By: Mitch Gilbert
“Running is the greatest metaphor for life because you get out of it what you put into it.” –Oprah Winfrey.
I apologize in advanced for starting out this little segment with a quote, but as cliché as it may sound it’s the truth. I myself have been a runner for roughly 14 years and the lessons I have learned from this sport have helped mold me into the person I am today, both on and off the track. For me, it’s so easy to ramble on about running since it is one of my greatest passions, but hang with me because I promise there is a point to all this.
Running and life are connected in the most ridiculous of ways, and more often than not it takes a lot of self-reflection to see the paths drawn out right in front of us. While there are so many different paths and life lessons you can learn from it all, I’m going to focus this piece on the aspect of Love; which in my opinion is the most powerful lesson you can learn. Looking back on my College years, I got a true taste about running, love and how it truly shapes who you are. In 2010, I had the privilege of being a mediocre Illinois High School runner who decided last minute to change colleges and attend North Central; a small Division 3 school located in Naperville, Illinois. Those 4 years (I was a 5th year part-time so I was unfortunately out of eligibility) were hands down the hardest years of my life. The rest of the freshmen class and myself had no idea what we were getting ourselves into that first day of practice when we learned that there was a tempo before the intervals…as in a workout before the workout!? How quickly something so challenging and tough became the norm, and after a few months of NCC training under my belt I was a new man. My mileage had jumped from 50’s a week to 90’s and I worked out, religiously, 3 times a week (4 if you include long runs, which I do because they were 2 hours and they were tough) on top of balancing friends, family, and school. The older I got, the more intense the workouts and mileage got and soon it was pretty normal to break my old high school PR’s during workouts and long runs.
You see, I got into a dangerous mentality. I believed that if I crushed the workout, than that meant I was a good runner and I had proven myself to my friends. Now that I’ve proven it to them, I will prove it to the coaches come race day, and once I prove it to them on race day, they will see how hard I have worked and how much I love and respect the team. Earning their approval (the coaches, my friends, and my teammates) means that I have meaning, which therefore means I matter as an individual.
Now, looking back on it all, I can admit that I did a lot of stupid things. For instance, it’s not smart to run your first mile of a “warmup” in 5:40 up a hill without stretching or to close your last 3 miles of a tempo in 14:55 when you’ve only done 5 of the 15 miles you have to do that day. But, the reason why I did all of those things is because my teammates were doing them, and if they could push through the pain, then I demanded my body to do the same. This kind of training is extremely beneficial for mentally toughening yourself up and giving you an instant boost of self-confidence. However, it is extremely easy to get injured and for me, it also had one negative effect that ultimately halted my ability to make the leap from “good to great” in college.
I thought that by investing 100% into the process that it would make me a better runner, and for a time it did; but ultimately it stunted my growth and forced me to realize, the hard way, that you can’t just be a good person by being a good runner.
You see, I got into a dangerous mentality. I believed that if I crushed the workout, than that meant I was a good runner and I had proven myself to my friends. Now that I’ve proven it to them, I will prove it to the coaches come race day, and once I prove it to them on race day, they will see how hard I have worked and how much I love and respect the team. Earning their approval (the coaches, my friends, and my teammates) means that I have meaning, which therefore means I matter as an individual. In a team that is so stupidly talented and hardworking, it’s hard to earn the respect of others if you aren’t the one crossing the finish line first or being the deciding factor in helping the team win a national championship. I wanted to show everyone that I had what it takes to be recognized and that I could be one of the greats. My friends and fellow teammates all had that same mindset to be the very best we could be, but I think I was one of the few who ultimately made the mistake of putting my self-worth into it. I thought that by investing 100% into the process that it would make me a better runner, and for a time it did; but ultimately it stunted my growth and forced me to realize, the hard way, that you can’t just be a good person by being a good runner.
My senior year was the accumulation of my toughest times, I had hit an all-time low. In the span of a month: I was forced to change my major which would force me to stay in school for another year, my father had lost his job, my cousin and aunt were both dealing with life-threatening complications in the hospital, I had broken up with my at-the-time serious girlfriend, my brother was having a tough time with his own personal issues, and last but not least I had failed to make the nationals team for the 3rd time in a row. Now, this isn’t meant to be a “woe is me life is so hard” story, but I tell you this because hitting this rock bottom forced me to look in the mirror and ask “What the hell are you doing and what the hell is going on with your life!” I had lost the fire to care about myself as a whole person, and I realized that outside of running I had stopped growing up and caused the other parts of my life to crumble. Obviously, some of these life issues were outside of my control, but I didn’t attack these real life problems with the same intensity and fire that I would attack a workout in practice with the guys. I had forgotten what was important in life. I’m not “Mitch the runner”; the guy I tried to be for so long, but I am “Mitch, the goofy, often times immature Disney Dork who eats Chocolate, hangs out with friends, and runs for fun and personal bests”. With Al Carius as my head coach (One of the greatest coaches in the United States, regardless of Division) you would have thought that his one motto “Run for fun and personal bests” would have stuck itself permanently into my brain after all these years, but it took till my last season on the team to finally get a glimpse about what he really meant.
If it could invade my most sacred and happiest of places, than there was no telling what it could do if it began to affect me as a person for a second time. I ran every day to re-teach myself the art of self-love.
Over the course of the next two years (6 months of that was running for NCC, the rest was me post-collegiate) I fought long and hard to re-discover the love and fun that I had once had with running. I hated going out for runs, but couldn’t get myself to stop. I believed that, regardless of everything that had happened, it was my duty to never let my self-worth slip into something as fun and trivial as running ever again. If it could invade my most sacred and happiest of places, than there was no telling what it could do if it began to affect me as a person for a second time. I ran every day to re-teach myself the art of self-love. For so long, I had let bad workouts and bad races dictate my entire attitude for weeks on end, and I refused to let that happen again. When you aren’t apart of a team anymore, you realize just how special the team feeling is and how hard it is to get out and push yourself when nobody else is there to help you. My friends and I created a group on runningahead.com in order to keep each other motivated and to mimic the friendly/fun atmosphere that we had created when we were all in college together.
For me, this was a big step. It was great seeing that my friends were still my friends regardless of how fast or slow I was. I missed the morning runs from the corner of Chicago Avenue we had together; but seeing the guys getting out on their own and running because they wanted to/still had dreams to chase helped me get back on the horse and put purpose in my running again. This, along with many other reasons, was why I signed up for the Chicago Marathon in an attempt to give competitive running another shot.
Long story short, I did poorly (by my standards) for the race and had to walk between 8-10 different times. However, this was the 2nd big step for me as I finally realized that despite epically failing in my book, I was still proud of myself because, on that day, I had given it everything I had. This big bump in the road kicked my competitive juices back into place and got my anxious to start running seriously again. While I wasn’t doing 90-100 miles a week anymore, I made sure that, regardless of my schedule, I went out for a run at least once a day and that each run had a purpose. I wanted to grow as a person each time I went out for a run, and was done running mileage just for “mileages sake.” I was re-learning to listen to my body, and became much more intuitive over the course of the following year. I started coaching high school XC & Track, and incorporated this new intuitive viewpoint style into the kids training. I was fortunate enough to be on two different teams that each allowed me some creativity with the occasional workout. I was also able to bond with the kids and was reminded about how pure and exciting the act of running can be. Seeing these kids race with that reckless confidence that only high schoolers can have was the 3rd step in me getting back on track.
Finally (thank you for hanging with me this far, I know this has been long), the last step that truly got me back into loving running and loving myself was the fact that I was offered a job to be an Assistant Coach at Aurora University. My job was simple, show up 2-3 times a week and workout with the guys/girls team. I was told to “whip them into shape” which ultimately ended up being a double edge sword as they challenged me on every workout we did together. I would then go to meets and help coach their as well, but ultimately I got to learn about these athletes mostly from the miles we did together on the roads during the week. I try my best to keep myself at a respectable level and act like a coach, but the athletes know I do this and try to put me in awkward situations. Their attempts are refreshing and humorous, as it helps remind me that we are all out here shooting for the same goal, regardless of age or title.
As the season was drawing to a close, I was extremely happy when I saw a Graduate Assistant position opened up for the following year. I applied and got the job, which allowed me to continue working for Aurora as well as pursue a Master’s Degree in business. Working with these student athletes and the coaching staff has helped me finally discover the proper balance that running has in life, and that is that running will always be there for you, no matter what. Running is something that is meant to be incorporated into your day and help pick you up. Every failure, every success you make in running is a small lesson to learn in the form of patience, understanding, and love of the process. It reminds me of the fact that I have an amazing support group who cares and understands me for who I am, not just simply what I do.
For me, I have been absolutely blessed to be apart of multiple teams throughout my life, but one team that I have always had from the start is that of my family. I have cousins and uncles who have been running since before I was born; and the only reason my excitement for the sport grew like it did was because my family was kind enough to show me the ropes from when I was very young. We have a group called “Team Gilbert” in which we try and meet up several times throughout the year at local road races to get some quality miles in followed by an even more quality breakfast. As of recently, the newest member to my family’s team is my father, who went from a limited/no running background to finishing a marathon in the short span of a year. I know what I asked of him was extremely hard to do, but he was on board from the start and the runs we did together leading up to the marathon were some of my absolute favorites. My mother was just as equally apart of our success, serving as both our biggest supporter and cheerleader. She deals with our running banter and reminds us to stay humble and truly focus on what matters most…having fun.
In a place where each of us has our own destination and our own journey, running is one of the few things that connects us all. We all feel its pain, we all feel its rewards, and we all feel how it strengthens us both morally and physically with everyday life. The determination and mindset that a runner has will often show itself in your job, in your relationships, and in yourself. To keep this place of happiness pure, you must remember what truly matters in life and us that to help dictate your running, not the other way around. I know there are many of you who don’t have this problem and were strong enough from the start to figure it out on your own, but to others like me who have/will/are struggling from this, just remember that you’re not alone. Your friends and family love you, now make sure to love yourself in the process. We’re all in this together, and together we are all one big TEAM.
Now, I know that not everyone has been on a team in the past so this may be new to you; but if you are looking for a group of crazy people to call your second family, my best suggestion would be looking to join a running club in your local area. Running stores like Dick Pond Athletics, Naperville Running Company, Roadrunner Sports etc all have groups of runners that meet at their stores throughout the week to do different kinds of workouts. This entails anything from easy walk-2-runs to interval/hill workouts and has a complete range of people and fitness levels. These groups start out with just running, but always leads to great comradery and so much more. I have been fortunate enough to work with a running company (Dick Pond Athletics) for over 2 years and have recently just joined their new start-up racing team! For anyone interested in seeing an example of what it looks like to sign-up for one of these groups, feel free to follow the link and see for yourself!: http://www.dickpondracing.com/ (And hopefully join us! We have cake every 3rd Thursday of the month at the store, so if you need any extra motivation, do it for the chocolate).
I look forward to seeing you all out there on the roads! Together, we can each make ourselves not only better runners, but better people as well. It all starts with putting one foot in front of the other, and even on the days where it’s tough, we’ll do it together one mile at a time.
Here are some other resources based on this blog:
Naperville Running Co Running Groups
Find a Running Club
How to Improve Self Esteem