Soul Stories: Teal Burrell

I remember in college watching from my window as Teal ran the perimeter of campus for her marathon training. At the time, I was a half-assed runner and exerciser: which basically means that my friends and I would go on a "run" (more like a jog/struggle) to the Starbucks for a caramel frappuccino. I admired the way that Teal seemed to throw herself into her runs, making it look easy, and giving herself a great break from her studies.

After we graduated I followed her blog, Miles to the Trials, as she pursued her goal of qualifying for the Olympic Trials in marathon running, and I found myself completely immersed in the journey with her. Her writing was so authentic and engaging that I laughed when she laughed, cried when she did.... and I totally witnessed when negative self-talk almost took her out of the game. 

Now, Teal is freelance science writer with a background in neuroscience. She literally writes about research on the body and brain for magazines and websites like Discover and New Scientist for a living. So this girl knows a thing or two about how our brains function and how to strengthen and train them. So she got to work.

I was so impressed and inspired by the turnaround she made and what she was able to accomplish that I knew I wanted her on Soul Stories, and I am so honored that she contributed this raw and real account of her journey.

Teal's favorite quote is: "Far better to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank among those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat." – Theodore Roosevelt

This quote couldn't be more relevant to nearly every area of our lives and to Teal's story. Win or lose, it is in the trying that we find ourselves. 

The Farthest Star

When I was younger, I was really bothered by the motivational quote: “Shoot for the moon, even if you miss you’ll land among the stars.” I didn’t get it; aren’t the stars farther away than the moon? Shouldn’t we be aiming for them? I eventually realized that wasn’t the point— the moon is a smaller target so it’s harder to hit. But even the logical explanation still annoys me, because I believe in aiming as high as possible.

I was reminded of this recently when I read another quote saying that people don’t set high enough expectations; we often underestimate what we’re capable of. We tell ourselves that we can’t make our ultimate dream goal and aim lower; the stars are too far, the moon is good enough.

But if we would believe in ourselves instead, we’d be shocked at what we could accomplish. I proved this to myself through running.

I started running in high school— I wasn’t anything special, a middle-of-the-pack runner in cross country and track. I didn’t pursue it in college; I didn’t think I was good enough. But when I got to college, I missed training and decided to try a marathon. I finished my first in 2005 in 4:07— a respectable time, but nothing spectacular.

After graduation, I set out to qualify for the Boston Marathon, a prestigious race that requires hitting a certain time standard to be allowed to enter. I trained my butt off and surprised myself by qualifying in my very next marathon, knocking forty minutes off my time.

It turned out pursuing that ambitious goal was pretty fun, so in 2009, with three marathons under my belt and a new 3:18 best, I decided to aim to make the Olympic Trials in the marathon. While Boston qualifiers represent approximately the top 10 percent of U.S. marathoners (about 65,000/year), the Olympic Trials invites roughly 200 women and 200 men every four years, again based on hitting a certain time. I had already improved by so much but was still over thirty minutes too slow.

But I decided to try. Over the next few years, I chiseled away at my time, increased my mileage, did tougher workouts, and joined a team where I regularly pulled up the rear. In 2012, I started a blog and named it Miles to the Trials, with the clear goal to make it to the 2016 Trials starting line. Despite steady improvement, the name choice was pretty bold; I was still a ways off and could only run my goal pace for a 5K (3.1 miles); I’d need to sustain the same pace for 26.2.

By the fall of 2014, with roughly one year left in the qualifying window, I was struggling. My last marathon had been a disaster and I was stuck considering that maybe I had been wrong, that I wasn’t capable of the time I needed. That everyone around me was better/faster/more talented and I had reached my limit. In every race, my thoughts spiraled down this same dark path; I wasn’t good enough, I couldn’t do it, and inevitably, I ran poorly. A self-fulfilling prophecy.

I contemplated if it was time to quit this crazy dream. I didn’t actually want to give up, but it was starting to feel futile.

Instead, I decided to self-fulfill a different prophecy; I considered that perhaps all the negativity streaming through my brain was slowing me down, not the other way around. In my next race, a ten miler, I forbid myself from “Negative Self Talk,” and actively tried to repress any thoughts that it was too hard, that I couldn’t do what I set out to do. Instead, I tried to stay positive and focus on something else (my breathing, the person in front of me, repeatedly telling myself I could keep it up).

It wasn’t easy, obviously. We’re programmed to be cautious, rational, to hedge our bets, and save ourselves from disappointment. But over the course of that race I discovered two things:

1. It wasn’t impossible. With effort, I could replace the negative thoughts with something else.

2. It worked. Shockingly well. I had a breakthrough that day, running my fastest ten-mile time ever and finally ending my string of poor performances.

The No Negative Self Talk strategy can apply to anything. Think you deserve a raise? Don’t downplay yourself or even hesitate; ask for it and believe it. Scared to apply for that dream job or grad school? Don’t waste time mulling over how it might not work out; instead, emphasize your credentials and apply anyway. There are some (albeit controversial) studies about how certain body language affects our emotions: if we smile we’ll be happier, if we adopt a power pose we’ll appear more confident. But I think the key is really our brains; if we don’t believe we’re capable of something, we certainly won’t be. But if we do believe it…  

Two months later, armed with my new strategy, I ran a full marathon with the goal of achieving the Trials standard. To others, it was overly ambitious and a little nuts— teammates following my splits online asked each other what the heck I was doing, surely I started too fast and would drastically fall apart. Just a few months prior, I could only run half the distance at the pace I needed to maintain for 26 miles. But I ignored that logic. I knew the workouts I had done and that I was ready. And most importantly, I knew if I believed I could, that I would.

And I did. In a fit of happy tears I crossed the line in 2:42, nearly an hour and a half faster than my first attempt, and qualified for the 2016 Olympic Trials.

It was a goal that seemed unachievable to many; I had already run so many marathons, surely I was nearing a ceiling. I wasn’t that fast in high school, in college, even after college. How could I turn into someone going to the Olympic Trials?  I could have been satisfied with finishing a marathon, or qualifying for Boston, or any other worthy goal along the way. I could have said 4 hours is good enough and there’s no way I could run that far in less than 3. But that would have been underestimating what I was capable of. I often hear from other runners that they wish they could run a marathon/qualify for Boston/achieve a new best time, but they shake their heads and say they can’t. It breaks my heart; because they think that, they don’t try. And so the prophecy self fulfills.  

What could you accomplish if you believed you could? What would you attempt if you knew you couldn’t fail? Why not attempt it anyway? Too often in our careers/hobbies/life, we set these artificial limits on our capabilities, based on nothing but that doubting, overly-cautious voice. If we take those limits seriously, we’ll never reach our potential. Sometimes, yes, we might come up short. But we still achieve so much more just by trying.

So aim for the farthest star you can find, and see where you land.