Savannah Shaw: Work Hard, Have Fun

Savannah Shaw: Work Hard, Have Fun

I never expected to be a good athlete. I had terrible hand-eye coordination and quit six different sports as a kid; I had pretty much decided that I should focus on art and reading.

But then I stumbled into running. In 8th grade, my friends convinced me to join cross country, and while I wasn't the biggest fan at first, at the end of the season my mom convinced me to try high school cross country. She told me she’d buy me a cute running outfit if I joined track, which left me with no choice but to say yes. Here’s where I owe a big thanks to my mom for encouraging (and bribing) me, because once I got over the initial horror of forcing my body to run on a daily basis, I found that I actually enjoyed it. 

But I didn’t love it for the reasons you might expect. I didn’t love it for the competitive outlet, cute outfits, or the way running made me feel. I loved it because of the people. I loved coming to practice and having conversations and laughs the whole way through. I found that running, particularly compared to other sports where there was a lot of silence and drills, allows people to connect with one another. When we run with friends, we disconnect from almost everything else in our lives and can focus on one another, and I loved that.

But, in time, I also found that I didn’t just love it—I was quite good at it, too. This was a very new phenomenon for me. By the end of that first high school cross country season, I thought to myself, “This is so fun and rewarding, and if I keep enjoying it, it would be incredible to get to compete in college (crazy! highly unlikely!) or even as a professional athlete (effectively impossible!).” I knew that the odds were low for me to find that level of success and the ability to do something I love for a sustained period of time. But somewhere deep inside, I never gave up on myself and continued to believe in what seemed like an impossibility. I found that I was so passionate about what I was doing that I would at least have the drive to get to that next level if all the other uncontrollable factors went my way. And slowly, they did.

Savannah competes in high school.

High school running opened the doors for me. I moved to Pittsburgh and was introduced to an amazing set of teammates and two coaches who preached working hard and having fun—and we did just that. I didn't have high expectations for myself besides working hard, but suddenly I had raced my way to all sorts of unexpected opportunities. When that crazy, highly unlikely dream of running in college started to become a reality, I was mainly deciding between Colorado, a historically great running program, and NC State, another historically great running program. I chose NC State because I believed strongly in the people there, and Laurie Henes showed that she was a coach who cares about athletes as people first. 

Savannah runs for NC State.

I'm so grateful I chose to go to NC State. Not just because we ended up winning two NCAA team titles while I was there (though that was pretty great!), but because I found a team culture like no other. NC State is a team full of people who support each other to the end and truly care about one another. Laurie is also a champion of 'work hard, have fun,' a mantra that has catapulted me to have some very fond memories and fantastic running performances alongside my teammates. But, in life, it’s not always ‘work hard, have fun.’ Sometimes things crop up that make one, or both, of those things impossible.

While I didn’t make it overly public at the time, my five years in college included some pretty low lows. I had an unhealthy relationship early on in college. It got to a point where my friends had an intervention with me to help me see the way I was being treated. After emerging from that relationship, I came to terms with my struggles with people-pleasing and learned how to have stronger boundaries. I still work on that to this day, but, as friends have told me, I've proudly made a lot of growth in the area. 

Around that same time, I developed intense racing anxiety. Before and during races, my mind would spiral to all the worst things that could happen. As a result, my performance and overall well-being suffered greatly. I was fortunate to have a sports psychologist at that time, and she was able to help me navigate this anxiety and work toward managing it. With the help of very supportive friends and family, my sports psych, and my coach, I was able to build back my confidence in running and life and ran my first 5k in 15:40 that spring. There were other extremely trying experiences I had during college, some that are objectively too personal to put on the internet, but it was yet again my support system that came through in a big way to help me heal. Life can be brutally painful and difficult, and I’m so grateful to the people I had around me during those moments.

Savannah races track at NC State.

But my career at NC State also had plenty of bright spots. After four years there, I was thriving. Each year had seen numerous PRs and fantastic races. Things weren't perfect, but I was continuing to get better. It seemed like I was on track to end my career at NC State on a high note. However, in September of my fifth year of eligibility I developed tendonitis. What I’d hoped would be a small flare up that kept me out for a short time ended up being a five month ordeal. By the time I was healthy again, all I had left was half an indoor track season and one outdoor track season until I was done. Indoor ended up going well despite my lack of fitness, but I started getting in my own way as outdoor track began. I kept thinking back to my dream of being a professional running and my love for my college team. Two very beautiful sources of motivation suddenly became a ticking time bomb in my mind. I only had a short amount of time left to spend with my teammates and to run well enough to earn a chance to run post-collegiately. Despite my best efforts, I struggled to race well with the pressure I was putting on myself. I’d qualified for NCAA Outdoors the previous two years, but ended up barely missing out on qualifying in my final season. I was heartbroken. I’d always assumed I’d be able to race that one final time in an NC State uniform, and now that moment was gone.

In the face of that heartbreak, I went back to basics. Back to what made me fall in love with running in the beginning: working hard and having fun. After graduation, I picked summer races I was excited about and focused on feeling good. That shift in mindset, and giving myself the freedom to run without pressure led me to a PR in the 1500m. I’d spent most of the season focusing on my main event, the 5000m, but suddenly there was a glimmer of hope that I’d be able to compete in the 1500m at the USATF Championships. A few days before the meet, I found out I had miraculously gotten in.

Savannah races at USAs. Photo: Gregorio Denny

The idea of being a part of the national championship had been in the back of my mind all year, but I had basically given up on it after not making the NCAAs in the 5000m. Suddenly, the opportunity to race one final time in an NC State uniform was here. And I found that I was a whole lot more confident than a month earlier. Racing at USAs was an incredible experience that left me excited to join the post-collegiate racing world. A few weeks later, I took my Tinman Elite visit, and I knew I’d found my new home.

Savannah and Katie run in Colorado.

I’ve always been a fan of the Boulder area. I’ve visited every year since I was 16, and I’ve often hoped I’d have the chance to live in Colorado. When I took my TME visit, I wasn’t just reminded of my love for the area, but I was fully sold by the community of the team. Everyone was so welcoming, and it was clear from the start that the ‘work hard, have fun’ mentality was alive and well in Boulder, CO.

Savannah's announcement photo for TME.

I haven’t stopped laughing and grinding since I’ve arrived. Coach Joan, the team, and the support staff have made it known that they care about the culture of the team. It’s clear that they want everyone to succeed as people and to enjoy the ride of professional running. They’ve built an atmosphere of success and happiness. It’s surreal to have come to this place after so many years of dreaming about this possibility, and I don’t intend to take a second of it for granted. Regardless of how long or successful my career ends up being, you better believe I’ll be trying my very best with a smile on my face.

Cheers xx

- Savannah

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