Phoebe Wright Can't Be Stopped, by Cait Chock

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Phoebe Wright, 2014 USA Indoors, photo by PhotoRun.net

Cait Chock wrote this piece on 800 meter ace Phoebe Wright and her recent challenges. 

Phoebe Wright Can't Be Stopped

By: Cait Chock


A distinctive trait of a champion is an inability to give up. In actuality it's more that quitting is really no option at all. When Phoebe Wright (http://phe800.blogspot.com/) walked onto the University of Tennessee's track team she couldn't even hang with the girls on their warm-up. But the thought never even occurred to her to quit.


She knew she would be good. Call it a sixth sense, confidence, or even a bit of naiveté on just how good the best track athletes were, she knew it was only a matter of time until she was keeping up...and then beating them. "I had really no proof I was gonna be good, but I was just like, 'Oh yea, yea, I'm gonna be good, just give me a minute, I'll be good.'"


She improved and, had she been at less of a powerhouse college, Wright certainly would have gotten even more individual recognition before her senior year, "Our team was just so good I didn't notice I was individually successful." At the 2009 USA Track Championships she placed third but, lacking the qualifying standard, wasn't able to make the World Team. Her reaction, "That's never happening to me again, I'm going to break two next year, if it kills me. 2010 I went into the year on a mission to break two minutes and win every single race. There's no slip-ups, you're just going to do it."


2010 turned out to be Wright's breakout season, nearly undefeated and the first time she dipped below the 2-minute barrier. The stellar season resulted in a professional contract with Nike.


A second distinctive trait of a champion is the ability to work. Harder than any other 'sane' person would. Coincidentally many runners are already hard-wired to push past the natural bounds of comfort, put the two together and you'll get an individual willing to put their nose down and grind away at themselves until there's nothing left to give. Sometimes that steely hard work ethic turns against them; that's what happened to Wright after her 2010 season. 


She has a theory, "After a breakout year you have a down year. Your hormones play a lot in your performance in running, in 2010 I was training to the max, my body just didn't notice it because it was always on a high from races. So I think I put myself a little bit in debt....in 2011 I thought, 'Now I'm a professional, now I have time to do everything right.'"


She was digging into a hole. The tricky thing about digging is, you aren't aware of it at first and often won't admit that's what you're doing until you're in deep enough you're grinding away at granite. 


Graduating from the University of Tennessee and transitioning to making running her job, Wright fell into the trap many newly professionals make, "I kind of got really anal about everything." Out came the altitude tent. No longer racing every weekend in college, which had her taking two to three days off of running, she was now running seven days a week. More miles, all at a harder intensity. The digging continued.


Still coached by her college coach, J.J. Clark, the addition of new professionals to the group, Erica Moore and Heidi Dahl, she was always stretched in workouts. In balancing a collegiate and professional racing calendar, unfortunately the racing weekends didn't sync up so Clark wasn't physically able to see much of her races. "When I was really starting to tank, I didn't know what was going on and he wasn't there to pull back the reins," explains Wright. "There was this gap in communication...so I just stayed in the hole"


Over-trained and needing to get out of that hole brought Wright to Seattle. The choice was easy as the University of Washington School of Pharmacy is ranked in the top ten, Wright had a scholarship needing use. Running-wise, "I immediately clicked with Danny [Mackey], and I loved Katie Mackey. I knew I'd have a good coach, a good training partner, and a good school so it was like, 'Yea, this is right.'"


Danny Mackey, coach of the Brooks Beasts, has personal experience with being over-trained, add that to his extensive science and sports physiology background, he knew not only the signs but had also done a lot of research in reversing the process. [It should be noted that Brooks has made headlines due to the fact that they are not brand exclusive, Wright is a Nike-sponsored athlete and training with the Beasts.] Mackey and Wright sat down, setting a long-term plan. Wright recounts what Coach Mackey mapped out, "The goal in 2016: we're going to strip off all the work, we're going to give you an aerobic base which you've never really had before...forget the times...we just want to get you healthy."


Turning things around doesn't happen over night, it also doesn't happen in the straight and linear. Wright has an excellent analogy, which in fact parallels it to coming out of drug addiction. Through rehab, the biochemistry coming out, with decreasing withdrawals, doesn't work in the straight fashion of feeling less and less addicted. Rather, the symptoms work more like the oscillating sine wave where the amplitudes vary less and less and eventually things even out. Today Wright explains, "My good weeks are really consistent, my bad weeks I'm still able to hit the times they just don't feel as good, the amplitude is less, I can feel things leveling out." Wright hasn't had a major flop of a workout since April.


The particularly tortuous thing about inconsistent workouts is the havoc it plays with a runner's psyche, "You can't trust your body so you have anxiety going into the workout, which is really bad. It feels so out of your control." Made worse by the fact that even when workouts may be going well, the results in races aren't showing up. "It's a total mind trip."


Our sport is making headway in dispelling any stigmas towards addressing the psychology of what it takes to be an athlete. Running and racing is incredibly taxing physically and mentally, if aspects in either realm aren't on-point you're not setting yourself up to succeed. Wright sought out sports psychologist and former professional runner, Anne Shadle, "When workouts had been going really well but I wasn't putting together a race." 


Incidentally, much of the work she does now, "prove that coach Clark was an excellent, excellent coach...we attacked the mental side more than I realized." Wright and Clark used to watch race films, him asking her how she felt then explaining how she wanted to feel, they also discussed why she may have anxiety and ways to absolve it. Dr. Shadle takes the edge off of anxiety by controlling Wright's word choice going into a race. She has her, "go to words that are emotionally neutral, like competitive. You can control that...just be competitive, that's all you're going to be: smooth and competitive." Neutral words dispel anxiety because they keep you focused on controlling the things you can.


Wright's seeing light outside that hole and on the threshold of knocking any remaining dirt from her shoes. Her first race back, Oxy, "I was really complacent and lazy, especially that second lap...I got in position and cruised and didn't let myself hurt really." To her credit, she had her momentum completely broken with 100 meters to go when another racer tripped. 


Next time she went in with a game plan to stay mentally engaged, "The second race I was committed to at 300 to go, I was going to be competitive. That's when it really starts hurting and you start second guessing yourself." She successfully stayed engaged and had the second gear, but got boxed in. 


Her mental energies and amplitude swung to the opposite end of the spectrum for Pre Classic, "I was a little too on edge, like my volume button was turned way up high...it was really nice I didn't have to overcome any negative feelings, I was ON the whole time. I just didn't trust myself to relax ever." Still positive progress, now just a matter of dialing it back a bit...almost there.


Going into this weekend's Portland Track Festival Wright is confidently relaxed with the goals, "Get in my flow and my groove, it's a tune-up, last hurrah before USA's." The rest of the racing season will be dictated by how USA's go but this year was all about undoing the damage of the past, getting healthy, and getting both mind and body back on track. The upcoming years will see racing below the 2-minute barrier in every race, all as dress rehearsals for the 2016 Olympic year.


In the midst of breakout success runners often aren't able to fully realize how amazing they are until their first set-back. Wright is now able to reflect, "I have this broader view of what I actually accomplished in 2010, and [think] 'Gosh that was so badass! And I want to get back there, and I can appreciate it so much more." That she will.


Through it all, quitting never once crossed Wright's mind. After all, that's just not in the make-up of a champion.



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Caitlin Chock (caitchock.com) set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004. A freelance writer, artist, and designer she writes about all things running and founded Ezzere, her own line of running shirts (www.ezzere.com). You can read more, see her running comics, and her shirts at her website.

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