5.5 Gems of Wisdom I’d Give to my Younger, Undergraduate Self

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side view mirror by Lisa Cyr / CC BY. I hope you’re able to understand that I’m trying to be artsy using a mirror to depict my reflective blog post.

I am coming out beneath the non-blogging side of the rock to resurface into the glorious rays of the internet world of blogging. Not too long ago I wrote my FINAL final exam of my undergraduate degree. (It was functional neuroanatomy, meaning that it was also my last biomedical physiology and kinesiology (BPK) course.) Of course, I celebrated as I celebrated after finishing the last of my first exams as a first year student in my first year semester, which also happened to be my first BPK course. Did I lose you? Anyways, I did what any reasonable kinesiology student would do after finishing a final exams season. I went to the bar—the olympic bar of course. (Actually that’s a lie, I hit the gym for a workout inspired by Tony Gentilcore because, really, after barely working out for over a week with minimal sleep and high stress, I’d be flirting with the risk of injury pretending to be able to move competently with the bar.)

I have a whole bunch of blog post ideas, as well as a bunch of skeleton drafts in my vault. And this one was a good one to start out with for 2017. So without further ado, here we go. These are some gems that I really would’ve never thought as a naive, bright-eyed first year student. But they are some of the most important things that I’ve learned over the years and would be valuable things to tell to my younger self if I had the opportunity to.

1. There’s a 86.7% chance that you will not end up pursuing the career you were convinced was your dream when you were in first year.  (Note: I do not claim any scientific evidence behind that statistic.)

Honestly, we are SO convinced that we will be “X” or “Y” because of “Z” or “A”. It seems right, and it makes perfect sense given your interests and skills that a certain job or career is written in stone for you! The amount of friends and peers I know that did a complete 360 and did NOT end up pursuing the career that they all thought they were going to strive towards is actually the majority, myself included. Key take away: keep an open mind.

2. Sorry to break it to you cold, but life will hit the fan at some point in your undergrad.

I’m warning you now. It may not be super severe, it may be as simple as a dreadful week of stress and exams that makes you question why you’re in school. To one degree or another, again, my friends, peers and myself included have all gone though some gut-wrenching and fetal-position-inducing times. In conversations that I’ve shared, it’s been agreed upon that really, everyone goes through some period(s) that really ain’t pretty. If you ever get stuck though, there’s a reason that there’s free health and counselling services to students. (I really hope all schools provide it.) And honestly, more people and more FRIENDS and classmates than you are aware of are using these resources to keep themselves mentally healthy.

3. Retaking courses is NOT SHAMEFUL.

As more of your typical keener, go-getter, high-shooter student, I and my social circles also entered university always assuming we would never have to retake any courses; our grades would never be bad enough to warrant such an act. Fun fact, in my first semester when I took a 100-level biology course and I tried to sit next to strangers to make new university friends, I met a girl that told me that she was taking the course for the third time. I just assumed that she was a bad apple because she told me how she basically never attended classes but was trying to pass for once. (That was my “welcome to university, kiddo” moment.) To keep it brief, as you navigate through your undergrad, you will realize that you cannot be your 100% all the time in every aspect of your life. Things will happen and you will make mistakes. And things will not go the way everyone expects it to, yourself included, even if that’s how things have always turned out to be in the past. We all make slip ups, so really, retaking a course isn’t a big deal.*

4. After number 3, I know what you’re thinking, but NO, trust me you don’t need to finish in 4 years.

When you’re on the brink of finishing your degree, you’ll realize how the true “adult world” is kinda scary, beyond losing your student discounts and rates for a lot of things. It’s rare that we all get to have a straight trajectory from point A to B, where the career we step into right after school is the one we’ll happily be in until retirement. So, relax! Take your time. If you’ve been going balls to the wall your entire undergrad, allow yourself to take a breather and don’t rush into anything yet, be it a full-time job or grad school. Unless the opportunity is there, you may want to travel or do some things you haven’t been able to do. Once you might be committed to a career, you’ll find yourself with less windows of opportunity to do things that you’ve always wanted to do.

Coming out of school without knowing what you really want to do is scary. But don’t force yourself to find what you want to do with your life immediately. A friend of mine knew he wanted to do physiotherapy but by graduation time, he felt like he wasn’t ready to commit to professional school mode and enter the true “adult world” yet, and that’s okay. He has been working ever since and learning a lot, making use of his flexibility and freedom before applying to grad school.

5. The education system is not perfect, and could be deemed unfair. But alas, “life is unfair, and then you die”- C.A.. Deal with it.

The world, your professors, your tutor markers, teacher assistants—they don’t owe you anything. Sure you paid your tuition, but in reality you will come to realize that if you have 2 final exams a half hour within each other, OR you have 3 exams, just an hour outside of the 24-hr window subject to examination hardship policies … deal with it. (All of which I’ve experienced by the way.) The real world outside, which could involve a strict future employer, could potentially care less that you had “C” or “D” happen and you can’t meet your deadline. Not everyone can consider and accommodate your needs or preferences. So sometimes we just have to suck it up and do the best we can with the circumstances that we’re in. Don’t forget, “this too shall pass.”

5.5. When times get really challenging and you really feel like you are at your wits’ end … as someone wise advised me, “make sure to do at least one thing each day that makes you happy.”

This sounded really silly to me (which is why I made it a .5 tag-along and/or to make this blog post sound catchier by chance), and a waste of time when I was dealing with anxiety and was so stressed, while I thought the only way to combat my demons was to make sure I studied enough (which was really never enough). So I shrugged off this piece of advice, considering, say, watching a movie or going for a hike was not feasible in my schedule. But it can be as simple as watching hilarious talk show clips on YouTube (something I really grew into and love to this day because they NEVER fail to make me laugh). Forgetting everything in the world even for just a mere few minutes while feeling pure joy in what you’re doing, is so healthy and is so needed. Because we’re human. Finding out the simple things that make you happy even in the darkest of times will equip you with ways to cope. This will change over time, so again, be open minded.

 

As I was editing this old written piece, I realized that there is so much more that I could add now that I’m actually done my undergraduate degree. But I will leave it be. Note: I’m not turning this blog into one about school, but I did just finish a degree and will continue on both as a “life-long learner” and hopefully a Master’s degree student. So the next post to come out of my vault will be: Undergraduate Studying Hacks.

Thanks for perusing this post. I invite you to share your thoughts and comments below whether you’ve long graduated or you’re still in school.

*If you’re concerned about how this reflects on your grades specifically for grad school applications, look ahead into graduate program prerequisite criteria. Some programs and schools allow you to report your highest grade if you have repeated a course. Not all schools do though. Moreover, I know a couple of friends wanting to apply to medical school or other professional programs, and they’re retaking 100-level courses to make upgrades to their GPAs. I think it’s rather respectable and inspiring that someone is willing to go through the trenches again to improve themselves and push towards a goal, especially if they have to retake a brutal course. Again, keep an open mind. You may surprise yourself with what new things you learn because when you previously took the class you didn’t have the time to actually learn everything or you just never paid attention to those details. (True story, it happened to me and I got so much more out of the courses I retook.)

An Injured Athlete’s Mindset: A Bipolar Beauty and Beast

Photo by Andrew Mason obtained from Wikimedia Commons

“When we define ourselves by what we do and what we accomplish, we set ourselves up for a difficult moment when we can no longer do and accomplish what we used to.” – Jason Dorland

Take out 15-20 hrs of training/week. Turn down 2 coaches for lifting and running. Scratch the 1 race that I’ve been dreaming of for 8 months. Take away running, riding, lifting. And swimming, which my shoulders haven’t earned back yet. All of which have been taken away from me, completely out of my control. So after deducting all of that, what do you get? An athlete that’s been called to pursue other things but one that will always chase after the dream. That sounds pretty optimistic, right? Well, it took me almost 2 months to get to this place of mind.

I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t miss running every day. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t itch to run and hear nothing but my breathing and footsteps. When I’m walking home without heavy bags on my back and in my hands, and the air is warm and welcoming to my skin, I reminisce how this, this is the perfect summer weather that I’ve always run in. When it’s raining and kind of humid, or when it’s 9pm and actually perfect for a run- I remember when those would be the exact times and conditions where I’d be running. Even when it’s been rainy, I reminisce the wet slogs out there. And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t miss it.

Being injured sucks. It’s simple as that. Always has, always will. I’ve come to realize that this summer, is my summer of injury. It hasn’t been easy but I’ve realized the curse that comes with being a driven athlete. Through my story so far, I might be able to share some things to help give insight to those that know, treat and are the injured athletes.

MY STORY
My timeline begins from the fall of 2014. I had just finished my first sprint triathlon in early September. Things weren’t perfect heading into the race, as I spent most of my training in the pool and bike. I wished that I had done more brick workouts, and especially spent more time honing my running speed. School and work limited my training, so that was that. But worst of all, I came back from a family road trip and had this weird pain in my right shoulder in extension and external rotation. I got treatment for what I could, with a week or so left, was all taped up and didn’t feel the pain when I swam on race day. So that was all good besides maybe some nutrition issues that led me to wanting to puke my guts out right after I got out of the lake, and it didn’t stop until an hour after the race. My next goal was just to get healthy again, as I discovered that I had dynamic instability in both my shoulders, but worse in my right. From there, I looked to try to figure out what was the next race that I could do. I was hungry to return to focusing on running since I hadn’t gotten in much running in the summer, so I looked to Squamish 23K at the end of August 2015. It was a perfect challenge and I was excited.

Fall and spring semesters were incredibly heavy and I knew I wouldn’t truly be training for Squamish until spring exams were done. I only had time and energy to hit the gym, so that’s what I did, 2-3 times a week in both semesters. And I also began to work on improving my olympic lifts, getting help from a coach. I’ve always loved lifting weights, but I’ve always done it for the purpose of performances external to the gym. Everything I’ve done in the gym has always been geared towards becoming a better, stronger and faster runner. For the most part, I never lift or do core work just to do it. It’s always been done for the purpose of becoming a better athlete in my sport. So even though I could only hit the gym, I still had one goal in mind: feeling strong while racing Squamish 23K.

In the spring, even though I did revel in the fact that my shoulder stability was increasing and lifting PRs came steadily, what motivated me all the time, even during my studying, was my dream of being free in the summer and running. I dreamed of runs feeling easy, rhythmic and smooth. I dreamed and craved of ripping off 400m repeats and cranking out mile repeats. I dreamed of slogging on double days and getting winded from a hard long run. That’s what kept me motivated through assignments and exams. I was dreaming and waiting to feel like a runner again. And I waited for 8 months.

I thought this random foot pain, that I experienced when I started to run again, was a simple fix, like the other times I randomly had a localized niggle in my foot. I thought it’d be a done deal within a treatment, just like the other times. It appeared to be a more complicated issue, stemming from studying and writing papers for a couple of weeks without a physio appointment. I was all twisted, my left glute wasn’t firing as well as it needed to be, and it seemed like a simple loading issue that caused my foot pain. Unfortunately, as the pain subsided and problems were fixed, my walk runs still brought on burning fatigue in my left arch. And hearing about the permanent laxity or instability in my left hindfoot left me in despair and confusion. (I have a blog post in my drafts vault that addresses this in greater detail in relation to footwear and how I may have to retract my mission to transition into minimalism.)

Nearly a month ago, I left a free and very brief injury assessment with a pedorthist at a complete loss. So much so that I went crying straight to my coach. (Not actually crying, but theoretically, pretty much.) This sudden pitfall left me to face my demons again. The same ones that tormented me in my grade 12 year of track when I struggled with a mysterious posterior knee issue for 6 months -until it turned into a full blown grade 2+ hamstring strain. 3 days before city finals.

Adding insult to injury (well, injury to injury), out of the blue, I flared up my ulnar nerve pretty bad from a harmless, routine workout at the gym. It was the worst flare up since my initial nerve entrapment 2 summers ago. This put riding on my road bike to work out of the question.

In this spiral of troubles, I learned that there are two faces in every injured athlete.

Note: Of course, I’m making sweeping generalizations about all athletes. But from my former track teammates that are still varsity athletes or former varsity athletes, I’ve seen this in them as well and I’ve discussed it with a couple of friends also currently injured.

THE BEAUTY
The injured athlete is a beauty that practitioners love. He or she will follow your instructions and do your prescribed exercises and stretches. We tell ourselves that if this is what we need to do to get ourselves back to doing what we crave and love, then we will do every single rep that you tell us to do. We will face the monotony that is rehab, but we will always get the work done.

I ask myself, “How bad do you want it?” And I’ll grab my theraband or what have you, and I will make sure that I don’t miss a day of rehab. Because each day is a day to get myself that much closer to running again. If you love your sport enough, you’ll be alone pool running in the dive tank or at the public pool with kids splashing and seniors swimming. (Interestingly enough, I’ve been accompanied by several injured track athletes in the pool this semester.) Every day is a chance for a comeback to erase the misgivings about your body.

The beauty tries to stay truthful, patient and optimistic. And tells him or herself that, they’re getting stronger each week and will soon return better than ever.

THE BEAST
Once an athlete realizes that he or she is out for more than 1-2 weeks, it’s a depressing blow to take. It requires time to digest and accept. I’m sure I could list out distinct phases, but the beginning will always be slight denial where you’ll come up with an arbitrary number of days or weeks that it’ll take before you’re back in your sport. The imaginary number comforts you. When things aren’t progressing as you wish they did, then things start to get iffy. It’s a dark cloud each day when you are constantly reminded by your body that you’re not healthy yet. The beast easily gets jealous as others are carefree and able to be active. The beast loathes that his or her body keeps failing.

Once time stretches even further and the injury is so complicated that it can’t really be defined into a number before you’re back, questions start. Questions appear to determine what you could’ve done to prevent this. Questions appear to determine why this happened. Questions appear to determine whether your body was meant for this sport or not. Questions appear to determine if this fight and push to return ASAP is even worth it anymore. It gets tiring each day to be so optimistic and to be checking your progress, only to be let down every time. Questions appear to determine if you should just -let go.

WHAT IT’S BEEN LIKE
Since it’s summer and I’m not in a full load of courses, I definitely have more time on my hands. So I notice that I actually have free time, which was supposed to be filled up by running. It wasn’t supposed to feel this way, because I was expecting time to become relevant to running, like back in highschool and in my first year of university on the track team. Each day would be dictated by running: easy day and strength, intervals or hills day, long run day or recovery day. How I ate, what I ate and when I ate would be dependent on each day of training and each workout. Take out that training and routine… and everything comes to a standstill. The strict routines and dependency on running becomes murky. Things that were so concrete and defined by running now weren’t.

In Chariots and Horses, Jason Dorland writes, “I was once part of a group of individuals that could do things that only a minute percentage of the world’s population could. Now, I’m just an average person with an average life.” This might be a pompous statement, but as a competitive athlete, you can’t help but have that mindset sometimes when your sport is taken away from you. When I first came to face this truth that I was struggling with… I realized that I felt unfulfilled. Days felt empty. I probably didn’t even feel truly happy. Most of the time, I felt mediocre that my summer didn’t start off like I had dreamed of. When I came to really evaluate when I could be running again and actually training for Squamish, I had to be mature and think. And I realized that, Squamish demanded too much and even if I lacked in aerobic capacity by race day, odds were, my foot would likely not be conditioned for 4+ hours on the trails. So, through a rough process of letting go and a change of heart… I made progress in a different way.

WHERE I’M HEADED
Abbey D’agostino, one of my role models, said in her Flotrack interview, “[when you’re injured] you really learn what your motivation is when you’re like, sucking it up by yourself in the pool… if your running is all have you and it’s not going well, it’s going to be so much harder to recover and come back stronger.” I first had to keep telling my running coach that I wouldn’t be able to join him yet. And I had to keep pushing back my imaginary return date. Then I had to turn down my lifting coach for the summer. Then I ultimately had to tell the race director that I could no longer race. Finally, I had to see what I have beyond running.

It wasn’t easy, but it’s taken tremendous pressure off me, not having to rush my return to training. In the last month, I’ve made substantial strength gains in my feet as I’ve been doing my strength work on both feet. It’s taken weeks of consistency and drive to embrace the monotony and lack of excitement to work on foot intrinsics. But I’ve always made sure that I’ve done my rehab, to the point of blistering and burning off skin from my toes when doing barefoot strides on the hot turf in the sun.

Thankfully, things seem to be coming together this week. My ulnar nerve has finally calmed down that I’m quite sure that after yesterday’s acupuncture treatment, I’m good to go. I’ll be quite careful and won’t ride until I have a solid week free of symptoms. Maybe even 2 weeks if I’m paranoid. And, most importantly, I’ll be getting my orthotics on Saturday. If that doesn’t prove to solve my issue… then I’ll have to re-evaluate and start from scratch. But I won’t fret for now until I see what happens.

CLOSING REMARKS
As I was reading another runner’s blog, I suddenly remembered a Dr. Seuss book that my coach gave me at the conclusion of my grade 12 track season, continuing the tradition where the coaches give all captains a gift.

wpid-wp-1435285662077.jpeg One of the things that my coach wrote inside was, “If all else fails, consult the book; it will guide you to happy and healthy.”And in the book, Dr. Seuss says, “Your brain and heart will guide you all that you do.”

I don’t know that I have any answers or great tips to give. But as athletes, we’re a different breed with different demons to deal with. One coworker of mine commented on how she sees this all the time. And people say, “If I can just do another Ironman. Just one more race. Then. I’ll be happy.” It’s that need of achievement to feel fulfilled. But she said if that’s what we think will make us happy, and we can’t make the decision to be happy in this very moment, then there’s something wrong. It’s a mind boggling dilemma. At least for me right now, it’s not even about racing anymore. I just want to be able to go on runs, to feel like a runner again. I love running and my heart says that I’m not ready to give it up.

Just like Abbey D elegantly says, I’m a person of faith. I’m pretty sure that this time of physical misfortunes has meant to be a wake up call and lesson for me. But despite that, I know that the lesson isn’t for me to necessarily give up on my dream of running and tackling 80km+ weeks. I’m just an athlete that’s been called to pursue other things but one that will always chase after the dream. Once a runner, always a runner. #trialsofmilesmilesoftrials