Why we play: Will Dwyer, runner

Will Dwyer ’20 takes time to reflect after a run on his hometown track in Irvington, NY. After overcoming anemia in his freshmen season, he finished 3rd for Vassar this past weekend. / Courtesy of William Dwyer

Vassar is fortunate to have so many talented and dedicated student-athletes on campus. This year, The Miscellany News would like to highlight the voices and stories of these athletes. “Why We Play” will be a weekly installment in the Sports section where Vassar players will have the opportunity to speak about what their chosen sport means to them. To start us off, we are excited to have sophomore Will Dwyer write about the challenges and triumphs he has faced as a runner for Vassar’s cross country and track teams.

Why do we play? That’s a good question, one I must have heard a few hundred times by now. Every time, people expect a complicated response, as if there were some sort of divine motivator that drives me out of bed every day to put my Mizunos on. Legitimately so, I suppose, since for so many of us running is just synonymous with side stitches and dry heaving. But the truth is no matter how many times I am asked, I am always left stumped and I wonder, Is there, in fact, a reason why I run?

Let’s be honest, you could spend hours pondering the reasons and motives behind any of your life decisions. But when something takes over your life, your thoughts and your dreams as much as running has for me, it becomes important to know and remember the reason how it all started.

I started track my junior year of high school, so in the running world, I am still sort of a baby. Maybe a toddler by now. Anyway, old high school runner me was a baby, and like most babies, I didn’t spend too much time thinking about intrinsic motivation; all I wanted was to toddle—sorry, I should say, “run—around”. Things changed when I got to college, however: 45-minute practices turned into two-hour grinds, long runs became longer runs and I discovered a whole new level of soreness in muscles I didn’t even know I had. On top of that, I also happened to have a coach that particularly liked to ask his runners the dreaded “Why?” during our season meetings. Uh-oh. Quick, come up with a smart, not too cheesy response!

And as I sat there anxiously searching for an answer, I realized that it was infinitely easier to come up with reasons why I don’t NOT run. In fact, I could come up with a dozen different ones off the top of my head. To give you a few examples: If I didn’t run I would probably have to restrict myself to two hamburgers instead of four, I wouldn’t get those sick free team shirts and I would probably have much smaller quads. And while I certainly wouldn’t blurt any of those answers out in a team meeting, I do still perceive them as welcomed, rather pleasant side-effects of running 60 miles a week. As for the reason why I run, well, that one took me much more time—and quite a bit of blood—to figure out.

I came in from high school with the confidence of having just run in a national championship and with a head full of dreams. And for a month, everything was going great! I exceeded my own expectations and even survived my first 8K. Then October came around, and with it came a feeling I would get to know all too well over the course of the school year: the dreaded “Dead Legs”. You see, for us runners, few things are more important than being light on our feet. Being bouncy, swift, having that pep in your step, is what makes the difference between a good runner and a beautiful runner. There were a few races during my last high school track season where I began to feel like I was venturing into beautiful runner territory. I was just beginning to scratch the surface. And then came my first college winter. With every passing week, every practice, my once smooth stride became heavier and heavier, uglier and uglier. One of my coaches liked to say it looked as if my legs were filled with lead. Little did he know, he was actually not too far from the truth. It was not from lead that I was suffering but from another metal, or rather, the lack thereof: iron.

It took six months from when I noticed these changes until I was finally diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia. Though fairly common in runners, anemia can be a real buzzkill. What it basically means is a reduced ability for red blood cells to carry oxygen to muscles, which, if you’re an endurance athlete, means massive lactic acid production and a very unpleasant feeling of not being able to move. Being diagnosed with anemia is usually not welcomed as good news and yet, in the moment, all I felt was relief. I felt relieved because for six months I had been looking for problems where there were none. And believe me, I looked everywhere. I slept 10 hours a night, ate my greens at every meal and completely stopped going out. I ran more and I ran longer, I meditated to strengthen my mind and I started a diary for motivation. I tried everything. And nothing was working. Agh. Just thinking about it makes me feel ANGRY! I felt helpless. I wanted to quit. I thought about quitting, I really did.

There was this one day during the winter, after a treadmill workout that I wasn’t able to finish. I ran around the athletics complex for my cool-down, hot tears rushing down my wind-frozen cheeks. I wanted to scream but someone would have heard me and that would have been awkward. In the moment, all I wanted was to quit and never feel the pain again. The physical pain was one thing but the hardest blow was to my ego. I beat myself to the ground during that cool-down. I thought the problem was in my head, I thought I was just being weak. I cursed myself for being so soft and ran an extra mile, maybe a little faster than I should have.

I did make one good decision that day, however. I sent an email to one of my high school coaches. I said it all, in that email. All the frustration, all the worthless sacrifices, packed in three little paragraphs, with a subject line that read “S.O.S.” I think in the moment I wanted him to reply and admire me for my tenacity, and tell me to keep working and that things would get better soon. Yes, I wanted actual answers to my problem, but what I sought most desperately was praise for my wounded pride. What I did not expect was for him to tell me to stop running.

I will always remember his words. He told me frankly, that it looked like I could use a break so I could get back to the pure enjoyment of running. At the end of his response he said maybe I had let running take over my life and he asked me a simple question. Am I living to run or running to live? At first, his response stressed me out even more. Stop running? Impossible!!

But when my diagnosis came out a few weeks later and I had no choice but to stop running, I thought about the email again. I began to think maybe a break was not all that bad, but it honestly wasn’t until I started writing this piece.

After taking a month completely off from running, another six weeks with a very lightened load and without the stress of competition, I was finally able to take a big step back. I could see my first year of college not only as a year of struggles and frustration but also as a valuable lesson. I can see my senior year of high school not only as glory once past but as a reminder to run simple. And I can see my years of college ahead not with the fear of disappointment, but with confidence and excitement.

I also realized that without my daily run, something was missing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like it left a gaping, insurmountable void in my life either, but around 3:30 p.m., when I would normally be at practice, I often caught myself feeling melancholic and longing for a nice trail run. I woke up in the morning in a worse mood than I used to and I went to sleep at night without the satisfaction of having completed a tough workout. I was more irritable, more stressed out, and a bit less me.

With this year behind me, everything seems so much simpler. Though I am somewhat saddened it took so much time and pain to figure it all out, I refuse to think of my freshman year as a waste in terms of running. For eight months I have run alongside talented and supportive teammates, under the watchful eye of coaches who never once gave up on me. And even on all those miles that I dragged myself looking like I was running underwater, I did so wearing the six letters and the colors of a school that I can now proudly call home.

So why am I always running, you ask? Because it makes me happy, dammit!

Will Dwyer opened up his sophomore season on a high note, finishing in 3rd place for Vassar at the Vassar College Season Starter this past weekend. If you are a student-athlete interested in writing a reflective piece on your sport, please feel free to email mliederman@vassar.edu and rpinataro@vassar.edu.

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