Mess up once, and it’s a funny story. Develop a bad habit over four years, and it becomes a part of your reputation.
May 2019 will mark the four-year anniversary of the first time I puked before a race.
At the Heartland Athletic Conference (HAC) championships during my junior year of high school, pouring rain and fierce lightning postponed the track and field events. As my teammates and I finished our one-mile warmup jog before the 3200, meet officials called athletes into the Lincoln High School gym — a shelter in which we waited for the storm to pass.
Though the meet paused for only a couple hours, the waiting period amplified my pre-race anxiety. Would running two warmups be detrimental to my race? Did I eat enough food to last the additional hours? Would I have enough mental energy to race well after the postponement interrupted our warmup? Should I be eating snacks while we wait?
When the meet resumed, I muddled through warmup attempt No. 2 with overwhelming nausea. Five minutes before the gun fired, my teammates lost track of me. Standing in a huddle, waiting for our pre-race prayer, they scanned the facility for their nervous wreck of a teammate. Eventually, they spotted me — the shaking girl on the 20-yard line, violently coughing slimy, yellow bile into a trash can.
When my teammates asked if I was okay, I uttered what has now become my trademark phrase: “I’m not sick; I’m just nervous.”
From that day forward, the fun physiological reaction became a part of my pre-race routine. Though I didn’t puke before every race, the anomaly became a norm; both my college and high school teammates quickly learned not to worry if I hung out near trashcans. Yet after every race, I looked back with humor. After all, the vomiting wasn’t life-threatening, nor did it affect my performances.
And maybe it didn’t. But after a nosedive cross country season, conversations with coaches and meetings with a sports psychologist, I wrestled with the question: is running worth the intense stress I put my body through?
True, the puking doesn’t happen all the time. Awesome. However, every race — despite whether I puke beforehand — is preceded by hours of brain war. Negative whispers grow to screams which fuse into a giant, gross anxiety monster who I cannot control — or so I tell myself. Sometimes the war ends in vomit. Sometimes it doesn’t. Nevertheless, four plus hours of war precedes only a five, ten or twenty minute race. Even though I love racing, in order to do so, I endure hours of intense stress — and sometimes even a little bit of bile.
Yeah, not worth it.
Still there’s hope. Lately, I’ve been seeing a sports psychologist from whom I’m learning that the stress cycles are reversible. For years, I’ve tried to stop vomiting instead of attacking the problem at its root: poisonous pre-race thinking. Unsurprisingly, my measly efforts were unsuccessful. Instead, if I ever aspire to break my silly little pre-race habit, I need to go to its source. And after all, if given the choice, I’d rather stop toxic negativity than stop some casual upchuck.
Maybe I’ll always be Puke Girl. Maybe not; a four-year-old physiological habit is going to be hard to break. But if I don’t rewire my pre-race thinking soon, Puke Girl definitely won’t go away.
So here’s to 2019: the year racing becomes fun again.