Thursday, May 30, 2019

Crossroads #6: In Hindsight


Sometimes, I reflect back on the most pivotal decisions I’ve made in my life. These are the ones with the biggest downstream effects:

  • Taking AP classes in high school
  • Joining track my sophomore year of high school
  • Going to the U of M (here the point isn’t whether I went to college, because I always knew I was going to college, it was a matter of where; because the college I went to would determine the people I met and my future hobbies; in my case, I found my cross country skiing community)
  • Deciding to become a nurse practitioner
  • Getting married

This is a relatively short list; however, where I am in life today has everything to do with the above five decisions- the first two of which I made when I was just 15.

Solidifying my fate with a temporary tattoo. My bro, 7 years my junior, ended up at the U of M Morris so I guess his fate was decided then, too. Photo: Mom

In this post I’m going to focus on the second decision because it definitely impacted the third and is the main focus of this blog.

Once I joined track, I became a distance runner. Prior to this I could barely run a mile. But I was determined and soon I was running six miles routinely. This gave me the confidence to join cross country skiing my junior year of high school where it was rumored dryland practice consisted of a lot of running. The rest is history. I’ve cross country ski raced every winter since then (over half my life now) and have been getting back into running racing the past few years.

I can’t help but wonder how my life would be different and whether it would be better or worse had I not found competitive running and cross country skiing?

Also, had I not started these in high school would I have found them later in life?

I’m going to attempt to answer the second question first.

My dad was a huge skier. He loved to ski. But he didn’t like to race. He did a few of the big ski marathons in the early 80s and then quit racing. He wasn’t very good at racing and he didn’t care about technique or equipment or speed. He just liked to be outside, moving, working his body. He was a ski enthusiast. He lived to ski. Through my dad I knew about these big races like the Finlandia, Vasaloppet, and Birkebeiner. He showed me his medals and even as a little kid there was a spark in me that I might do these events one day, too.

Dad skiing down a big hill at Mille Lacs Kathio State Park with my youngest brother on his back. Photo: Mom


Skiing at age 8. Photo: Mom

So, I knew about skiing, I knew how to ski well enough, and I had some interest in doing what dad had done and maybe that would have been enough to sign up for and train for one of the legendary midwest ski marathons.

Our relay team for Finlandia Family Fun Day circa 2002: Dad (wearing his typical sweatshirt and corduroy pants ski outfit), me, our friend Anna Tibstra, and my bro, Leif. Photo: Mom

Dad racing at the Snowjourn. Photo: Bill Grundy?

But would I have began running? That question is more difficult to answer. Prior to joining track I had started doing some running for soccer. But this wasn’t “real” running- this wasn’t running for running, this was running to train for soccer. I didn’t enjoy the running. I never found my groove. I didn’t know how to run easy enough to let the thoughts flow.

My hunch is, given that I liked being outside and was becoming more athletic as high school went on, that I would have done some running, but it’s impossible to predict if I would have started running longer distances. I always liked walking and hiking, so perhaps I would have just been a walker/hiker:)

It’s also hard to know if I would have become competitive. Would I have read about proper training to get fast and started doing the interval training? This training is hard but I know I’m competitive by nature, so maybe. It’s just really hard to know.

My musings on whether I would have eventually found running and/or skiing are null given that I obviously did. Then the first question returns: how would my life be different and would it be better or worse had I not found competitive running and skiing?

And here, let me add that this has segued into some competitive biking, orienteering, canoeing, and mountain climbing (the last of which I’m at least competitive with myself).

Canoe Racing in the Chippewa Triathlon. Photo: Bill Grundy?

I think about this on those weekend mornings when I’m setting an alarm and getting up way before dawn to drive to some race.

I think about this when I’m doing intervals on the track on Saturday mornings and rollerski intervals and intervals on skis on snow. When I’m breathing hard and no matter how hard I try, I can’t push my body any harder.

I think about this before most 3 hour training sessions.

I think about this when it’s dark, when it’s well below zero, when it’s well above 80, and when it’s raining. Sometimes these can be my best workouts or races, but it’s especially hard to get out the door in the extreme weather. There’s no rest for the wicked.

I thought about this last fall when we had a wet 3 hour rollerski in Afton forcing perfect weight transfer on the slippery leaves when V2ing.

“Even the pros train in these adverse conditions,” I told my teammates. We promptly saw Jessie as we climbed the next hill.

I thought about this last summer a lot when I was preparing to try to break a 6 minute mile, especially in the couple weeks before my attempt when I never sleep quite as well as if I wasn’t about to find my physical limit.

There’s an easier way to go through life.

This is my choice.

Or is it?

On the flip side, I think about everything competitive running and cross country skiing have given me: something to do (structure and purpose in my life, a hobby), great friends, amazing fitness, better body image, time in the outdoors, thought process while exercising easy, goal setting and chasing. Self-efficacy. Strength. Confidence.


Representing the U of M Nordic Ski club. City of Lakes Loppet 2006. Photo: Bruce Adelsman
But here is where the word “competitive” becomes of utmost importance. If I take that word out of the above paragraph would recreational running and skiing still give me the same positives?

I suspect I would bike and run and maybe even ski so this would give me something to do but I’m not sure I’d chase it as much as a hobby which means I would likely read less about these sports and not talk about them so technically (pillow talk about gear ratios, breakfast discussions about track intervals, and post race discussions about ski flex and grind, cause you know, wax is less important than the above two). My friends would probably be farther down the results list:) My fitness wouldn’t be as good without the intervals. I’d still have time in the outdoors and the mindfulness. I think recreational exercise would benefit the body image, self-efficacy, and strength but the confidence really comes from the goal setting and achieving. From pushing through all those barriers.

This is getting at the essence of what this Crossroads series is about: what if I stop doing these activities competitively?

I can’t imagine not doing these activities recreationaly, but will I always be so competitive, do I still want to be so competitive, and is this making me happy and my life better?

Above I wrote “This is my choice. Or is it?” If I’m competitive by nature, then can I stop being competitive?

Previously when I’ve thought about quitting racing, I didn’t want to be that mentally weak. In more recent years, I’ve recognized a more finite ability to push myself. A couple years ago after running a hard race, I noticed that I just felt done. I needed a break. I was so satisfied from finding my limit that I didn’t need to do it again for awhile. And last summer, after I failed to achieve my six minute mile barrier, I had some thoughts of trying again, but I needed to regroup. Instead I did a couple inaugural races with minimal self expectations.

Slowly, I’m allowing myself to do less racing. I’ve realized mental weakness can come from doing too much. I’m much more focused for the races I do and happier when I have fewer races. I’ll still get out and train, but it’s a little less specific and hard. I’m always motivated to train by even a far-out goal so that’s not a problem.

I have zero regrets about joining track my sophomore year of high school, as long as you don’t ask me during the latter half of an interval or the last 10 kilometers of a marathon! But given I’ve weighted this decision on par with getting married, it’s clearly very fundamental in my life. This obviously says a lot about my perseverance, commitment, obsession...addiction:)

Canoeing into my wedding ceremony in a solo...

...and canoeing away together. Photos: Doug Kern???

Overall the benefits of being competitive seem to slightly outweigh those versus if I was merely a recreational athlete, but not by a large margin, hence cutting back on the competitive elements some seems to make sense. In the meantime, I’m still goal setting, but some of these now are about gardening, reading more, and sewing(!!!).

My new front yard garden although I should add the original plantings are all credit to my mom. Now it's just up to me to maintain!
If I keep up with my goal of reading one book per month for this year I still have to complete this many books before 12/31/19. Yikes!

My most recent sewing project. Obviously far from perfect but it's a start.

1 comment:

  1. Very much enjoyed this post, Elspeth. Remember, life is progress, not perfection. Which doesn't mean you stop seeking improvement; but being mindful and more in the moment has its advantages and rewards, too. It comes down to balance. I love that you are gardening, are reading many of the same books as me, are taking up sewing, all while maintaining an active life with the man of your dreams! I look forward to reading more from you. I am fortunate to have you in my life. Love, MOM

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