An Essay: Overcoming Burnout and Finding Passion In Running

I didn't realize I was burnt out until my season came to a jarring stop. I had battled myself all day, my frantic thoughts ranging from, "of course I can qualify. I only have to run 1:27s" to "how will I possibly run faster than all season in 85-degree heat?" to "all I have to do is draft" to "maybe I won't qualify, and my season will be over, and I can be done." Hardly conclusive or confident.

Flashforward to the end of the 3200m. I missed it by ten seconds and then couldn't even hold state qualification pace for a lap in the 1600m. Afterward, I helplessly watched teammates' 4x400 qualify and curled up into a ball by the field goal because I was supposed to be going to state with them. I walked my bike home in the dark with defeated shoulders and puffy eyes.

In the moments after my failed attempts at state qualification, my junior track season flashed back through my head, as I tried to pinpoint the moments that had set me up for defeat. Burnout. It hit me then. I remembered myself at the end of cross country season, losing faith in my training and hard work. I looked back at when I broke down in front of my track coaches because I finally found the courage to tell them that racing was making me unhappy. I felt those overwhelming moments of exhaustion when I rode home from meets feeling embarrassed about my performance and wishing I wasn't a runner.

I exhibited your classic textbook case of burnout: declined performance, mental and physical exhaustion, and loss of joy and caring for the sport. Even though I had been experiencing bits of these symptoms since mid-cross country, I was so focused on either feeling confused about it all or dreaming that I could just get better that I didn't notice what was going on. I didn't realize that instead of just forging through the frustration, I could have confronted the reality that I was losing my passion.

After sectionals, my coaches recommended a month off from running. And over the next four weeks, I had the opportunity to reflect on my career and the life I wanted to live. Why had I committed my high school years to a sport that left me unfulfilled, broken, and unconfident? What was I accomplishing by training and disappointing myself? Was I cut out to be an athlete? Should I ever run again? How can I just be happy?

One of my problems was that I was so focused on achieving my goals, I didn't consider that failure might be an outcome. We don't consider the cases where the possible star diminishes into just another name on the results list. We forget her and look up to the people who seemingly figure it all out: how to be fast; how to win. As humans, especially teenagers, we are biased and think that we are immune to the reality that we most likely won't get to the top. I certainly was. I ran with such hot pursuit that I never stopped and asked myself if I was willing to lose. Would the attempt still be worth it? Would I regret it?

At the end of Junior year, I did. But I don't anymore. Not the hard winter miles or dragging myself out of bed for doubles or continuing to train after all those tough races. My one tiny regret was the time I spent agonizing over my performance instead of just enjoying the special time in my life that was high school sports. 

It's been a year since my confrontation with burnout triggered my coming of age. And in a moment, I will explain why. On paper, this last track season, my senior and final laps of glory, didn't end much better than last year's. While I ran a strong and fun cross country season, my performance on the track made my goals look laughable and my PRs untouchable. My performance was quite comparable to last year, except that the carnage of my failure did not leave me lost and burnt out.

After my month off at the end of Junior year, I nervously tied up my shoes and uncertainly stole myself out the door. Each step of my awkward two-mile run-walk jerked a reminder through my body that the current activity in which I was partaking had made me empty and lost. I thought, seriously, am I really engaging in an activity that's made me depressed? What am I doing? 

As I tried to figure out why I should continue to run, I landed upon plenty of external reasons: because running was my place in the school and community, because people expected me to, because I didn't want to have quitting on my college resume, because I was team captain. 

Plenty of outside forces seemed to prod me towards the sport, but I wanted running to be mine. 

So to start, I ran for my own health and wellness. I ran so as not to be the pathetic piece of grouchy existence that I was without exercise. I ran to find myself, hoping I would discover me again on the cracked sidewalks and rolling cross country hills. I had lost myself on the oval, the streets, the pounding of the worn Achilles into country roads. And as I searched, I armed myself with a goal.

This cross country season, I was going to be happy. I was going to find my passion again. I needed to feel love in my sweaty forehead and beating heart. I wanted to feel joy on the roads, freedom on the hills, flight on the final straight of the track. When in past years I pursued medals and times, I entered this season only seeking happiness.

My odyssey into Senior running proved less like the disciplined base months of past summers. Instead, I took sporadic rest, ran too fast or too slow, and contemplated if I should just stop and quit. On mornings when I jolted awake to the groggy alarm to run with my team, wisps of the self I sought slipped through my fingers, close but deceptively intangible. August crashed into senior year, which tripped and fell into racing-or so I thought until to my dismay, my performances showed I had a competent balance on my season. Every day, I looked around to find love, wide-eyed to see if maybe I'd encounter my passion at the next turn. 

And as I looked around for the good things about the sport, I started to find them. On one side of me where laughing teammates, breathing hard since we were supposed to be running fast 400s, but nevertheless making a joke anyway. Below me were my bare feet, covered in grass and slightly wet, as I cooled down after a morning race. Above me was the hill I was about to conquer. It would hurt, but it would feel satisfying. Those things stood out, while small, and occurred on the daily. And along with the memories I made, resided the simple accomplishment of having finished the day's cross country practice. 

Failure taught me to appreciate my passion. Burnout taught me to cherish each run in the rain, every downhill with pounding quads, all eight laps of the 3200, and everything in between. As I enter my first year as a college student-athlete, I don't know how my season will go. Maybe, it'll come together as I did at the end of senior xc when I ran so fast I couldn't feel my legs or move my jaw dropped in shock afterward. Or, I could end up like my junior and senior track seasons, barely faster than I was as a 20 miles per week eighth grader. But somehow, with my new mindset, I know it will all be okay. 

My high school career snapped closed at sectionals again this year. While I was disappointed, I wasn't heartbroken. I knew that I had trained my best, and for whatever reason, it hadn't worked. Last year at this point, I felt empty and drained. But now, passion, confidence, and love have filled that hole. It is not the ending I desired, but now I know what is more important: my love for the run.