Monday, February 20, 2006

Unable to Cross the Line

My dear old pal over at Blogacharya has a Turning Points theme going this week. I love this idea. In fact, if you do as well, pop on over and leave him a comment and participate yourself! A lot of moments have come to mind, so I may have several turning point entries this week.

There are some truths I have come to accept about myself. The first is, I hate to disappoint people. Yes, I am a people-pleasin' kind of gal. The second, that I have known somewhat all along, is that I'm a total perfectionist. But, that second fact never became as clear as in this next experience from my youth. A time when my own ridiculous standards threw me into a tailspin to the point that I was unable to please anyone, especially myself.

In high school, I played several sports and loved every minute of it. In fact, I am one of those adults who wishes they could go back and play all over again. With that said, I'm trying really hard to make sure I don't become one of those adults who also sadly tries to relive it all through my kids. But, my sports career was not an all star one, by any means. No state championships or all school honors really. I was a solid player in both volleyball and basketball and got some local recognition. I did "letter" in all sports I participated in, but I was never the game winner or go-to player in team sports. The one sport that I seemed to show the most promise of greatness in was the one, ironically, that I liked the least--high school track. Looking back now, I realize that my experiences running were very valuable because I learned a lot about the biggest competitor in my life, my own inner critic.

Let me take you back to a high school track meet my sophomore year. I had made the Varsity track team fairly easily and was doing well running the quarter mile. The quarter, as we called, was one lap around the track. What it really amounted to was sprinting the curves and striding out the "straight-aways" until the last 100 yards. Then, you had to muster the guts to sprint it out with whatever fuel you had left to the finish line.

Now, this year, we had a very memorable coach at our school. In fact, I need to write about this guy more because he was quite a character. Our coach was determined to convince us of our supreme excellence by entering us in some track meets at larger schools where we'd be competing against the cream of the big city crop. Only, their crops were much larger and fruitful than our seedlings. We had meager pickings in our small 2A school, with just a few stars among us.

My race came up, and just before the lane assignments (heats) were announced, the coach informed me that I would be running in the first one. I was surprised because our senior runner was quite fast and normally ran a heat ahead of me. But, she'd been injured and was not running that day. I assumed that he'd just moved me up to fill her spot and didn't think anything of it. However, heat assignments are made based on your best times in competition. My times were OK, but they were always better in practice than in the meets. But, I really didn't take the time to think about all of this before I ran. I just tightened up my laces, did my stretches, and got ready to run.

I still remember the feeling I had when the gun went off. It was as if someone had poured taffy in my single lane, while all the other competitors were on a regular track. Girls flew past me as if I was standing still. The simultaneous feeling of serious panic and dread washed over me. I gave it all I had, but still found myself about 50 yards behind the closest runner. I was in slow motion, while the rest of the pack was in fast-forward.

Then, the realization set it. I was about to be one of THOSE finishers. If you haven't watched a youth track event, perhaps you don't know what I mean. You see, there are always some runners in these amateur races that get snickered at as they finish. They are the ones who are miles behind anyone in their race, and you just wonder why they are running at all. I always felt sorry for them as they finally got to the finish line to turned backs congratulating those who had long finished before them. I always felt confident that I was at least good enough to finish in the middle--until this particular day, that is.

As I came to the end of the back straight-away, I start to feel a major anxiety attack coming on. Remember that second point I made about myself regarding the perfectionism? Well, my very being could not accept losing so badly in this race. I just could not do it. As I pumped my arms and legs as fast as I could, I could see the first girls close to finishing as I was getting to the last curve. The last 100 yards would definitely find me facing snickers and turned backs. The next moments and my actions fell in place so quickly that I'm not sure why I did what I did, and I will always regret it.

I faked an injury. I let my leg slip behind me and grabbed at my ankle, hopping off the track. That's right, in a single lap race, I did not even finish. I sat on the corner of the field alone for a few minutes crying. Those who saw me may have thought I was crying at my injury. I was not. I was crying at the realization I'd had in that race that I had a very serious problem. My perfectionist tendencies were way worse than I had ever realized. I could not lose the race, or at least not that badly. How would I go through my life like this?

My coach, made his way over to me. I am certain that he saw through what I did quite readily. In fact, perhaps he'd put me in that race to make me realize that I could actually lose a race and still be a winner. And, I'd failed him. I'd failed him, failed my team, and most of all failed myself. After looking at my perfectly fine ankle, he said he wasn't sure what it could be and to shake it off, giving me the typical coach advice to "put a little ice on it." Later that day, he confided in me that with my split time, had I finished, I would have been good enough to beat any of the other heats and make it to the finals. My time, had I let myself come in last, would have actually been my personal best to date--a full three to four seconds off my current best time. So, ironically, by coming in last, I'd have actually won a victory for myself and might have placed for my team in the finals. If I'd only just finished the race.

I wrapped up that track season quite humble from this experience. The coach, who loved to tease me, would joke "the clock's still running, girl...go ahead and finally finish that quarter now!" And, the next season, I voluntarily became a long distance runner. I partly chose to do this because I didn't think I could ever face that quarter mile race again after I'd failed myself so. But, I also felt I needed a clean start at something new where I might be able to prove to myself that I deserved to cross the line as a winner in my mind, even if my legs came in yards behind in last place.


Blogger Dipu said...

Ow. My stomach knotted up reading about you falling behind. I would've felt exactly as you did. I guess I can be a perfectionist too. Though I didn't foresee the the faked injury solution; instead I probably would've finished badly and never forgiven myself. Hell, if given a choice, I would've opted not to run the race at all. I'm sure there's no symbolism whatsoever in the race metaphor for either of us...

11:05 PM, February 20, 2006  
Blogger Viamarie said...

Faking an injury? That's a good one. It surely made me laugh.

6:04 AM, February 21, 2006  
Blogger Erin said...

Coming in last is a tough thing, especially for a teenager. I think I would have pulled the same stunt as you - except I probably would have let my self fall to the ground and get a concusion or something. Your coach's tough love probably helped, and hurt. But, I guess, in the race of life, it's better to be in the middle than at the end, and he probably helped push you to the top.

8:17 AM, February 21, 2006  
Blogger Babs said...

wow. Great story. Reminds me of swimming in the Danskin four years ago... except it's MUCH harder to stop when you're swimming out in a lake! Isn't that weird that you were beating yourself up... and yet, you would've finished with your personal best? gosh, if that's not a metaphor for a bunch of other things in life, I don't know what is!

10:01 AM, February 21, 2006  
Blogger Crazy MomCat said...

Yep, Dipu, I knew you'd get it. And, Babs, I think that's why this event really has stayed with me all these years. It's a definite turning point where I realized that I had a real problem with the ridiculous standards I put on myself.

10:10 AM, February 21, 2006  
Blogger Vanessa said...

It takes a lot of nerve to admit this type of mistake. It's really an inspiration, however, to others. I'm going to make sure my athletic niece reads this post. I think it would help any school-age kid to read it.

10:15 AM, February 21, 2006  
Blogger Lisa said...

Wow - what a great story! Isn't it interesting that you look on that now as a turning point? I have moments like that, too, when I think as a kid/teenager, I didn't see it as significant but now I see it as monumental.

This would be a GREAT thing for kids to read.

10:23 AM, February 21, 2006  
Blogger "D" said...

This is very touching. It would go well in those memoirs you'd like to write someday. I ache for that young teen who was so afraid to lose that she couldn't even win.

1:16 PM, February 21, 2006  
Anonymous Shannon (sentimental) said...

What a great idea. I like it and it was great to read yours. :)

1:30 PM, February 21, 2006  
Blogger karla said...

Wow, I cannot imagine what it would be like to be that much of a perfectionist. I think I am the opposite of you, but I'm jealous. I bet I would accomplish so much more and my life would be so squared away if I put that much heart into what I do. Good story.

7:42 PM, February 21, 2006  
Blogger Lazy Daisy said...

Wow, when did you realize that your perfectionism was killing you? Was it at that moment? When did it become a defining moment for you? Great post!

As usual, I think you're way too hard on yourself! (Even prisoners get time off for good behavior!)

I don't think I've ever thought about what are turning points in my life....oh no, now you've made me think...I may never forgive you! (ha!)

8:38 AM, February 22, 2006  
Blogger Alison said...

Oh geez, I got all emotional reading this post. It takes me right back to several times that I didn't try something, or backed out of something, because I just assumed failure, and those are some of the moments I most regret in my life. I really empathize with your teen self!

10:57 PM, February 22, 2006  

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