There’s often a debate in sports about what constitutes an “elite” athlete. In football, it’s a meme to talk about whether Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is elite. In running, there are hundreds of comment threads dedicated to elite versus sub-elite versus non-elite times. I imagine most coaches get tons of emails from athletes with a disclaimer at the start: “I am not an elite athlete.”
Screw that! I don’t think those distinctions serve a purpose if they stratify athletes based on results, other than perhaps making people feel worse about themselves and scared to take chances. If you think and train with the dedication of an elite athlete, you are one.
Think about what goes into a good result, like winning the Western States 100 or running an Olympic Trials qualifying time in the marathon. There’s genetics. There’s upbringing. There’s random chance. Those factors are all out of an athlete’s control, and acting like they determine athletic worth is like saying winning the lottery is an act of strong character.
It’s all about mindset
But there are things that we all have way more control over … like mindset and work ethic. It all boils down to the process of a running life, the day-to-day choices we make. To me, an elite athlete is anyone who thinks and works like an elite athlete. Where that process leads is often largely predicated on luck and circumstances (plus, based on sports psychology, it probably doesn’t matter that much for long-term happiness anyway).
I totally understand that approach isn’t for everyone. If you disagree, you are right too—it’s OK to have a different perspective. I just think that by constructing your athletic narrative around the idea that you can be elite independent of outcomes, you can be way faster (and way happier) along the way.
Zachary Ornelas is an elite athlete. He’s also a ninth-grade English teacher and coach at Divine Child High School in Dearborn, Michigan. To get his runs in, Zach often wakes up at 5 a.m. and finishes up after the sun goes down. One of Zach’s breakthrough days from this past training cycle might not look like something you see out of someone who pays the bills with shoe-company money.
“[In October], I did an easy run at 5 a.m., drove 35 minutes to work, taught a lecture on Great Expectations from 7:40-2:30, coached cross-country practice from 3-5 p.m., then drove home. I had 20 x 1 minute on/1 minute off scheduled and it was cold and raining and I was solo with the sun going down. It would have been easy to find an excuse to skip that one, but I knew I needed to get it done.”
That work ethic led Zach to the start line of the California International Marathon, where he set a 3-minute PR to run a 2:17:24, under the Olympic Trials qualifying standard of 2:19. It was a lifelong dream come true. He did it just eight weeks after winning the U.S. 50 Mile Championships at the Tussey Mountainback 50, in the same year he represented Team USA at the Trail World Championships.
But those results aren’t why he is an elite athlete. Those results, as great as they are, won’t get a shoe company to unload a dump truck full of cash on your doorstep. They certainly don’t bring long-term validation. No, what makes Zach elite is that 20 x 1/1 workout in the rain. He did what he could to maximize his potential in the context of a life that is meaningful to him. In my book, that is elite, no strings attached.
Most of our elite athlete journeys won’t lead to the top of the podium. But here’s the reality that almost every athlete eventually realizes: the journey is the whole point. How can you embrace your elite-athlete journey, no matter where it leads? Zach has a few pointers.
“Mental health comes first.”
Being an elite athlete is hard work, especially if it’s not your full-time job. Before Zach would tell me about the epic 20 x 1/1 workout, he gave a disclaimer.
“While the motivational stories about people getting out there and crushing it after a 12-hour work day are nice, sometimes it really is better to just take an off day,” Zach says. “Pour a glass of wine, snuggle your significant other, pet your dog and don’t feel guilty. The body can only do so much!”
“On the other hand, know the difference between a day that has just been too long, and a day where you need to suck it up and get out that front door.”
Zach says it’s all about giving your brain and body a chance. Accept mentally that every run won’t be an uplifting, transcendent experience destined to be immortalized on Instagram, and it gets way easier to give yourself the opportunity to find your own potential.
Coaching high schoolers in addition to his teaching job meant punching the running clock each day at 6 a.m., even on weekends before long bus rides to competitions. Sometimes, he’d be able to crush a hard workout in the evening. Sometimes, he’d use that time to relax with his wife, Megan. Whichever decision he made, it wasn’t a verdict on his self worth that day.
Lean on your support system
Professional athletes might have a massage therapist on call, a physical therapist at the ready, a mental therapist that makes house calls. Even if you don’t have access to those resources, the people in your life are indispensable parts of your elite-athlete journey.
As Zach says, “I couldn’t do it without an amazing wife who is comfortable with a very fluid ‘dinner time,’ parents who still drive or fly to every meet I do and students who are all convinced I’m the fastest marathoner in the country.”
A day in the training block shows how Zach mixed work ethic and support to do amazing things. “Two weeks before CIM I did a huge 21-mile cutdown and one hour after finishing I drove six hours to Terre Haute, Indiana, to watch my top three kids run in the Nike Cross Country Regional Championships, and then drove six hours home the next day.”
That stint was made possible by a wife who supported his goals and students who cheered him on the whole time. Embrace that it’s a group effort, not a selfish act.
“Remember, this is all just for fun.”
Zach says the most important advice is just to keep it all in perspective. Being an elite athlete doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice everything else that is important to you. “Life gets crazy with work, kids, responsibilities, etc. You don’t have to run, you choose to,” Zach says. “Fit it in where you can and enjoy it as much as you can. If it starts to feel like a chore, mix things up or take a break.”
It all gets back to that old process versus results framework. I know it must be crazy to think that Zach isn’t “elite,” but there are tons of people who would say even he doesn’t meet their results-based standard. Here’s the big message of this article: you can be just like Zach.
You may be responding now, “Pshaw! I am not an elite athlete! I haven’t run a mile under 8 minutes/won a race/made the Olympics/won an Olympic medal.”
But you are elite. If you work hard and have the courage to believe in your long-term potential, you can be an elite athlete no matter where the process leads. And the really cool thing is that just by flipping that switch, you can find you are capable of amazing things.
That all brings us back to Zach. In 2013, as he was finishing up his last semester of college, he ran a 2:20:11 marathon. Blazing fast! But, for a lot of people, inadequate. No shoe company would be depositing rent money in his bank account.
In the years after that, he ran a series of 2:24 marathons and had some solid-but-not-incredible trail races. He faced a decision point. Is it worth it? Why do this at all?
Facing existential questions, Zach just laughed—and got back to work. He was chasing his elite-athlete dreams with the stubborn, resilient self-belief that most elite athletes must share. Sometimes that meant summers in the mountains, running 100 miles a week and living like a professional athlete. Other times, like in the eight weeks between the U.S. 50 Mile Champs and CIM, that would mean running in the dark and doing 50 miles per week. He wasn’t more “elite” during that summer or the more recent training cycle. He certainly wasn’t more “elite” before or after the CIM finish line.
No, he was an elite athlete the whole time. And if you are reading this, you can be too.
Work hard, take chances, succeed and fail at the limits of your capabilities. Sounds like an elite athlete to me.
—David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now at Amazon.