The Return of Connor Winter
As I stumbled across the finish line I knew it was all over. The end of everything that I had chased for as long as I could remember. I had sacrificed everything in the pursuit of this one goal—and I had fallen well short. All I wanted to do was find a place to hide so that no one could see the emotions that I was feeling in that moment.
I had just missed qualifying for the NCAA Championships in my final season at the University of Colorado. It was my second year competing in the 3,000 meter steeplechase. After qualifying for NCAAs last spring, just months after my first steeple. I had made the mistake of going into Regionals just assuming that I would qualify again this year. I had it all planned out—qualify for NCAAs and run my way to a high finish in the steeplechase final, earning an opportunity to keep running after college. But that all changed when I failed to qualify for NCAAs.
Our sport has a short-term memory. Athletes who string together incredible collegiate careers are overlooked after an injury in their senior year. Post-collegiate athletes have their contracts dramatically reduced if they have a rough season, if they’re lucky enough to secure a contract at all. In a sport where the only guarantee is uncertainty, there is no room for anything but the opposite. So, after an end to my college career that left my health in question and my options limited, I was faced with a harsh reality:
I SLOWLY BEGAN TO REALIZE THAT THIS COULD BE THE END OF MY RUNNING CAREER.
Once the season was over, there was no more running. It was over. Just like that, no next step, no next level, it was just over. At first, I was relieved that the constant pressure and expectation to perform was gone. I could do whatever I wanted to do, whenever I wanted to do it. I didn’t spend a second worrying about how something might affect my running. I let my body and mind recover from the mental and physical grind that was collegiate running.
Don’t get me wrong—I loved every second of the grind. All the miles, mental struggle, and monotony was made worthwhile by the memories I had made while at CU. Alongside my fellow Buffs, I was part of back-to-back Cross Country National titles, broke 4 minutes in the mile, and won the PAC-12 Track championships. The biggest problem for me was that my identity lied in the wrong things. My blinders were on, and I was completely unaware of how special these moments truly were, and how special it was to share them with people I cared about.
My identity as a person was entirely defined by my running. My happiness and worth was tied to my performances. One moment, my self-worth would be off the charts as I broke 4 minutes in the mile, and the next moment I would find myself questioning my value because of something as irrelevant as a bad workout. This mindset was damaging, and not sustainable. In order for me to realize who I was, I needed to lose running.
Ironically, my lowest point was not after failing to qualify for NCAAs. It came a few months later. After graduating and watching my teammates and friends move on from CU, I had moved in with my Grandma, broken up with my girlfriend, and could hardly lift my left leg to put my sock on in the morning. I didn’t recognize myself. It seemed like there was nothing left of my previous life. It had all been suddenly ripped away. I felt lost and out of control.
Upon graduating from CU, athletes have an ‘exit physical exam’ with the sports trainer. I told her that I couldn’t sleep at night or put my socks on because my left hip was in too much pain. We decided to get an MRI and sure enough, my labrum was torn due to my femur being sharp and rubbing on the socket. And, just for good measure, my adductor had torn off the bone due to all the tightness in my hip.
At first, I wasn’t sure how to feel about the physical damage running had caused my body. Part of me was relieved to know why I had fallen apart at the end of the season. Most of me was sad to face the possibility that I might never run again. The doctor and I decided that surgery was the best option to fix my hip. The process would include a five-hour surgery to repair the hip and adductor, then six months of recovery with no running.
My recovery process went well—maybe a bit too well. During my six months of rest, I had been spoiled by Grandma’s good cooking and even better desserts. I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize the person reflected back at me. I had gained 20 pounds, and showed no signs of stopping.
It was at that point that I decided that I had a choice to make: I could waste my God-given talent, or I could get out the door and go for a run. I opted for the latter. On my first run back from surgery, I was a mess. My legs had chaffed so badly that I could hardly walk and every muscle in my body hurt. After that I went out and bought some ‘dad-shorts’ so my thighs wouldn’t chafe, and kept at it. I stayed patient, and my runs were nothing special—just a few minutes each day. Eventually I was running pain free and was enjoying running again. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the beginning of the comeback to competitive running.
Losing running made me reevaluate why I was a runner in the first place. In college, I had forgotten to enjoy going for a run. I had begun to feel like each run was a chore, rather than a choice. In those first few weeks of chafing-filled jogs, I rediscovered the reasons why I began running.
But despite my love for the sport being rekindled, there was still something that was missing that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I was getting back into decent shape and had started doing some longer runs and fartleks, but I felt so isolated.
One day, a friend invited me to go on a run with them. On that single run, things fell into place, and I realized that the missing piece was the comradery of the sport. There is something so special about suffering alongside someone who is chasing after the same things. There is an unspoken bond between teammates that cannot be explained, but is something that sticks with you forever.
I knew that if I was going to take running seriously again I needed to find a team to train with. Not just a group of guys—but a team. A team that truly cared about each member and wanted to bring out the best in each other. There were two problems: the first was that I was a washed-up, has-been runner who hadn’t done anything with running in over two years. The second was that I was doubtful I could find a team that truly was a team, not just a collection of individuals pursuing their own goals.
After looking around for a while, I got connected to Tinman Elite through my soft-tissue therapist, Marcus Allen-Hille, who also works with a couple of the guys from the team. They came out to run with me, I’m not sure if they came out curiosity or pity, or just to see whether or not I still had anything left in the tank. I immediately latched on to their vision for what a team should look like and the goals they were striving for. I started with jumping in some of their workouts, grateful for the opportunity to hang on for dear life on the back and try not to get dropped.
After a couple of months, the Tinman training began to take full effect, and I had never felt better. I just kept grinding and looking forward to each opportunity to train with such great guys. When it finally came to time to test the fitness and go for a race, I had no idea what to expect.
Most of the team had signed up to race at Emma Coburn’s Elk Run 5k, hosted in Crested Butte, CO at 9,000’ elevation. I decided that would be as good of opener as any. Born and raised at altitude, I felt confident that the playing field would be more level for me. To my surprise, I ran away from the field and won the race in a new course record time. Breaking that tape brought in a flood of emotions—gratitude that my body was allowing me to do this, elation that running felt natural again, excitement for what my future could now hold. This is when I knew that I had found something special. I loved running again, I was performing well, and I was surrounded by supportive and encouraging people.
When I first started to jump into those workouts with the guys, I had no expectations that I would officially become a part of Tinman Elite. I was grateful that they were nice enough to let me tag along, but aware of how my situation must have seemed to them. Over time, I began to see the possibilities that I had seen at the end of college again. I began to feel that I had the ability to do something that I love and to push myself to the absolute limit of my potential. More importantly, I had found a team of likeminded runners that shared that same love, and believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself.
The journey is far from over, but I know that there is no other group of guys that I would want to do this with. I am sure there will be plenty of ups and downs, but through it all I can count on the unwavering support of my teammates and sharing in the joy that each one of them brings to running. If there is anything that I’ve learned through this experience, it’s to never give up on what you love and find people who will help you get there!
On June 8, 2019, Connor made his debut in the 10,000m, crossing the line in 28:34—a new Tinman Elite team record and a mark that automatically qualified him to compete at the USATF Outdoor Championships. Connor’s patience, self-belief, and investment in his teammates adds a comforting presence to Tinman Elite that is irreplaceable.
WATCH CONNOR'S RACE:
Photos by Ben Weingart and Michael Scott
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