Photo credit: Vasily VS PiX (@vspix.us)
Childhood, part i
My struggle with perfectionism began at an early age. I always had a feeling that everything within and around me must live up to a high standard.
If my two braids were uneven, they must be redone until perfect. I wanted an Easy-Bake-Oven for Christmas because there was no better gift out there. Shoe shopping was made simple once I discovered that light-up shoes existed, because they were clearly superior to other shoes. My brothers convinced me to make their beds for them, knowing I wouldn’t pass up the chance to exhibit my high standards for order and neatness.
As the middle child of 5 kids, I wanted to keep up with my older brothers while also separating myself from the “little kids” — my younger brother and sister.
The Thornburg family was my first experience with team culture. My parents were the coaches, encouraging us to strive for excellence while prioritizing unconditional love and support for each other. We split up into groups for team projects consisting of chores and farm work.
We piled into the team van for trips — usually camping and hiking. A normal sit-down meal felt like a “team dinner” by the numbers. At the time, I had no idea how relevant this phase of life would be in preparing me for high school and collegiate athletics.
The support we all felt from this original team guided any later success we had. All of us were good students, respectable athletes, competent musicians, etc. Through all of these activities and pursuits I realized that I had one goal: to give it my all and become the best I could be.
The problem was, I didn’t know how to get there.
I wasn’t even sure what this “best” version of myself would be like. After considering the complicated task of identifying that threshold of my “best self,” I thought, why should I limit my abilities at all?
Thus I identified a new goal: perfection.
Still the question remained. How would I reach it?
While seeking perfection in real-world scenarios, I was inspired by acts of fiction. My dad read me The Chronicles of Narnia, the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings while my brother introduced me to Harry Potter. I loved adventures and I imagined myself as part of the story, usually the main character fighting off villains. I wanted to be part of the action, and I felt so invested in each character as they braved the unknown journey. I did hope for the “happily ever after” ending, but the peril and challenge are what kept my eyes glued to the page.
Even after putting the book down between chapters, my mind wandered back to the mystical world within those pages. I felt real concern when characters were in trouble and it seemed all hope was lost. In Lord of the Rings, I came to understand that some dangers, like Orcs, were purely outside forces of evil, while other predicaments were caused by Frodo’s own mistakes. Thankfully, even major rough patches could be mended in the coming chapters. Deep down, I had the belief that even during the darkest of times everything was going to be alright, and the protagonist would emerge victorious by the end.
The characters that inspired me were by no means perfect.
They were weak, and even selfish at times. Many of them made unwise decisions along their journeys that got them into some dire circumstances. As a reader, I often wanted to shout advice at them to change their mind! And yet I still loved those characters, constantly rooting for them despite their failures. These stories showed me that even the best people can make mistakes, and those same amazing people may have temporary or long-term struggles, despite their best efforts. I felt so connected to them; it was as if I had accompanied them on their epic journey.
Perhaps my biggest takeaway of all this reading, I realized that all the challenges and failure along the way made the happy ending so much better! Even so, despite realizing that these fictional characters endured many struggles before finding success, I failed to internalize this lesson in my own life.
Although I saw this consistent theme in all of my favorite stories, I still feared failure, thinking my mistakes left irreparable damage. I tried to ignore personal limitations, obstacles, and flaws as I wrote my own story. I operated under the assumption that my story must be free of error if I wanted my happiest ending.
I studied Architecture in college. I loved learning a unique lens through which to view the world and solve its problems. One of the simpler reasons drawing me to study architecture in college was the classes’ lack of tests and papers. I was intrigued to find out that studio classes offered an alternative option for measuring academic performance.
Once I started architecture studios, I came to find out that grading took the form of an architectural review, in which a panel of guest experts discussed each student’s design at length.
They discussed the strengths and weaknesses of each idea, offering advice on how to improve the design further. These sessions were much like defending a show-stopper cake to Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry in the Great British Bake Off — lots of nerves and pressure matched with a great deal of fun. I found these architectural reviews to be fantastic, and each one came with a helpful learning process.
The main challenge, then, was to finally come up with a project worthy of only praise and no constructive criticism. In normal college terms, the equivalent of a 100% on a test or paper.
I quickly learned that this was not a realistic option.
In the words of my studio professor, “There is no right answer.”
The truth was that we could continue to dream and improve upon our design ideas with unending potential for growth. From the invention of the wheel to the automobile to the airplane, each design solved a problem at hand and yet each one could be improved.
Apart from some medical and technological advancements, most designs are subjective when it comes to being “right” or perfect.
There is no right way to compose a painting or a piece of music. Some prefer Monet to Picasso, but neither is right or wrong. Design is a process with a beginning but no end, and I believe the same goes for the process of life. T
here is no right answer, but there is the valiant pursuit of it, bringing struggle, growth, and joy. Perhaps more than any other area of my life, the sport of running continues to magnify the idea of this long elusive “right answer.”
Running, part i
As I look back on my running career, I can break it into two distinct halves. The first half includes my high school and early college years.
I got serious about my running after joining the cross-country team in 9th grade. Already serious about academics I looked towards college, envisioning myself at one of the nation’s most prestigious academic institutions. By 11th grade, I added NCAA running to the list of non-negotiables for my college selection criteria.
After far too much worry and not nearly enough sleep, I was excited to attend Harvard as a walk-on. I was proud, but mostly relieved that I had escaped the college search without too much heartbreak. I was especially thankful to find a spot on a D1 team after I lacked enough personal running accolades to get recruited.
From the first practice I was determined to earn my spot on the team, or at the very least, avoid calling attention to walk-on status. My insecurity was met by an overwhelming warmth and support from my teammates.
The walk-on inferiority complex was certainly self-induced, but I could not be satisfied until I was a scoring contributor to the team. During this time I tried and tried to do my best, but my best had a very low ceiling because I spread myself too thin. I committed to an overly challenging workload and too many activities.
While I felt in control of my schoolwork, my training, and even my attitude, I soon found that a good attitude and an uncompromising work ethic could not ward off the repeated stress fractures and inevitable mental fatigue.
I was convinced that if I just tried harder and gave a little bit more energy to everything, I would find the right answer and achieve the success I longed for in all my pursuits.
Was that so much to ask?
It took several repetitive cycles of over-commitment followed by stress fractures to realize that my well of energy and determination had run dry. It was made clear to me that having control over my life was an illusion, and no amount of hard work could ensure success. No matter how bad “I wanted it” — a phrase all athletes hear at some point — I knew deep down that achieving perfection at anything was an impossible feat.
Childhood, part ii
When I think about failing despite my best efforts to succeed, a specific childhood memory comes to mind.
I remember a long period of my childhood when I could not seem to avoid falling down and skinning my knees. From my earliest memories until I was probably 8 or 9 years old, I would look down at my wounded knees which stared up at me as if to say, Thanks for nothing! Can’t you even walk?
Just when a scrape would begin to heal up, I would find myself once again falling quickly through the air, en route to the hard pavement, and then the painful yet familiar scrape, scratch and bruise.
Each catastrophe continued with some sobbing, in part due to the pain, but in greater part due to the humiliation of another trip and fall.
Some falls were subtle — such as those on the grass or dirt — but inevitably a significant number were quite obvious and quite painful with my knees scraping the asphalt forcefully. To make matters worse, I would try to catch myself with my hands in attempts to reduce the impact of the great fall, yet this somehow made it worse when I stood up with raw, burning hands to pair with my bloody knees.
The thing I remember most was how hard I tried to walk around scratch free like a grown human, only to find that my best efforts were no match for the inevitable encounter with the pavement. To top it off, my dad was a hand surgeon who used his expertise to aggressively clean my wounded knees, a painful yet necessary process to ward off infection.
I was determined to end this cycle of pain by moving more carefully and avoiding any tripping hazards, but I seemed to fall with no obstacles in sight aside from my own two clumsy feet. This repeated experience of skinning my knees made up my earliest realization that pure determination and will could not ensure the outcome I wanted.
Failure was inevitable and must be addressed. In this case, my parents addressed falling by showering me with hugs, which have turned out to be a good remedy for many of life’s challenges. While these falls were literal low points of my childhood, they usually occurred during fun adventures like blackberry picking or playing in the woods with my siblings.
I would never trade those adventures for unscathed knees.
Running, part ii
The second half of my running career includes my last few seasons of college running and my post-collegiate running so far.
Over the course of my junior year, I began to pare down on social and academic activities. I tried to do a little less of everything except for sleep – I needed more of that!
The simplest way to put it is that I began to learn how to say “no.”
The truth is, saying no is still a challenge for me, but at that point in my running career, I started to see that I had a finite amount of energy, passion, and willpower. If I used more of this allotment on school, I would have less to invest in my running. How unfair it seemed that one had to take away from the other!
The fact that my Ivy League education and competitive sport were my two biggest concerns shined a spotlight onto how fortunate I was and still am.
Gradually I began to shift my energy away from some extracurricular activities and social events, trying to prioritize recovery and quality training. Finally, after 3 long years, I bested my 5k PR — from high school! — by 80 seconds. Excited and hungry for more PRs, I made my first conference championship appearance running the 10,000 meter run.
At the conference meet I got lapped by all but two runners in the race and I got dead last by a whole minute. I was upset, but mostly amazed, that I had just run the best and worst races of my career within a few weeks.
After such a dynamic season, I was healthy and motivated to improve during my senior year. In my final seasons at Harvard I felt like a new athlete, finally making steady improvements and performing significantly better than I had up to that point.
This turnaround from my first three years led me to consider using my 5th year of eligibility, although I remained in disbelief that it would really happen until I started talking to coaches.
I was fortunate enough to use my remaining season of eligibility to run cross country at the University of New Mexico.
I was very excited for the year ahead, thinking I may have found my right answer for running success. Injuries were behind me and I felt confident about my ability to balance running with academics. I felt invincible, hopeful for PRs and national titles ahead.
I had my best ever cross country season, and I competed in my first NCAA Cross Country National Championship. We won the team title for the first time in program history with the lowest team score by any team since 1982. It was truly a dream come true, and an experience I will remember vividly for the rest of my life.
After struggling with injuries and failures as in undergraduate, I had adapted to overcome many of these struggles as a graduate student. Reflecting on my failures had allowed me to grow into a better, more successful runner. But now, I discovered new imperfections and deficiencies to address. Even within this seemingly perfect ending to my final college season, I automatically identified imperfections and areas for improvement.
I ran at the national meet but I didn’t score. I didn’t get a PR, and I wasn’t an All-American. My performance was worse than average compared to the rest of my races that season.
Was it possible for me to fully celebrate a national title with my team, while also being slightly dissatisfied and wanting more out of myself?
This attitude can be seen as ungrateful or greedy after the amazing opportunities and achievements that I experienced that season, and yet I could not escape a constant desire to get faster.
On the surface the season’s great success almost masked these smaller personal failures, but I knew they were there. They fueled me to continue chasing perfection, only this time post-collegiately.
I always had a fairly steady internal fire motivating me to continue running after college, and seeing my teammates run away from me at NCAA’s had a way of fanning that flame.
After college I entered the working world, and quickly realized that without a shoe contract my job would likely take away from attempts to be all-in with running. I realized, as many post collegiate runners do, that I was even farther from that perfect training schedule and elite racing performance that I sought in college.
The same 24-hour day seemed to fill more quickly, with predictable obstacles like working to make money to eat. I was filled with frustration as I watched my training become less and less perfect, and I drifted farther from my successful end-of-college routine.
Progress seemed impossible despite giving every ounce of effort I could muster to running. These new circumstances fed long waves of discouragement, along with strong feelings of sadness and inadequacy. After all these years of training and giving it my all, shouldn’t I be getting closer to the “right answer” for me as a runner?
Why couldn’t I figure out the equation for success?
As I reflect on the roller coaster of my running career — which I’m still very much riding — I have yet to discover the answer of how to run as fast as I want.
I still deal with injuries often.
I still feel frustrated at the limits of my strength, effort, motivation, etc.
I am so imperfect, and even with the occasional PR I feel no closer to becoming the perfect runner. But something has changed. I have started to question if that “perfect” experience or dream outcome, the one that I think I want, is truly my ultimate goal.
Of course, a shoe contract would be nice. Getting a 5k PR would be great, too.
However, I know those things would not ultimately bring me more happiness, satisfaction or joy in running.
What I really want out of running is what I already have.
Running has allowed me to meet some of the best people in the world and live out many of my favorite memories. It’s allowed me to daily experience the beautiful landscape of our world at the perfect pace. Running has shown me not only how to fight for what is important, but also release control of things beyond my reach. Running is one of the main themes in my own dynamic, action-filled story of life.
What would running mean if I achieved every goal on my first try without any failures or struggles along the way? I think of how boring the best adventures would be if all conflict were removed.
Thinking of my favorite adventure stories quickly brings me back to the Lord of the Rings. As a reader, I am so invested in Frodo and Sam’s journey to ultimately save Middle Earth. They and the rest of the fellowship encounter danger, temptation and failure. They problem-solve, work together, watch out for one other, and sacrifice for each other.
Finally, at long last, against all odds, they finish their journey, not for themselves, but for their whole world. This epic ending would mean nothing without the story itself.
Imagine if the entire Lord of the Rings story simply introduced the main characters, then cut straight to the end where these characters stand victorious.
This sort of victory would mean nothing.
Without a story full of unpredictable turns and unbreakable bonds of friendship, there would be no reason for investment and no victory worth reading about. I feel as if running happens to be a main theme of my character in our grand story.
I’m fighting for the win, even if my best efforts usually get thwarted.
I have to find alternative routes and explore new passages only to discover the unknown outcome beyond. Other characters have their own adventures, and in the best scenes we overlap and join forces, developing deep friendships and writing even more meaningful chapters. Just as Sam and Frodo braved the dangers of Middle earth together, I feel so fortunate not only to meet people through running, but also encounter some of the lowest lows and highest highs with these fellow runners.
I have developed many of my greatest friendships through running. Years of training and racing have highlighted some of my favorite characters in this grand story- my family, teammates, and coaches who have sacrificed to support my pursuit of excellence and loved me along the way.
I even met my husband because of running — a surprising plot twist!
I look back and realize that, if I had to pick, I’d pass up on that “right answer,” or the perfection I often seek, if it means that I get to live out this unique journey. What I want is what I have now — to be part of an epic story, greater than myself, knowing that the struggle, challenge and failure make that story what it is.
This outlook by no means removes triumphs along the way, and it certainly hasn’t lowered any of my grand running goals for the future. I know that running competitively is a temporary part of the story. My new and current goal is to fully appreciate my opportunity to be running through this story at all, alongside many of the best characters.
I am so grateful for my past, present and future years in this sport, and I can hardly wait to turn the page.
WHITNEY THORNBURG MACON — UNIVERSITY OF NEW MEXICO / HARVARD UNIVERSITY
2015 NCAA WOMEN’S CROSS COUNTRY TEAM CHAMPION
2020 OLYMPIC TRIALS MARATHON QUALIFIER
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