Photo Credit: Flotrack

In January 2016 I arrived in Flagstaff, Arizona to begin what would be three amazing years of competing in track/cross country for Northern Arizona University as a student athlete.  I desperately wanted to be a world class athlete and believed that going to the US would put me in the best position to achieve that goal.  What I did not realize at the time was that a change in my environment alone was not going to be enough to bring me to the next level.  In addition to that, my mindset had to be ready for the challenges I was about to face. 

From my first workout I discovered that I was not good enough to hang with the top guys on my team.  I knew what it meant to push myself, but this was another level of mental and physical exertion that I was foreign to.  After countless incomplete workouts I began to take my inability to hang on to the pack personally.  I was not getting better while my teammates all were.  If I was struggling it also meant that I could not take as many laps, I could not switch off with taking the wind, and I could not push my teammates at the end of a workout when it mattered.  My drive to get better arose from a selfless place where I wanted to help my team, but in doing so I had to get better myself.  Although running is typically an individual sport, I found it easier to find the motivation to push myself if I involved others in my goals. 

When I got to a place where I could help my teammates in workouts, it was then okay for me to focus more on myself.  The goals I had in mind before leaving for the US soon went out the window when I realized that they were not strong enough to make me competitive.  I started to set goals that were right on the verge of not believing I could achieve them.  The possibility of failure was high, but I was not willing to settle for something that I knew I was capable of.  That way the goals I did achieve would give me credit for how hard I had worked for them.

As our team got stronger and I became fitter, every workout required a level of effort that I could not give if I did not adequately prepare for it.  I began to treat workout days like I would race day.  Being purposeful with my meals, fluids, rest, and warm up schedule on these days became a vital part of my training.  Too often I would focus heavily on races and neglect my workout preparation even though certain workouts were just as hard, if not harder, than racing.  Why would I then pay extra attention to the former and not the latter?

The goals I set myself were tough and because of that I had to be willing to accept the possibility of not achieving them.  How I responded to not achieving a goal was just as important as how I responded to achieving it.  Taking responsibility for inadequate performances allowed me to maintain control over my goals.  Failure is an important part of the overall process because it allows for a true appreciation for times of success.  If every run feels amazing, then eventually amazing will feel normal.  I thrive on the good only because I know what it feels like to have the bad. 

I made significant improvements during my time at NAU.  From 2016 to 2018 I took my 5000m time from 14:10 to 13:31 and my 10,000m time from 29:19 to 28:10.  I had 6 All-American finishes and our team won 3 NCAA National Team Titles for cross country.  I was a member of the best collegiate cross country program that you have probably never heard of.  And that is okay, because moments are not lessened just because people do not know about them.  We created a culture, built upon from athletes that went before us, which demanded excellence.  That occurred because we made an individual sport a team one every single day.  NAU was a place where success did not come without failure; where a win did not come without pain; where glory did not come without sacrifice.  This mindset was unbeatable – tested and proven.

Matthew Baxter is a Lab Local, when he is in country. He’s a competitive runner, talented writer, and all around good guy.