Running into a New Adventure: Two cross-country student-athletes on running and identity

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Bikes, three people on a bridge

Bike rentals from The Mountain Man Outdoor Shop in Dingle, Ireland

Quiet, runner: In middle and high school, I was often summed up in these two words.  In the eyes of those who didn’t know me well, my reserved disposition and passion for running cross-country defined me. Throughout my first years of college, both of those identifiers have evolved. In my time abroad, I look forward to reconnecting with myself outside of life as a student athlete.

Running has always been a source of freedom and mobility in my life, a way to exist with myself and process thoughts.  Addicted to the “runners high,” I wholeheartedly relied on running to relieve stress and maintain my mental health. While I initially balked at the thought of leaving my cross-country team for a semester abroad, pushing through a persistent injury this year caused physical and mental stress. Rather than continue the cycle of over-use injuries, I made the daunting decision to take time off from running competitively by studying abroad at University College Cork this spring.

person by cliff walk

Ballycotton Cliff Walk

As I start building up my running ability again, being in Ireland has given me space to consider new athletic goals outside of my team and sport.  On my first weekend here, I travelled to the Ballycotton Cliff Walk with new friends. Despite the bus driver’s helpful warning about the intense winds, we hiked alongside a cliff, buffeted by the wind the whole way.  The next weekend, we biked 30 miles around the Dingle Peninsula. Biking amidst the rolling hills imparted a more intimate experience than a manufactured tour bus ride. As sheep stuck their heads out of fences in greeting and the ocean pounded cliffs nearby, Dingle and all its natural beauty seemed to greet us warmly.

Main street

Main street in Dingle

As I start building up my running ability again, being in Ireland has given me space to consider new athletic goals outside of my team and sport.  On my first weekend here, I travelled to the Ballycotton Cliff Walk with new friends. Despite the bus driver’s helpful warning about the intense winds, we hiked alongside a cliff, buffeted by the wind the whole way.  The next weekend, we biked 30 miles around the Dingle Peninsula. Biking amidst the rolling hills imparted a more intimate experience than a manufactured tour bus ride. As sheep stuck their heads out of fences in greeting and the ocean pounded cliffs nearby, Dingle and all its natural beauty seemed to greet us warmly.

Through these local adventures, I am beginning to feel the same sense of freedom I crave without causing physical damage.  I’m starting to see that there is a world far wider than one specific race goal or one type of physical activity. Athletic activities don’t always need to be results-oriented and can instead center on adventure and understanding.

While my time in Cork is helping me temporarily disconnect from running, for Whitney White, a cross-country runner at Colby College in Maine, running during her semester in Ireland helps reaffirm her sense of self.

“Running has always been a really consistent thing in my life,” said White.  “Even though it is hard going to another country and another school system, I still have something I can hang onto that is a part of me.”

When considering where to study abroad, White suggests that student athletes research pictures of the university’s athletic facilities as well as taking into account the general safety of the city.  Her running route considerations include: whether a city has public parks, how many people occupy the streets at different times of day, and whether there are lots of intersections with long waits at crossing lights.

“The reality of being a female runner is that we have to be aware of our surroundings at all times,” said White.  “As a small city, Cork is a good place to be.”

Cliffs along the Dingle Peninsula

Cliffs along the Dingle Peninsula

White explores Cork during her training runs, and enjoys “covering lots of ground,” while stumbling upon unique local areas.

“It’s special that I have the ability to do my sport wherever I am,” explained White.  “It’s fulfilling to be able to explore different places and always know that running is a part of me that doesn’t change no matter where I am.”

For Whitney, training abroad as a student athlete is a way to feel more at home. For me, I have recognized the need to create my own identity rather than accepting and reinforcing others’ perceptions of the “quiet runner.”  While my time in Ireland has only just begun, I am starting to connect my present experiences here with my past. In time, I hope my adventures in Ireland will influence an increasingly positive mindset and help me form new goals for the future.

Quick Tips for Runners Studying Abroad:

  • Don’t be daunted by treadmills and weights with different units of measure: Make a cheat sheet with your go to paces or download a unit conversion app like Units Plus to save yourself from mid-run mental math.
  • Check out the streets before you run a route: Some European cities are filled with uneven cobblestone streets which can increase the chances of foot injury.
  • Search for local running groups in the area or connect with the university team: Even if you don’t join on every run it’s useful to know what routes are safest (and which ones are filled with hills).
  • Running is amazing but save time to explore and cross-train too: Don’t be afraid to say yes to hikes, bike rides, and kayaking trips.

Hannah Southwick is an English major at Colby College and is studying abroad with IFSA at University College, Cork in Ireland in Fall 2020. 

Article by Hannah Southwick