic highs and lows I had been carrying around. It felt good to get away from that part of my identity, and reinvent myself as someone other than "Emily the swimmer," or "Emily the good swimmer," or increasingly, "Emily the swimmer past her prime who doesn't really care any more." But I still couldn't shake the feeling that something was missing. When I started running, I promised myself that my ultimate goal - beyond performance, beyond accomplishment - would be to enjoy it. I needed to enjoy the process of getting into shape, and allow myself to maintain it. I want to be able to do this for the rest of my life, and I am realizing, over and over, that to do so requires a significant amount of control. While swimming, there was never such thing as doing too much. There was always a faster person to catch, or a time standard to reach, and when striving to reach high and higher standards, I lost sight of the long-term goals I had for myself. There became only this dichotomy between what I could do and what I was doing, and I was always chasing a carrot that never fully materialized.

Anyone who has participated in competitive sports will tell you that once nothing becomes good enough, you cease to be satisfied with anything. And when you fall short, a lack of satisfaction quickly morphs into a destructive cycle of "should have" and "not good enough." The drive that once pushed you to improvement has ceased to be productive, and now holds you back, because nothing is good enough. You become captive to your goals, because anything else beyond that ceases to exist. I've fallen deep into that hole before, and I know how destructive it can be. So when I reread my entry from yesterday, I realized that it was not my  training that necessarily needed to change - clearly I am improving, and - let's face it - that's awesome. That's what I'm supposed to be doing. I'm trying out new things, and seeing what works. It was my attitude that was following the same well-tread path I had been down before.

Destitutus ventis, remos adhibe - If the wind will not serve, take to the oars.

One of the amazing things about life is that, as it goes on, we are gifted with a tremendous amount of perspective and clarity. If one path does not work, there is no rule preventing me from turning around and changing course, changing my habits, and most importantly, changing my attitude. Sometimes, I forget that I need to cut myself a little slack. At the same time, I need to remember that the long-term goals I have for myself - to be a healthier and happier person, not to mention completing a marathon - supersede any sort of disappointment and frustration I may feel about one or two workouts. If I let that bring me down, I'm preventing myself from changing direction to find a way that works. Yes, it may be uncomfortable. But sometimes the wind is not always blowing in your favor, and sometimes we need to stretch ourselves to get where we want to go. And this may lead us to our desired destination, or to somewhere we may not have dreamed we would end up. The important thing is that we are not stagnant, we are not letting ourselves be dictated by the wind, but that, as uncomfortable as it may sometimes be, we have to take to the oars, and take charge of our course.

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