Anna Willard, Oiselle Haute Volée and one of the all-time greatest American middle distance runners, has had her share of ups and downs. Anna is an Olympian and previous American Record holder in the steeplechase, with PR's of 1:58.80 in the 800m and 3:59.38 in the 1500m(!!!!). Anna, like many of us, has experienced the frustrations of injury and inability to compete. As part of our ongoing series The Flyway, Anna takes us through her return to badassery in 2016 and beyond.
For as long as I’ve been running, autumn has been a time to reflect and set new goals for the coming 12 months. Typically this involved celebrating what I had accomplished the previous year and dreaming about what I would conquer next. For so many seasons, no goal was too big, too ambitious or too unrealistic. I loved and anticipated the arrival of cooler air and changing leaves; I felt like Dr. Evil as I began plotting my world domination with unbridled determination!
But then came a fall where I hadn’t achieved my previously set goals. And then another fall came with the same result. And then another. Had I reached my potential? Were those times of badassery a thing of the past? Was I doomed to forever be a hamster on a wheel of injuries? That last one - the thought of purgatory - was the last straw. In the spring 2015, I hung up my track spikes, albeit with great sadness, and walked away from competitive running after three years of struggling with injuries.
I knew I needed to change, but I couldn’t quite let go of life as I knew it. Leaving behind my identity as Anna-The-Professional-Runner was always anything but a smooth transition. Running had been my best friend through the last two decades, a comforting daily ritual, and without it I felt rudderless. Then came the fall of 2015, and the brisk air brought that familiar ache, an undeniable desire to crush PRs.
So at the start of 2016 I came out of retirement swinging; with a Rocky-esque zeal I attacked training and hoped I could not only achieve what I had in the past but somehow surpass it. Months tumbled by, fitness and confidence growing, and suddenly summer was upon me. I arrived at races excited to feel that old fire in my belly and that innate swagger that once earned me the nickname of "The Peacock". I stood on the line nervous, but something was missing. Racing and training was still fun and exciting, but it wasn’t everything anymore.
Once the dust settled, I expected to feel disappointment. With great surprise, instead, there was a sense of calm and self-acceptance, one I may not have ever achieved had I not strived to make another Olympic Team. I can now acknowledge my impressive running resume without that voice in my head saying, “It wasn’t good enough. I can do better. I will medal next time.” I felt peace with what I achieved on the track, and an acceptable that greatness comes in many forms through the phases of life.
Expressing myself through movement and physicality has always been a fundamental part of who I am. As a result, running had become the primary way I defined myself. Now I can say that it is simply something that I do, not all that I am. These days, through coaching, Crossfit, hiking, and yoga I can now equally satisfy that urge to move, fight and sweat.
Whether I was ready or not, fall showed up right on schedule this year. Like every time before, I reflected and then set my sights for the coming year. But unlike every time before, I did so after opening my eyes and looking around my life and seeing how full and rich it has become. No longer is it only about me and what this body can achieve. I feel connected to so many communities: the women of Oiselle, Crossfit Merrimack, the running athletes who I coach, the Grenier family that I am now a part of. It’s hard to put into words how much my life has changed in such a seemingly short time. This autumn, I finally had a feeling of living the life I was meant to live, even if it was not the life I ever imagined for myself.
But I still run. And sometimes I still run hard. Because I love it, and I always will. Recently, I suited up and raced my local Turkey Trot, surprising myself by running 30 seconds faster than I had last year. Because who wants to be a Turkey when you can unleash The Peacock?
- Anna Willard