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Choosing the Starting Line

Photo credit: Svenne Juul

A lot can change in a year.

In the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, this seems like an incredibly obvious statement to make: we’ve seen the total shut down of college campuses, collegiate and professional sports, the postponement of the Olympics.

A makeshift hospital has been built in Central Park due to the overwhelmed healthcare system, but to be frank, I’m not going to talk about COVID-19 in this article.

This week was supposed to be outdoor Heps, the Ivy League track championship. People on my team have been posting various pictures from last year’s meet and one would think that I too would be looking back fondly on these memories right now, especially given this year’s cancellation.

But I’ve gotta be honest — I’m not.

Abbe of 2019 was a really different person in a lot of ways, but primarily with regards to my happiness and mental health.

I felt completely overwhelmed by daily life, so much so that I cried basically every day, and talked to my parents on the phone almost every other day for at least an hour. I’m not someone who usually gets homesick and yet my freshman year proctor — Harvard’s version of a Residential Advisor — pretty much had to force me to call home after admitting to him that I hadn’t spoken to my parents for almost a month.

After a particularly harrowing week in late April of 2019 — it was bad for various reasons that I won’t go into — I actually decided to go home for the weekend. I was lucky enough to not have class on Mondays or Fridays that semester, so I spontaneously booked a flight home for a four-day trip home.

I did my final workout before Heps alone at my high school track. I remember trying my hardest to just breathe, to let go of my anxiety about how badly I was bound to perform the next week and focus on the workout at hand.

Outdoor Heps 2019 arrived and I performed horribly, which in retrospect is not a surprise at all. Actually, given the fact that I ran my slowest track 5k ever, I don’t know if I’d use the term “performance.”

I ended up squeezing into the NCAA East Region Prelims with a time I’d run earlier that season and outperformed my seed time by 26 places — I went into the meet ranked 47th and placed 21st. But even after such an unexpectedly decent — maybe even good — performance, I just burst into tears.

I can’t really explain how I was feeling during this period of my life. I was just emotionally fried and burnt out.

Flashback to my 2018-2019 indoor season, and we can see what partially led to this feeling of anxiety and stress. I have struggled with severe GI issues since my junior year of high school (2016) while racing. As in, I have pooped myself while racing multiple times.

Unfortunately, a week before Indoor Heps this happened again.

Not cute.

These experiences were so traumatizing — and I don’t use that word lightly — that before almost every race that’s what I was thinking about. I wasn’t concentrating solely on being the best competitor I could be, but rather, on whether my bowels were going to cooperate or not.

I was taking anti-diarrheal medication before racing and worrying a ton about what I ate on race day. I was entering every race already out of it, and focusing on things that added stress — although not entirely unfounded — rather than those which eliminated it.

Fast-forward to summer 2019.

I had just had an extremely mediocre sophomore track season, but more importantly, I felt like I was incredibly lost both on the track and beyond it. My everyday life had become really difficult to get through, and I was unsure what was causing my GI issues.

I decided to visit a female sports medicine doctor in Philly — where I’m from — and even she had no idea what was going on. This was not the first doctor I’ve seen, and I really lost it upon hearing another resounding “no” to whether or not she knew what was happening to me.

As I was walking back to the parking lot with my mom I started crying, and it was there I realized I didn’t need to race the upcoming fall. Absolutely no part of me wanted to get on another starting line, worrying about whether or not my body was going to cooperate.

I decided I wasn’t going to race cross country that upcoming fall.

I don’t think I’ve ever been surer of a decision in my life.

Fall 2019 came around and I was doing okay. I’d had a wonderful summer, having had the opportunity to travel with my team to Europe for a couple weeks before taking part in an ESL and Empowerment program in Japan. I went to cross country preseason camp with my team and had a great time.

These few months away from the pressures of running and my everyday life at school allowed me to begin to feel like myself again.

And yet less than a week into being back on campus, I got a sinus infection. It was actually kind of funny, except for the fact that it was so bad. I became convinced that this was a “sign” from the universe that I’d made the right decision to step back from NCAA racing for a while.

Harvard had an incredible season, with both teams qualifying for NCAA XC Nationals for the first time in our program’s history.

As much as I’d like to say I was so happy for them, the reality is I was also really jealous and frustrated.

Of course I was proud of my teammates, but we can feel a multitude of emotions at once. Bitterness was definitely one of mine. I ended up talking to my teammate who also hadn’t raced, right after Harvard had qualified, and just ended up sobbing.

She was biking at one of the gyms on campus, and there I was crying in the middle of the gym over the fact that my team qualified for nationals without me.

Looking back, this is such a WTF moment. Like actually, what the fuck was I doing? She asked me if I’d considered going to Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services — CAMHS, a free service provided by the college — for therapy, to see if that would ease any of my GI issues or if it would help my racing/general mental health.

Throughout the fall semester, I had talked to a couple more nutritionists, just for some background information. I was adamant that my GI issues were purely physical, to which she replied “I don’t know, I’ve just really come to believe in the mind/body connection. Like, I think it’s real.”

At this point I decided why not, I’m clearly not okay and it’s not gonna hurt.

I started going to CAMHS in November 2019, and I was lucky enough to start therapy the same semester that Harvard started offering therapists exclusively for student athletes. My therapist had been a wrestler in college, and I think that this background in collegiate sports was really important in order to empathize with each other.

At my first appointment, my therapist told me something that has stuck with me throughout this entire process: I need to stop categorizing things as simply “good” or “bad.” I’ve always been aware of the fact that I’ve lived in extremes, but I hadn’t really thought about how harmful this was to my mental health or how debilitating it was to my reflection of past race results.

So often we — I don’t think it’s just me? — are quick to label a race as good or bad, instead of just letting it exist on its own and taking from it whatever is beneficial.

I think it was my third appointment when my therapist gave me a handout of different harmful thought processes, and I realized I did almost half of them. In fear of sounding too cliched, I began to realize the power of my own thoughts.

Namely, the power that my anxious thoughts had over my race performance.

Additionally, I began to realize how much weight I was placing into what other people thought of me, instead of just focusing on trying to do my best on the day.

I’ve had a lot of bad races in college, like, BAD races. And I think for some reason I let these define me, because I assumed that other people would look at me at meets and then immediately associate me with a certain performance.

What I’ve realized is that literally no one cares about other people that much.

No one has the capacity to retain such arbitrary information about other people like their latest race result. When you get on the starting line, what you’ve done in the past — “good” or “bad” or anywhere in between, which is where most races live — doesn’t determine anything about the race that’s about to happen.

You can’t guarantee a great race, but you can guarantee a sub-par one if you have these thoughts about past racing “failures” at the forefront of your mind during the warmup. And that’s exactly what I’d been doing for almost every race of college.

My first race back in the Harvard uniform was in January 2020, a full 7 months later than my previous one.

I had decided that I was going to race because I wanted to be a part of my team again. I’d never left — I still worked out and ran with the team everyday — but I missed the feeling that only comes with toeing the starting line with your teammate wearing the same uniform.

This first race happened to be at The Armory in New York City, the same historic place where I’d had some of my best high school performances.

I hadn’t run there since then, but I made the conscious decision that I was going into this meet purely because I wanted to spend time with my team. The team that I had missed out on by not racing the past season.

I ended up doing all sorts of things the night before that I would’ve worried about previously: I went to a museum with my teammates pretty far away from where we were staying. I had a Nutella crepe and didn’t worry about whether it’d affect my bowels the next day. I went to Starbucks the morning of the meet and ordered a cappuccino — I hadn’t had coffee before a race, out of fear of you know what, since high school.

Simply put, I decided to do things that were going to make me happy.

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Sure, I was running a race that day and of course I was nervous, but I kept taking comfort in the fact that it was me who made the decision to race. Nerves were just a part of this experience that I had chosen.

This feeling of joy and autonomy was something I’d been missing from race day since I don’t even know when — sometime in high school, probably. I’ve been learning how much my behaviors affect my thoughts, and the importance of doing things that lead to more positive thinking, especially on race day. We decided in therapy that it was necessary for me to have a “just in case” plan regarding my GI issues to put some of the stress I felt aside, so I handed my coach a towel from the hotel before the race in case I needed to cover myself with it afterwards.

I ended up splitting 2:07 in our DMR, a 6 second PR.

We can now fast forward to February 2020, where I ran a 4:37 mile and then a 4:35 mile two weeks later — both huge PRs — and qualified for indoor NCAAs in the process. I scored for the first time as an individual at track Heps in the 800 meter run and anchored our winning DMR.

Remember, my last Heps I ran a 5k.

I didn’t have any of my normal GI issues while racing or working out this entire season. I can actually count the number of times my bowels started acting up during practice, instead of it being something that used to happen all of the time. I believe this lack of significant GI issues really was the result of the progress I’d made in therapy. Sure, the mid-distance races are shorter and therefore your body is under duress for a shorter period of time, meaning that any risk of GI issues is somewhat mitigated.

Actually, that is actually what drew me to the mile and 800 meter run instead of the 3000 and 5000 meter runs I’d been focusing on in past years. And I don’t want to take away from the changes my coach made in my training — I did more speed work from January-March 2020 than I had all of college. It was working.

And yet, I think a huge part of those great results lies in the changes in my daily thought process, and the real work I put into being relentlessly joyful on race day.

OK, also, Kesha came out with a new album — “High Road,” 10/10 recommend — that I listened to on repeat on race day which I think deserves a lot of the credit for my happiness during my warm ups and the “waiting” period at meets — which is when I think a lot of the self-doubt happens.

I still throw up after almost every race, and if I’m emotional I’m probably more likely than the average person to get teary or start crying, but I’ve just accepted that my physical/emotional connection is a lot stronger than most people’s.

This is why my GI issues were so severe while racing: I was literally shitting myself with anxiety, even while taking anti-diarrheal medication.

Honestly, it’s kind of impressive. I can now use this knowledge as a gauge for my mental health: most likely, if my bowels are not feeling great during a workout, it’s probably because of emotional stress.

Of course, we know how the indoor season ended: COVID-19 arrived just in time for an emotional roller coaster, ultimately resulting in the cancellation of indoor NCAAs.

I was really sad for a few weeks, and some of my anxiety has crept back in during this time.

However even here, in the midst of remote school and finals, I can honestly say I’m doing so much better than I was a year ago. I’m so thankful for my indoor season, because it gave me the belief in myself to keep going with this whole running thing, even during quarantine and this time of great unknowns.

To make a long story very short: I choose to toe the starting line because I love this sport, and the fact that I make that choice should give me the strength to push myself to be my best. Now, once the race is over, I go back to the rest of my life. I’m a runner, and yeah, it’s a huge part of who I am, but there’s so many other things that bring me joy and are important to me. So when you’re in New York City, go visit the museum. Your 800-meter-long race will understand.


800 Meter Run — 2:09.44

One Mile Run — 4:35.70

6000 Meter Run (XC) — 21:03.40


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