• Michelle Howell

Running in Circles professionally

When people ask me what I do for a living I get a range of looks from wide eyed enamor to confusion or perhaps a bit of pity. The later of which typically stems from the misconception that running is in fact a sport participated in outside of the Olympics, shocker I know. While not the most popular or stable career choice running professionally does in fact exist to those talented or perhaps crazy enough to pursue it.

Typically the next question I get after stating I run around in circles as a career is "what does that mean?" Well, friends today I'm diving into what it means exactly to be a professional track athlete and how I got to this point.

Like any other athlete there has always been that thought or far stretched dream in the back of my head of wanting to compete in my sport professionally. Growing up, I'd often be told like any other young runner that I should go to the Olympics, words that were sweet, but never realistic sentiments to me. I've sadly always been a realistic optimist, and even at a young age I knew that the reality was that running is hard. Making an Olympic team is hard, hell even making it the the trials is difficult. Making it onto a college team isn't easy either. Most certainly running professionally is even harder still and for little Michelle all I had my eyes set on was competing at the college level. The goal throughout high school was to graduate and gain a full scholarship to run at preferably a Division I school. For most of my life that had been the goal and as anyone knows who's reached a goal, the question of what's next comes to mind. Naturally the progression following college would be to attempt a pro career, but for me I spent my first few years of college much smaller aspirations, giving much less, if any thought to the pro running game.

Giving up a 9-5 (with benefits)

Part of the lack of thought spurred from the reality I had already known; running is hard. It's a demanding lifestyle which I think is beautifully captured by the Tracktown film, particularity the loneliness and isolation that can arise from living the lifestyle that lends itself to being successful on the track.

While the film portrays these aspects it leaves out a good portion of the other realities many would be runners face. The dilemma of giving up starting a professional career, the fear of falling behind peers, the potential lack of financial stability, the inability to start a family for some (the real dawning realization that if that could even be possible after the tolls taken on ones body), the difficulty of finding sponsorship, the lack of a 9-5 job with benefits, and a lifestyle that often means being selfish, sometimes lonely and compared to others limiting. We're all led to believe that the end goal of college is to land a job, preferably one that's going to improve our current circumstances and maybe even one that we actually enjoy doing. More often then not, pursuing running limits your ability to use your degree thus limiting the kind of paycheck that say an MBA holder should be able to garner.

As I would come to learn this mere fact, the fact that there is not much money in professional running, especially without a big name sponsor, is a barrier and deterrent for many would be pros coming out of college. Why would you give up what you've worked for for the last four years for a career that will most likely set you in the poverty level income bracket? Scarier yet a career with no sure outcomes, guarantees, or longevity?

Taking the Risk

The answer is passion, For some is competitiveness, for others its lack of knowing what you want to do. For me it was a combination of a few and the growing realization that maybe I had a longer career path then just college.

The decision started to form in the summer of 2017 after being boot bound due to a stress fracture that cut my break through season short. I had qualified for my first NCAA's and PRed by over three seconds. Being unable to run I realized how much I not only missed competing, but how much I felt I still could, and in some ways needed to accomplish in my event. I knew that even with one more year of eligibility left there was more I wanted to accomplish than the time allowed on my ticking NCAA clock. I also knew that in order to hit the times I wanted that training at a higher level was necessary and devoting more time to training was crucial, my collegiate coach agreed.

He too had spent a year after his own collegiate career "living the life of a poor athlete" as he put it before finding his way into the coaching arena. He warned me of the "sacrifices" I had already realized, before ensuring me that if anyone could do it I could. Knowing what I wanted to do, I spent my final year balancing a full training load, MBA classes, an internship and researching opportunities to run post collegiality. While my peers were lining up job interviews and updating their linkedin's, I was focused on staying healthy through my training and networking with coaches.

Luckily, it didn't take me long to find a group to train with. By April I had two clubs interested in having me join after my time with JU was up. In the end The District was the perfect fit; a smaller training group focused on middle distance located within a city with connections to coaching opportunities and benefits. I figured that even if the whole running thing didn't work that with the opportunity to coach and the job market associated with a larger city I wouldn't be far off from assuming the typical career path most post collegians make.

The reality of it

As it turns out, most of what I had worried about when it came to running professionally was true. I don't make nearly as much money as most of my peers in my graduating class.When meeting people I was reluctant to tell people what I do for a living, I'd tell them about my coaching, but often leave out the bit about running being my real career. This stemmed from my own perception and worry of how people would judge my choice to run for a living verses actually putting my college degree to use. By at least saying I was coaching, I thought I sounded a bit more like I had my life together. Obviously this line of thinking was complete bull sh** on my part, because in reality I have the coolest job(s) in the world. I don't work a 9-5 job or have any idea of what my career projection outside of running is. I don't make nearly as much as I could be, but I get by just fine. I do have a career that I love, support from my family, friends, and my new teammates at The District who reassure me that all my worry is normal, we're all in the same boat, poor athletes who keeping showing up.

I'm thankful for my situation and the support I have, knowing that while track and field which I love for it's transparency (there are no ties, there are no hypothetical, you've either run faster than that other person or you haven't) is not so transparent within the professional world. To assume someone who is faster than you will receive more sponsorship, more offers or more opportunities to join a team is far from the reality of it. It's about who you know, how marketable you are, how well you may mesh with a team and their market, and a plethora of other things completely unrelated to the times you've set or the marks you've hit.

Living the life

Over time as I've settled into the swing of things (not worrying about my atypical career choice and comparing myself to others) I've become more and more comfortable telling people that my career is running in circles. My typical weeks involves roughly 50 miles of running (some more, some less), 3-5 hours of swimming, too much time on the stationary bike these days, and a consistent bed time of 9:00 pm. During the week when I'm not training I'm taking care of my body in order to ensure I can keep performing at an optimal level. Self care for me means scheduling a massage session, keeping up with the chiropractor for adjustments, and getting in some quality time with everybody's best friend, the foam roller. I don't stay out late and my idea of a good day involves a solid morning workout, brunch; preferably one filled with pancakes with fruit and ample amounts of espresso, some cross training, and an early bedtime.

As wild as it may sound, running doesn't pay the bills, yet, but I'm not that upset about it (anymore). The first time I raced I was upset about it and overly stressed by the fact that if I didn't place to secure prize money I was failing myself, my partner, and everyone else that's supported me. At the end of the race I felt worthless for not winning a prize purse and this out-shadowed the fact that during the race I'd basically been on track to PR I'm a cross country coach at a high school where I get to share my passion for the sport with people just starting out in it. On the weekends I work part time at a company whose mission is do promote #doingthings and has hours that compliment my sometimes busy training schedule. I take naps (when the opportunity strikes) and am training at a higher level then I ever had in college. I'm more confident in my abilities as the days pass and therefore confident in my decision pursue this dream. I'm not living the life that most people strive for, unless being a 24 year old grandma is your idea of fun, but I'm living it.

As track season approaches I'm excited to continue to share this journey with you all. See you on the track January 19th

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