2019 US Championships Recap (and lessons learned)

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The Worldly Athlete

Day 1 had just come to a close. I was still breathing hard from the final race of the day — the 400m — and feeling the emotional toll of a competition that hadn’t quite gone to plan.

As I gathered my things from the warm-up area and began heading toward the exit of the stadium, I ran into a familiar figure from my past — Coach Vince Anderson.

I hadn’t seen or talked to Vince in perhaps 10 years, but it was like running into an old friend who you can pick right back up with. Vince and I weren’t especially close, but I did have the pleasure of working with him during my freshman year at Tennessee before he accepted a new position at Texas A&M the following year.

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Vince has always been the sort of coach that athletes gravitate towards. He’s a world-class sprint coach, for one — but I’m sure most of his athletes will remember him best by the way he communicated, challenged, and ignited self-belief.

In the brief 15 minutes we spent catching up on a decade of lost time, we somehow stumbled on the question of — what is the most desirable trait an athlete can have, from a coach’s perspective? 

Vince said that, in his opinion, the most desirable trait in an athlete is worldliness. He felt that those who had amassed experiences outside of athletics had the healthiest and most productive attitudes towards athletics.

Worldliness brings with it an ability to deal with, and positively leverage, the adversity that athletes inevitably encounter. It means having a broader, more refined perspective on sport, which allows athletes to move through the temporary troughs that, without it, might otherwise seem like inescapable holes.

A timely sentiment, I thought to myself.

Finally, we took a picture to commemorate our chance meeting, wished each other well, and went our separate ways, hoping to cross paths again in another 10 years or so to continue the conversation where we left off.

July 25th, 2019 | US Track and Field Championships | Decathlon Long Jump, Attempt #3 | 6.72m (22’ 1/4’’)


Meet Recap (and lessons learned)

First, the hard facts…

Full results of the US Championships can be found here. I placed 9th out of 16, had 4 season bests (400m, 110m HH, Javelin, 1500m), and finished with a final score of 7,524. By virtue of my place finish, I qualified to compete in another decathlon called the Thorpe Cup which will take place in Bernhausen, Germany on September 14th and 15th.

Very exciting indeed.

However, while there were a number of bright spots in my performances, especially on Day 2, I was mostly disappointed with the final result. Candidly, I expected to perform a lot better than I did in most of the events, and the fact that I didn’t was a little confusing at the time.

As an example, I ran a time of 11.52 (+1.8) in the 100m dash, which was the exact same time I ran two and a half months ago in my first decathlon of the season in Dallas. In two and half months, I certainly expected to get faster in this event, but no dice. The next three events of the day — the long jump, shot put and high jump — weren’t much better. I just felt flat and off my game, and I wasn’t sure why.

Start of the 100m dash (I’m in lane 1)

Start of the 100m dash (I’m in lane 1)

What I mean by “flat” is that I didn’t feel as fast, quick and explosive as I should have on the day of competition. I didn’t feel horrible by any means — I was just missing that extra sharpness that comes to an athlete when he gives himself a few days of rest before a major competition.

My lack of speed, in particular, was perplexing because leading up to this competition I centered my training around maximizing speed. After my first decathlon of the season in Dallas, speed appeared to be one of the biggest gaps in my skill set — which meant it also presented the biggest opportunity for improvement. I felt that if I trained specifically for speed during the two months leading up to the US Championships, I could realize some big gains in a number of events, as well as my final score. I was certain this was the case, and I was determined to make it happen. In hindsight, I might have been a little too determined…

I realize now that I made two major mistakes as I prepared for the US Championships:

  1. I didn’t give myself enough time to recover from my first decathlon in Dallas. I jumped right back into training as soon as I could.

  2. I didn’t listen to my body well enough as I prepared for the US Championships, leading to injuries and overtraining along the way.

Bottom line: I let my eagerness to improve upon my score get in the way of executing a smart training process leading up to this meet (i.e. I overtrained). The road to achievement has a natural speed limit, and I chose to ignore it.

Lesson learned.


How is it different?

Several weeks ago, Ryan Baily, the Jumps and Multi’s coach at CSU (and my perpetual sounding board), asked me this question: How is it different this time around?

The past two weeks have in large part been an answer to that question. It’s interesting how I’ve responded to such a disappointing performance like this compared to how I would have responded 8-10 years ago. Back then, when I was in my early to mid 20’s, I lived in the fishbowl of athletics. Decathlon was my world. It was where I derived the vast majority of my identity and self-worth. So when I retired in 2012, I began a new chapter of my life — one that would expose me to experiences and challenges that I had never even imagined were waiting for me. As I ventured into this unknown world beyond athletics, my identity began to shift, my perspectives began to expand, and the sources from which I derived meaning in life multiplied a hundredfold, at the very least. In a way, I was becoming, well, more worldly.

In my past athletic life, I might have wallowed in my disappointment following a performance like this last one, and then put my nose to the grindstone of training, only to double down on the poor training strategy that had gotten me into the predicament in the first place. Today, however, is different. Today I still feel the sting of disappointment like I did 8-10 years ago, but it no longer defines me. I see now that feeling disappointed doesn’t make me a disappointment. Strong emotions like this are not especially pleasant, but they are fleeting, and most importantly, they serve as important signals. They tell us that there is something important to be learned from whatever it was that brought them about in the first place.

For the past two weeks, for instance, I’ve been contemplating questions like… What exactly was disappointing about the way I performed? What did I do especially well despite the sub-par marks? What expectations did I consciously or unconsciously carry with me into this meet? When could I have first noticed I was over-training? What kept me from seeing this reality? How would I have trained and prepared differently if I could do it over? How has this experience been beneficial? What am I ultimately trying to achieve through this competition and those to follow?

There’s always a lot to unpack after a decathlon…

Funny enough, it's the experiences I’ve had over the last seven years outside of athletics that have enriched me with the ability to ask and answer these important questions.

July 2016, Uluru (Ayers Rock), Australia

July 2016, Uluru (Ayers Rock), Australia

Chris Helwick