Photo credit: University of Oregon Athletics
Hi everyone! My name’s Moira O’Shea, and I’m a junior on the cross country/track & field teams at The University of Oregon. In this article I’ll give you some background on my journey in running so far, what I’ve learned through running the past few years and advice that I wish I had been given as a high schooler. I hope you enjoy 🙂
I grew up in the Pittsburgh area and went to high school at Greensburg Central Catholic, where I was one of only four girls on the cross country team my senior year. I didn’t start running seriously until my junior year, and coming from such a small team I was pretty clueless about the running culture and what it really took to be competitive on the state level. That knowledge didn’t come until my senior year.
The one thing I did know, however, was that I really loved the sport and wanted to continue competing after high school.
As a junior with an 800 meter PR of 2:32 and 1600 meter PR of 6:00 — both of which I thought were as fast as I could possibly run — college coaches weren’t exactly knocking down my door. Despite the radio silence from recruiters, I was determined to earn a spot on a team by the end of my senior year.
I began my senior year still pretty clueless about training, and I was maxing out at 15 miles per week. But I did manage to lower my cross country 5K PR from 25:11 to 20:11 during my senior season, and over the winter I began working with a coach who gradually helped me increase my mileage to 30 miles per week.
Not only did I increase my mileage, but I began to start running more focused workouts.
As I entered the indoor season, I told my coach that I wanted to run 5:20 in the 1600 meters, because that was the walk-on standard at one of the schools I was interested in. He would later tell me that he thought I was out of my mind, but he still gave me the splits I’d need to run on the 300 meter indoor track to make it happen.
On the night of the race I was extremely nervous, but I was determined to stick to the splits and come out of the race with a new PR. The gun went off, and I began running until 5 minutes and 20 seconds later, when I crossed the line in third place and looked over at my dad in complete elation. I had chopped 40 seconds off of my PR, and over the next few weeks of the indoor season, I would continue to run a bit faster each race until I ended the season with a 5:02 full mile, which was good enough for 8th place at the PTFCA Indoor State Championships.
Throughout the season I had talked to a few college coaches, and after my race at indoor states the coach at Penn State University contacted me and invited me to visit the school. I decided pretty quickly that it was where I would go to college, because I knew that out of all the schools I had looked at, it was definitely my best option in terms of running.
So in March of my senior year, I achieved what would have seemed like a pretty laughable goal just a year before. With this newfound confidence, I decided to set some more lofty goals for my outdoor season. These included breaking 5 minutes in the mile and winning AA States in both the 1600 meters and 3200 meters.
After running 5:01 and 10:58 in one of my first meets, I felt pretty confident that I’d achieve my goals when it came time for states in May. Unfortunately, just a few weeks later, I woke up with a throbbing pain in my right foot that weirdly wouldn’t go away.
At the time, I had never had any injuries keep me out for more than three or four days, so I just continued running and waiting for it to go away. On the day of the district meet, the pain was still very much there, and although I qualified for states in both the 1600 and 3200 meter races, my coach convinced me to drop the 3200 meters in an attempt to preserve my foot a bit.
A week later I concluded my high school career with a second place finish in the 1600 meters at the PIAA Outdoor Track Championships, and the same PR’s I had set about two months prior. I remember sitting in the stands after my race and being absolutely devastated because I didn’t know of any successful collegiate or post-collegiate runners who had never won a state title or broken 5 minutes in the mile.
I wish I could say I shook off this mentality immediately, but it stayed with me through a very mediocre freshman year in which I did finally break 5 minutes, but also experienced my second big injury that kept me from competing in outdoor track.
After this disappointment, however, I had a very different mindset.
I had lots of time to reflect while I pedaled away on the stationary bike, and during those rides I realized that the reason I was able to improve so much throughout my senior year was that I had complete, although unfounded, confidence in myself.
I believed in myself fiercely, and I still look back on that season as one of the most fun times of my life because it was then that I realized I really could achieve any dream I had as long as I believed in myself and put in the work to back it up.
The year that followed mirrored my senior year in a way, as I improved drastically and met all the crazy goals I had set for myself. I hadn’t had any injuries, and I was on a roll. In my first ever 5K on the track, I ran 16:11 and began to dream even bigger. I fully believed that I would be on the start line at NCAAs come June, but over the next few weeks I began feeling chronic fatigue that put an end to my big plans.
I was unable to complete workouts that shouldn’t have been challenging, and I barely had enough energy to bike to practice daily. This was a completely new feeling for me, and for the first time in my life, my times got progressively worse every time I stepped on the track.
After several weeks of confusion, I finally found out that my Ferritin levels were extremely low, and regardless of how badly I wanted to run fast, my body just wasn’t going to cooperate.
This was a tough pill to swallow, as I had come into the year with the belief that nothing could stop me. I had to leave with the realization that, regardless of how much I believed in myself, I was still very much susceptible to unexpected bumps in the road.
As hard as those final weeks of outdoor track were, they also confirmed something that I had known for a while: I needed to leave Penn State.
I had chosen to go to school there because it was my best option for running, but outside of running, it wasn’t at all the school for me, and I was struggling to feel like myself in a place that I knew wasn’t right for my wellbeing. I will always be thankful for my experience there and what it taught me, but it was time to move on.
So at the end of the season, I entered the transfer portal and set out to find a place that would allow me to be both the best all-around person and runner I knew I could be. After several hectic weeks, I took my final visit to The University of Oregon and knew I had finally found the place where I was meant to be.
The few months I’ve spent at Oregon have undoubtedly been the best of my life so far.
I’m extremely fortunate to be on a team of women who have an unmatched work ethic, continuously work on lifting each other up, and really value working together to be the best team we can be. We also have an amazing coach who works extremely hard to make sure we’re cared for both as athletes who want to perform their best and as people outside of the sport who want to feel happy and valued.
Additionally, our support staff work tirelessly to make sure that we’re healthy and ready to race, regardless of how obscure or difficult the issue we’re facing might be.
Oregon really is a special place, and I can confirm that it definitely lives up to the hype that people give it. The training we do is very different from anything I’d ever done before, and in some ways this year I felt like a freshman again, as I was hanging onto my teammates for dear life in some pretty big workouts that I never would have even tried to attempt before this year. We work very hard, and I feel confident in saying you can expect to see some big things from the women of Oregon this coming fall and beyond.
When I was disappointed at the end of my sophomore year — after learning that I was to my great surprise, not invincible — I struggled to understand how I could move forward in my running career when circumstances outside of my control ruined the plans I had so carefully made for myself. I had originally fallen in love with running because the relationship between how hard I worked and how successful I was seemed to be completely linear.
Realizing that this wasn’t always the case forced me to take a step back and reevaluate why I put so much time into something that would occasionally leave me heartbroken and confused. The answer didn’t come to me immediately, but over the past year I do feel that I’ve realized why I love this sport so much. It has taught me that my body and mind are capable of achieving so much more than I ever thought they could.
I can get through any problem that presents itself, as long as I approach it step-by-step, and that even when I don’t achieve a desired goal, I’ll get to where I want to be (and often way beyond it) as long as I continue believing in myself.
To conclude, I’ll share five things that I wish I could go back and tell my high school self and that I hope are helpful to anyone reading this, regardless of age:
- Your self-worth is not determined by your times. Sometimes I still need a reminder about this one, but I think it’s especially potent in high school when you’re in the midst of trying to figure out who you are. No matter how fast your times are, you are absolutely free to be a person outside of the sport and find value in things that define you besides being a runner. You’ll likely have a much happier life that way 🙂
- How fast you run in high school does not determine how fast you’ll run in college. As cool as it is to run really fast in high school, those times don’t guarantee success later on. In order to be successful in college, you have to develop a sense of discipline and be willing to work harder than you ever have before. If you can do those things, regardless of how fast you ran in high school, you can run fast in college.
- If you are running in college, pick a school where you’d be happy if you never ran another step in your life. Running is very unpredictable, and we don’t get to choose if or when we deal with setbacks in the sport. When they occur, they’re much easier to work through when you’re in a place that you enjoy outside of running. Even if you somehow do avoid any setbacks, you’ll likely run a lot faster if you’re in a place you love as opposed to a place you just tolerate for the sake of running.
- Everything can change in a year. If your season ended badly and you’re wondering why you should bother continuing to work hard when you aren’t seeing results, take a step back and remember that anything truly worth having takes time. I’ve seen runners work for years without the result they wanted and then in one race it all comes together. Even if it doesn’t feel like it in the moment, it’s always worth the wait.
- Just have fun. We only get so many years to do this, and spending that time stressed over whether or not you’ll get a certain result makes that time way less enjoyable. A happy runner is a fast runner, and if you can go into races relaxed and grateful for the opportunity ahead of you, you’ll have a really fun time 🙂
Thanks for reading, and Go Ducks!
MOIRA O’SHEA — UNIVERSITY OF OREGON
Read Moira’s training log here
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