Colleen Quigley: Happy in the Long Run
You’ve likely heard the saying that life is a marathon, not a sprint. But in many ways, it most resembles a steeplechase race—a never-ending race with hurdles along the way that need to be overcome at top speed without breaking stride. Colleen Quigley has enjoyed great success as a steeplechase runner, finishing eighth overall in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro. As Quigley prepares for the 2020 Games in Tokyo, she uses her social media platforms to offer her fans an inside look at what it takes to be a successful track star. Quigley took a few moments to share some of the things she has learned about herself during her pursuit of a happier life.
Always chase your biggest dream, even if it means changing lanes
As a high school student, Quigley spent about 40 days a year traveling to photo shoots as a Wilhelmina Model. But when offered a track scholarship from Florida State University, she put modeling on hold. “Growing up in St. Louis, I didn’t realize at the time how unusual it was to have the career I had as a model,” she says. “When it came time to decide what I wanted to do, I thought to myself, would I be more proud of being on the cover of Vogue or being an NCAA champion? I had been in Seventeen and Glamour magazines, and walked the runway for Tommy Hilfiger, and those were all really cool things. But I was a two-time state champion in track, and that made me feel more proud. I didn’t know that I would become a professional athlete. But going to college an athlete was also an opportunity to get an education without taking on any debt. And the things that I accomplished on the track were based on my hard work.
Find the right community to help elevate you
After finishing college, Quigley moved to Portland, Oregon to become a member of the Bowerman Track Club. “Being a track athlete can be a lonely experience, and I knew that wasn’t for me,” Quigley says. “A lot of athletes train alone. or maybe with one other person and a coach. I was looking for a group of people who I could treat as a team.” Quigley promised herself that she would give it a year. If she didn’t qualify for the Olympics, she would intern as a dietician and move on with her professional life. Not only did she make the team, she finished eighth at the Olympic games. “At the Olympics, I realized that I had way more potential than I thought,” Quigley says. “I want to keep training with this group of women. Our team is now up to 11 women, nine of whom are Olympians. The more experienced women of the group have been an amazing resource for all of the younger women in the group. We’re just figuring out what we’re doing and how to make goals for ourselves. How do we get all the little things right and make a lasting career out of this? Having someone to follow and ask questions has been absolutely crucial to me finding success in the first three years of my career. I couldn’t imagine being successful had I gone it alone. In some cases, we want to beat each other, but we also push each other every day in practice. We share reps. On tough days, they push me and when they have tough days, I push them. We’re competitors, but we keep each other elevated.”
Have a rabbit in your race
Every great distance race has one runner out in front who makes sure that the other runners have to keep an honest pace and have to use their best effort throughout. “For me, Shalane Flanagan has been such an incredible role model and teammate,” Quigley says. “She is a four-time U.S. Olympian. When I was injured and had to workout in the pool, Shalane was injured at the same time, and she would always meet me at the pool. Even if we’re swimming next to each other, we obviously can’t talk while we’re swimming. But just knowing she is there, working so hard to come back from injury, it was motivating and inspiring to me. Just the opportunity to watch her work every day has been a gift.”
Do the important stuff first
Quigley’s team always works out early in the morning. When she’s away from the team, she tries to keep the same schedule. “During the holidays, when you are on a different routine, it can be hard to work out,” she says. “When I’m home, I work out first thing in the morning, because I wake up and have breakfast, and someone wants to get coffee, and then it’s lunch, and now it’s 3 p.m. and I still haven’t worked out yet. It’s added stress, because I know I haven’t worked out, so that’s weighing on me all day. But also, every hour that goes by, it’s getting less likely that I am going to have enough energy and motivation to do what I wanted to do. So maybe an eight-mile run becomes a five-mile run. An hour in the gym now becomes thirty minutes. If I do it in the morning, I have the rest of the day to spend with friends and family without the stress weighing on me all day.”
Lose your ego to find a different way
At the beginning of 2016, Quigley suffered an injury that prevented her from running for several months. With the U.S. Olympic trials looming, she had to maintain her fitness as much as she could while being unable to run. So she learned how to swim. “I knew how to swim well enough not to drown,” she says, “but I didn’t know how to swim for fitness. Shalane Flanagan taught me quite a bit, because she swam in high school. The lifeguards at the Nike pool would also give me tips every day about hand placement and arm placement in my strokes. There were quite a few times where I had injuries and had to swim for six-to-eight weeks to maintain my fitness, and I know that there’s no way I would have come back to the track that fast if I hadn’t done all that work in the pool. Any time you get injured, it’s a humbling experience. Even after I made the Olympic team, I got injured after that. And you think, well, I’m an Olympic athlete, I should have all the confidence in the world when I step on to the starting line again. But I just came back from this injury, and I don’t want to get shown up by these other women who haven’t accomplished what I have! Sometimes you have to forget your accomplishments and make yourself get in there with whoever and give it your best that day with whatever training you have. If you can learn from others, don’t let your ego get in the way.”
Rebrand the tough things in your mind
Quigley did not like swimming at all. One day, when an injured teammate was heading to train in the pool, she told Quigley, “I’m going to go be a mermaid now.” Quigley quickly experienced a mindset shift. “Before, I would start to put my suit and my swim cap on, and I’m just like, ‘Ugh, this is going to be an annoying hour in my life,” But if you say ‘I’m going to be a mermaid,’ it sounds way more fun. It’s tricking your mind into thinking it’s a fun activity. I do the same thing with wine. I love wine, but during the season, I don’t drink at all. So I’ll put a wine glass out with dinner and fill it with sparkling water and trick my mind a little into making it feel more fancy and fun. I think people can relate to trying to find some fun in situations that aren’t ideal.
Get comfortable with the uncomfortable
Quigley started meditating a few years ago and soon discovered that training her mind was an important part of training her body. “I use the Headspace app for 10 minutes a day, the first thing in the morning, and it gets me off on the right foot for the day. After eight weeks of doing it every day, I found huge benefits in my running. I found it a lot easier to get into that zone of that concentrated peak performance in races. In my personal life, I felt like I could roll with the punches a lot easier. There are times in my workouts, where I will be running at an eight-mile tempo, where I’ll think, ‘This is not great. It hurts. And it sucks.’ But it’s just for this moment, and to be honest, it’s not getting any worse. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s just a steady, grinding pain. And if you can get to the point where you can accept it—it’s uncomfortable, and I’m going to be uncomfortable for a little while longer—it makes it easier to get through it. Your breathing begins to calm down, and it actually gets easier if you can accept that it will be uncomfortable.
Write it all down
Quigley keeps two separate journals. “I have a training journal, which is important for any athlete over weeks and months, and even years. You can see how your training is progressing. Patterns begin to emerge. If I got injured, was there a pattern of activity that may have contributed to it? If I had a great race, are there things I did differently that may have helped me? More recently, I also started using a bullet journal that you can make into whatever you want to help your life. I love using it as a way to organize my life and schedule things. I also have what’s called a habit tracker, where you create a square for each day and keep track of the daily habits you would like to have. If one of your habits is to drink more water every day, and over the holidays you see three days in a row where you aren’t drinking enough water, it helps you to get back on track. You can go a long time doing the same thing without realizing it. Journaling helps keep you mindful about important things in your life.”
Embrace the smaller details
As a runner, Quigley knows that a runner’s main job is, well, to run. But it’s all of the things that surround being a runner that Quigley feels are a great part of her success. “A lot of people as me what I do all day besides running,” Quigley says. “It’s more than just running. I’ll also spend an hour training in the gym. I’ll do rehab exercises to keep my feet healthy. I may go to yoga in the afternoon or swim. I take time preparing food because I enjoy that process of creating meals that are nourishing and fulfilling. All of those little things separate the good from the great, but you have to enjoy those things. If you don’t, it will feel like a job.
Despite being an elite steeplechase runner, Quigley has found great success recently as a 1,500-meter runner, finishing first in the mile at the prestigious 2018 Millrose Games in New York City. “People ask you three questions as a runner,” Quigley says. “How fast can you run a mile? Did you go to the Olympics? And have you run a marathon? Well, I’ve never run a marathon, but I have gone to the Olympics, and this year, I made the U.S. team that went to the world championships as a 1,500-meter runner, which was very special to me. Right now, I’m training for the steeplechase at the 2020 Games in Tokyo and I may even try for the 2024 Olympics, if my body holds up and allows me to do it. For me, running Is a lifestyle, not just a job. I’ve known some people who don’t enjoy the day-to-day at all. And somehow, they are still able to achieve these amazing things, but it still doesn’t make them happy. They are miserable during the process, and when they win, they are still miserable. If I don’t win or get a record, it would be really disappointing, but knowing that I spent four years having fun training for it and all that I put into it, and I’m going to enjoy the next four years trying again. I would much rather live life that way then feeling sad all of the time.