In 2007 at USATF Outdoor Champs, Lauren Fleshman walked off the track mid-race. She shares her story of doubt, determination, and how sometimes, through the dark is the only way to rediscover the light.
I should have been confident.
I was at the top of my game. Defending National Champion. I had my own commercial. I was (literally) a Poster-Girl for confidence, with my bold demands for feminist respect inked upon crisp new posters that hung on the walls of women and girl runners across the nation.
I should have been confident.
I was healthy, and frighteningly fit. I had put in the years, paid my dues, been humbled by injury, and returned to the top. I had shown myself I could do it. Rather than having to fight and nudge and stutter step for strategic positioning like in years past, there was always a perfect spot waiting for me, as if my competitors had figured me into their race plans and were subconsciously awaiting my arrival. It would be a hard fight with tough competitors to finish top three and qualify for the World Championships in the 5k, nobody was going to give it to me, but I had everything I needed to make it possible.
Why then was I filled with dread? Why was every track race that season preceded by tears? Why was I flooded with evidence of my inadequacies? Why, as I jogged my warmup laps, did the swishing of my tracksuit remind me of the butcher’s blade at a slaughter house? Why did I want to be anywhere but here? I knew pre-race anxiety was common, but in 12 years of racing I’d never felt anything this severe. The 2007 season was like an increasingly loud drumbeat towards doom. Logically I knew it was just running, that it wasn’t life or death, that I chose to do this, that I had value as a person beyond any performance…but somehow this knowing just made me feel worse, because no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get that true voice to be louder than the other one.
2 miles down, a mile to go. Somehow here I was. Still in it. The four strongest, all in a line, stride for stride, so close we could reach out and touch the slick back of the woman in front of us. All four of us were prepared, fantastically fit, beginning to pull away from the rest. I was in fourth position, mesmerized by the synchronized articulating shoulders in front of me. We were doing it. With each curve, with each straightaway, we pulled further ahead of the field. This was the group from which the USA team would be decided. But something was different in my mind from any year before. Instead of thinking, All I have to do is beat one of these three people and I’ll make the team, all I could think was, What if I’m the one who doesn’t make it?
It was that part of the race where everything burns. Where hard decisions are made. You know the part. Even though my body was capable of trying, the shouting of my mind was too loud to feel it. I am too weak, too big, not dedicated like the others. I don’t have what it takes. What if I am brave, and I still fail? What if I fight this pain, cover all the moves, do everything the best I can, and it ends up not being enough? The thought was unbearable. I could just trip on this inside rail and fall, and take myself out of the chase. I could allow my breathing to get out of control which would likely trigger my asthma. I could just stop. I could just stop.
With every idea for escape came an attempt to fight it off. I knew what the right answers were, but the competing voices got louder and louder until they overwhelmed the competition itself. I was no longer battling my competitors; I was battling my own darkness. And I decided, with 1 ½ laps to go, the once-magic place where I had made a name for myself with a nearly impossible to beat, long, fierce kick to the finish, that I would choose failure on my own terms. I disconnected from the train of fighters. I pulled over to an outside lane and stopped, still, quiet.
I watched them run away from me, around the curve. They looked beautiful, and brave.
For what I later learned was thirteen seconds, I stood in lane four, on another planet. The crowd disappeared. The cameras were gone. Another runner went by in a distant fourth, gamely fighting for her best on the day, without any shot of making the World Team. I looked back over my shoulder and saw all the other runners charging forward toward me. It was so simple. I got pissed.
I asked myself,
Can you physically run???
If you cut out all the bullshit, can you physically finish this race???
The answer was a simple yes. I took off, now in 5th place, and ran as hard as I could to race away from the chase pack. I flew past the lonely 4th place runner. I had no chance of catching the top three but I didn’t care. I ran as hard as I could, alone, all the way through the finish line, absorbed in the simplicity of squeezing out maximal effort. This was what I wanted all along. This is what I craved. This is what I used to have as my anchor. This is what I was determined to have again.
In the media zone, I was bombarded with questions about my unexpected stop, and made the mistake of saying that voices in my head told me to drop out. I was publicly painted as a head case, humiliated. It was abundantly clear to myself and everyone else that the biggest thing standing in the way of a shot at my goals was myself.
When a person injures their Achilles tendon, we easily forgive the performance failure that accompanies that, and create a treatment plan. When a person mentally cracks, we generally aren’t as forgiving. Up until that day, I had approached my escalating struggles with shame and anger. I kicked the wounded dog for being wounded. Over the years when other athletes had underperformed due to mental struggles, I looked down on them, and now that mirror was being held up to myself. To fix this, I had to give legitimacy to what I was experiencing. Giving legitimacy to my own struggles now meant I had to own up to being wrong about everyone else.
I’d like to think that human beings shouldn’t need to experience all struggles first-hand to have empathy and respect for the struggles of others. With all the pain and suffering around us, pain far more serious than a crisis of confidence in sports, we have to be able to respect the infinite paths through darkness that are part of the human experience if we want a healthier family, city, world. As runners, we all come together on the trail, road or track with our unique wounds, scars, and experiences that guide our understanding of the planet and the human condition. We see what we are ready to see in others. To pursue your individual potential as an athlete requires a willingness to face your shadow, to see things in yourself that are ugly or “other” before you are ready to, and respect them. The repeated act of doing this for ourselves can help us develop the skill of abstract empathy for others.
That moment in front of countless lookers-on, broadcast on national TV, in the context of my relatively privileged life, did that for me. I stepped into that dark place and dug a comfortable seat, and got curious. I respected rather than shamed the shadow; I worked with a sports psychologist; I did the work; I began to make connections outside myself; I came out the other side. I got a healthy relationship with running back, and emerged with something far more powerful. I was no longer afraid of the dark.