Man I needed that. A month without work. Without social feeds. Without the expectation to engage in anything except family. Without letting my mind get romanced into any new ideas, or projects. A month with vacation responders on my five email accounts. With my laptop zipped into it’s sleeve in a drawer. For one month I didn’t have to stare at my libra scale and weigh the merit of inbound requests, or weigh the impact or value of things I did, or whether I’m using my time wisely or not, or meaningfully or not. For a month I unhooked myself from the achievement machine for the first time since I was 12. And it was fucking amazing.
Thank God I actually did it. To be honest I didn’t have much choice. I felt burned out, deeply exhausted, frayed at the seams. I described it to Jesse as a deep deep tiredness, but it was more than that. The feeling of tiredness itself was not concerning. It was the color of it. The feel of it. Like a dishwater brown, oversized wet sponge. I had been tired off and on for 16 years as an elite runner, as a pregnant person, as a new mom. This tired felt like something essential had been taken from me: my drive.
The Beginning of the Big Push
In May of my 7th grade year, I made a decision that would change my relationship to drive. I was a naturally smart kid, tagged “gifted” or whatever in elementary school, and A’s came pretty easily to me. I have no memories of stress in school. In 8th grade, kids started getting separated into “honors” or “regular” courses based on testing scores, and my closest friends got placed in honors English. I didn’t. My family didn’t harp on grades, or college prep. There was no application of pressure or incentives. But I thought about the idea of being sorted. I distinctly remember standing outside on the outskirts of the quad at lunch, holding a bagel with cream cheese, thinking about how one moment could play out in my future, year by year, the first developed thought of this kind I remember having. I remember thinking “normal English will be easier to get an A in, but honors English (if I can handle it) will put me into a different chute with a different destination. A destination that was new to my family. A four year university. A bachelors degree. A job with security that didn’t lay you off three months a year. Maybe enough money to travel the world one day. I wrapped my bagel in the remaining torn foil as I walked into my English teacher’s classroom and asked her if I could take the honors test again. We scheduled a date, and this time I passed. From that day forward, I was changed somehow. Activated. I maxed out sports, school, extra curriculars, volunteer work. I worked like a person with no security blanket. I had to not only be good enough to get in to college, I had to be good enough to get financial assistance. And without knowing where exactly to focus my energy to make it happen, I decided that to be safe, I had to be exceptional, at everything.
This is why I’m good at a lot of things. Things like school and sports. But also juggling. Hula hoop. Waltzing. Hand stands. And a myriad of other things that are basically useless outside of party tricks. My undeveloped teenage brain imagined a college admission interview scenario where I would perform a one woman circus, finishing with a back-handspring presentation of my GPA and test scores. I had no idea what the secret knock would be to get through the doors to that different life, and I wanted to be prepared for anything. I’ve heard it said that your ability to learn something new is dependent on your emotional investment. Learning a new language comes much more quickly when you are in love with a native speaker, for example. You have to care, basically. I cared like my life depended on it. And it worked. It worked at Stanford. It worked as a pro runner. It worked with Picky Bars. And it worked these past four years with Oiselle as I poured myself into building something unique through writing, community, and activism. I have learned like a person madly in love.
It was this absence of caring last summer that alarmed me most. I had things I logically knew I wanted to do after retiring from pro running in July, but there was no fire behind them. I remember during my NY Times retirement interview, I felt this weird disconnect between the words coming out of my mouth and what I felt in my heart. I was talking about my future in activism, something I always had planned on doing, and there was no quickening of my pulse, no toes spreading to grip the ground in preparation for liftoff. Instead there were just words. This alarmed me. And again I was alarmed when brainstorming the future with Oiselle CEO Sally Bergesen, normally something that would activate me like a triple espresso; the ideas would come but instead of an electric current spurring action, there was a heaviness. I told her I felt like I was holding a box of wet matches, unable to light any fires. I thought perhaps it was depression, which is very common among retired pro athletes, but it didn’t feel like other times I had been depressed. What if my identity as a pro athlete, and the pursuit of ultimate athletic excellence, had become the heartbeat that oxygenated everything around it? What if it was the true love that powered the learning in all the other areas? Had I plucked out the nucleus of the cell, leaving everything floating around without clear signals or commands? Was I broken?
Everyone that cared about me encouraged me to take time off, which helped give me the courage to do it. I was a little afraid I would run away for good. But once I made the decision it would be January, the weeks of December had a lightness to them. I began to notice the coping strategies I had developed since July to manage my disorientation. Compulsive social media use. Looking for validation in favorites and likes that I was still there, still me. Deep immersions into the political news vortex, bathing in communal anxiety rather than facing my own. What would have helped most would have been sitting with myself; writing; music; purpose driven work. But anytime I had an opportunity to spend time on those things, I would run away to my phone. I was creating nothing. I grew angry. My phone had become like alcohol had been for my dad. An escape, a way to numb myself. This may be genetically wired in there somewhere, but it will not be how I live.
My month off gave me the space I needed to get to know myself again. I know that sounds cheesy but its true. Retirement from pro racing did pull something essential out of the recipe for my motivation and drive, but if I could be disciplined about eliminating all the distractions I had been using to hide, to avoid myself, I was sure I could find my heartbeat again. Maybe it wouldn’t be as strong, maybe it would have a slightly different rhythm, maybe it would no longer supply oxygen to all the same extremities as before, but I would create an environment that was suitable to hearing it. I believed that if I could do that, I could stand strong wherever I was.
Things I Learned on Sabbatical
The desire to hide from myself was powerful. Even after eliminating all the previously identified distractions, I was very good at finding new ones. Cleaning out all the boxes from 15 years of moving house to apartment to house. Consolidating the five different places I’ve kept racing bib numbers into one. Creating systems for organization (I’m not organized). Getting my piano tuned and violin repaired. Creating a space and buying the basic equipment needed for writing, practicing, and recording music. Organizing my google drive for the first time in 9 years. Buying my first ever desk and desktop computer and creating a clearly defined workspace for when I started back. Donating 7 giant garbage bags of stuff to goodwill, and 3 giant bags of athletic wear to local high schools. Rearranging the bedroom furniture. I knew this was a different shade of avoidance, but at the same time it felt like more than that. I allowed it. I knew I would run out of things within 10 days or so, and all of these things needed to get done. They were the things that my mind had often gone to over the years when I would look for proof that my non-work life was a mess. The things that would make me feel resentful of the work I loved, and of parenting. Well, now my non-work life was in order. Once I found myself searching Pinterest for 4 hours late into the night for future remodel ideas, I knew I had ventured beyond the useful into escapism, and I stopped. I was surprised at how easily the discipline kicked in. And then something magical happened. For the next ten days or so, I felt completely peaceful. I had no agenda, no goals, no to-do’s. It was like summer break back in elementary school, back when I woke up in the morning and just did what I felt like doing, back before the achievement machine had been activated. I let myself exist there, laying on my back in a canoe, watching the clouds, trusting the current. And then the last week I binged on books and Gilmore Girls.
I can’t tell you how important this break was to me. To my health. To my peace of mind. I didn’t figure every single thing out, but I didn’t need to. I found the heart beat. I gave 35 year old me permission to care about different things than 13 year old me, than 21 year old me. I let go of my past relationship with drive and achievement so I can navigate a new one. I began to see a new story, one of transition, of growing up, of a relationship with effort and drive, of freeing my hands to make beautiful things from the now rather than hanging onto a rope anchored to youth. I saw myself writing. Blogs. Articles. Songs. Where they will live, I don’t know. But I will write the truth, which is easier when you aren’t seeking validation. And yes, I will race. Because the thought of putting on my Voleé kit and pushing my body, prepared or not, was the match in the box that dried out second, right after the match for my family. I guess that makes sense, now that I think about it. Run family, for a lifelong runner, is family. Extended family, but family still. And family is something you give your best to, elevate, and advocate for. I think that has been the heartbeat all along.
Any questions or curiosities about the time off? Hit me.