The best advice my high school coach ever gave me was that if I just focused on getting faster myself, then eventually my field of competitors would narrow.
He was well aware of how dialed in I was to results from across the country and — given my long-term career aspirations — that I wanted to put up times as fast as the best kids in the nation. He stressed patience and process and did his best to quell the question looming constantly in my brain: if I was running 4:30 for the mile and other kids my age were already running 4:20, then how would I ever expect to catch up?
But as I kept improving by a few seconds each year, the guys that I had once clashed with began to fade from my radar, and a new crop of faster guys became the target of my attention. And that’s the key — my attention. It wasn’t my coach gassing me up with tales of kids shattering 4:10 out in California. It was me. Any expectations around my running were entirely my own. And if somebody knew of me outside of my county, it was likely for my posting prowess on Dyestat and not for my gradually improving PRs.
There’s an increasing level of noise as you improve. With greater accomplishments comes greater expectations, both internal and external. I began to experience this a little bit as a high school senior, but it became more of a weekly, if not daily presence after I broke four minutes for the first time as a college sophomore. (This is way back when social media hadn’t developed into the 24/7 buzzsaw that it is today, mind you, and that undoubtedly made things easier.)
Throughout college, it started to become clearer which of my peers seemed in it for the long haul. These impressions weren’t based solely on results or workouts or mileage. Some intangible qualities stood out just as much. The way an athlete handles increasing pressure will be more telling about the probable length and success of their career than any details we can glean from reading their training log. There isn’t some secret formula of mileage, speed, and intensity that will ensure longevity.
The most obvious trait of those who make it through the system and are willing to train at a high level for a long time is being intrinsically motivated. That’s not a #hottake by any means. There are countless studies I can link to that describe how detrimental it is when parents overburden their children with their own shortcomings. Not only will it likely make the athlete a worse runner, but it creates a buried resentment and a weird familial relationship that will be apparent to everyone except to the people who matter most — I digress.
I don’t think being a 4:12 high school miler who turned into a professional who ran 3:52* (*at Boston University, one time) makes me the sole role model for youth development. I recognize there were a lot of other factors besides my love of the game that made that possible.
But having spent most of my life now surrounded by really fast people, I think there is a sense of particularity that is consistent amongst the best. There’s a mindset that says before you can win a race, you first have to convince yourself that you deserve to win it. So when I say most top professionals have an ego, that’s not meant as an insult, it’s a necessity — you can still be nice and think you’re God’s gift to the Earth. Losing that sense of being the main character is the first step toward starting a T&F newsletter.
But there’s an element of mindfulness at play, too, among those who make it. There are kids who show up and run fast because they’re talented or went through puberty on the early side. Then there are others who are present and tuned into how they’re feeling, both emotionally and physically. Not needing headphones for every run is a good way to work on this, but the ultimate goal is to always act with intention. Don’t just stumble into personal bests like an overgrown doofus, but actively pursue them.
There is a delicate balance between being a result-oriented, hyper-competitive kid who wants to demolish everyone in sight, and just training for the sake of training. The majority of days, after all, are relatively routine or mundane. Enjoying each part of the process for what it is will make it less exhausting. Personally, I have always found refuge in the culture of the sport, whether that’s learning about training, watching other races or studying the history — it is all part of running culture and yes, that includes going to brunch with teammates after a long run.
And finally, how an athlete reacts to failure is the greatest predictor of long-term success. Things will inevitably go wrong, whether that’s an injury, a cold streak, or a devastating and embarrassing loss. May I suggest the cry it out method? Being able to soothe oneself and having mild short-term memory loss will keep motivation high and the list of excuses to a minimum.
If you’re a talented and ambitious 15-year-old reading this, congrats! You’ve got your marching orders. I look forward to you running a 3:41 mile in 10 years.
If you’re a fan of the sport, here’s very specifically how you can help encourage the next generation of talent:
As outsiders, we can hyper-fixate on the training of kids who are running tremendously fast and predict their downfall. But unless you’re the one in their shoes breaking national records, then we should just enjoy watching from afar. Let them do what they’re going to do. Let them talk their shit. Let them go head-to-head against an Olympic medalist and get their bell rung — or not. Let them surprise you, and themselves, when a big move pays off. Wish them the best, resist the urge to post anonymously about them on the internet, and move on. There is no trophy for accurately predicting that a good high school runner will burn out, so quit being a pessimist and enjoy cheering them on. Do what the kids are doing — have some fun!
The Lap Count is a weekly newsletter delivered on Wednesday mornings that recap all the fun action from the world of track & field. It’s a great way to keep your finger on the pulse of the sport. There is a lot happening and this newsletter is a great way to stay up to date with all the fun. Subscribe today.