Conquering Pain Through Trial and Error

I'm always asked by non-runners what my event is. I'm sure many of us have experienced this, or even worse, been asked for your mile time. But without fail, as soon as a stranger learns that I'm a runner that question is the next thing out of their mouth. And to be honest I get a slightly twisted sense of joy when I tell them what I do because the reaction is always hilarious. The poor person's face will morph from interest to disgust to horror as I describe it; I've even had one person call my race a "sadistic" event. But it's funny to me because I love it and I can't imagine doing anything else.

I'm a steeplechaser. Steeple is an event that's not typically known outside of the running world; so for those who don't know: it's 3k worth of racing (7.5 laps), each lap has 5 barriers, and one of those is a water jump where you have to propel yourself over the barrier and attempt to clear a pit on the other side filled with (you guessed it) water. The barriers are similar in essence to hurdles, but when you hit a normal hurdle it falls over. This is not the case with steeplechase. Our barriers are made of wood, so if you hit it, you're the one falling.

A few weekends ago my team traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina for a race. We had never traveled to this meet before, but the opportunity was not wasted. Everyone was eager to run fast and actually see the sun for the first time in awhile. I opened my steeple season here and I was really excited getting off the plane, going for my run, doing strides... and then my excitement very quickly transformed into panic as we practiced the water jump.

Along with a slew of other mental health issues, I have severe anxiety coupled with panic disorder. Basically, this means that when my anxiety levels get too high I'll spiral into a panic attack. These attacks present themselves in different ways for different people, but my panic attacks result in me crying and uncontrollably shaking. It will also feel like someone strapped my thoughts into the front seat of a racecar that then speeds headfirst into a wall. It's not the easiest to describe what this feels like, but I'm sure it's obvious that it's not ideal. I'm on medication that helps me stabilize these impulses, and I've also gone through a lot of therapy that's taught me how to live with it, but there are still things that get through the gaps. The water jump was one of those things.

Last year during the MVC outdoor conference meet I tore the plantar fascia of my right foot on the first water barrier of the event. I finished the race still scoring for my team, but that injury put me in a boot for 12 weeks and took away this year's cross country season. I thought I was over the emotional trauma of that injury, but I quickly learned I was wrong.

The more we practiced the water barrier during our pre-meet the more my anxiety spiraled. I have good technique over the water barrier; it used to be my strongest part of the race because I could rebound from my landing so quickly. But now every time I landed I would stop and walk out of the pit. My brain would just freeze as I went over the barrier. All I could think was that I would injure myself again. So there, under the beautiful sun in North Carolina, in front of my coaches and team and a lot of other teams, I had a panic attack.

Thankfully, this is nothing new for my coaches or friends. I have an amazing support system here at Bradley and I am so beyond thankful for that. I know I'm lucky. So my coaches quickly ran over and talked me down, but there's only so much they can say that will pull me out of my own head. They fed me logic and care, but I knew I wouldn't get over this panic unless something changed inside myself. And I genuinely didn't see that happening in the 24 hours before my race.

The next day, an hour before the gun went off I was positive I was not going to start the race. I was preparing myself to tell my coaches that I was sorry but I couldn't do it. I knew that if I tried to force myself to ignore the panicked thoughts in my head then it would only be detrimental to my mental health. I knew my line and this race was crossing it if I couldn't change my approach.

As a last-ditch effort, 50 minutes before the race was supposed to start, I called a coach from home. She's known me since I was a sophomore in high school and has seen me through every triumph in life and every major downfall. I can say without a doubt that she's someone who will always be in my corner. I quickly told her everything that was going through my head. She got me to control my breathing and very calmly asked me to think about where I would be undefeated in a race and where I was my most confident.

I gave my reply without hesitation, not completely understanding the purpose of the question, but confident in my answer nonetheless. She told me to picture the place I had described, the place I had unwavering faith in myself. She told me to visualize that place and fill myself with that confidence as I approached the water barrier. With nothing to lose and a small spark of hope, I agreed to try.

The race went unbelievably well. I raced with such confidence you wouldn't have known I debated not starting the race an hour before. I won my heat, set a massive PR, and was a second off of Bradley's school record. I was ecstatic. Almost immediately after crossing the line I texted the coach saying thank you and that she was the reason that race had gone so well. But she denied the compliment, reversing it saying that it wasn't her that had gotten me over the barrier, it was myself.

I learned a lot from that race. I realized that my coaches, both at Bradley and the one I called, didn't create my confidence; all they did was show me where it was. I never actually stopped believing in myself. I just lost sight of my hope. I let all the negative and the panic and the anxiety cave in, but my coaches were able to redirect me to the small voice of confidence I had that never stopped saying, "you can."

I've since run another steeple race at Mt. Sac in California last weekend. The panic got the best of me there. I can't say I'm perfect. I also can't say when I'll be over this fear either. But I do know that I love this event and this sport too much to give up. And with my coaches' support and my faith in myself, I know I'll do more than just get through the race. I still have the potential to do well, and I'm determined to believe in that.

I would like to say a quick thank you to my coaches at Bradley. They give me hope when I don't think I have any, and I know they'll never stop believing in me. But I'd also like to thank the coach I referred to: Janet Leet. Thank you for always being in my corner and for showing me the courage I actually have, even when I can't always find it.

Editor's note: McKenzie broke the school steeplechase record at the Drake Relays, running 10:31.57