In 2017 I told everyone that I took a gap year to run. And I did that! I took a year ‘off’ after school to seize the opportunity, and give absolutely everything to running, which I love more than I could ever explain.
The decision to do that has been worth every second, and although it inevitably didn’t unfold exactly as I planned it to, my year of running has pretty much been everything I could have wanted it to be, which is quite a dreamy thing to say:
I took big chunks off my half marathon, 10k and 5k times, and I stayed relatively injury free. I had a couple of races that were absolutely radiant breakthroughs for me, I stood on podiums more often than I expected to, I made friends with some incredible athletes who I love and admire a lot, and I remained so thankful for my coach and club and training partners every day. I traveled alone to Kenya! And trained in Iten at altitude, with all kinds of fantastic people, and learned that it is the biggest privilege to have the choice of taking running as seriously or un-seriously as I like, and simultaneously felt what it’s like to want to run away from all the dense organized busyness of my whole life, and live in a room in Iten without a plan except to run and eat and sleep every day.
I learned a lot about doing some hugely hard things physical things (that always translate to being able to do hugely hard non-physical things), and continued to learn about hanging on and gritting it out, and making friends with that place where everything always hurts.
I read a lot of books, and fell in love with piecing together an understanding of racing and training theory – the endless versions which are out there, and joining bits to make my own – which feels like a rolled-together version of everything I love about broad creative problem-solving and meticulous research and list-making and athletics.
I also did a whole lot of other (I think equally valuable?) mixed and wonderful things that were completely unrelated to running, but that I probably would have been much more hesitant to do if I hadn’t had the structure of training every day to make me feel less lost: I did a lot of my own writing and creating, I studied and got transferrable credits for Psychology 1 through UNISA, I finally learned to drive, I tutored some English and Afrikaans, I secured a place at UCT to study Fine Art in 2018, and also… I really learned to relax, to always sleep enough, and to not compulsively plan every hour of every day.
It’s been quite a time!
And so what I have done below, in an attempt to reflect on it all, is to put together 4 over-arching categories of valuable things that I learned and thought about this year, and am not going to forget. This is obviously not everything important that happened in my year, and not the most pared down, streamlined account. But each section mostly includes elements of the running-related things that I did, but also the cross overs into living, and everything else.
1. Learning to feel less like an imposter
Starting this year off not competing in the Junior category anymore, (now in the deep end with everyone from 20-39) and also not belonging to any kind of educational institution or daily context to share with other people, I did initially spend quite a lot of time feeling like I would have to keep on proving myself in order to not feel like an imposter, or a ‘fake’. There was also the daunting feeling of being solely responsible for my own happiness. (How can you ever be unhappy if you’re on a gap year after school, and can pretty much do whatever you want? But sometimes you are, and that’s how it is, and it doesn’t help to add guilt). And.. I think the fear of not belonging is a very generic human thing? But maybe the difference is that some people have it but learn to not let it change how they behave and think.
Now I don’t seem to let it change how I behave and think so much. I’m not even completely sure why, but I think the main thing has just been…to keep showing up. Just quietly being consistent with myself and my goals, and trusting that I am becoming the person I want to be, all in little bits. And that are adding up, even if no-one else can see them adding up. It’s also been extremely good and important to make friends with the people I compete against, and really try to get to know the ones I look up to a lot and find daunting, and to remind myself that they are all probably uncertain about something, while loving the same thing that I love.
2. Starting to learn how to race
In the first half of the year I had a couple of good races, but more of them were disappointing. I just kept feeling like I wasn’t able to stick to a pre-determined plan, and I wasn’t racing to my fitness level, and every time I cared a lot about a particular outcome, everything miraculously fell apart on the day. Two Oceans Half Marathon was a notable example of this, and I was extremely hard on myself for not doing what I had set out to do.
Then I went ran the Knysna Half Marathon in July as a relaxed holiday thing after completing the bulk of a pretty solid cross country season, and it ended up being a massive breakthrough race for me. I don’t think I will ever stop referring back to it, even though I have since run quite a bit faster over that distance.
I have made a whole separate blog post about the Knysna race, but it completely changed the way I think about racing because it taught me relax completely, and to just do it all for the sake of doing. I turned my watch off auto-lap and didn’t look at it, and I had absolutely no goals and no-one rooting for me at the end (except my mom, and there the only criterion was that I had to finish smiling – I wasn’t allowed to hurt). I was able to take the risk of running from the back, and give it everything whenever I wanted to, and pull back whenever I wanted to, and chat to people and admire the trees, and taste the absolutely remarkable joy of a 5th place finish and a 5-minute PB and a 5-minute negative split anyway, without planning any of it.
After that I was convinced that I only knew how to do well in races if I was somehow able to take myself by surprise and be fast without intending to. It worked a couple more times, and then (still) at the more important races where I did actively really want to do well (Western Province Cross Country Champs, and the Sanlam Peace 10k, for example), all intelligent race strategy fell out the window, and I was a nervous wreck again.
This frustrated me a huge amount, and I think in my last two half marathons of the year, I finally managed to find a way keep the relaxed strategy of racing from the back, going by feel and then emerging with a surprise negative split at the end, and combining it with an actual intention to execute a race plan. And mostly, (though this may be obvious to many, it wasn’t to me) I felt confident enough to do it because I just put my head down and prioritized training really specifically and thoroughly and intelligently, more than before. So that regardless of whether I was having a good day or an amazing day or a really average day, I had absolutely no doubts about my objective fitness level, and didn’t feel the need to construct an elaborate iron will to partially carry me through. That was a big relief and a good thing to learn: it helps to be really really prepared.
3. A general clarifying of things that matter, and the realization that introverts can also get lonely.
Moving on to the second part of this sentence: being pretty independent and introverted by nature, it was an important thing for me to realise this year – that yes, I too can miss people and get lonely, and it doesn’t mean that I’m suddenly ‘weak’ or super dependent on external validation or whatever. It just means that sharing a daily context with other people (like school) can be a really valuable good thing that we easily take for granted, and that not all social interactions have to be super intense and high maintenance to be meaningful. This actually meant that I found myself being socially braver than I might normally have been – meeting some new very wonderful people, and spending time with the existing ones who I love a lot. So it wasn’t the easiest, but it was good.
Other things that I have realized are important to me, in no particular order, are:
Being able to say yes when I want to say yes, and no when I want to say no.
Spending less money on random irrelevant things, consuming less, wasting less.
Loving people without constantly anticipating losing them. And allowing the loving to be a separate entity that would always outweigh the hurt of losing.
Averaging 9 hours of sleep every night.
Not being coy or insincere or playing hard to get just for the sake of it (??).
Eating what I want, when I want it, with as few rules as possible.
Gratitude. And quirkiness. And having room to feel things strongly, and ask hard questions, and sometimes be wrong.
4. Being able to articulate that the ‘point’ is not competitive running.
Lastly, being able to write down and say that for me, the point of giving absolutely everything to competitive running is not just for the insular sake of being ‘good at running’, but for being good at life: this has been pivotal. I’m going into the new year knowing that I love a lot of things, and can do a lot of things, and can be a lot of things, and one of my favorite things to be is a runner. But that’s only because ‘being a runner’ has happened to mean being a passionate focused goal-oriented person with a lot of time for attending to details and going to wild places and solving problems redefining what was previously impossible, and hanging in there with pain and extreme discomfort, and meeting similarly purposeful people who understand that you can absolutely adore something and also resent it, and waking up every day with a sense of direction – always feeling a little bit subtly on fire and a little bit amazed.
I’m not going to let go of that little subtle fire any time soon.
Next year will be another broad and busy and dense one, and completely different, and I’m apprehensive and I’m excited and I’m ready. I hope you are too. I’m sending all the positivity and the luck and the love and the pain-free running.