Sunday, July 18, 2010

Heather Dorniden Provides Insights into the European Experience

Heather Dorniden finishes her first European excursion with a race in Lignano, Italy today. Prior to the race she shared her thoughts on the trip, her first year as a pro, and her plans for the rest of the year.

Down the Backstretch: This is your first year as a “pro.” What has been your impression of the life of a professional athlete? Surprises. Highlights.

Heather Dorniden: It's funny, because anytime I meet someone new outside of the running world, and I say what I do, I get the same response: "Wait, what?? You're a professional runner? I didn't even know that existed! How does that work?!”

Well, I tell ya, it’s pretty sweet. Bottom line, I get paid to do something I love. It is so humbling to me to have people willing to invest in me and my sport, and provide the support I need to follow my dreams.

Between the lines though, I’ve learned that the life of a professional runner is not as glamorous as people make it out to be. It is a lot of hard work, a lot of traveling (oftentimes alone), plenty of pressure and sacrifice- for not all that much money unless you’re REALLY good. So, I would say to anyone interesting in following this path, make sure this is something that you’re passionate about, something you’d do for free if you could- before you take that first step. I feel so lucky to have a great family, friends, and a future husband who are behind me 100 percent in this journey- it makes all the difference in the world.

Highlights thus far, would probably be placing third at the USA Indoor Championships, less than a second off from making my first World team. Having that success from the start made me feel legitimized, and hungry to work harder so that I make it next time!! The European trip I am taking now has also been amazing, and something I will never forget.

DtB: What has been the biggest adjustments you’ve had to make?

HD: The biggest adjustment I’ve probably had to make is getting used to working out on my own. I don’t really have a training group, or even a consistent training partner right now, and that is a lot different than what I was used to with the Gophers. After doing it for awhile though, I’ve learned that it can be pretty beneficial to be able to run exactly how I feel, and my coach has done a great job of catering my workouts for me. It’s great to get that individual attention and I really appreciate all the work he is putting into my training group, party of one.

I also have made mental adjustments as I moved up to a higher level of running. I have always believed that having good competition brings out the best in my own performances- so long as I make the mental transition that I belong here, and deserve these opportunities to race against professional athletes. I needed to digest the idea that I AM a professional athlete too, and I can rise to new challenges with the best of them!

DtB: What have you learned from the experience thus far?

HD: Oh man, every year at our post-season meetings, this was the million dollar question coach Gary Wilson would ask us. Usually I started off with a blank stare and a big “Ummm…” to buy time, but it was also the question that brought the most information to the surface for me.

It’s amazing to think back to December of last year as I was just graduating and compare “what I knew then” to “what I know now.” The most obvious thing that comes to mind is all the things I’ve learned about the "business" side of professional running. Starting off, I knew nothing about agents, contracts, or professional running groups. Though I’m still emailing my agent like, every other day asking more questions, I feel I have a better understanding of how that whole support system works. I’m so grateful to have that support, but have also learned that I need to be fairly independent, and work as my own advocate to make sure I don’t get lost in the shuffle.

By following a different training program and racing schedule this year, I’m constantly learning more about my body, what I can handle, and what I need to do to prepare myself to perform at my best. Beyond the physical, all sports have such a big psychological component as well. I’m learning that no matter how many times I’ve raced in my life, every meet will bring with it different emotions, and there is not one foolproof way for me to mentally prepare for competition.

DtB: Are there things you would do differently, if you had them to do over?

HD: Quite honestly, there is very little I would change about this first year of post-collegiate running. I am very happy that I chose to stay home and train with Team USA Minnesota, I trust and respect my coach, I like my agent, I love my contract with Asics, and I’m improving. There is no way to say that if I had made decisions differently, where I would be right now or how I would be performing. I wanted to go into this new phase of my career with 100% faith in what I was doing, trust the process and appreciate the outcome. 2010 was a good year to get started because if things weren’t working out for some reason, I would have time enough before 2012 to make proper adjustments.

Of course, there are always little things that any athlete could say they would like to change. I am always working on improving my lifestyle doing the “little things” that matter so much like managing my sleep, diet, strength work, etc.

My only big regret this year is getting tripped up at the USA Outdoor Championships 800 meters prelim. Obviously, this was outside of my control, but I had big dreams of making the final, and placing well there to really establish myself as a factor in the US women’s 800 meter pool. It was a big disappointment, but I try to stay positive and have faith that God has something else planned for me. I had placed a lot of emphasis on that meet in my head, so it seemed like a really crappy outcome, but I’m beginning to realize that life still goes on, and that experience is part of the process towards something greater (hopefully) that I am not privileged to experience just yet.

DtB: How is the European experience, compared to the US collegiate and post-collegiate circuit?

HD: This first European experience for me has been an eye-opener and a great learning experience for me- not only for my running career, but also for life in general. Since I have arrived, I can’t even count how many “not funny at the time, but funny now that it’s over” moments I have encountered, but I’ve gotten through them all! I think I am going to come back to the United States more patient, a better problem solver, and more appreciative of some of the luxuries of home that we don’t even realize are luxuries (such as air conditioning, drinking fountains, free public restrooms, a common language, and the use of our cars and cell phones!).

As far as the running and racing situation goes in Europe, I’ve learned that you have to be flexible and roll with whatever comes your way. I feel like a lot of collegiate runners have very specific schedules, meals, etc. that they like to stick with when competing. Here, the meet hotel might be the only place to get food for miles, and they are serving something you would usually never eat before a race- but you need to eat, so you eat it. And then, to your great surprise, things still go well!! Or, I’ve talked to several people who have traveled for over 12 hours in a day to get from one meet to the next, their bags still haven’t arrived, but they are racing tomorrow, and that’s just the way things are going to be! I guess what I’m trying to say is sometimes these things will be outside of your control, and the best thing you can do is stay calm, and trust in your ability to perform well despite all the outside factors.

The meets themselves in Europe have been awesome. The races have been stacked with talented athletes, the atmosphere is great, and the stands are full of people enjoying their fries topped with gobs of mayonnaise (seriously). And, they usually play music while you race- I love that, I think we should be doing that everywhere. The meet officials have been relatively low-key, and a lot of the meets allow you to warm up on your own and just show up to the line when the race is about to be run. This was a nice change from the long check-in procedures I am used to at home.

Another thing I love is the way athletes kind of let their guard down, and befriend each other here. I’m finding myself spending a lot of time in meet hotels with athletes from my event group that I never got to know before, and meeting new friends from different events and different places of the world! Everyone keeps saying me, “Welcome to The Circuit,” like this is a way of life, and after years of competing, people have gotten to know each other quite well over here. Long story short, it’s quite different, but it’s pretty great, and I’m so happy I’ve been given this opportunity!

DtB: Did you set some goals that you set out at the beginning of the season? Things you wanted to achieve? Or was it just a take it as it goes thing?

HD: Definitely. I don’t think you can be a serious runner without goals. Goals are what get you through the hard workouts and long runs; they get you through the injuries, and the bad races. I’ve always felt like racing is so addicting, because no matter how well I perform- even if I reach my original goal, that’s just an opportunity for me to strive for more, to set higher goals for myself. This season I set my sights on running a personal best in both the 800 meters and 1500meters. Mission accomplished in the 1500 (but like I said, now I’m hoping to get even faster!) Beyond a personal best, a big goal of mine has always been to break two minutes in the 800 as well (my previous best is 2:01.05).

DtB: Will the Europe trip be the end of the season for you, or do you have more races planned for the outdoor season?

HD: No, the Europe trip will not be the end to my season just yet. The end of July is European national championships time, but then a second series of races start up in early August that I may go back for? I'm uncertain at this point if I will be mentally ready to make another trip over here, especially because I'll be making final preparations for my wedding in September! But at this point, I feel like I'm still physically capable of running a few more good track races, and of course, Europe is the best place to do it at that time of year! Regardless, I know I'm confirmed to run a mile race in Falmouth, Massachusetts on August 14th, and then I'll do the 5th Ave. Mile in New York September 25th to cap off the season.

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