South’s Tribune

Joey Pauletto, guest columnist

When I first started running cross country, everything was easy.

Throughout my Springman career, natural ability was all I needed to be successful. My training volume was miniscule, leaving me undisciplined and cushioned by the implications of my early success. I became one of the best runners on my team without doing much work and went into high school thinking I would have a similar experience.

I arrived to my first summer practice ready to show off what kind of runner I thought I was, assuming it would be just as easy. Then, Coach Hasenstein’s ear-piercing whistle hit me like a truck, as I was informed that we were going to start our warm up MILE.

One whole mile? For the warm up? Any assumptions I had about the upcoming season, along with a sliver of my confidence, flew out the window as I tried to keep up with the older athletes. The prospects of my future in athletics suddenly seemed intimidating, but in a way this moment was formative: it was the first time I felt truly challenged. From then on, I viewed cross country as a test of my physical and psychological effort rather than just a fun after-school activity.

Once the season started, Coach Hilvert gave us freshmen a lecture that epitomized what it means to be a cross country runner. He explained the concept of Mr. Pain: the metaphorical force that hops on your back in the most dire moments of a race. He told us that all the training we were going to do for the next three years would be in preparation for that one fleeting moment when you honestly believe you can’t do it anymore.

The idea of Mr. Pain became more personal for me as my cross country career progressed. The summer before junior season, I suffered from a nagging leg injury that interfered with weeks of training. This caused me to fall behind my teammates and, compounded with the pressure of school, began to take a toll on me mentally. I started to struggle during races, and eventually gave into the idea that I would never be the runner I once was, a mindset that hindered my ability to progress and combat Mr. Pain. This was heartbreaking, as I watched my teammates achieve so many amazing things from the sidelines; I was obviously thrilled and showed as much support as I could, but I wanted to be right there with them instead of an insignificant bystander.

By the time senior year came around, I realized that I was running out of time. My injury never fully healed and began to intensify during summer training, leaving me unsatisfied with my fitness level. However, the urgency around upcoming meets motivated me to do whatever I could to maintain a stable self image, allowing me to persevere when it mattered most. Initially, the results were not ideal but, with the help of my teammates and coaches, I was able to continue to train. This support system is what allowed me to break through my mental barriers, as I finally raced the way I knew I could, recording a personal best on the state course.

After that formidable race, such profound emotional stress was taken off my back. I can’t say that I don’t struggle mentally anymore, but I know I can better handle the wrath of Mr. Pain, as I feel a sense of strength that I haven’t experienced since those early, simpler years of middle school cross country. Although, there is one major difference now.

Everything is really, really difficult, and that’s the way it should be.