Hollow silver

Sports Sports | Lifestyle

My underlying guilt of running in Nationals

A few days after I ran the best race of my life, I placed my head against the steering wheel of my car. Droplets of tears fell onto the leather interior.

I wondered when, or if, the pain would go away.

I had just competed in the B.C. Cross Country Championships where I met all the goals I had laid out for myself in the heat of early August. Make Team B.C.: Check. Make the UVic Vikes varsity U Sports team: Check. Make my coaches and teammates proud of my running: Check.

But despite all the compliments and all the response to how well I ran, I felt empty. It felt nothing like I thought it would back in the dog days of summer when I was awaiting cross country season. I had become numb to everything, a lot like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz — a man missing a heart.

Author Josh Kozelj, pictured above, writes about the difficult experience of juggling varsity athletics with personal adversity. Photos provided by Josh Kozelj

It had been a tumultuous time for me, personally, before this big race.

A few weeks prior to the race, I learned about the death of a high school friend. The B.C. Cross Country Championships was my first race after hearing that news. To make matters more traumatic, the race was in Abbotsford, B.C., on the same course he and I ran on together in high school cross country.

Using a black sharpie, I wrote his initials into the back of my cross country spikes and ran the course thinking of him.

Just a few days after that race, I found out my mother’s ongoing battle with anxiety had taken a turn for the worse.

She has been very open about her struggles with panic attacks, and to hear from my sister back home that the stress had squeezed the life out of my mother’s normal cheery self was immensely hard to hear. Hearing that she was confined to the couch, taking time off work, without the energy to be her normal self left me crippled.

It’s a feeling that is hard to explain: helplessness.

I wanted to help. I wanted to be there. I wanted so many things to go different ways. I felt a twinge of guilt for not being there for my friend and my mother.

I couldn’t help but feel like I was the source of the problem. I was off having great success in my career as a runner, and I had just got the job as staff writer here for the Martlet. Meanwhile, people who I care about deeply were struggling. This feeling of guilt was overwhelming.

Now, the goal of this piece isn’t for you, the reader, to feel bad for me. There are so many people that deal with loss and stress who attempt to cope with these factors while away at university.

I want to highlight the mental toughness of all those people who, in the midst of studying for exams and seeking employment to pay for school, rent, and living expenses, are battling personal issues.

You people are the real heroes, the ones who should be standing on top of that podium at Nationals — receiving the medal and the recognition.

It’s one thing to honour athletes that perform well in their respective sports, but it’s another thing to give those people who simply struggle to get out of bed in the morning the recognition they deserve.

A week after running in Provincials, I stood on the start line in Beacon Hill Park and looked at the familiar faces waiting to cheer me and my fellow Vikes on our home course at Cross Country Nationals. I looked to my white Nikes tip-toeing the starting line. I looked up to the sky, rain spitting down on me and the best university runners in the country, and thought how far I have come to be here at this moment.

For me, running at Nationals was an experience I will never forget. I’m forever grateful for my coaches, who guide me through the ups and downs of running, and for my teammates, who push me every day to be a better athlete.

I wish I could cut up the B.C. silver medal and Canada West Conference All Star certificate I received from those two races into pieces. To give to my friend, my mother, my coaches, and teammates.

They are the ones who deserve the recognition for my success.