I have several recurring conversations with parents about kids and sport and one looks like this:
“My kid loves to run: what should I do to support her or him?”
I also talk a lot about kids and anxiety in sport, kids and development and kids and pressure, all wonderful topics worth exploring. But it’s Cross Country season here, so here is what you can do!
Over the last 8 years I have coached a few hundred runners in the elementary school system. Some of the most rewarding experiences have included the kids who simply show up, for every practice with a smile on their face. Running is perhaps the one sport they can do and feel good about, in a world of competitive sports that requires superior athleticism and hand eye coordination and ball and stick skills. In running, they are in sole command of the skills and the perseverance to get through a 10 minute race.
If your kid loves to run, all you have to do is support her! She doesn’t need extra training at this level, but needs to show up to practices and be a good sport to her teammates. Your job is make sure she has some flexible running shoes to run in, and get her to the races and back home again. If you can make it to the races, your job is to watch her race with a smile on your face and be there at the finish line to watch her finish.
If your child is in Grade 3, which is when they can start, she is only 8 years old and running should be simply fun. If your son is in Grade 5, he is only 10 or 11 and running races should still be more about fun than anything. Developmentally, children are all over the place with their physical bodies, and emotionally are unable to think or be like high performance athletes, so focussing on winning or placing is not a great idea and the pressure can turn kids off running for good. The kid in jeans with the longest legs can well win all the races in one year. The kid who plays hockey might win them all in Grade 5. These kids may or may not ever run competitively past Grade 8. The small kids who come well back in the 30’s might develop into middle distance track stars or Olympic marathoners for all we know, so please try and downplay winning and race outcome at this age.
Running is an individual sport, with a pretty straightforward pathway from start to finish line, only one kid can win and someone has to come last, but at the development level, running is a really about being a part of a school sport, testing yourself and running as fast and as well as your body can go. The Finish line does not exist to showcase the winning runner, but as a way for every child to find some personal success along the path.
When I am coaching kids, I focus on Fun, Skill, and personal power. My goal is that every child has fun, and finds a skill or skills to work on, and comes away with a new literacy around running that lasts for their whole life. In a nutshell, in four short weeks we work on:
After races, and at the end of the season, I always try to get kids to reflect on their personal experience: what they learned, what they found fun, what skills they would like to improve. These statements are probably more enlightening (and rewarding for me to read) than anything else, as to the experience of kids in sport. Often we, as adults, coaches and parents, put our own expectations on our kids and they are so way off base. We want them to have fun, but fail to listen to what is fun. We underestimate the power that sport experience has on small beings, and that for those that dare to toe the line (and I think it takes a huge amount of courage to toe the line in Cross Country) how they grows for taking that chance. As you read these statement below (all real, recorded by the runners at Sidney School at the end of the season), take note of the effort, the personal sense of agency (power to act), and the exhilaration around the experience. One of these kids might be your child:
I loved how many races there were and how it was on trail grass and road
I liked the middle of the races and how I had to try there
I liked running as a team
I fell down and got back up
Getting faster with every race and feeling that I was fast
I liked training
I appreciated that I could try over three races
I loved the sprinting parts
I like the big hill and how hard it was and how you had to try really hard there
I got healthier
I got faster at running
I liked watching my scores and placing ribbons
I liked participating in the training and he racing
I liked that I improved
I liked the feeling of running, especially the wind in my hair
I loved the feeling of being so tired at the end of the race you want to fall over.
What can you do to support your young runner? Let them run free and happy. Ask them what they like about running and racing, run with them and at the end of the day simply say:
I love watching you run!
Run For Joy!
March 4, 2016
by Lucy Smith, September 3, 2003
It's easy to write about celebrations, to congratulate on a job well done and to record all the separate steps that come together to produce a satisfying result. Before most of my competitions, I can visualize my success and the feelings that come with it. Naturally, it is those moments where things come together favourably for us, where we realize our potential, that makes athletic achievement such a rewarding path to follow.
It is not so easy to sit down at the computer when things don't go as planned. I've had a few days to reflect on my race at the World Duathlon Championships: the race I went to win and where I ended up 19th. In the days after the race, I turned my attentions to the other great things about travelling to European races. The next day, I went out into the cold wet Swiss morning and cheered on the age groupers as they suffered their way around the steep and challenging course in Afflotern. Clutching my small cardboard cup of strong and fragrant "kaffee creme" I stood at the edge of the muddy field and smiled as men with grimaces of determination on their faces raced hard over the last two laps of the run, and I shouted "Hop, hop, hop!" to athletes from many countries: France, New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland, USA , Canada. I had a memorable meal in a restaurant in Zug that had been converted into a Moroccan style tent. Music, lanterns, richly decorated red, green and gold tents and curtains, grilled meats and olives and tagine. I got up and danced and clapped with strangers and I laughed my head off. You find out more about people, and develop a deeper connection when you share experiences away from home.
I also got in a wonderful and interesting day of sightseeing in Lucerne, wandering the ancient stone streets, having coffee and a piece of eggy plum tart, climbing the three towers in the ancient wall (my quads were complaining mightily about this--they were still stiff and sore from the race), and marvelling at the architectural grandeur and scope of the marvellous Lucerne concert hall on the lake. We walked the famous covered bridges and gazed at the Riggi and Pilatus mountains which look so majestically over the city. And in the back of my mind, I thought about my race.
Unfulfilled expectations are as much a part of sport as the satisfaction of meeting all one's goals. I always prepare for a race with the belief that it will be full of the magic and pure brilliance of sport: the transcendent moments where the ability to focus causes all other details to fade into the background. I think it is fair to say, that my race at the World Championships this year was not a race of magic and flow. It started out well enough, but somewhere, the race just went off track and I was left to draw on all my experience and maturity, all my powers of rational and positive thinking, to pull me through. I had prepared for magic, but the reality was, that on this day, I needed all the tools I had to deal with the conditions, the competition, the disappointment and the fact that, after a certain point, I actually didn't seem to have any control over the wooden sticks that my legs had become.
Afflotern, the site of the World Duathlon Championships, is a small Swiss town located in some good hills. The race was centred about a large grassy field at a sports complex and both the run and the bike were uphill/downhill courses, with very little flat at all. Typical of many European duathlons, the courses were much hillier and more technical than anything that we get in the usual circuit in North America. The run course was over half track and grass and harder even than World Cross Country Courses that I have done (expect maybe the time it was run in the pouring rain in Stavenger, Norway and whole course was deep black mud).
I arrived from Canada on the Wednesday before the race and performed my preparations well. I got a little run or ride in every day about the time that I would race, and surprisingly, I felt good even with the nine hours time difference. I saw the course and race site several times and talked to my husband and coach, Lance, on the phone, discussing tactics and race strategy for such a hilly, competitive race. I felt nervous, but not overly anxious. I felt in control of my race and my confidence and ready to go and test my fitness, which I knew was very very high. I relaxed and enjoyed myself, appreciating the fact that I was in Switzerland, a place that I have raced before, but I still managed to stay professional and not expend too much energy in the days before the race.
Race morning was cold and wet. We all searched the sky, looking for blue breaks amongst the swollen grey clouds overhead. I was, like most people, concerned about the steep downhill section on the bike course and the slick roads, but as I watched the juniors filing into transition after their bike, I felt reassured: they were, after all, finishing just fine. I knew my competition and felt prepared for the run, and for being on the ball during the bike leg, watching for breaks, keeping close to the people I wanted to be with at the end of the ride.
The start gun went off, and straight away we were running up the first of the four hills on the 10k run leg. We ran fast. At the Worlds, there is no tempo running over the first run: it's a race from the beginning. I had a good pack with past champion Edwige Pitel, Andrea Whitcombe, another French women, and Kiwi Fiona Docherty. We let French woman Corine Paux go solo off the front. The women charged down the steep hill helter skelter and I found that I moved well over the flatter grassy section through transition. At the end of the first run, I was in good position and headed out in the first group onto the bike leg. Things were going well until the fourth lap of the five loop bike course. I was doing all the right things, playing the game and being smart, tactical and on the ball with the course and the competition. The bike course, with a steep technical downhill through a narrow road was a challenge. Cycling champion Karin Theurig came by before the hill on the third lap and I hopped on her wheel and climbed with her. That valiant move might have been my undoing. Somewhere near the end of the fourth lap I just blew to bits: started seeing spots in front of my eyes as my legs went to jelly and I lost power. I had dropped my Powergel and had no instant calories to jump start things. It was a tough go after that and by the time I got to the last run, I had run out of gas completely. I stumbled up that hill another two times and back to the finish as if I was running in clogs. As soon as the race ended I scarfed a chocolate bar and a fruit cake. And, yes, I felt disappointed. I have been training so well, and really felt confident for this year. Simply, I had travelled all the way to Europe, leaving my family behind for a week, it was a tough course--a Lucy course, I called it--and I had hoped to excel over such a challenge.
Racing is a powerful mix of internal and external concentration and attention to detail. It is foolish to not pay attention to the race unfolding around you, and on the other hand, it takes a real focus to concentrate on your own process and skill and find that magical flow that happens when you are only aware of your own breath. There is a fine balance between knowing that you are racing to win the race, and out there to have your own best effort. From this race, I have the secure knowledge that I went into the race to win, but had to settle with my own best effort on a day when things didn't really go according to plan.
I raced at one o'clock on Saturday and the men raced at three. So it was at least seven o'clock in the evening by the time things were wrapping up and I had to find my way back to my homestay in Baar, about 16 km away. During a break in the rain, I put my sopping wet bike shoes back on, hefted my soggy pack on my back and rode through the Swiss countryside with a few of the other Canadian men. Although I was tired, it felt good to get back on my bike and move. I had to ride the last part of my ride alone, and as I peacefully spun along in the quiet evening, I noticed the sun breaking through the clouds low on the horizon, filling the sky with a golden light that turned the fields around me an exquisite verdant green. It was impossible to not be in awe of the beauty around me: the dark green forest and the lighter green grass and the golden tinged clouds. At that moment I realized about my self that I was not moved by how I had raced nearly as much as I was moved by the sheer experience of being there.
Who is a Tomboy?
When I was a child I was called a tomboy. I remember processing it as a compliment, not a taunt, and took it as praise for being athletic, a fast runner, interested more in the outdoors than talking about dolls and boys. I was naturally athletic and I loved competition. I ran and played soccer and basketball at school. I sailed all summer, loved camping, hiking, rock climbing and back country skiing: anything that tested my physical limits. I took pride in being brave and fearless and tough. As the third and youngest child in an active family, I no doubt got positive feedback for having an independent attitude, and early success in sports only served to encourage my athletic interests. I had boys that were good friends, and all through high school had more boys that were ‘chums’ than boyfriends.
As a child, I felt happy identifying as a ‘tomboy’, and during my adolescence, I believe my athletic abilities gave me inner strength to weather the high school scene. As I became a young woman, however, I gradually came to wonder how the boyish label fit with being a girl: I also liked nice clothes and shoes and had heartbreaking crushes on countless boys. I home permed my hair (with disastrous results) in grade 12, experimented with make-up, and stared at fashion magazines, all the while training for the Provincial Track and Field Championships.
By the time I had reached University and my first women’s studies classes, I had outgrown the tomboy label and was a bona fide elite athlete, starring as a distance runner at University and going on to travel the world competing on national teams. At 23, I knew I wanted to be an Olympian and carve out a career as a professional athlete. I had forgotten all about the word tomboy, until I got to that inevitable crossroads in early adult life, where I had moved away from home and was trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted from my life.
Over the next few years as I became aware of the forces of sexism in our culture, it slowly dawned on me that tomboy was a strange sort of expression to apply to girls. Why would we label an active girl to be ‘sort of’ male? It seemed a little confusing to me, as the messages that I saw around me, mainly through the media, seemed to suggest that being a girl and a woman, had a lot more to do with choosing the right eye shadow and preparing for the perfect dream wedding. Tomboy seemed to be a good thing when I was little; now that I was growing up into a woman, what was I?
For a while in my late twenties I lived in Paris, racing as a professional triathlete on a French women’s triathlon team, but still mainly training with, and hanging out with male athletes, as women professionals were pretty scarce. While I loved the adventure of being in Europe, nothing could have felt more glaringly odd to me as a young woman than being a female athlete in the city of breasts, fashion and fragrance. I looked around at the billboards displaying airbrushed photographs of women without muscles, wrinkles or body hair. I knew that no amount of cream would melt fat or cellulite. I decided that someone was delusional, and it wasn’t me.
Like a lot of women born after the start of the feminist movement I had learned to be wary of media images of beauty, and had learned to be a critical reader and observer of popular culture. Nevertheless it was hard to be an athlete and a young woman and to never, ever see myself reflected in those popular images around me. I didn’t know what to think for many years. I felt so strongly that I needed to reject the ‘girly girl’ image that seemed so false (and dangerous, as I noticed eating disorders, low self esteem and disempowerment) that in a very concrete way, I was rejecting the ‘buy in’ to the culture of beauty that I felt was so demeaning to women because it refused to celebrate who women really were, only what they looked like. In rejecting female stereotypes, I did in turn embrace a lot of characteristics that are part of the gender roles of males. And that is the essence of being a tomboy by most definitions.
From a pure etymology angle, tomboy is a word with an interesting history. At first a derogatory word to describe women who dressed like men way back in 1590, it gradually came to mean, as fashions changed and most women started to wear trousers, a women who acted more like a man than a woman, and by the time I was 10, it was considered cute to be called a tomboy.
Or did it only serve, for a while, to give me permission to be less like a stereotypical girl? One has to wonder, why should a girl or a woman who is athletic, sporty, strong, confident, competitive, competent, brave and smart be compared to a boy?
Women, like me, who are athletic and who like to wear mascara off the playing field, are just that: women who like sports among a whole host of other passions. I also like reading and writing and cooking and looking after my kids. As I reflect on my youth, I see that being called a tomboy was more confusing than helpful to me as it created a barrier to people (and myself included) seeing who I truly was. It would have been so much easier as a kid if I could have just been able to accept who I was as an active girl without having to deal with trying to decipher what being a tomboy meant.
Now that I am forty and balancing my athletic career with raising my two young children, my athleticism and accomplishments are embraced and respected. I am honoured to give inspiring talks to women who are beginning a journey to fitness and I enjoy giving back to the community that supports me by being a role model for kids, talking to them in gymnasiums and racing them around soccer fields. Nobody calls me a tomboy anymore and I see many young women who are fearlessly choosing to be athletes. Girls can play hockey, soccer and golf, though still not with the same opportunities as men. The balance is far from equal--there are far greater professional opportunities for male athletes than female, but girls just don’t need to be called tomboys anymore. And when the word disappears from common use and into the history of the language, that will be a good day.
I have noticed that in the post-feminist “Girl Power” movement, there is a strong reclaiming of the term tomboy amongst girls. I see girls trying to infuse power in the term, by saying they are proud to be tomboys. What I envision is a possibility that girls and women can transcend the whole issue of what their position is in relation to traditional power. Instead of responding to the term, I would like to see girls embrace a reality for themselves and one that embraces the whole of their radiant natures.
I have a seven year old girl. She has girl friends that I care about. I want these girls to grow up happy to be who they are. If they want to play with Barbie, then they should be happy about that need to explore. Barbie is an invitation to conversations about why every single Barbie has such crazy long legs, no muscles, such a tiny waist and big breasts, but I still think that if they want to play with dolls that’s just fine. And if my daughter feels like running, skipping or mastering a skateboard, I would like to think that she feels free and happy about that too, and I would hope she doesn't feel that she’s a little bit of a ‘different’ girl and tomboyish because she exhibits such daring and strength.
Last month, I sat on a small chair at a classroom table with my daughter and her grade 2 teacher. The three of us were in the classroom discussing friendships among a group of girls in the class. Her teacher, a compassionate and motherly woman, mentioned that my daughter might like to find other friends who were into sports. ‘You’re sort of a tomboy; maybe there are some other girls in the class who share your interests,” suggested her teacher.
My daughter paused before answering, glanced at me, then looked at her teacher and stated. “I don’t really like that word, tomboy, as it means that I am sort of like a boy, and I’m not. I’m a girl and I like sports and running and stuff. I’m a sporty girl. The word, tomboy doesn’t exist for me.”
My heart did one of those mother bursts: I felt such respect and love that she could reflect on her teacher’s use of words so well. I was surprised that our conversations about what it means to be a girl in this world had created this kind of awareness in her. I admired too, the way her teacher took the comments. She sat up straighter and opened her eyes in that sort of ‘aha!’ way that people get when they look at something through a different lens for the first time. This is a woman with a daughter too, a girl who is passionate about soccer. “I never thought about it like that”, she said. “I can see how you wouldn’t want to be compared to a boy like that.”
Having a career in sports has been a rewarding life path for me. I have travelled the world, had experiences in different cultures, and have met interesting people: all these have enriched my life. I have overcome obstacles and challenges. I have learned how to live with extremely stressful environments and people. I have learned how to stay balanced and in the moment while dealing with the highs and the lows that sport inevitably brings. The knowledge gained from a lifetime of athletic experiences helped me through childbirth and has made me a better parent and partner. After doing three Ironman triathlons and giving birth twice, I am not afraid of anything physically challenging or stressful. By staying true to my dreams, I feel that I have transcended my early tomboy label, and found true joy in my career path.
I am not a tomboy. I am me and tomboys don’t exist for me either.
Not too many athletes list pregnancy in their season’s accomplishments, but the reality of sport these days is that more and more women are staying in sport through pregnancy and after having children. While the professional world in general does not recognize fertility as an achievement (unless of course you are a celebrity mother, and your return to your pre-baby svelte figure a measure of your success), taking a break from training to have a baby is a monumental process for a professional athlete.
This year, I have a unique racing score chart, in that between March and July I recorded three podium finishes at National Championships, (Gold at 10k road and 10 000m track, Silver at Half Marathon), raced in two Olympic trials (athletics: 10 000m and 5000m), ran a personal best for 10 000m (32:46) on what might have been one of the best track races of my life, and then bested my own times for road 10k another three times. By July, it was all over. The Olympic Trials came and went and with it, my dreams of going to the Athens Olympics, as so many of us were left off the teams this year in light of the harsh Canadian Olympic standards.
A week after the Olympic Trials, I had one of those fabulous early morning training runs. I was very fit, so fit that seventy minutes was perfect for getting into a wonderful fast and athletic aerobic rhythm. I was running the converted railway trail above the town of Penticton, dancing above the lake, trough apple orchards and floating past vineyards with their beautiful architecturally designed houses—all wood and glass reflecting green vines and blue sky. The sun was barely up as I ran in the shade of the hillside, though the morning was already warm with the summer valley heat and I was alive, free and totally happy. I was running. The disappointment of not going to the Olympics had not set in yet; I was purely in the best shape of my life and doing what I do best. Gliding quickly on foot.
It’s funny how this morning sticks out in my mind. This run is like a dream loaded with positive energy though it was just a Sunday morning training run. This run contained my entire athletic prowess, my professional career, my soul, my future plans, for both the remainder of the season, and for the next. It was both effortless and yet, in hindsight, it had monumental meaning. Two days after this run, reacting to the gut knowledge that women seem to possess about their own bodies, I took a home pregnancy test. It came back positive.
Even though it took several more weeks for the fatigue and nausea to set in, for that first trimester exhaustion that reduced me to twenty-minute walks and bouts of lying on the sofa, my career changed in the moment my suspicions were confirmed by the magic blue line in the window of a white plastic stick.
As an athlete I live for the moments that I am training, moving my body through space and being the best I can. As a professional athlete, I have dreams and I set goals. I visualize future races and future successes. With my coach (and in this case my coach also happens to be Lance: my soul mate, husband and business partner) I plan and develop my training programs, we strategize about the business of racing and my training becomes a joint project.
The moment I found I was pregnant, my foreseeable future changed. The training run in the orchards of Penticton became symbolic of the last true training I did without the knowledge of having a life inside me. From that moment on, my training became more maintenance exercise and certainly less directed towards a specific goal. I have no trouble training without a goal for I love to be active and I am committed to staying healthy for the rest of my life, but as a professional athlete, it is a significant change, to not be working towards some sort of outcome every day.
I have been pregnant before so this professional disruption was not such a new thing to me, but this pregnancy was markedly different in the circumstances. When I got pregnant with our first child, Maia, I was just getting over a frustrating six-month injury, an injury that had made me become overly introspective into my life, running and the meaning behind it all. I had not had a significant break in my competitive career since I was 19 years old. I was ready for the wonderful change that pregnancy brings and emotionally ready to move on from being Number One all the time.
This current pregnancy comes four and half years after Maia was born. Since that time I have reached my peak years as an athlete, have matured light years (the responsibilities of parenthood will do that) and this year I was at the top of my game physically and also mentally. My Olympic campaign represented all my twenty years of experience in sport, a balance between my pure joy of running and the intense pressure of competition and qualifying. I put together everything I knew about training, commitment, sport psychology and racing in order to execute my season and I had the support my husband, of a national training centre, a whole town and my personal sponsors Nike and PowerBar.
With the knowledge of the pregnancy, came the overnight shift in plans, goals I was excited about and races I was looking forward to racing. I had to cancel my attendance at the World Half Marathon Championships and I couldn’t race at several world cup duathlon events or the Canadian Duathlon Championships in order to qualify for next year’s world championships. Going to professional road races on the American circuit was out, as was a fall marathon in Victoria, my hometown.
The thing about being pregnant, is that all the things that are taken away are more than replaced my the euphoric sense of the abundant love of motherhood: knowing that you are carrying a child, a living breathing human being that is actually growing daily in your womb, and that will someday be a new addition to your family and will be somebody that you will know and love for the rest of your life.
But motherhood is not quantifiable in the business world and in the life of a professional athlete; pregnancy and babies remain mainly a personal experience. Pregnancy is not relevant to the world of scores and times, heart rate and training schedules. Pregnancy is not compatible with the exertion of our daily workout schedules, or the risky nature of many types of things I do in training. As a writer, I can continue to write while pregnant. (My writing may actually be better as I am more emotionally vulnerable and reflective during this time of great hormone rush). As a coach I can continue to coach, from the sidelines even if I cannot go out and run with the group. As I mother, I can continue to play with Maia. But I cannot continue my professional athletic career in the same way. This takes some getting used to.
I have tried not to forget my great accomplishments from earlier this year, though they seem to be fading into memory, in sharp juxtaposition to my growing belly. The months move quickly towards my due date, much quicker than with Maia I might add, and soon I will have a tiny little newborn to care for, I find myself dreaming of my return to form. There is nothing quite like involuntarily, but willingly gaining twenty or thirty pounds. There is nothing like the love a mother feels for a newborn baby. And there is nothing like the feeling of floating effortlessly above the trail on a magical summer morning.
c. Dec 9, 2004
In 1989, the great Kenyan runner John Ngugi won his 4th consecutive World Cross Country Championships. Running over a rain soaked golf course in ankle deep mud, John ran off the front and raced solo for most of the race. He appeared to skim the surface of the track, floating above it, running suspended in air, yet moving so fast. I know, because I was there, and I saw him race. I have a vision to this day of John Ngugi racing over mud like it was smooth hard asphalt; such was his ability and his prowess. John Ngugi went on to win another World title in 1992, making for a total of 5, and then Paul Tergat, another great Kenyan, won 5 in a row from 1995-99.
I was in Stavanger Norway at my first World Cross Country Championships, the first of 5 world cross country events that I attended from 1989-1993. Back then, the races were run on one day and there was a single event for the men and women to run. Endurance runners from the 1500, 3000m, 5000, 10000, and marathon all converged in this one mass start cross country event. The races were an elite smorgasbord of World, Olympic, and European distance champions. The World Cross Country Championships were so competitive that Phil Ligget, the popular sports commentator, called it the “fiercest foot race on earth”.
I was the Canadian Champion, but at 22 year of age, inexperienced and amongst this calibre of athletes I was overwhelmed by the level of competition, and the magnitude of the event itself.
It rained all week leading up to the event, and the ground was sodden and soft. At the race site, all countries were assigned an outdoor 'room' in the sprawling centre of green army tents that had been put up for the event. We Canadians arrived, and silently, nervously, we found places for our gear off of the wet ground and out of the rain. Team members came and went from the tent, quietly performing their pre-race rituals. By the time the junior women and men had raced, the hilly course was deep mud. As I paced alone nervously through the warm up area of tents, I could hear singing and laughter coming from one of the rooms and as I walked past I could see it was the Kenyan team tent and a large group of runners (juniors, senior, women, men) were in there. They were laughing and singing and some were even dancing together in a circle! I was amazed and intrigued by the sound of joy and the happiness that was coming from that tent, before such intense competition! Like children playing, the Kenyan athletes possessed a magic that was completely alluring. I was enchanted by the evident joy and the camaraderie that existed between then… there was something about the attitude that suggested a far greater importance than the races about to be run. I have never forgotten that laughter, those smiles on the faces of the relaxed runners, or the singing and I have witnessed it at many events since.
Although I was too young and far too nervous at the time to fully understand, I learned a lesson that day that became a huge part of my path as an athlete: that I needed to be serious and dedicated to training, but light-hearted about my career. There is a passion, and that passion comes from softness, not hardness. That running for joy is a childlike freedom. I realize now that my whole athletic career has been a process of moving closer and closer to finding that place of fun again. I am forever grateful for the way those Kenyan runners sang freely out loud in the rain before the World Cross Country Championships in 1989.
10 More things I learned from racing Cross Country that I continued to use throughout my career:
1. Be Assertive. I always tried to be first off the line and first into a corner.*
2. Make Space. Cross is crowded: I would try to get out in front and put space between me and a pack, especially going into trails.
3. Use your Strengths. I was a front runner. I didn’t care if anyone knew my secret, when I went out front, and ran scared like a rabbit I was really motivated by the fear of getting caught!
4. Run down Hill Fast. I did lots of crazy hill training, but never neglected to practice running downhills very fast.
5. Start Fast, Go Fast in the Middle and Finish Fast: or, never stop pushing.
6. Own the Course: I would pre run every course, sometimes several times if it was not in my hometown. If the race was in my hometown, then I would train on that course relentlessly and own every inch of the course and would know where I was going to make my move if I had to.
7. If the weather is bad then that’s good news. In rain, snow or hurricanes, bad weather is a chance to be tougher than nails. Just make sure you always have a selection of spikes, including 10mm!!
8. Get Lost. If I was ahead, then I would try to put more time once I hit a corner or a wooded section. When people can’t see you, they don’t try as hard to catch you.
9. Run corners fast. Take tangents, run the corners at speed and try to get a step ahead of competitors in the corner.
10. It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over. Run hard past the finish line. There may be someone to catch just before the chute, or in the case of the Worlds, if you stop pushing for even one second, ten runners push by.
*Once, I was a little too aggressive into a corner. I was running neck and neck with Leah Pells down Citadel Hill at the Nationals in Halifax. There was a downhill sharp corner about 600m from the finish. I attempted to cut into the inside of that last corner, but slipped in the mud, lost my balance and wiped out. Leah surged ahead and beat me to the line.
Lucy Smith started running in Halifax, Nova Scotia, racing cross country in the Bantam category. She went on to win 5 Senior National Cross Country Championships and 2 University Cross Country Champs. She raced at World Cross Country Championships 5 Times.
A favourite from way back, but still relevant!
When I go to races, I frequently see families and I always see smiles. I observe people who work full time sharing running and triathlon with their partners and children. The first time I watched Hawaii Ironman I sat on the hill at Palani Road and marvelled at the groups of fans that some athletes had. Many had not just one person cheering them on, but a whole extended family of grandmas and uncles and sisters, making a party out of their Ironman Day. Now, getting people to come for a week’s vacation to the sand and sun of Hawaii so they can spend one day watching you race may not be a hard sell, but I was moved by the passion for life these support groups exhibited. They all appeared to be enjoying themselves and it certainly wasn’t a personal sacrifice for them to be there.
The fact that many marathoners and Ironman athletes were living out their personal dreams through the most gruelling races that exist, in conjunction with, not in spite of, the rest of their lives is a fabulous example of the way sport and life co-exist.
As an athlete you are probably tired. Training, by definition, is about stressing the body repeatedly to make it stronger and more efficient. Not only are you in a perpetual state of fatigue, you are also emotionally and mentally engaged with your racing goals most of the time. Add a partner, kids, and a full time job, and life seems pretty busy. If the attention to all these areas of your life is joyful and positive then you will likely feel energized by your path and by everything you do.
If however, you are doing the reverse--trying to fit your life into a training schedule-- there is the possibility that you will feel obsessive and drained by your busy-ness and your personal sense of well being will suffer. Over time, this physical and psychological overload leads to burn out and dissatisfaction with your life and sport.
Here then, are 10 ways to energize your life and sport.
1. At the start of the season write down your goals. Write down what you want to achieve, not what you think you should do. This is important to ponder. If your goals do not line up with what you really want, then you will be far less committed than if you embrace your true desire. If you sign up for Ironman because your buddies did, but you really want to test yourself over short course, those long rides are going to seem endless and even pointless.
2. Once you have your goals written down (and you should write them down) then you need to look at your priorities in life and decide whether your goals match your priorities. I have coached several people to Ironman who were clear about it being a 12-month commitment that they had worked out with their families. If you have chosen Ironman, yet you know you will only be able to train on a very limited basis for the distance, it is worth adjusting your outcome goals to match this. If your priorities do not line up with your goals, then you will be frustrated and grumpy about your progress. It is ultimately more enjoyable to be fully emotionally present at your daughter’s Saturday afternoon soccer game than to be worried about the training miles that you aren’t getting in.
3. Decide to be flexible and adopt an easy-going attitude about your sport. Plan for your goals to happen by setting short-term goals, a training schedule, or at least a weekly plan that includes time that you can train. Having a personal coach and finding workout partners are great ways to make your training happen and to make the most of limited time. At the same time, busy people with demanding jobs and especially parents with small children, need to be flexible with their lives. Being able to accept that your children are sick and need you, or that you have to travel to a business meeting is an easier task if your priorities are clear and you know that over the long haul, you are being consistent with your training.
4. Be consistent about sleep. If you have an infant, you likely do not get enough sleep, so you need to make the most of the sleep that you get. Going to sleep and waking up at the same time on a regular basis will ensure you are as rested as you can be. Be aware of the things that will interfere with a good sleep too: alcohol, caffeine and chocolate in the evening, though they may be part of your daily treat schedule, can detract from a good rest.
5. Understand your energy patterns and organize your day and train accordingly. Most of us have energy highs and lows in the day, parts of the day where we feel most alert and energized and those where we just want to take a nap. If you can, schedule your training around the times when you feel you are at your best, especially if you do only one workout a day. If you routinely train at night and have trouble getting to sleep, change your workout time and notice how it affects your training and your sleep patterns. Getting into a working routine with your sleep and your physical activity is part of optimal training.
6. Go out and play. Participation in sport is playtime: adult fun in a life of responsibility, jobs, mortgages, and other such seriousness. Be one of the athletes who have tapped into their inner strength—competing with a sense of happiness as well as determination is how you perform at your best.
7. Eat well and stay hydrated. Learn as much as you can about good sports nutrition, including what to eat and when, and what proportion of your caloric intake should be protein, carbohydrates and fats. Without being obsessive with your diet, make choices that feed your body and your soul, providing you with adequate energy to support your active lifestyle. Instead of those empty calorie junk foods, replace lost calories with a high nutrition alternative. A Power Bar Pria with your morning coffee provides treat factor with a healthy doss of nutrition.
8. Take care of your toys! Be proactive about your equipment and be as organized as you can so that you are always ready to go. There is nothing more aggravating than finding a flat on your bike when you have an hour to ride. Stock up at the bike store with spare tubes and any equipment you may need and keep it on hand by your bike. Have a race day equipment list and print it out. Organize your gear the night before a race. Have a spare pair of your favourite runners on hand.
9. Stretch your hamstrings and breathe! Take a Yoga class and reap the many benefits for athletes. Through yoga you can learn to tap into and increase your core strength, the strength that you need to initiate all other movement in a balanced and efficient way. You will stretch out tired muscles and strengthen and lengthen your back after all the pounding of running. As a refreshing change from competing there are no performance incentives in yoga besides having a stronger more flexible body, a suppler spine and more relaxed mental outlook. Learning how to really breathe will help in your racing and in your busy life, and most athletes feel rejuvenated and enriched by the mind and body connections of yoga.
10. Be gentle with yourself. Look at your life and your sport as a work in progress. Each challenging opportunity opens the door for further growth. If your time and energy are limited, make every moment count. On a day that you are tired, give yourself credit for getting out there, savour the sunshine, the forest, the camaraderie of your peers instead of focussing on how slow you feel. Some specificity is better than sitting on the couch. If your current training routine is not working for you, if your life feels unbalanced or hectic, accept that and move on. Re-frame the problem into an opportunity. What would work better now? What would you change if you could do it again?
Participation in sport is a rewarding path in life, especially to those athletes who view their training as a process or self-discovery and achievement. If you have clear priorities and intentions and are living out your responsibilities to yourself and the other people in your life, then your training and racing is something to feel thankful for.
Run For Joy tip:
I have three intentions for every workout, no matter what the session:
Run For Joy!
5 Steps to Goal Setting with Heart
Achieving goals is fun and rewarding and gives us a sense of empowerment and satisfaction. It is what drives a lot of triathletes, whether it means setting their sights on completing their first triathlon or racing Ironman in a destination they always wanted to visit. The path towards goals is an adventure in itself: a world full of unexpected learning and opportunity for daily success along the way. The quality and nature of your goals is important. The extent to which the goal is both meaningful and attainable requires some diligent and thoughtful planning as you start looking towards 2015.
Traditional goal setting asks athletes to analyze their current physical and mental skill level and find out where there is a potential for improvement. It helps to understand your weaknesses relative to your strengths over swim, bike and run, as you can adjust your future training to bring them more closely balanced.
Most people have a good idea of where they would like to improve. They can say things like: I am a great cyclist, but I have problems on the run, or I can swim fast in the pool but I swim a dog’s leg course once I get to open water. They know if they are good hill climbers or strong flat course riders and if they waste too much time in transition. A list of your current skills and level will give you a solid starting point when it comes to setting your goals for next season.
Because training and racing should be happy and positive, I encourage athletes to also look within themselves as they start dreaming about next year. Here are five things from your heart that you should take into consideration when choosing next year’s goals:
Choose a race that pulls you. One you have always wanted to do, a place you want to travel. Even if you have qualifying as part of your season goals, choose at least one race that is your HEART race. This can be a race you have done well on before and which you love, a place that inspires or perhaps a race in a location you have always wanted to visit. Wanting to be there, and showing up inspired is something worth looking at.
2. Quality Time
Training should be fun and should make sense. When is a good time in your year to train and when is a good time to race? Taking into consideration weather, kids, school and summer holidays, work schedules and family vacations, find spots where your goal race training (the 6-12 week prior) will fit in nicely with your life and commitments.
3. Cultivate New Powerful and Positive Habits Through Sport
Which races will allow you to elevate and grow? Are there challenges you feel a little afraid of? Are you ready for a longer race but still not sure. Look carefully at your fears and decide whether they are worth staying latched onto. When an athlete gives me reasons she should not do a race, I usually see fear lurking in the background. I then ask the athlete to give me five good reasons why she SHOULD do the race. When listed side by the side, the 5 negatives are almost always problems that can be worked out and the 5 positives will take the athlete closer to personal success. Try this the next time you feel anxious or like avoiding a goal. It is a very powerful technique.
4. Invest in Yourself
This means taking your decisions and goals seriously, not just buying yourself a new racing bike or power meter. Races are probably the most amazing places to become a better athlete and a stronger person. They are the culmination to training and work, and they are small pockets of your life where you get to focus your energy into something you really want to do well at. Look at all races as a chance to gain valuable insight into racing and how you respond to various courses and conditions. Even secondary races are opportunities to practice good habits and reconnect with the fun that sport is.
5. Learn and Trust
Trust is a liberating feeling. Whether it’s trusting your coach or trusting that your plan and goals will work out for you, trust means you can take out the anxiety and the second guessing. It doesn’t mean that you won’t change things up when necessary, and you may even re set your goals, but developing a sense of trust in your plan, your coach and your schedule allows you to fully enjoy and benefit from the process. We have a lot of options in our lives now, more than ever before, and this includes our recreational and athletic choices. Whether it is technology and equipment, coaching software or type of workouts, there are a plethora of ways to get to the same goal. Nothing will ever replace good judgment, commitment, trust and merely working hard and putting the effort in.
If you take the time to consider what you truly want from sport, and how you really would like your training and racing experience to look like, you are much more likely to find the process rewarding and fulfilling. Your time spent training will make sense and will be empowering.
Run For Joy!
Unplugged but Switched On…
I have talked and written about the magic in running before, about how participation in sport can often act as a spontaneous and joyful catalyst to challenge all we think we believe about our abilities and limitations. These are special moments, when we are engaged in the doing, the moment when our minds stop their ceaseless chattering about whether we are good enough, fast enough, fit enough—WORTHY enough—of being there. The action-engaged mind becomes still for a moment, we stop analyzing and things just click. That is what the sport scientist calls ‘flow’ and what I call joy. It is no secret. There is a reason that millions of people run races every year.
Another kind of magic occurs when you race, and sometimes it is only once you are at the finish line, in those moments right past the final step of effort, when the energy of the race both washes over you, and through you, like a freight train that has been bearing down on you for the last 10k, and now you have stopped it can finally catch up. I am often bowled over by this freight train and suddenly, in its impact, aware of how much I love it. The train represents the whole intensity of what I just did, how it comes and envelopes me with that profound feeling of satisfaction, and elation. That state the sports scientists also have a name for: ‘runner’s high’– the result of all those exercise induced endorphins as they surge through your brain.
I love the first big race of the year, like the way I welcome the change of seasons: so wrapped up in summer, it isn’t until the very first crisp day of autumn that I realize how much I love the cooler air, the change. In the first big race-as I put it all on the line again—the love of the commitment becomes more real and the training feels extra meaningful.
Racing isn’t just there to let you test out your fitness and strength and see where your speed is at. To look at racing as only a way to get a time—or to the finish line– is to fail to see the many dimensions that racing really is. For me, the first big race of the year gives me a chance to revisit and refine how I want to exist in this environment. Personally I love racing. I love the gradually building excitement to race day, the environment of celebration, community and being part of something larger than my every day training and life—breaking out of the comfort of the 45 minute run through my favourite trail. While I frequently feel nervous before races, the sense of anticipation reminds me of how much I love just being alive!
The first big road race is fun, a chance to step back into the higher stakes world, where we expect more of ourselves and use the runners around us to push ourselves greater than in practice. After my first big race of the year I am reminded of why I love running and racing and coaching. An early race is like a kick starter for your season: all it takes is one starting line—those moments waiting for the countdown, the lifting of the bar, running more intensely than you have yet this year, and you are up and running.
Your first race switches you on, or makes you hungry, some people say. Hungry for more of that, faster times, and better results. For me it draws me in and makes me want to give more, and the more I give the more I feel in touch with that magic, with a world that is full of it. And so I want to do it again, and do it better, with more focus. Physically, the first race boosts fitness…lubricates the system so to speak, so that the following week, my training runs feel smooth and efficient—it is apparent that the race has lifted me to a new level.
Because of the momentum and energy of this first race, there should always be another race planned, something concrete to look forward to, a point in the not too distant future in which to lift yourself again.
I believe strongly in the personal power of running. Races are a chance to be strong, empowered, to take charge and to be engaged. Open your heart and lungs, and let the magic happen.
Lucy Smith, April 19th, 2012