Sports have a unique way of affecting how we feel about ourselves. We often feel a psychological attachment to our own performances. When we win or do well, we don’t just feel that we’re better athletes; we feel like better people, and we feel superior and entitled.
Our feelings go well past our own performances.
As a sports fan, I’ll be the first to admit that I have a pretty unhealthy attachment to the performances of athletes and teams over which I have absolutely zero control. The days following the Philadelphia Eagles’ 2018 Super Bowl victory were some of the happiest of my life, for no justifiable reason other than the fact that I grew up 20 minutes outside of Philly.
Worth putting my well-being on the line? 100 percent.
When we see our performances in a strictly win-loss spectrum, the degree to which we have feelings about ourselves as an extension of our performances reaches an extreme. We become less consistent and swing between long hot streaks and inescapable slumps.
On April 29, 2016, I began thinking this way.
The reason I’d never done so before was because, frankly, I wasn’t that good.
I wasn’t talented enough to have actual expectations for myself. I’d barely been recruited, and ended up applying to the University of Pennsylvania simply because I loved what it had to offer from the perspective of a normal applicant. I reached out to the program director Steve Dolan once I was accepted in December, and he referred me to the walk-on standards — none of which I was remotely close to.
Until basically out of nowhere, I broke out. After three years of failing to advance through even one round of postseason meets in any season, I placed 13th in the state in the indoor 3200 meter race. This came after dropping 26 seconds over two weeks to launch myself into the seeded heat of the state Meet of Champions.
Three days later, my teammates and I ran a qualifying time for the Penn Relays Distance Medley Relay, a goal that took us two years to accomplish. My leg on that relay, a 3:11 leadoff split for 1200 meters, was a five-second PR from a month earlier.
A fitting end for a season in which I’d surpassed any and all expectations, setting us up for April 29th at Franklin Field.
And then, on that cold, rainy Friday afternoon at Penn Relays, those expectations were crushed in the span of 150 meters.
The gun went off, and after 100 meters I cut in from the outside stagger into the middle of the pack. I had established my position, and I wanted to stay here for the next 800 meters.
I planned to shift gears once with 300 meters to go, and again with 150 meters to go. What I did not realize, unfortunately, was how quickly I had cut in.
All of that planning was great, but I quickly found myself on the fly, literally.
As soon as I entered the pack from the stagger, the race slowed slightly, and the runner behind me didn’t immediately react. His right arm shot into my back in an effort to stabilize himself.
In the blink of an eye I was on the ground, my baton was in lane 9, and my right spike was off.
I ran the rest of the race in no-man’s land, and we came in last by 21 seconds.
I sat on the turf stone-faced, as I watched one of the most thrilling races in the history of Penn Relays emerge as a direct result of my fall. The team I brought down with me, Loudoun Valley, roared all the way back to win by one-thousandth of a second. I remember the solo walk back to the south stands of Franklin Field like it was yesterday.
I’d let down my family, who saw me at my lowest moment. I’d let down my teammates, who I gave no chance to contribute. And, as someone who dreamed of earning a walk-on spot to the Penn distance program, I let myself down on the very track I hoped to call home.
Despite this debacle and my inconsistent spring season, I had lowered my 1600 meter and 3200 meter times enough for Coach Dolan to graciously offer me a tryout. I trained relentlessly that summer knowing that, for once, I had to get what was mine after such an disappointing end to my high school career.
When the tryout came in August, I successfully walked on to the team.
Like I did at Penn Relays, I saw my achievement as a reflection of the type of person I was. I thought everyone was wildly impressed with me, even jealous of me. Likewise, had I failed to make it, I would have thought of myself as a failure and assumed others would have felt the same.
Shockingly, neither of these things happened.
I struggled physically that year and refused to acknowledge it. Making the team had been such a dream of mine that I saw it as the sole end to which I’d invested all my means.
Despite that team having an abundance of talent, ironically enough I actually became complacent with my training. I justified my inability to adjust to an aerobically-based, higher-mileage style of training by having a few solid track workouts and decent cross country races.
I had an astoundingly average year of racing, essentially matching or edging out all my high school PR’s. By the end of my freshman year, I was training and racing just high enough above the bar to provide myself with a completely false blanket of security and confidence that my personal improvement was sufficient.
Of course, I pursued absolutely no clubs, groups, or opportunities at school, effectively tying my full self and purpose to the team. My self-worth was not a reflection of myself, but rather was a group identity I took advantage of.
I was happy as a freshman simply because I was a Penn athlete, not because I took pride in being a Penn student or because I had other friend groups.
And, predictably, it was all of the aforementioned mistakes that got me cut from the team after one year.
That should have been one of the lowest nights of my life. On June 4, 2017, I sat dumbfounded on a lounge chair at my ex-girlfriend’s swim club, as I listened to Coach Dolan rightfully tell me why my improvement wasn’t enough and why I had not proven myself to be a valuable long-term piece for the team.
And yet I felt nothing. I thought my coach’s explanations were irrational. I cracked half-serious jokes with my teammates that night. The next day I went for a 7-mile run as if nothing had happened.
I dismissed any sensible possibility that I needed to change how I approached running.
I kept training, got to school in the fall and, for lack of choice otherwise, joined the club running team. Atop of that, I selfishly believed the club team to be below myself because I’d been a varsity athlete. Naturally, I assumed that I’d prove myself and earn back my spot within the year.
I was still basking in the glory of a tryout and a few solid races.
Yet I failed physically again, and unlike last year, I legitimately regressed. I had a couple poor races to start and chalked it up to rust. By the middle of October, I could barely get halfway through an 8k without feeling like I couldn’t take another step.
Workouts became chores.
A week before our last meet, a blood test showed my iron levels were borderline anemic.
Ironically, out of all the excuses I’d made for myself over the past year, this one was the only remotely acceptable one. Anyone who’s had iron deficiency knows it’s nearly impossible to race and train effectively with it. The worst part too, is that it is usually out of our control until we discover it on a blood test.
And, yet, this was the failure that broke me.
The iron deficiency made me face realities I’d been ignoring for months. I roomed with an old teammate, but I lived in my own dorm and saw my friends much less. Despite my teammates’ constant and unselfish willingness to embrace me, getting cut had nonetheless made me feel like an outsider among my own friends. I struggled academically as a result of my athletic underachievements, both of which led me to feel like I had no place at Penn socially.
I’d made no real improvements in fitness, and had I been iron-efficient, I likely would have only progressed minimally from my freshman year — if at all.
I had injury issues throughout my first club track season, but I attempted to train through my pain because I rationalized that if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have much worth otherwise.
If I had a good workout or race, my self-esteem skyrocketed. If not — and this was the case much more often — I thought the lowest of myself. It was an emotional rollercoaster in the most unpredictable sport.
I had nothing, and I needed to perform to save myself from the realities of my life at Penn.
The only thing that saved me from quitting competitive running altogether was a race at the Larry Ellis Invitational at Princeton University that April — and it wasn’t even my own race.
That February, after realizing I probably wouldn’t race in the spring, I began crafting workouts for my teammate Chris Hendry.
He was the only club runner at Penn besides myself who was both willing to train full-time, and good enough to qualify for most collegiate meets as an unattached runner.
As a homeschooled high school student and a club runner, he’d never had a formal coach or an organized training program. I figured with my spare time and my basic training knowledge that I would try coaching him because I felt he, as a good runner and more importantly as a good person, deserved it.
Maybe the next year, if things went well, I’d have more people to coach.
We qualified him for Larry Ellis, and he ran a 15:02 in the open 5k, a 22-second PR.
To this day I’ve never seen someone so ecstatic after a race. As we cooled down on the Princeton canal, his final race of the season complete, all he could talk about was how amped he was for us to get after it next year.
That conversation lit a fire in me. That was the first time in a long time I felt like I’d done something valuable for someone not just in my running life, but in my overall life.
For just once, I found some positive self-worth that wasn’t connected to a good race I ran.
Watching that race pushed me to completely get right, mentally and physically. Over the next month, I didn’t go to the gym or put on my trainers once. I finished exams, took a 10-day trip to Israel with what would become my first real non-running group of friends at Penn, and came home at the end of May physically recovered, mentally refreshed and, despite being incredibly out of shape, the happiest I’d been in a year.
If my freshman year taught me I simply needed to train my body harder, my sophomore year taught me that I also needed to train my mind harder. I could not start associating running with my self-worth again.
If I raced well, I should be allowed to feel solid about my athlete self. But I could not sink back into rollercoaster of emotions that deteriorated my life if I raced poorly.
I worked in Philly that summer and, with the help of Chris and some old teammates, had by far my best summer of training. I arrived at school as a junior more humble and confident. My first couple of races fell a bit below expectations, but I avoided the low lows and kept my sentiments out of my daily life as a student.
My training remained at a high, consistent level, and I trusted in it.
Eventually, I put together a couple of legitimately good races, and we reached the club national championship meet in November having strung together several productive races.
For those unfamiliar with club sports, the National Intercollegiate Running Club Association (NIRCA) has some club runners that would be varsity-level performers on several Division I NCAA teams.
I comically underestimated this as a sophomore — not that it mattered when I was barely finishing races — and learned that the runners at the national meet deserved my utmost respect and attention. There are just as many club runners who handle themselves like varsity athletes as there are who blast EDM from their portable speakers in the middle of races.
I resented that atmosphere as a sophomore, but I loved and embraced it as a junior.
As such, I was ready for a championship race, and my months-long goal of being a NIRCA All-American — a top-30 finish — was at stake. I consciously hovered off the back of the lead pack of 25 runners when a surge came from the front just before 5000m.
The move nearly broke me when I tried to cover it, and with a mile to go I fell out of the top 30.
Desperately, I forced a surge to launch myself back into about 25th with 1000 meters to go. I did not have the leg speed to leave it to a sprint, so I’d planned on going early — just not that early.
The last 600 meters, completely uphill, created the hardest finish of any race I’ve ever run to this day. Had the race been even 25 meters longer I would not have been an All-American. I collapsed across the line in 28th place.
I am 100% certain that as a freshman or a sophomore, I would have caved over that last kilometer.
For once, I was fulfilled.
As a team we placed 17th in the country, fully exceeding our expectations and predictions. I fully could not fathom that I had actually met and exceeded my expectations for a full season of competitive running.
Underperforming was so entrenched in me that when I had run an 8k PR of 25:25 a month earlier, I’d refused to believe the course was actually 8 kilometers long until I’d asked every runner on my team who’d worn a watch if the course was adequate distance.
I went on to run PR’s in the mile, the 3000 meters and the 5000 meters throughout the winter and spring track seasons. It was the third time’s the charm after two seasons of no breakthroughs.
I had my share of subpar races and my season wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t let the bad races affect my training or my outside life.
Chris and I even had the opportunity to race at Penn Relays in April, almost three years to the day Franklin Field became my nightmare. To this day that is one of the best nights of my life, despite the fact that my race was nothing more than decent. Coming through the line in a PR of 15:10 when I’d dreamed of coming through the line in sub-14:45 for months, I was embraced by club teammates, ex-Penn teammates, non-running friends, and other acquaintances alike.
I forgot about my performance the second I crossed the line.
I haven’t competed at that level since then, and I stopped competitive running on my own terms. I joined several clubs at Penn and improved myself as a junior. I spent my senior year growing our club team and focused on coaching and mentoring freshmen instead of racing.
For once, I went for runs with no end goal.
I have amazing relationships with people from both the club and varsity teams and in my regular Penn life, a possibility I would have laughed at two years ago.
During the time in which we currently find ourselves, I’ve found the desire again to run every day after almost a year. The pandemic has made running one of the only normal distractions I have from quarantine.
With the short-term future of the sport in limbo, we should all enjoy it one and the same. The competitive collegiate runner may have an opportunity to enjoy months of mileage without the pressure of racing, and the hobby jogger may realize now is the time to finally get out the door more often.
However we choose to pursue it, we cannot afford to treat our performances, workouts and training as referendums of ourselves.
That had always been my failure.
I thought people I considered family and friends would legitimately think lesser of me as a person because of an arbitrary time it took me to run an arbitrary distance. I thought it didn’t matter what else I did for anyone, or who else I associated with, as long as I was performing. I thought I was entitled to a spot in a locker room that I had no business being a part of, because deep down I knew that locker room was all I had.
In a very competitive world, it’s incredibly easy to find something we’re passionate about, or skilled at, and let ourselves be defined by how successful we are at that thing. The reality is that the people we’re most afraid of disappointing are almost always the ones who lift us up no matter what.
Realizing that changed how I trained, how I raced and how I thought of myself as not just an athlete, but as a human being.
For once, my worst enemy wasn’t myself.
JOSH CHAZIN — UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA XC/T&F // PENN CLUB XC/T&F
One Mile Run — 4:18
3000 Meter Run — 8:35
5000 Meter Run (Track) — 15:10
8000 Meter Run (XC) —25:25
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