Finding My Pack

The last time I wrote, I was about halfway through my winter migration in Austin. Well, that was back when my plan was to stay for two months; but about 6 weeks into my visit, a few of my friends began a campaign to get me to stay in Austin for one more month. Truthfully, it didn’t take much campaigning on their end. I was loving my time in Texas, was not overly thrilled about rushing home to the 30-degree temps in Chicago, and had nothing tying me down in either city. Knowing that I would not always have the luxury of being 25 and free, I spontaneously decided to stay the extra month.

12919864_1313401728677129_6000011155062453440_nBut it wasn’t just the peer pressure that convinced me to stay. I had achieved so much personal growth during my short time in Austin, and as I approached my planned departure date, I realized that I was not yet ready to stop growing. In the three months I was there, I became more of myself than I’ve ever been, and learned valuable lessons that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.  Of all the lessons that I took away from my time in Austin, the most salient is what I learned about the value of surrounding myself with the right people. I had a breakthrough that completely changed how I approach my training, as well as my relationships in general.

For the majority of my triathlon career, I considered (quite proudly, I should add) myself to be a lone wolf when it came to training. In my first season or two, I did do many of my workouts with other people; in fact, it was the community of people that I met that made me love the sport as much as I did. But as I started to take the sport more seriously, I found that training with a group made it hard to stick to the specifically prescribed workouts I got from my coach. I’d often conform to whatever pace the rest of the group was doing, and end up defeating the purpose of my training session. So I wrote off group training as something that wasn’t for me, adopting the mindset that the only way to the top was to go at it alone.

12525088_10102345560874002_8796259187164380319_oBut when I went to Austin, everything changed. There, I found a group of friends that challenged every preconceived notion I had about training with others. They were the first people I had ever met who said, “Yeah, I’ll do your workout with you…and I’ll do it at YOUR pace.” I didn’t know there were people out there who were okay with putting their own goals aside in order to help me achieve mine, but that is exactly what these friends did. They rearranged their schedules, meeting me for weekday rides in the middle of the day and Saturday track workouts at the crack of dawn. When I told them that I felt bad that they were riding slower than they would if they were on their own, they assured me that this workout wasn’t about them. Their selflessness and their commitment astounded me day after day, and it brought out the best in me in every workout.

I didn’t fully realize it until I got to Austin, but in the months leading up to the move, I was in a pretty dark place. I had actually approached a point of apathy toward my training, a position I have never been in in my five years of competing. All of the fun had been sucked out of it, and it felt like I was just going through the motions. It wasn’t until I fell into this group of training partners that I realized that my apathy back in Chicago was coming from a place of loneliness.

12644797_1116290001876793_8561680420066056189_nBut my Austin friends changed that. These people made me look forward to workouts in a way that I never had before. They made hours pass by like minutes. They pushed me to paces that I didn’t think I could hit. They told me the exact words I needed to hear at the exact time that I needed it most. They made this foreign city feel like home. And most importantly, they took me out of the dark place that I was in, breathing new light into my training and into my life in general.

When it came time for me to head back to Chicago in the middle of April, I found the transition surprisingly tough.  Those first two weeks back were spent in a state of mild depression as I grieved the life that I had in Austin. I missed the sunny skies, the open water swimming, the great cycling roads; but most of all, I missed my friends. I had expected that coming back to Chicago would feel like coming home, but there was something about it that just didn’t feel right. I used to think that I would be a Chicagoan for life, but now I was wondering if the city was really the best place for me.

And then I realized: I couldn’t change the gloomy spring weather of the Midwest, and I couldn’t make glorious cycling roads appear out of nowhere, but there was one thing I could control. I could create a community of training partners in Chicago like what I had in Austin. And I knew exactly where to start.

IMG_3402For the last year or so, I’ve been a member at EDGE Athlete Lounge, (fondly known as my home away from home). EDGE is a training center/recovery lounge in Chicago that specializes in providing tools to speed up the post-workout recovery process, all in a cozy, welcoming space that feels like your friend’s living room. They also happen to attract some of the nicest athletes in the city, and have a thriving community of like-minded members that I love being around. One day I mentioned to Robyn, one of the owners, how I was hoping to find one or two training partners to help make the transition home a little easier. She assured me that I had a built-in network of eager training partners right there at EDGE, then posted in the members’ Facebook group stating that I was looking for running buddies to pace me on the track. Within minutes, there was an overwhelming response. I was shocked to see that there were so many people out there who, like my friends in Austin, were willing to spend their valuable training time doing my workouts.

IMG_3418Since then, I’ve ended up forming my own little Chicago wolfpack just like the one I had in Austin. These days, almost all of my run workouts are done in the company of others, something I never thought would be the case just a few months ago. Almost a dozen EDGE athletes have stepped in to serve as rabbits in track workouts, motivators on tempo runs, and companions on recovery jogs. In the process, I’ve made new friends, strengthened bonds with old ones, and have found an entirely new level of joy in my training. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my run (which was the part of the race that I struggled with the most this winter) is now the strongest it’s ever been.

After about a week of running with these new training partners, something crazy happened. The city suddenly started to feel like home again. All of the doubts that I had about staying in Chicago disappeared, as I realized that – at least for right now – it really is the right place for me. Chicago may be missing the weather, the elevation, and the spaciousness that typically constitute the ideal training environment; but it does have some kickass people, and I think that counts for even more.

IMG_3410There’s a quote from the film Up in the Air that I have always loved.  It goes something like this: “If you think about your favorite memories, the most important moments in your life — were you alone? … Life is better with company.”

This had once been a philosophy of mine, but somewhere along the line, I had lost sight of that wisdom. As my goals grew bigger and the stakes grew higher, I became so focused on my performance that I had become an island. But by self-isolating, I was also depriving myself of one of the things that makes sport so special: the athlete-athlete bond. That bond is a powerful force, and even in a sport as self-centered and individualistic as triathlon, it provides a dimension of fulfillment that you can’t find anywhere else. Nailing a workout on your own is an awesome feeling; but sharing that same experience with somebody else is even better. Crossing the finish line in Rio is sure to be one of the most memorable moments of my life; but it will be even more meaningful knowing that I’ll share that moment with every person who ever rode next to me on the bike or chased me around the track.

I am forever grateful to my training partners – in both Austin and Chicago – for reminding me that life truly is better with company, for showing me that home is where your people are, and for helping me grow into a completely new athlete. With “the big dance” in Rio just three months away, I am entering this final stretch of training with more confidence, passion, and joy than I ever have before. Not because I’m doing it as a lone wolf, but because I have an entire pack in my corner, making it happen.

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