January 15, 2022 7 min read

Finding My “Why”

For as long as I can remember, I have dreamed of being a great athlete.

I grew up watching athletes such as Michael Phelps, Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles and Eliud Kipchoge. Many would say these people are the greatest of the great at what they do. It is undeniable that these athletes and others have inspired millions around the world as they defied the odds before our very eyes. Watching the Olympics and seeing incredible human beings do incredible things planted a seed in my mind at a young age.

That seed grew and a question formed: “What if I dared to dream?”

I have always been a fan of challenging myself. This has come out in numerous ways throughout my lifetime. I grew up playing softball and competing in karate and swimming. In all of these instances I was curious to see how far I could push myself.

  • “How good can I get at this kata?
  • How far can I swim in X amount of time?
  • How fast can I run the bases?
  • Can I make the play in time?”

All of these questions ran subconsciously through my head as I put my heart and soul into whatever sport I chose.

In addition to sports as an outlet to fuel my high-energy tendencies, I was also blessed to grow up on my grandmother’s property that contained several acres of forest and fields. There was always more to explore, farther to run, and more opportunities to get a good scrape or cut. I would climb any tree where I could reach the branches, run all the way from the house to the back of the property just to feel the burning in my lungs. This was my childhood in Southern Indiana.

Then, in 2008, my family and I moved out West to pursue more opportunities for adventure and growth as a group of 5. These pursuits landed us in Bozeman, Montana. We lived there for a very fantastic 3 years. During our time in Bozeman my family and I explored the tops of the most amazing mountains, went rafting in some of the coldest water I had ever felt, and camped underneath the most glorious stars I have ever witnessed.

I fell even more in love with the outdoors during my time in Montana.

My sports background, the life events I am so thankful to have had, and the outdoor environment I was constantly surrounded by growing up, paired with my insatiable appetite for adventure, is what I believe resulted in my signing up for a Spartan Race in Bigfork, Montana in May 2017. It was the Sprint, the shortest distance available with Spartan, but by the time I made it across the finish line I was absolutely drained. I had never been that sore before. What surprised me is that I had trained for months to prepare for the race with the template that Spartan had on their website at the time, and I still got my butt handed to me. Yet I was hooked! I signed up for 2 more races that year to finish up my very first Trifecta.

I have made a lot of progress in the sport since then;

  • I won Spartan World Championships in my Age Group in 2018 and 2019
  • I won the Spartan North American National Series in Age Group those years as well
  • I won the Elite Super and Sprint Spartan races in Sacramento in 2019
  • I came in the top 5 in Elite at the first (and only) Spartan National Series race of 2020.

I was climbing the ranks and loving it - until I wasn’t.

Running was more and more painful and my mental health and confidence were decreasing rapidly. I had to face the very sobering fact that I had an injury.

And it was not a simple one either. Me being on the sidelines these last two seasons while I continue to navigate my injury has been a journey within itself and a blessing in disguise. If it wasn’t for my injury I can honestly say I am not sure I would still be competing in obstacle course racing. This is because, while I was successful on the course and loved the moments that I had on the podium, they didn’t really mean anything to me. I was doing the races just to get it done and keep up with my identity. I felt there was something more but never bothered to look deeper into it.

Sure, I love to run and I love challenging myself, but it was all superficial and I was just trying to measure up to everyone else. Around the time I got my injury, things were getting really bad for me mentally. I started to dread every training session, the pressure of competition was crushing me and suffocating, and pushing myself and “showing up” started to feel like the biggest chore of my life. I was looking for more and more excuses to NOT train; “Oh I think I’m getting sick, better take 4-5 days off this week.” “I am way too tired from work, I just can’t be bothered today.”

I was over trained, exhausted, and just a couple more races away from absolute burnout.

My body was very angry with me, because it knew my heart was just not into what I was doing. I was only really racing because of the identity I had built around my sport, and I felt that certain expectations came with that.

When my injury occurred, I was forced to take myself out of the structured training and race prep for quite some time. I took a huge step back and went into a depression of sorts. I didn’t know what to do with myself, I didn’t know how to fill my time. Yet I felt guilty because I was secretly relieved that I was injured and didn’t “have” to train. These emotions all caused me to start asking questions: “Why am I holding onto this sport so much?” “What is so important about this that makes it crucial for me to get back to competition?” It was a scary time for me. I was questioning my identity, my confidence was at an all time low, and I was very confused with where I was at in my life.

Then, around August of 2020, I was approached by Rich Ryan to join a team he was forming. Our group came up with the name “The Obstacle Racing Collab”. Psychologist Tim Silvestri joined our team to walk us through the mental side of sport and why there are certain things you MUST know about yourself as an athlete to succeed. He explained this through the CERT model. CERT stands for : Commit to the Commitment; Engage Process, Not Outcome; Respect Knowledge, Not Talent; and Trust-View all outcomes through a lens of Trust.

Leading the CERT model was what Tim calls one’s Core Aspiration. Basically, why are you doing what you’re doing, how are you going to get better at it, and when do you want to accomplish it? I struggled to really hone in on my Core Aspiration. “Why” am I doing this sport? “Why” do I care so much? “Why” is being in the top tier of women in Obstacle Course Racing so important to me? Why, why, why? To answer this, I really had to look inside myself. I had to let go of my previous identity, let go of what others thought of me and their expectations, and let go of the external pressure I was feeling crush my spirit.

That is when it hit me. I recalled the feeling I got watching Olympians on my TV and seeing them do amazing things. I recalled my feelings of hope and wonder that came with seeing people achieve greatness. Their commitment to their sport and their self-belief was awe-inspiring and only added fuel to my fire whenever I would go out there and compete in my sports growing up.

I remembered the question that had been planted in my head long ago: “What if I dared to dream?”

My “why” became so clear.

I compete because I want to be an example for the generations to come; an example of what is possible when you put your mind to something and work hard at it.

Even if I only ever inspire one person, I want them to look at what I do and realize that maybe their dreams aren’t out of reach. Even if what that person dreams to do has nothing to do with athletics, I want to be a source of hope for them. Those who dare to dream are the movers of the world. I want to challenge others to follow their dreams through my own journey and success. The higher I rise, the more I lift others up. It took an injury, an identity crisis, and stripping away all external pressures and expectations to realize that my “why” had been inside of me for quite some time.

In addition to all of the internal work I have been doing these past couple years, I have also been blessed to be on the OCR Dream Team that Nicole Mericle created. Nicole is an amazing and brilliant athlete herself, and she created the Dream Team to educate and give resources to the women of Obstacle Course Racing so that we can have a brighter future for the sport. My participation on the team has made me realize just how much people need that sense of community in addition to the personal journeys they may be going on.

It’s athletes like Nicole that lift others up and dare them to follow their dreams, and I would not be where I am today without her and the people she brought together.

Going on this internal journey and having such an amazing support system has given me more love and excitement for the sport than ever before, and I can’t wait to get back to racing in the 2022 season. Now, even when I don’t have motivation to train, I still get it done because my “why” drives me.

My fire is inside of me and my identity and confidence no longer come from other people, how well I did in one race, or my numbers on Strava.

I know why I do what I do and it’s an awesome feeling. Now I don’t just compete to challenge myself, but to challenge others and their beliefs about what is possible.

Dare to dream, and you will move the world.

Lillie Elkin

IG: @lillieelkin_spartanocr

Dec 12, 2021