XC 2022: The Realness of My Senior Season
Hi everyone! I hope you're having a wonderful weekend!! Today I have a long and deep blog post to share with you, so buckle in, haha. On Monday, October 24th, I finished the last official race of my 12th grade cross country season, and this is the story of my season. It's had a lot of ups and downs, but honestly, I'm so thankful for all it has brought me.
I started out the season confident and excited to run faster than I ever had in cross country before and my first few races were great. I was running faster on average than last season, and even though I hadn't overall PRed, I was still super happy with my efforts and excited for what I could feel was to come.
For context, last XC season I ran my overall 5k PR (personal record) of 18:56 at the Paul Short Run at LeHigh University in October, and since then I've run similar and faster times on road and track efforts, but never on a cross country course again. That race was truly an incredible experience, and while ever since that day I believed myself capable of running that and faster again, I simply haven't, since that was near the end of my season and the planets didn't align for it. I have run sub-19 in quite a few time trials and even track races, but never on a cross country course again. This entire season I felt that I had to live up to that infamous time of last season, which I knew was possible, but it felt super daunting.
The first real opportunity I had to run that fast again was at LeHigh's same invitational this season, which was scheduled for September 30th, and all summer and the season before that I was anxiously anticipating that race. In an incredible twist of fate, I never ended up at LeHigh when the gun fired on September 30th. About one week before the race my parents sat me down to inform me that I wouldn't be racing at LeHigh because I hadn't gotten registered in time and wasn't allowed into the meet. While it sounds dramatic, this was somewhat devastating as this had been the highlight of my season that I had been anticipating ever since October 1st, 2021. We reeled, trying to figure out an alternative race for that weekend. We ended up with a solid Plan B - a night meet on a super fast course under the lights in Ohio on the same weekend as LeHigh. I was genuinely very excited for this race and while it wasn't the original plan, I felt that it was excellent alternative to LeHigh. And yet, as fate would have it, I was not on the starting line in Ohio when the gun fired late into the night of October 1st. In yet another change of plans, I simply was not allowed into that meet. After registering, it was brought to my dad's attention that there was a team from Michigan also attending the meet, and apparently there's a rule in Michigan's state high school cross country rulebook that says that Michigan teams are not allowed to compete at events with other teams who have traveled more than 300 miles.... what?! In order for my parents and I to get to that meet in Ohio we would have to travel a little over 300 miles, and when choosing between accepting an individual runner and an entire team of runners into the meet, the meet directors understandably chose to accept the team and deny access to the individual. Our plan B for that weekend was gone, and with it was any excitement I had about racing. Both of the plans were gone and I felt emotionally over it. However, I still needed to race that weekend as I was primed and ready to roll, so in a desperate search for any meets that weekend, my dad found the Bald Eagle Invitational, which was a small invitational at a course I previously run this season. I really like the course and we immediately registered.
Though the conditions ended up being the worst I have ever raced in - raining, cold, and the most insane mud I've ever run through - I raced well and gave my best effort on that Saturday, and though it was not a fast time given the conditions, I had a lot of fun. My grandparents and brothers even surprised me by showing up when I thought they were staying home and cheering for me through the tough conditions! Though it was an emotional rollercoaster to get to that start line in Plan C, I'm truly so thankful for my parents' perseverance in finding so many opportunities for me to race, especially that weekend. Though I'm sharing how I truly felt, I really hope that I don't sound ungrateful for the fact that I could race at all. It simply was frustrating and quite hard to go through so many plan when they all fell through and we were left scrambling. That was one of the highlights of the season, and while it was incredibly frustrating, it really showed me how the silver lining can appear in the darkest cloud when the people I loved most popped out of a bush to surprise me right before the start of my race.
My season continued well as I consistently ran mid-19s in every race and improved my season's average compared to last year. Honestly, I've had more genuine joy and fun racing this season than any season before. I'm the type of distance runner who gets quite intense pre-race anxiety, sometimes so bad that it makes it pretty hard to communicate with others or focus on anything except racing on race day. This season I really committed to appreciating every race I ran and enjoying my last times running at certain invitationals and courses that I've run at every single year since junior high. I love my local running community deeply, and while I do feel that I've naturally outgrown it after so many years, I'm going to miss the familiar faces, courses, and competitors.
One of the joyful moments from this season was the only dual meet I ran, which was at Central High School at a course I had run once before in 10th grade. I was running that meet purely for fun, as it was going to be a simple small meet that I could focus on running fast at without huge crowds or any pressure. Funnily enough, my 7th grade XC coach now is an assistant coach at Central so it felt very special and full circle to run hard in front of him one last time in the finale of the career he helped somewhat to start. That meet was also Central's Senior Night, where they honor all of the seniors on their team with kind speeches and gifts. Even though I always knew that my independent situation meant that I would never have a "senior night", there was always a little corner of my heart where I had hoped to be honored in that way someday. To my surprise, Central called my name out and had my coach (aka Dad, which made it even more special) talk about me and I got a nice gift bag from their team. It was truly such a kind thing for Central's coaches to do and will be a memorable moment for life, but it also really goes to show how God's plans are different from our own and yet so good. I had always wanted a senior night so I could be recognized by my classmates and teammates as the runner they knew me to be, and while that definitely didn't happen in the way I had hoped for it to happen at my own school, I somehow ended up being cheered for by almost complete strangers and my closest family who were at the meet. It was not my plan, but God's was much sweeter and created a lifelong memory. I'm feeling so thankful that God's plan prevails!!
The most notable moment of my 2022 season was unfortunately the most painful as well: the Blair-Huntingdon County Championship on Monday, October 24th. The county championship is the only real championship I've been allowed in for the past three years, and I've been so blessed to win it in 10th and 11th grades. It's a very special meet to me because it's the cumulation of local high school runners and spectators, and I went into it this year with the goals of both winning for a third time and having a joyful run that I would remember for the rest of my life. As was the theme for this season: God had a different plan.
I went into that race with the goal of winning, but I tried to have no expectations so that I felt no devastation if I wasn't the first one to cross the finish line. I had some very good competition, but overall I went in with the fastest season times and fastest overall PR, and I truly believed that I could win it. I stressed long and hard about this race with my parents - the tactics, strategies, and best and worst case scenarios - and we came out with the plan of going out hard and fast and seeing who was brave enough to hold on. If anyone else could stick with me then good for them, but I was going to control the race and be brave. That was the plan.
Now, for the execution. It was a perfect race day - 60 degrees and sunny. I didn't have school that Monday so I just napped and hung out around the house all day, waiting for my fate to be decided in the afternoon. We arrived at the course ready to rock and roll, my warmup felt amazing - the most fresh my legs had felt in weeks - and I went onto the starting line feeling insanely nervous but ready to give it my all. And give it my all I did.
The gun went off and a sense of calm came over me. I had run this course many times throughout junior high and high school and surprisingly I was able to completely focus on the task at hand. I ran proud and fast. The first two miles were perfect - I dominated and lead the pack, creating a bigger and bigger gap between myself and the second and third place girls. It was an ideal first two miles. As I was starting the third and final mile, I started to get "woozy", which is a term that I hesitatingly use for this sensation because it doesn't perfectly describe it, but it's the closest I can get, so I'll call it woozy.
[A flashback for context: Sometimes in my 11th grade XC season, and a tiny bit in my 10th grade XC season as well I would get similarly "woozy" at the end of races, causing me to finish the race with less control over my body and pace in the last chunk of the race than I normally would, and I would finish running with blurred vision, unusual exhaustion, almost passing out symptoms, and oddly, extremely high blood sugar. This was the worst during one particular race in 11th grade where I barely finished the race and had to get some medical attention right after the finish. This particular race was rather traumatic and caused some real anxiety about my running health for a long time, but afterwards I got some blood tests and we determined that I had very low iron levels. These levels would be fine for a non-runner, but as a teenage female runner they really should be higher and I started taking more iron supplements than I already had been. We accredited this weird race, the first one that I can recall having extreme wooziness, to this anemia which has since been fixed. That might make the rest of the county meet make sense. Back to the story.]
In hindsight, I'm very surprised that I got such wooziness at this point in the race because I hadn't experienced wooziness much at all this season until this race. We thought that I grew out of these episodes as my iron levels increased last year, and had no real worries about this happening again. Regardless of the wooziness, I continued the race, as I always do, and resolved in my skewed mind to keep running my hardest and just try to hold off second place no matter what my body did. Whenever I get woozy like this I typically lose most control over my pace, slowing down to a tempo pace that isn't acceptable in such a fast paced race, so any feeling of wooziness is a danger sign for me regarding my competition. I came out of the woods at about 2.25 miles feeling not entirely in reality but completely dedicating to finishing. This is my last real memory of the race.
The rest of what you're about to hear are things that I've been told by family and onlookers. I have no real recollection of finishing the race, or the last .75 of a mile, and while I've gotten back bits and pieces of vague memories in the days since finishing, there's been nothing fully formed.
The last .75 mile I was merely holding on, but I was still ahead of second place, and if I kept up my slower woozy pace I would still, hypothetically, be able to win. I rounded the corner to the last 400 meters looking weak, but still running. The last 200 meters is where it all fell apart once and for all. I could barely run, at one point falling and getting back up again, something I only found out 30 minutes later when I looked at my knees and realized they were dirt-stained. I had to walk-jog to the finish, walking over the finish line and immediately collapsing and being taken to the nearby pavilion for medical attention. The last 200 meters took 90 seconds, double the time it should have if running, and in that time I got passed by two of my greatest competitors and ended up in third place, running a time of 21:30.
[An important note: when this extreme episode happened last year, my parents swore that if it ever happened again that they would pull me out of the race before finishing, since it was too painful and humiliating to pathetically struggle when my body clearly wasn't working correctly. They were completely right in this decision, but I am endlessly grateful that this year at the county meet, they saw me struggling and decided to let me finish. I was not within my own brain or body at that point, and any normal person would have stopped the race long before getting as far as I did into this state, but they knew that finishing this race was more important to me than almost anything else. I know that it was extremely, and I mean extremely painful, embarrassing, and scary for them to watch me finish in this physical and mental state. They helped me along by speaking to me and helping me up to finish, but they let me cross that line alone, which means more to me than words can express.]
Anyway, I fell into the arms of my parents and medical staff, who immediately took me to the pavilion to lay down and try to regain some semblance of consciousness. To be completely honest, I don't remember anything from .75 to go until about 90 seconds after the finish when I was sitting on a picnic table bench being held up by family members.
My first thoughts felt like the first thoughts of an infant when it's first born, I assume. I had only simple thoughts and basic motor actions, with no real control over my body. Everything hurt, and I mean EVERYTHING. My entire body, and it felt like my mind did too. The exhaustion was absolutely insane, and it felt like every ounce of energy and life had been sucked out of my body. I'm a distance runner, so trust me, I know exhaustion. This was different, as the wooziness always is. I really can't describe it in words, but this is the best I've got. Without me really realizing it, my dad and the athletic trainer were testing my blood pressure and blood sugar, the former of which was too low and the latter was 280 (fun fact: anything over 180 is considered "abnormal" for a regular human being). I struggled to focus my vision for several minutes, positioned myself in a mixture of laying down and sitting up, and about a half an hour after finishing I vomited significant amounts into a conveniently placed bucket in front of me. I didn't stand up and walk, and even then with help, until 45 minutes after I crossed the finish line.
This all sounds extremely dramatic, but I can confidently say that this was the most insane thing that has ever happened to me in my life. I will never forget it and I know that it will impact me for the rest of my life. I am and throughout my running career have always been the type of person who will do anything before giving up, and somehow God has blessed me with the ability to push myself apparently harder than anyone else. This isn't to say that I'm better than any of my competitors, but rather that when we get into the "pain cave" (my affectionate term for the place we distance runners go to when running hard), I seem to be able to stay in it and survive it the longest. Unfortunately, I've also been given this bodily ailment that we have yet to solve, and the combination of my grit and determination and this extremely high glucose causes these freak episodes of insanity on the race course. This particular experience taught me more about my inner being than perhaps anything else I've ever experienced. I learned just how deep into myself I can go, which is apparently so far that I lose my mind and body. While I was pushing myself to the furthest extend to finish that race on that beautiful October day, I firmly believe that it was a guardian angel carrying me for the last 3/4 of a mile. It wasn't exactly pretty, but I made it by the grace of God and lived to tell the tale.
My parents and I have been to multiple doctors about these episodes, trying desperately to figure out what is happening to my body. Unfortunately, no doctors have had any answers for us, even after multiple blood tests and even a pee test. Thankfully, since then I have been diagnosed with exercise-induced hyperglycemia: extremely high glucose when putting the body through excessive strain, but nobody has any solutions for that diagnosis. No data seems to exist on how other people with hyperglycemia run/compete at a high level, or even control it, so we're in the process of trying to figure that out. This diagnosis is helpful, but in the long run it hasn't solved anything and still leaves us with endless questions.
The Bible verse that I've been focusing on throughout these rough times has been Isaiah 55:9: "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts". I don't know what God's purpose in these abnormal physical hardships is, but I have a deep faith that it will work out and I will come out better for it, no matter how long that takes. This pain is only temporary.
Since the county meet, I have run two hard efforts, one in a time trial and one in a track 5000 race, of 18:46 and 18:41 - times that I'm very proud of and excited by! And this is not the end of the 2022 XC season story, as my family is trekking down to Huntsville, Alabama for the December 3rd Running Lane National Championships where my brothers and I will all compete on the fastest XC course in the nation. We couldn't be more excited and thankful for this incredible opportunity!!! Stay tuned!
The one word to describe this season was REAL. Real hard, real fun, real joyful, and real painful. I've experienced some high highs and low lows, and come out a stronger person who is more confident in my faith and ability as a human being. Though you wouldn't think it after reading this, this season I really regained a love for and joy in competing and racing that I had been searching for in the past year especially. I love running, and while it doesn't define me, I'm so glad God has given me a passion for it and people who support me so wholeheartedly in it. While the future holds so many unknowns, mental and medical, I'm thankful for what I've gotten to experience and excited for what's to come. Bring it on, God. To you be the glory. #TYJ