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A Deeper Look at Walking On

Photograph Courtesy of the Smith Family


When people think of the word “walk-on,” they think of those who are brave, courageous, valiant. But what often goes unsaid is the arduous side of being a walk-on, of giving your unconditional, wholehearted effort and having it appear as if you just… don’t… want… it… enough.

Nobody tells you about the emptiness you feel when you must be left behind and experience meets from a screen, or the times when everyone goes around the room and states their event goals.

Your response is merely “I’m an alternate.”

Or when you get beat by one too many runners and feel embarrassed to wear the jersey you have on.

When you’re told all the clichés in the book about the intrinsic process of growth, that you have an “equally important role,” and are the hardest worker in the room, yet your room is void of medals, rings or trophies. Hitting a best time, but still feeling at the base of the mountain. Testing your patience while waiting and hoping that someday the spotlight will also envelop you. This is the side of being a walk-on that can sometimes make you feel unable to catch a breath above the water.

A friend told me once, “you’ve given a lot to running, but running really hasn’t given a lot back to you.” And for the most part, he was right. Until about a year ago.

Photograph Courtesy of Ashley Smith

Here’s one more thing they don’t tell you about being a walk-on ― the vast number of changes, palpable sacrifices, and bold risks to reach the same elite level as those around you. The intentional, daily effort required to emphatically strengthen both the physical and mental pieces of the puzzle.

Walking on was scary and exhausting and hard, but it was also the most rewarding experience. Running gave so much back to me in my final year – I felt a thousand tiny wins in the form of best times and championship races. Because of the relentless battles and standing up for myself, I’ll always want to accomplish just a little more, to avenge those painful moments in my athletic career. I often crave the coveted, tangible results – a medal I can hang around my shoulders or a trophy that can rest on my desk. To visibly see that all the days I wondered if it was worth it to keep going were not for nothing.

But even though we can all keep hoping and showing up and working hard, all the shiny awards may never land in our hands, or only a modicum of them, and we have to be okay with that. There is so much I am incredibly proud of in my athletic career and I will forever be happy with my experience – this essay is not written to be a dramatic hole of despair. Instead, my limits have been tested, my skin has been thickened, and my heart, lungs and mind are all the tougher for it.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t also express the adverse sides of my athletic experience.

And there is a promising truth in adages about the value of hard work, but sometimes I can’t help but wish I could have reached the same outcome with a little more talent and a few less hard days.

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