I am not here to prove.
I am here to be.
Those were the words I wrote in my journal the morning of the 2019 Snowshoe National Championships in Cable, Wisconsin.
I spent most of 2018 trying to prove to myself that I was the athlete who finished third at the 2018 US Snowshoe National Championships.
I tried to prove it on the roads.
I tried to prove it on the trails.
I tried to prove it in the mountains.
I guess I wasn’t convinced that I was capable of what I had accomplished. Maybe part of me was trying to prove to other people that who I am now as an athlete is who I have been all along—even when I was struggling to break 4-hours in the marathon. Deep down I’ve always believed I belonged at the top…it’s just taken time to get here.
Lately though, I’ve felt more and more confident in my self-belief and have felt like I have nothing to prove.
I just need to be me.
I’m Sarah Canney and I’m a damn good snowshoe runner because I love it and because I’m gritty and because I am not afraid of things that are hard.
Toe the Line
The gun went off and the lead pack of women jumped off the line. Sprinting up the hill, there was jostling for position, ut by the time we hit the half mile mark we were all strung out. I counted seven women. My friend Amber Ferreira just three spots ahead of me.
When we checked in on Friday night there were just a few runners registered with one or two names that looked familiar as competitive women. Who else is going to show up, I wondered?
The answer to that question came on Saturday morning as everyone was striding out on the snow. You know that eyeing-up you do before a race to figure out, how deep am I going to have to dig? How much is this going to hurt? Amber knew a few of the women, one a pro-triathlete, another former National Champ, a college stud, standout trail runner, strong masters athletes. The field was stacked with talent.
I believe I belong.
I believe I belong.
I believe I belong.
The mantra echoed in my head as I warmed up. You belong here, Sarah. You were third last year. You can hold your own.
Later that night, while reflecting on the race, Amber and I talked about being in a position where you know you’re not going to win. Where you’re in over your head with a caliber of athlete that’s far above where you are. It’s easy to be a big fish in a small pond. But a small fish in a big pond? That takes guts. That requires learning to love the chase.
I want to keep throwing myself into these races where I’m out-classed. The races where I don’t stand a chance. Because when you’re up against athletes that are on that next level, you have to rise to the occasion. You get pulled along into a better performance. The thing is, that won’t happen unless you SHOW UP, you have to be in the mix.
Which is why I went to Wisconsin in the first place. Yes, there’s no doubt I wanted to repeat what happened in 2018, if not finish even higher on the podium. But traveling to a different region would mean totally different competition, it would mean an unknown challenge. I knew that just by showing up, I’d learn something.
Embrace the Unrelenting Hills
The course, which was shaped like a hand, was a series of unrelenting rolling hills around a golf course. It was rumored to have 30 climbs in total, each lap had around 300 feet in gain. Though the hills were brief, it was hard to ever get a rhythm. The warmer temperatures and sunny skies had softened the snow, unlike the hard-packed terrain of the World Snowshoe Championships in Italy.
As we approached the halfway point of the three mile-loop, runners began to stretch out along the “fingers” of the course, clearly visible across the snow-covered fairways of the golf course on which we were running. You could see the runners that were 4 or 5 ahead or behind, but sometimes not the runners in you immediate vicinity, unless you were right on them.
The strategy I employed at the championships last year of stepping in the footprint of the runner in front of me didn’t work here. The course was wide and soft and had been chewed-up completely by the junior’s race and 5K. Each stride involved a slip to the left, then to the right. Each downhill was a fight for foot placement and each uphill meant digging in with your toes to get the best grip possible.
Those conditions are taxing. It’s hard, but it’s hard for everyone.*
Write the Story
They grow ‘em strong here in the midwest.
The field is so stacked.
Some really strong, fast women showed up.
I’m going to finish eighth.
Wait a second, Sarah. You’re writing the ending before the story has even played out. You’re two miles into a six mile race. It’s not over. You never know what is going to happen. Focus on the moment. Write the story of now. Narrate the moment.
And so I did.
Two miles into the race I started to write the story of my race:
“With every stride she felt stronger. Her powerful legs propelled her up every hill, she was an excellent climber and used the hills to her advantage. By locking eyes on the competitor in front of her, little by little beginning to reel her in.”
The more I narrated, the stronger I felt, the quieter the negative voices became.
This isn’t over, I told myself. Just be. Just be Sarah Canney. Just be who you know you are.
I came through lap one with 6th and 7th place still visible in front of me. I’d lost sight of Amber and only saw her across the “fingers” well into the second lap. We called out encouragement across the fairways at each other: whatever we could muster with heart rates through the roof.
I was still trying to catch 7th place. Jen. She had beat me at World’s by 30 seconds and I didn’t want her to beat me again here. I have so much respect for Jen. She fights hard, but I felt like I conceded those seconds at World’s and I didn’t want to concede them here. I noticed she was walking some of the hills and I figured if I stayed steady on the hills and didn’t walk, I could close the gap. But the gap between us felt like it was growing.
Don’t concede. Keep chasing.
With a little less than a mile to go in the last lap I saw someone closing the gap on me in one of the turns. I had about a minute on her, but that minute could go fast if I let up.
Hold on to 8th, Sarah. Hold on to it. Don’t let it go.
I made it up the final steep climb with a glance behind me I saw no one. I entered the flagging of the finish area, it was chewed up and so soft in sun. A woman cheered from the sideline, there was something in her tone that told me there was someone behind me. A quick glance and I realized the woman who had been chasing me had closed the gap. I kicked into another gear, sprinting all out. She answered with a sprint, I could hear her right behind me. I grimaced with the effort, arms pumped, snow flew, my heart felt as if it would burst out of my chest.**
Don’t give it up, Sarah.
Every part of me focused on the effort of crossing ahead of her. I wasn’t willing to give up my position.
I crossed the line just a stride ahead of her.
Eighth isn’t the place I wanted to come in. I wanted another chance at the podium, another spot on Team USA.
But how could I be upset? I literally gave everything I had over the entire course and then laid it all out there in a sprint finish. For that day, it was the best I had to give.
But there still was another shot at a podium spot…
Only Half Crazy
On Sunday, Amber and I laced up our shoes again for the US Snowshoe Half Marathon Championships. Even though I’d registered for both, I really didn’t think I’d run the half. I thought I’d be happy with the results of Saturday’s race and take Sunday to read and catch up on work before our flight home on Monday. With a little positive peer pressure on both our parts, Amber and I convinced each other that it would be “fun” and “we’re here so why not?” So we jumped into the half marathon on Sunday.
With freshly fallen snow and more coming down, it looked to be another challenging race. Marathoners were already out on the course and a small group of men and women lined up for the half-marathon. It was five laps of the course we’d done the previous day. The original course had been abandoned due to the snowstorm and to simplify the aid stations and need for volunteers.
The thought of doing five laps of what I’d done the previous day seemed daunting. But I kept telling myself, I came to Wisconsin to stand on a podium and that’s what I’m going to do.
We started off at a moderate pace and I found myself falling in behind Amber and another woman I recognized from the previous day. She went out harder off the line than I was willing to go, and I thought over the course of five laps she would come back to me.
Amber had said she was tired. We both were. But she’s such a strong competitor, that I knew she was gunning for the win. And pending any disaster it would be hers. A podium spot was mine for the taking if I just stayed steady.
I thought of the first lap as a warm up, a chance to get to know the course and check out the conditions with 4 inches of fresh snow. The course hadn’t changed much other than the fact that the chewed up section was narrower due to fewer runners.
I came into lap two with just 20 or 30 seconds off of the woman in front of me. She was also walking the hills, which I wasn’t. So again I figured if I could climb steady on the hills I’d catch her.
Lap two finished and I willed myself through the start/finish area. It was only the second lap and my butt was wet, cold and numb from the fresh snow. My socks and shoes were soaked and I couldn’t feel my toes. The thought of stopping seemed so appealing. I’d be warm. I’d be dry. I’d be done.
Don’t quit, Sarah. Don’t quit. You can’t quit. Just keep moving forward. One step at a time. Just get through this lap.
Survival of the Grittiest
Forward motion became more and more a mental battle. The women behind me was a minute or two back from me. I didn’t want to let off the pace and let her catch me. If I did the podium spot would slip away.
Don’t concede. Don’t concede.
There were points in the third lap where my mind wandered and I checked out a bit. Then found myself re-engaged and running hard.
Stay on the pace. Stay on the pace.
I came through the start/finish and Mark Elmore, the director of the USSSA called out: three down, two to go.
Two more. I can do two more. This and one more. This and one more.
I focused in on staying strong. The woman in front of me had two minutes on me now, I guessed. I just had to keep my two minute lead on the woman behind me.
Keep moving. Keep moving.
My legs started to fatigue. If I slowed even for a moment, I felt like everything would start cramping. The wind whipped snow up off the fairway and down off the trees creating blizzard-like conditions at times. I pulled my hood closer down around my face.
Just finish this. Just do this. You can do this. You can do this.
Climb. Descend. Climb. Descend. The undulating terrain was unrelenting.
Late in my fourth lap, Tim Van Orden came up behind me, lapping me on his way to his half marathon finish. He called out some encouragement, which boosted my spirits in the final few climbs of that lap.
I came through the start/finish flagging into my final lap and pushed through.
Ok. Last one. Last one. You got this.
The climbs felt harder, but when I felt like I could, I pushed the pace.
1% better. 1% better. Just be 1% better.
Every ounce of my energy was channeled into forward motion. Every mental and physical fiber into not stopping.
If I felt good enough, I pushed. I pushed on the hills, I pushed on the downhills. Always asking for more. Telling myself that the woman was right behind me and she was closing in.
Don’t let it come down to a sprint again. Keep going. Keep going. Stay on the pace.
I’d been so focused on my feet I hadn’t really looked up. When I did I saw the snow covered trees, the swirl of snow caught in the wind. It was ‘brutiful.’ Beautiful and brutal all at the same time. Kind of how life can be.
This forward motion. This keep going. That’s something I’ve told myself before–it’s something we all tell ourselves when the circumstances we are in seem overwhelming and insurmountable. We keep moving forward, putting focus into every step believing that a better moment, a better year, a better something is around the corner.
I’ve realized that I prefer to exist in optimism. Rooted in a belief that the impossible or improbable really isn’t that far out of reach. You could argue it’s not a healthy place to live, constantly striving for something that is so hard to achieve. Why not set your sights on the achievable? Why not aim a little lower? Why put so much energy and effort into belief? Why not be content? If you are constantly striving for the impossible, you are bound for disappointment more often than not. The journey to big, audacious goals is fraught with heartbreak. So it’s never comfortable and always trends toward burnout.
Yet even in the striving, I feel content. As much as the outcome can be a driver, there’s something about the chase, something about the wanting and believing and striving, that is deeply satisfying. Who am I if not for the journey into the hard places? Who am I if not for the lessons disappointment brings? Who am I without the heartbreak? Who am I without the get back up and go again?
I’m not Sarah Canney, that’s for sure. Those things are woven into my being-for better or for worse.
Keep pushing. Stay on the pace.
There was a half mile left I pushed one final time.
Don’t give up. Take that spot, Sarah. Snag that podium finish. It’s what you came for.
I came through the flagging. No one behind me and only one person waiting at the finish. Mark Elmore clocked my time as I strode over the line. He patted me on the back and handed me a cup of hot chicken broth. “Nice work, Sarah,” he said. “Nice work. Now go get warm.”
I was so cold. So wet. So exhausted.
Making my way towards the lodge, I wished that my husband was there to do what he does best: support me. I missed his booming, cheering voice that had greeted me at the finish in Italy. I wore a t-shirt this weekend that says, “Feed the Dream.” If anyone has fed my dreams it’s been him. He believes in me when I don’t believe in me. He’s taken care of me when I haven’t been capable of taking care of myself.
Just make it to the door, Sarah.
The race was over, but the self-talk continued.
Just make it to the door.
I was shaking uncontrollably and knew I needed to get out of my wet clothes. My numb fingers fumble with my snowshoes unsuccessfully. Someone exiting the lodge offered to help and I gladly accepted. I wanted to curl up in a ball and cry. I felt so physically and emotionally spent. But it was done. I did what I’d come to Wisconsin to do.
Later, after finally warming up, I stepped onto the podium to receive my bronze medal, hard earned with grit and determination.
More to Learn
Even if you don’t walk away with the result you wanted, there’s always something to learn. I feel like with each of these races I’m learning more about myself and more about what it takes to race at a higher level. I know my preparation was solid and I’m looking forward to the next race when I’ll have the opportunity to dig deep again. Even though I didn’t make the official team, I’ll have the opportunity to race at World’s in Japan in 2020, which is an exciting chance to be out of my league again. 😉
*It is quite possibly that though “it’s hard for everyone” is true, it may have been harder for me. It turns out that I ran both the 10K and the half marathon (and every training run plus the Moose Mountains Runaround Race) with a broken cleat. It’s a major personal lesson in know and check your equipment before your race.
I was missing the front row of teeth on the cleat of my snowshoe, which I’ve concluded broke during an icy run up Mt. Major on January 12. I wore the aluminum deep cleat up the mountain in icy conditions, when I should have used the more durable ice cleat. Who knows how much the missing cleat actually affected my performance? It would be the equivalent of a track athlete showing up to a race with flats when everyone else had spikes. Perhaps it added seconds to my time in the 10k, maybe minutes over the course of the half marathon? Or maybe no time at all? Maybe I raced my best for that day even with a broken cleat? Who knows?
** Stress is definitely a factor when it comes to performance and going into the trip to Wisconsin there was an abundance of stress. The week prior to the race I was out for my final Saturday tune up and 3 minutes into a five minute interval I took a deep breath and felt a sharp momentary pain underneath my sternum that radiated towards my the left side of my chest. I stopped immediately and walked. It was odd, but it was gone in an instant.
What wasn’t gone was the thought lodged in my mind from a Runner’s World article I’d spotted earlier in the week and purposefully NOT read: a young female runner and her almost-heart-attack. Just as the walking and the anxious thought about the RW article crescendoed in my mind, my parents drove by (the were their way to our house for breakfast) and slowed, rolling down the window. “Are you OK?” my Dad called. “Yes. I’m fine!” I called back. “Want a ride?” “No, I’m good. I’ll run home. I’ll be OK!” I really did feel fine in that moment, other than the building anxiety in my mind. When they started to drive away I instantly regretted saying no. Was that my sign? Did I miss my chance? Was I going to die by the side of the road of a heart-attack?
I made it home, was fine during breakfast, but then as sat on the playroom floor the anxiety about the whole situation built until my chest was so tight with worry that it felt as if someone was standing on me. I told my husband, went to the bedroom and laid down on the floor, where deep breathing helped me relax. The feeling subsided, but two other times that week I felt a dull pain in the left side of my chest near my sternum.
Both times were in the car, the second time was on Thursday, a day before I was supposed to get on a plane and fly to Wisconsin. The crushing feeling returned to my chest as anxiety rose. I decided to head to urgent care to get everything checked out. A normal EKG and chest x-ray later, the doctor determined that the pain I was feeling was actually due to intercostal pain and a rib that was slightly out of alignment.
I probably over-did it with pull-ups the week prior, tweaked it on the hard effort and then something about sitting in the car with my left hand on the wheel irritate the intercostal in just the right way to recreate the discomfort. It was a perfect storm of badly placed pain and anxiety. I mostly went to urgent care for peace of mind and I was able to get on the plane without worry. But those bouts of anxiety surely didn’t help my energy levels. Intermixed with this stress was the fact that our three year old jumping off a small table in his room on Wednesday night, hurting his foot in such a way we thought it might be broken. Turns out it wasn’t, but the worry of “maybe it is” was in the back of my mind along with my own health concerns in the days before leaving for Wisconsin.
When I was out on the course, these things didn’t even enter my mind, so they didn’t feel like factors. However, when you tally up the energy you expend in different areas of life it all adds up.
Have you ever doubled up on a weekend and run back to back races?
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