Often times, the competitive world of running pays tribute to champions following an untimely death.
From Steve Prefontaine to Ryan Shay, the distance running community has a tendency to highlight, acknowledge, and glorify the lives of those who promoted an admirable character and who also held an incredibly promising career. The media and the fan base remember these past legends not as much for the way they died but for how they courageously lived. But what ever happened to recognizing the current Olympic hopefuls who continually motivate us as they climb their way to the top?
James Carney, an elite distance runner, is one of these champions who should inspire us by the way he lives everyday, stopping at nothing to get what he wants most.
In a country idealized for the American Dream, where everyone has the opportunity to achieve goals on a foundation of hard work and determination alone, the truth of the matter is, it’s a very small percentage of Americans who actually do pursue their passions.
Most people are more willing to re-define what they want versus spending the time to turn their dream into reality.
Now imagine that your dream is to represent your country, to break a former record, set a new one, be immortalized essentially, and to compete with everything inside of you, channelling it all into one performance on one day, moving 3.8 billion viewers watching the largest media events televised: The Olympic Games.
“Must be nice to be genetically, biomechanically, and physiologically gifted enough to go after such a nice dream.” “Must be nice to just do what you love everyday, twice a day, and get paid to do only that.” “Must be nice to be given the opportunity to take what you love to the highest level”.
These are the popular misconceptions of the lifestyle of the “sponsored athlete”. Right now, the distance running field is more competitive than it has ever been, and most of the elites will report that it has nothing to do with genetics.
Many of them come from families who’ve never run a day in their life, who need orthotics to correct their gait, who deal with frequent injuries due to poor biomechanics and have to dish out loads of money to massage therapists, chiros etc. to keep all body parts in place, and who have to fight everyday to get recognized by sponsors or race directors unless they were an NCAA champion coming out of the womb.
It has to do with hard work ethic and wanting something bad enough. NFL head coach Tony Dungy said it best when he remarked, “the truth is most people have a better chance to be uncommon by effort than by natural gifts," moments before his Indianapolis Colts would go on to defeat the Chicago Bears in a glorious Super Bowl victory. When the sport in focus is elite distance running, “living the dream” and taking the road to becoming a champion is not as glamorous as it sounds.
Most of the runners, race "wild card" Carney included, will tell you that they live a very boring, mundane existence, void of late nights, partying, and an extensive dating life. Wake up early. Train. Eat. Nap. Rest. Train again. Spend time staying informed and tuned into your sport or upcoming competition. Sit in fifty-degree ice bath. Body shots of liquid iron and vitamin C. Hydrate again. Sleep eight to 10 hours for the next day’s training, to prevent future injury or body fatigue.
And then they do it again. And the day after that? You guessed it. Same regiment, same discipline, again and again; putting in leg mileage anywhere from 90-130 miles a week, which is more than some people put on their car in a month. Still sound fun? But these runners wouldn't have it any other way.
The cost of chasing dreams you ask? Leaving girlfriends/boyfriends, best friends, and family behind in order to travel to wherever a coach decides is best to train or whenever a training group loses funding and has to relocate. Living with people who you may or may not have ever met before that you may or may not get along with. Switching coaches you may have gotten used to when coaches decide they want to do something different, change professions, or switch athletes.
Discipline doesn't end when the workout does. Carney is currently training hard at over 6,000 feet in Boulder, Colorado everyday to prepare for the 10,000m Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon on July 4, 2008. A fraction of a second between third and fourth place at a race can mean the difference of a couple thousand dollars in your pocket to get you through the next couple months, can mean the difference between whether race directors will reimburse you the cost of travel/ room and board.
To have the best chance at taking the gold home from a championship race, you can’t fence sit or be pursuing other careers on the side, “just in case this running thing doesn’t work out”.
The opportunity cost of forging lifelong relationships/friendships with non-runners, utilizing a bachelor’s or master’s degree to be earning a higher monthly paycheck, are all borne. Dream chasing involves sacrificing all the other things you might want in life or skill areas you might be good at, to get the one thing you want most.
There’s no guarantee that you’ll be sponsored “x” amount of dollars per year just because you ran “x” time or because you won a certain race. There are no guarantees on your physical health or your ability to consistently compete, no guarantee from your coaches, your training partners, your sponsors, or your team. The only guarantee is that you need to run “x” time in order to compete at the Olympic trials in order to have a shot at Beijing in 2008. For the Olympic 10,000m, that "A"(automatic) qualifying standard is 28:15.
While many have heard of the Torres brothers, Meb, Abdi, Khalid, Hall, and Ritz, because their names have been prominent in the media since their high school years, James Carney for a long time, and to an extent still is, a name considerably less recognized even after his 27:43 10k performance in 2007, only two seconds behind Meb's phenomenal 27:41. While Carney has opened 2008 by claiming a US title at the Houston half-marathon championships in January and by securing a spot on the US World Cross Country team at the National Cross Country Championships last weekend, he’s overcome a lot to reach this high level of performance.
The Millersville University graduate serves as a hero to small school, NCAA Division II runners everywhere, as James is living proof that it didn’t matter whether he was a running stud coming out of high school, whether he had Div. 1 coaching or athletic opportunities, or the fact that post-collegiate training/coaching opportunities and sponsorships weren’t just dished out to him.
He’s had bad races. He’s had to drop out of marathons. He’s underperformed. He’s had multiple injuries, ranging from a torn Achilles to plantar fascitis. But he’s consistently picked himself up and come back better, stronger, hungrier to win. His self-motivation has been something he’s had to work at, sustain, and build for over a decade.
Take a quick glance at the recent US National Cross Country results held last Saturday, Feb. 16, in San Diego, California, and you’ll note that Carney, at 29, is the oldest of the top 50 in the field—most competitors being around 23-26.
This means that Carney’s been willing to sacrifice, suck it up, and gut it out longer than most. And it’s paying off. Best of luck to Carney in his next races: March 15th 8k Championships in New York City and on March 30th, World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh, Scotland. Here’s a toast to unwavering work ethic and to consistent drive: James Carney, Olympic hopeful.