Breaking up with running: A reflection

By Ammar Moussa

February 2, 2017

I’ll never forget the day that I fell in love with running.

It was the summer before I started at Arcadia High School and I spent that summer training with the cross country team. All of this was part of my elaborate plan to get in shape for what was surely about to be the start of an incredibly successful soccer (or basketball) career. It was toward the end of the summer, we had our hardest workouts on what seemed like the hottest days yet. We were assigned 1,000 meter repeats and for the first time all summer, I got to work out with the varsity guys.

A few reps in I went up to my coach and begged him to pull me from the workout.

“I can’t do any more,” I said.

He looked at me and laughed but just said to get ready for the next rep. I finished that rep and a couple more after that, but not on my own. My teammates – the seniors, juniors, sophomores – all made sure that the new, cocky freshman finished. It was their words of encouragement that carried a 13-year-old freshman through that workout and made each rep a bit easier. Somehow I survived that workout and for the first time I bought into the words that my high school coach shared earlier that summer. “This team is going to be your second family.” He was right.

As runners, we develop this bond that other people just don’t understand. There is something special about the mutual suffering we go through. In that eternal pursuit of a finish line, we consistently expose ourselves to guaranteed pain, all for the ecstasy of a championship, a personal best or for the simple joy of finishing.

Regardless of where you place value within running, you know that you will subject yourself to a level of discomfort that could be avoided more easily through any other sport. We are special for the simple fact that in our pursuit of that thrill, we expose ourselves to a mental and physical torture that enhances that bliss that we chase and that’s why I fell in love with running that day.

The love I felt was so much stronger than anything that I felt in the years of playing basketball or soccer. On that hot summer day, I knew that I was about to embark on something extraordinary day in and day out. I knew I was going to be physically challenged and I was going to be confronted with spiritual trials that would shape me into the man I am today. Obviously, I didn’t specifically know all this is as a scrawny, immature, 13-year-old. But I did know that this running thing was unusual in some sense. I truly, unequivocally, wholeheartedly fell in love.

The nine years after that moment were like any relationship. There were incredible highs, some lows and all of it made the relationship stronger.

I spent my early high school years learning the value of hard work. I learned what it meant to pace myself, how important competition was to me and what drove me to be great. There were many formative moments for me that were simply checkpoints for my relationship with running.

I’ll never forget watching Chris Derrick duke it out with Colby Lowe at the 2007 Nike Team Nationals and then lift that obnoxiously large trophy with his teammates. That day, I realized that celebrating with teammates is much more gratifying than celebrating alone. I’ll never forget the way my heart hurt after I bombed the California State Meet in 2008 or how I felt that I was solely responsible for the team’s disappointment. I’ll never forget hearing Joe and Jim Rosa getting introduced at the 2008 NTN with their 9:06 and 9:08 3,200 meter PRs. (Good god they were so much faster than me.) I had to be better. I spent that whole winter [Note: After living in Colorado I hesitate to ever describe a California season as “winter”] playing out imaginary duels with the Rosa brothers – and those imaginary duels still go on to this day. I’ll never forget watching Mac Fleet commentating on my race at the 2009 MT Sac Relays, casually dismissing my huge move to catch up to Elias Gedyon.

Those early days, they were the initial part of my relationship with running. They were like first dates. We got to know each other. I learned that I was happiest with running when I was winning with my teammates. I was driven by a desire to be better than the people who probably didn’t even know that I existed. I fell in love with running for these reasons and more.

I fell hard and the relationship was so good.

Once I learned about the running version of Ammar Moussa, what worked and didn’t work, it became a dream. I traveled the world. I represented my country twice. I got courted by the universities of my dreams. Jim and Joe knew about me and I consider them friends today. Mac Fleet drove me around Eugene on my recruiting trip. I got to hold that obnoxiously large star trophy above my head. Elias became my best friend and biggest competitor. I started the cycle of being a cocky, scrawny freshman all over again at the University of Colorado. I got to hold another obnoxiously large trophy over my head again – twice. We celebrated conference titles, national titles, PRs in races, PRs on Magnolia Road and All-America honors.

But like in any relationship, we fought. We argued over injuries. Sometimes we couldn’t figure out the whole altitude thing. Running got jealous when I tried the college scene and it let me know of that envy. We figured it out though. We worked through it. It was a dream relationship and I was madly in love. I was a better person because I was a runner. It shaped me, taught me, humbled me and rewarded me. Isn’t that what a relationship is all about?

I’ll never forget the day running broke my heart.

November 21, 2015 in Louisville. I sat barefoot in the rain just a few feet away from the screen that showed we lost what should have been a third straight national title. Even as I type these words, my heart aches.

The way that title was ripped from us – so unceremoniously with such cruelty – it crushed me. I let my team down that day. Maybe that’s why my heart hurts so much. Running let me down that day. Everything that I had thought I knew about my relationship, I question now. I thought that, if you do the right thing, running rewards you. I thought that I was driven by team success but I couldn’t muster anything in the last kilometer that day like I had done for 8 years before, solely for my team. I thought that I was driven to beat guys that I had raced all my career. When Jim passed me at 6K, I just let him go. Running and I have trust issues now. I don’t even know what works anymore. Right now, the things that I thought worked just don’t. So like any relationship, I spent a few months living in denial and fighting for a relationship that just didn’t work anymore. I spent months trying to figure out why. I convinced myself that I could save it. And time and time again, I’ve proven that I can’t. So maybe it’s best to end this relationship because it’s become unhealthy. Maybe down the line, when I’m more mature, we can try this again. It’s not you, it’s me.

I wrote all of that on the flight back to Boulder after a disappointing conference weekend.

I was upset with the way I raced, with my lack of competitiveness and felt that I had reached the end of a long and increasingly discouraging road. It truly felt that my relationship with running was over and that there was no spark anymore.

I put all of that emotion on paper. I showed it to some people that I really care about and got some feedback from them. These were people who knew me when I was young boy just falling in love. These people knew when I was the peak of my relationship after winning our second straight NCAA title, and my first all-America honors. And the same people who saw me fall out of love after November 21st.

Maybe it was their kind and understanding words…Maybe it was finally acknowledging what was inevitable and facing it head on…Maybe all the pressure that I had put on myself since finishing 5th just disappeared. Something changed.

The two weeks between conference and regionals were not a drag but the most enjoyable running had been in 9 months. I was blissfully unaware that my 9-year relationship was going to end. Instead, I began to feel that same spark that I had had for 9 years – the same spark that lit up in that naïve, cocky 13 year old freshman in Arcadia, CA.

I started caring again. I wanted to win. I wanted to compete. Instead of succumbing to the searing pain that would wash over me at practice, I relished in it. Maybe it was delusion. Fighting for a relationship that had a definitive expiration date. But it was worth it.

You fight for the things you care about, and when you fight for those relationships, they end up giving you a bit back, to remind you why you fell in love in the first place.

Though I didn’t get what I initially wanted from regionals, I got something different. I got a spark of hope. A rekindling of a love that had been 9 years strong. I realize, you don’t just throw away relationships just because things get difficult. In Lawrence, I had really great 9,600/10,000 and 4,600/5,000 meter races. That was enough to give me hope. Hope that, as Kyle Merber memorably once told me, “Talent doesn’t go away.”

So instead of breaking up with running, I think it’s time for a little break. The prospect of losing running reminded me of how important it is to me. I have put in too much effort, sacrificed entirely too much to give up now.

The strongest relationships are the ones that are worth fighting for, and why wouldn’t I fight for my first love?