Every morning for 10 months, I woke up to the sight of my elite racing kit that I hung on the wall next to my bed as a motivator after Achilles surgery. It was a visual cue that represented a dream I had since signing with Oiselle in 2013, which was to help build a community and team I would be proud to embody on the global stage, and then race my heart out.
Whenever my injury got me down, that uniform would snap me out of it. I knew in my bones I would get to race again one day. As the months passed and the Olympic Trials grew nearer, my heel was still sore. I no longer dreamed about the Olympics or personal bests, (after three years without momentum those goals weren’t super realistic anymore). But I still fantasized about wearing that kit; taking the lead of a decent race somewhere with 600 meters to go, pushing harder than anyone else was ready to, the visible display of risk raising the hairs on the arms of my crew sitting in the stands, and in that way I would bring them across the finish line with me.
I wanted that. And then I could retire.
But one particular morning when I woke up and saw the kit, it didn’t motivate me. It just filled me with wet sand. I knew deep down in my gut it wasn’t going to happen. And I also knew that as long as I left the kit hanging there, nothing else could. I didn’t want it to be true. I had a good cry. It was clear that this dream wasn’t serving me anymore. It was keeping me from being present, happy, and able to fully appreciate my amazing life. I knew I had to let it go, but I was scared of what would happen to my life without this goal holding the pieces together.
When I pulled the stack of wrinkled competition gear out of my suitcase to give back to Sally Bergesen on a recent trip to Seattle, there were tears. More than anything during this last year, I had wanted to race in that kit for her. She put it in a shoebox and with a thick sharpie labeled it, “Lauren Fleshman’s kit, in case of [emergence]y,” and put it in her closet for safe keeping.
It didn’t feel like an ending. Not because I shared her optimism that I would need it again, but because it didn’t really change much. At her dining room table we talked about racing together on the Volée. We talked about all the things we’ve done together, and how much we still wanted to do. As we talked about the future, I noticed something. I no longer had to put all ideas through a pro athlete filter (how can I do this thing in a way that still prioritizes being a professional athlete?) I could just go and do it. One of the primary sources of tension in my life for the past 21 years had just disappeared.
The very people who have supported my racing career were the same people who always let me know I would be more than fine without it. My mom and dad. Jesse. Sally. The Leskos. My family. Close friends. The Oiselle Nest. Little Wing. Every one of my sponsors: Jaybird, Roka, Stance, Oiselle, and Picky Bars. You couldn’t find a more nurturing environment to make a major life decision.
And now that I have made the leap, I see these last three years in a new light. They have been my training grounds for a lifetime of joy in sport. I want to race until I’m 80 if my body lets me. I’m not afraid of getting slower; I can always get better. Better at being in the moment. Better at getting the most out of myself on the day. Better at pushing the middle miles; at predicting my fitness; at respecting myself; at jumping in unprepared and rolling with it; at having fun; at learning from mistakes; at letting go of stuff that doesn’t matter.
This kind of racing isn’t the consolation prize I once imagined it would be.
This is what I want now.
As I sit here writing this I am tearful, overwhelmed by how much I’ve been given. Over a lifetime of sport really. From the genetics, support, and work ethic my family gave me, to the coaches who invested in me (DeLong, McCauley, Lananna, Evans, Mahon, Rowland), the teammates I learned from and battled alongside with, the sponsors who gave me a platform and the means to do what I love, the race opportunities and privileges that I’ve had, the medical teams that helped put me back together when I broke, the people I’ve learned from in other industries, the athletes that let me coach them, and the fans that encouraged me, supported my ventures, and gave me the courage to be myself.
I know it is “just running,” and there’s a big world out there, but knowing that doesn’t diminish the value this sport and the people in it have brought to my life. If you have been a part of my running career and are reading this, I want to say the most sincere, heart felt thank you that is humanly possible without the option to stand face to face and look you in the eye. Let’s do that looking in the eye part soon though. Seriously, thank you.
I am retiring from professional racing, but I feel a strong sense of purpose. There’s a lot to work to do in the sport right now. Building community among women runners, making sure there is fairness and economic viability for athletes, fighting to protect clean athletes, and more. But for the moment, I just want to soak this in, this rare chance to celebrate in the space between the end of something and the beginning of something else.
At the end of the Olympic Trials, I performed a spoken word poem at the Oiselle party in front of an intimate crowd. It was about retirement, but more broadly about the changing role of sports in our lives. My friends Mike and Brock at Goldstein Productions made it into a short video which you can watch here. I hope you enjoy it.
P.S. If you haven’t read it yet, Lindsay Crouse of the New York Times wrote a great piece on my career. It comes out in print Sunday but you can read it online now.