The astronaut’s guide to a tough race on earth

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Al Bean was history’s ultimate anti-climax. An Apollo astronaut, Bean became the fourth man to walk on the moon as the lunar module pilot of Apollo 12. If you’ve never heard of him before, count yourself in good company; his just-shy-of-the-podium moonwalk didn’t quite sear itself into the pop cultural psyche the way Neil Armstrong’s one small step did.

The 24 astronauts who flew to the moon as part of the Apollo program are truly fascinating people. They left this earth as adrenaline-junkie test pilots, and returned philosophers. Their experience, gazing back upon earth from the heavens, was transcendent, throwing into relief both the fragility of our world, and the trivial nature of our terrestrial struggles below. But while astronauts like Michael Collins or Buzz Aldrin waxed poetic about this epiphany, Al Bean tended to speak a little more plainly.

One particular observation of Bean’s has been rattling around in my mind in the wake of Saturday’s Canadian Cross-Country Championships:

“The great thing about the universe is that it’s fair.”

I have tried, with varying degrees of success, to remember these words when things get tough. Our lives, no matter how lucky we are, will be filled with setbacks. No matter how loved we are, we will inevitably experience loss. None of us is immune to pain and disappointment. And for me this Saturday, pain and disappointment was the order of the day.

The senior women’s field at the Athletics Canada Cross-Country Championships (ACXC) this year was a force to be reckoned with. Going in, I had no illusions about running some breakthrough race, or earning any noteworthy placing. The depth of talent was formidable, and I’d be lucky if I could hold my own in the field at all.

A considerably larger field than the Ontario Championships, ACXC gave me more girls my own pace to work with. I went out right in the heart of the pack, pushing myself, but feeling strong.

That didn’t last long.

About three kilometers into the race, the wheels came off. Not long after, on a muddy hairpin turn, one of my spikes did too. (I was cursing New Balance’s name, but as I learned from one of the girls afterwards, I hadn’t tied them properly – a rookie mistake.) I spent the latter half of the race just praying I didn’t get lapped. I didn’t feel like a fighter; I felt defeated.

The thing is, I wasn’t.

I looked at the results afterwards: I’d been running about the time I had expected. And the handful of girls I’d somehow managed to outrun were no slouches, either – Mary Unsworth, a former Harvard collegiate runner and all-around badass, caught me in an all-out sprint for the finish, and I’m pretty sure the 0.1 second difference in our official times was decided by a nose. Unsworth is a phenomenal runner and fierce competitor; it took everything I had to keep pace with her at all.

It’s not my result at ACXC that disappointed me – it’s the way I felt in the race. I couldn’t push my body the way I did in my fall road races. It felt like the engine just wasn’t running quite right – a nutritional issue that’s making itself increasingly clear. But more than that, I felt so discouraged, so spiritually depleted out there on that course.

The thing is, the universe is fair.

I ran with a lot of incredibly talented, hard-working athletes on Saturday. These girls take their running seriously. They trained hard. They fueled properly. They came prepared. And at ACXC, the ones who beat me did so because they deserved to beat me, because they were better athletes on the day. That’s fair.

I was lucky enough to run two incredible breakthroughs on the road this fall. That moment when I found my dad in my post-marathon delirium and got to tell him my finishing time was, far and away, the best moment of my life. Not every race can be like that.

It’s never easy to come up against your own limitations. But if you want to grow as an athlete, it’s part of the process. If the goal of my 2015 cross season was to gain experience, then I can safely say that the goal was accomplished. Sure, it’s left me with a bit of a bruised ego, but that was bound to happen. Some races galvanize you. Some races inspire you. Others just humble you.

And that’s okay. The great thing about the universe, is that it’s fair.

Chase big dreams.

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