There was always an expectation to be “great”. It has been lingering in my mind ever since I began playing competitive sports, especially when I started to run track in 8th grade. I was pulled up to the varsity track team and I could hear whispers that I could be the next best thing, almost like a news advertisement, that I, Dylan Welch, was moving up in life, onto breaking records and reaching the top of the pecking order. I felt exhilarated and ecstatic to hear those words echo in my ears and vibrate into the future. Oh, how it would feel to have the opportunity to reach my potential, arriving at the center of everything, the prize that I had finally earned through grit, mental toughness, and passion!
All I needed to do was pair hard work with a disciplined attitude for five more years, the whole of my high school career. All of it would work out and I would receive the full scholarship to a division one school and go on further to break college records and then professional etc. The list rolled on in my head, hearing these words about being “great”. But in hearing these words now, I question myself about my own ambitions.
Did I ever arrive? Was this concept of greatness just a cheap scheme to keep me motivated? As I think back on my relationship with running as a younger athlete, I had a rigid mindset that focused on achievement, reward, and the rush to escape myself through my accomplishments. The more I improved, the better I felt. This feeling, I held like a jewel, which only turned into dust, reminding me of three lines from an Emily Dickinson poem, “I held a Jewel in my fingers”:
The Gem was gone
And now, an Amethyst remembrance
Is all I own
All throughout my high school career, I held onto an “amethyst remembrance,” a rush of dopamine, that kept me focusing on recapturing this feeling every practice and every meet I competed in. To say that I felt on top of the world would be correct, but at the same time, I didn’t realize that this identity wasn’t stable. This identity suppressed my imperfections, and demanded that I hang from the side of a pedestal, wishing to reach the top. However, I needed a space where I could empty myself of the desire to be “great,” and rid myself of external pressures and expectations. A space where I could be told that my self-worth came not from others, but from a faith within myself that said “I am enough”.
But where was this space? I couldn’t find it on the oval track, but maybe it was in the shot put arena, or the grass field behind the leachers. Perhaps it was underground, at the bottom of the high school in the weightroom near the wrestling mats. Regardless of where this space was, I couldn’t find it, because I wasn’t sure that it even existed. I would say that it wasn’t until I arrived at Bowdoin College that I began to develop a sense of this space, where I could climb down the pedestal and be grounded in myself and who I wanted to be.
Dropped like a pin in a small town in Maine, I had no choice but to gain a better sense of who I was, not just an athlete and a student, but as an individual navigating the world. I could remember in my first two years at Bowdoin holding onto a naive high school mindset of trying to better myself each practice and scolding myself if I didn’t reach the goals I had set out for that season. And that remembrance of victory would trickle back into my mind and the feeling that came with it, almost like a drug that lasted for an hour. Then junior year came around, COVID began to spread, and I felt a pop in my groin. Surely, it was nothing, just a strain, and I kept running. No, not a strain, but a small tear, which then became a two year long injury that still lingers on today.
They say that injury changes perspective. They’re damn right about it, almost too right because with my groin injury, came a total restructuring of who I understood myself to be. Running didn’t mean the world to me anymore. I didn’t care about improving my times, because running no longer took over my everyday life. The empty spot during the afternoons when I would go for a run provided a way into myself, while simultaneously giving me a space to grieve how I treated myself during my high school years. It made me realize that I wanted to be more than a runner, more than the freshman track star whose times garnered popularity and status amongst upperclassmen. I too had interests and undiscovered passions that needed sustenance and growth, that all too often were disregarded because of a constant pressure to be something that I was not. I did not want my accomplishments to define me. I wanted to define my own life.
It began with taking a serious interest in reading and writing poetry. I scrambled to take every literature and poetry class I could before I graduated. I began writing and editing my poems, obtaining a TA position for a poetry workshop, and even getting a job as barista at the local cafe down the street. Running had gone out the door, because of injury, but this vacuum, this emptiness revealed a source of freedom. I didn’t have to run for someone. Who I was, was right there, standing on two feet, no longer having to run from myself. I had arrived back to myself, and what came to be was a healthier, sustainable relationship with running and who I wanted to be as an individual. I ran to be myself, not for the next race where I had to improve. I ran because it gave me a sense of relief from the outside world, an escape from the pressures of reality that all too often say that you need to be someone. When I ran this time, I wasn’t reaching for greatness, because all around me, the world was already great, beautiful, and calm—and I was just a body releasing myself to the air.
Now that I reflect back on my journey as a runner and even as a writer, I have to remember to focus on what I want rather than what someone wants for me. Praise and the rewards that come with it almost always feels tempting to hold onto forever. It may provide a source of external motivation from coaches, teachers, or even classmates and athletes, but outside praise can also be damaging if it is the only thing you rely on to drive you to your goals. I have learned that I need to accept the praise I am given, and move on, because the praise that really counts is the one that seeks to celebrate myself without the approval of others. This is the praise that provides me with a source of faith to keep running down the path I choose to take.
Dylan Welch is a poet and graduate student at Brown University. He received his undergraduate degree in English at Bowdoin College and served as the captain of the track team in his junior and senior year. He attended North Shore High School and ran middle distance for the varsity track and field team. He holds six school records and was captain of the track team in his junior and senior year.
He is currently pursuing his Master of Arts in Teaching English. Eventually, he wants to become a high school English teacher in Maine. Dylan is training for his first 5k since 2019 and writes poetry criticism for online literary magazines and one day wishes to publish his own chapbook of poems. Also, he loves cooking and watching movies. His favorite movie is Godfather Part 2.