Harnessing Resilience III: Heather Kampf #82

Warwick Fairfax

September 7, 2021

It was moment seen by tens of millions of people across the globe thanks to a viral video: Heather Kampf falling during the final lap of an 800-meter race in college, then springing to her feet to not just catch her competition, but win. Yet Kampf cautions those amazed by her triumph to take a deeper message away from her 2008 feat than “Never give up.” What fueled her miraculous comeback was having a vision for the race long before it started and sticking to that vision when the crucible came. What she discovered about herself during that final lap — and in the setbacks and struggles before and since — is that her faith gives her access to another gear critical to harnessing resilience on and off the track.
You can watch Heather Kampf’s remarkable fall-and-finish during the 2008 Big 10 Track Championships by watching the video in this news story: www.bit.ly/harnessingresilience1. You can also follow the now-retired Kampf’s post-running career on Instagram at @heatherraekampf
To explore Crucible Leadership resources, and to pre-order Warwick Fairfax’s book, CRUCIBLE LEADERSHIP: EMBRACE YOUR TRIALS TO LEAD A LIFE OF SIGNIFICANCE, visit www.crucibleleadership.com

And don’t miss part 4 of “Harnessing Resilience” with guest Lucy Westlake, debuting Sept. 14.

Highlights

  • How gymnastics led to her passion for running (2:49)
  • The family ties that fuel her athleticism and competitiveness (5:48)
  • What she loves about running (8:57)
  • How she became known as The Queen on the Road Mile (11:13)
  • The awe-inspiring race seen by tens of millions (14:39)
  • The message she hopes people get from the video (19:41)
  •  Her other athletic crucibles beyond “the fall” (25:08)
  • Missing out on her Olympic dream when she was so close (27:29)
  • What’s next for her in retirement? (39:26)
  • How neither Warwick nor Heather is defined by their falls (42:07)
  • Why she didn’t stay on the ground when she fell (49:06)
  • Heather’s message of hope for listeners (51:54)
  • Key episode takeaways (55:19)

Transcript

Warwick F:

Welcome to Beyond the Crucible. I’m Warwick Fairfax, the founder of Crucible Leadership.

Gary S:

Welcome to week three of our six part series, Harnessing Resilience. I’m Gary Schneeberger, co-host of the show. We’re doing a deep dive on this subject because without resilience, there is no moving beyond our crucibles. We’re hearing from guests who found the resilience to overcome their setbacks and failures, as well as experts with practical insights and action steps to help you bolster your own ability to rise above life’s inevitable, unavoidable crucibles. Warwick and I talked this week with Heather Kampf, a champion distance runner who quite literally picked herself up, dusted herself off, and started all over again when she fell during a high profile race. She harnessed resilience on the spot in a way that has amazed tens of millions of people, including myself.

Warwick F:

Well, thank you so much, Heather, for being here. And yeah, we’ll get to that 2008 event in a moment. And listeners may be curious as to why something like that will get 12 million views on video, and you’ll find out soon why that is. And you’ll also find out what the lessons from it are, and maybe different than you’d think. I’d love to hear just a bit about the backstory. But as we’re recording, the Olympics have just finished. And I’m guessing, I don’t know, growing up in Australia, we always watched the Olympics. I’m guessing you were probably watching some of it and seeing what happened. And we just had some incredible athletes, the 400 meter hurdles were Sydney McLaughlin and Dalilah Muhammad. Actually something that’ll interest you Gary, Molly Seidel from Brookfield, Wisconsin.

Gary S:

Yeah, shout out to the Midwest!

Warwick F:

She won the bronze in the women’s marathon, which is amazing. And then for me being Australian, there was the great tussle between Ariarne Titmus and Katie Ledecky in the women’s 400 and 200. My kids had asked me, “Who are you cheering for?” And I wouldn’t answer. But since I’m dual citizenship, it’s hard not to cheer for the Aussie. So everyone’s got Olympic fever. So just tell me about the backstory, where you grew up and family, and what led you to have this just passion for running.

Heather K:

Yeah. So I grew up in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, just south of Minneapolis and St. Paul. I have an older sister, and we were pretty active kids doing a lot of just outdoor activities and things like that. But I think that my first sport love was really gymnastics actually. I love to just sprawl out in our backyard and do tumbling tricks and everything like that. So it was actually my gymnastics coach in my freshman year of high school who was challenging us all to races down the hallway of our high school as part of our conditioning drills. And he was a pretty fast guy, so he always would try to get the girls to give him a head start and then he would chase them down. But I was the first girl on the team who could give my coach a head start and still beat him in a flat sprint of a race.

Warwick F:

Wow.

Heather K:

So as much as I love gymnastics and spending time upside down, he was like, “You know what Heather? You should really think about trying track.” And I had a few other people in my life who had mentioned to me that that would be a good idea. Just in the US we have the presidential fitness testing by ed class. So we would do a mile run twice a year. And my goal was always to beat all the boys in my class. And so that was a point of pride for me to be the fastest kid in my grade. And I guess I didn’t really think that I would really love track as a full time sport. I thought it was just a nice thing to do a couple of times a year, because it seemed like it was just running in circles and it would be really boring. But it turns out I’m pretty competitive, and I really like things where I can see my progress, put the work in. And it really just translate well into the results later for the most part.

Heather K:

So I became really in love with the sport my freshman year. I made it to state as a relay member in two events. And then as they say, the rest is kind of history. I won a couple state titles in high school and got the attention of some amazing coaches at the University of Minnesota who brought me on board to run with the Gophers. And yeah, I think I was a competitive recruit to bring onto the division one scene, but I wasn’t by any means amazing. My primary event was the 800 at the time. So I ran 210.42 was my best in high school, if anyone likes to follow the times and the numbers in the track world. But my freshman year, just being around better competition and people that race, I went from 210 in my first ever collegiate race. I matched my best from high school to 203 in my second race.

Warwick F:

Wow.

Heather K:

It just suddenly put me on a completely different caliber and trajectory with some of the best in the nation in the NCAA. And I won the NCAA title as a freshmen indoor that year. So a few people asked me afterwards, “Oh, do you think you’ll go pro after this?” Because I just had developed so quickly there.

Warwick F:

Sure.

Heather K:

But I really valued my team and I valued getting an education for free, so stuck around college and then went pro after graduation.

Warwick F:

Wow. So do you have a history of athletes in your family or competitiveness? Because often you see people that are athletes, I mean their genetic pedigree is like wow. Like Sydney McLaughlin, I think both her parents raced at LSU or something. Did you have that kind of gene pool there?

Heather K:

Well, we have tried to trace some lineage to figure out just exactly where this is from. I had a great uncle who was a pretty good track athlete, and my dad was… he liked to pride himself in being most improved in wrestling. So he carried that trophy around the house, and he ran track as well. But I think that he joked that he was a varsity senior drinking team member, and like party, and wasn’t as serious about the athletics or just being very diligent and things. And I think my mom maybe is the one who is a little bit more diligent and, I don’t know, just really works hard towards whatever she’s doing. So I think that I just got between both of them. Once my dad grew up, that message that you get out what you put into things. And that really resonated with me to just give my best. And then the genetics, I guess, is a mix of many things.

Warwick F:

But it sounds like you loved running. I mean, sometimes high school athletes and tennis or wherever, you’ve got a really pushy parent saying you can do this, and they take him to all of the special clinics and all that. But it sounds like in your case, I’m sure your parents supported you, but it was you that really had a passion for running. It wasn’t like people were saying. Your parents saying you have to do this and this is your ticket. Was it more just you, your love of it?

Heather K:

Yeah. It was fairly organic for me to fall in love with it. And I actually was originally preparing music scholarship pieces to try and become… Go to school for music. I was a flutist. And so that was the thing that I was really good at and could have maybe had a future in, but my mom really had to force me to practice every day. And it wasn’t my passion in the same way that athletics was. So when I found out that I had a full scholarship opportunity for track, instead of having to continue perfecting my music, I was like, “Well, this sounds nice also.” And just decided to gear a little bit towards that. And no regrets about that. I’m really happy about where running has taken me and all the people that I’ve been able to connect with, because I really think what makes people fall in love with it at any level is the community of people that you find yourself surrounded by.

Warwick F:

Because obviously any athletic endeavor is hard. And it seems like the people that do well do it just for the love of the game and love of the sport. I think of Roger Federer, who’s like 40 years old playing tennis, and obviously he’s worth a huge amount of money, but it’s clear that he just loves playing tennis. I mean, eventually he’s going to have to stop soon, but he just loves it. He loves the competitiveness. Is that the same for you in the sense you love… I mean, what is it about running that you love? What makes you just want to get up in the morning and train and keep going?

Heather K:

Yeah, I think that it feels like this was a gift given to me by God. So from this time that I’ve been competing, it felt like to give anything less than my best is to sacrifice the gift, to quote Steve Prefontaine, a pretty famous runner.

Warwick F:

Right.

Heather K:

So yeah, I think for me it’s all about just bettering my best and seeing what I’m made of, and what potential I have and chasing that. Definitely as you age, it is a challenge because you might eventually get to a point where your best days are behind you, specifically for that time period.

Warwick F:

Right.

Heather K:

But what I’m looking forward to now in my post retirement life here, at age 34, is being able to chase new bests in this body that I have now, and just have personal bests every year and try new events and everything, because it really is a sport that you can do for life and I anticipate continuing to do that. My husband is a runner. He’s training for the Twin Cities Marathon this Fall. So a lot of times it’s just the best time of day for us to really connect and have conversations when we’re parallel running with each other, versus the intimidation of face-to-face contact that some men don’t love. So we have our best conversations on runs and everything.

Warwick F:

Well, I want to get to this 2008 event. But those listeners might be hearing it’s great to have conversations when you run. You’ve actually got to be reasonably fit, because if you’re totally out of breath, it’s hard to have a conversation. So you want to have a good conversation, you got to be somewhat fit.

Heather K:

That’s a reason to try and hang on to that.

Gary S:

It is absolutely true that the older you get the harder it is. I picked up running about 10 years ago, and I mean, I’m slow, okay? In little league in baseball, it took a triple to score me from second base. That’s how slow I was. And I’m still pretty slow, but there’s something about it that when you do get under your normal split for a mile, even if you’re just going around the neighborhood, there’s something about it that is very endorphin creating, very confidence creating. There’s just something about it that I love. So even though I’m a turtle, I still go out there and do it. And I am not. We’d be remiss if we didn’t say this, you earned the nickname during your career, which was Queen of the Road Mile. How did that come about?

Heather K:

Yeah. I totally agree with you on how finishing any run feels fulfilling.

Gary S:

Yeah.

Heather K:

But then yes. So I found myself just jumping into a few of these road races. It’s just a one mile road race. A lot of times it’s just a straight shot or sometimes you go out, take a left turn or whatever down one block and then come back the other way so that the start finishes close for people to watch. But for whatever reason, it just seemed like I had a knack for sniffing out the finish line and those, I guess you’d say. I just inordinately have had more success in road miles than I have in track miles or other races to a point where I haven’t made an Olympic team. But just watching the Olympics, you saw Laura Muir who got second in the 1500.

Heather K:

I finished within half second of her in a road mile before. So it’s just entertaining to recognize that your own strengths can borrow to different events a little bit better. And I think being more of a speed and power athlete background in gymnastics and shorter events have just the ability to put a little bit more force through the ground in the roads. And so I can power on pavement a little bit more. But mostly I think it’s just the purest form of racing. You don’t know where you are most of the time, because there aren’t clear markers on the course of exactly where you’re at.

Gary S:

Right.

Heather K:

So, you do this. For me at least I found that doing a long slow grind of just building up building up speed all the way to the finish would thin out the field, and then you just try to make the final punch to get to the tape first.

Gary S:

It sounds to me like it’s a little like the Fast and the Furious of running, right? It’s like everything’s a quarter mile at a time, right?

Heather K:

It’s drag racing. Yeah.

Gary S:

It’s drag racing sort of thing, but it’s running. Since this is a series about resilience, it seems like that might be a resilience point, or might’ve been a resilience point for you. And that you did these longer races, you did these longer things, but you found as you were trying different things that this one really fit you and you threw yourself into that. And there was some both success and satisfaction in doing so. Is that fair?

Heather K:

Definitely. It’s confidence producing to win races, and it’s joyful to be somewhere where you don’t feel the same pressure that you might feel on the track. So for me, I was just always happy to be there. And I was the person that was pulling everyone in to do warmups and cooldowns together, and sharing racing tips and everything, because I always thought if I’m supposed to be the expert at these, I can still win even if I tell someone else what I usually do on a certain course or something like that. So yeah, I think for me it was definitely taking some of that pressure off than just enjoying it.

Warwick F:

That’s awesome. So I want to get to what has brought you to prominence, which is a strange thing. So talk a bit about… There might be a few people that hasn’t seen that 2008, I guess, 600 meter indoor run, but..

Gary S:

And we will put that link in the show notes. And again, the context for why we do that will come out in our conversation here, but we’ll put it there so you can see it, because, as Heather will explain, it does not define her life, her experience, and her career, but it’s important to see as we talk about resilience. So we will have that in the show notes, for sure, just so you know.

Warwick F:

Absolutely.

Heather K:

Thanks Gary. Yeah. So I guess context first, this was the 2008 indoor Big Ten Championships at the University of Minnesota. So we were hosting that meet at home. My team, the Gophers, had just won their first ever Big Ten title, my freshman year indoors in… oh, sorry, excuse me, outdoors in 2006. And we won our first ever indoors in 2007. So our team was just on a bit of a tear of our own of feeling that momentum and success of working together. So this was the time of the season where my coach said that every athlete who had a potential to earn a point in any event would go to the well. They would do everything they can to try and earn points and succeed for the team. So as a fairly talented and versatile athlete myself, I was running both the mile and the 600 meters individually alongside the four by four on the last night of the event as well.

Heather K:

So, this occurred over two days. Usually the mile and the 600 meters prelims were on the first, and then you are referring to the 600 meter final, which happened maybe 45 minutes after the mile.

Warwick F:

Oh my gosh.

Heather K:

Yeah, it was definitely a very hefty schedule for anyone who’s followed track and field to know this, how tight those races were together.

Warwick F:

Yeah.

Heather K:

So I would wake up in the morning on Big Ten final days with my heart beating out of my chest, just knowing what I would need to accomplish that day. But as I said, I rely on my faith and in my racing and in competition. So I told myself all things are possible through Christ. And my other mantra was I’m a machine for the team, because it really didn’t seem like the kind of thing that a person could humanly do. So I like to think of myself as just this mechanical being that just would do what needs to be done to achieve what we wanted to do together. So that’s how I would enter into these events and what I was thinking about on the starting line of the race. And if you want, I can talk you through the race a little bit from my perspective.

Warwick F:

Yeah, please.

Heather K:

Sure, sure. Okay. So, the race started and as I had just finished my last race shortly before, I decided that I would just be a little bit conservative in the first two laps and let anyone who wanted to lead the race, lead the race, because Big Ten Championships are not about time. You don’t have to run the fastest, you just need to be first to earn the most points. So I followed behind a Penn State runner named Fawn Dorr, who was actually a really good 400 meter hurdler as well. And I just was biding my time until that final lap, where I started to make a move around the outside of her to really get into charge in the last lap and try and speed away with it. And just as I was going around her and cutting back into the inside lane, I felt a little bit of a nick on one of my heels. And as I was trying to correct for that foot feeling out of place, the other one felt like it got stepped on from behind. And I was just going down fast.

Heather K:

So from my recollection of things, I know that my hands hit the track, but what I pictured happening was that I just fell to a kneeling position, smack my hands on the ground, which is never a good place for your hands to be during a race, and then just got up and started running again. But it was really shocking to me once I did get up just to see how much distance the race has gapped me by at that point. I was like, “Man.” I really felt I don’t know why they got so far ahead of me, but I just really wanted to finish the race because I knew even if I got dead last in my heat that I would still earn one point for the team. And it was going to be a very tight finish for the championship overall.

Heather K:

So got back up and started running, and just started surprising myself because I was catching one person on the backstretch, and I thought, “Wow, that’s a lot better than I thought you were going to do. Pat on the back. Nice job, Heather, you caught one.” And it wasn’t until coming around the final curve of that last lap that I heard the in-house announcer say, “And watch out for Heather Dorniden,” which was my maiden name at the time. And I was like, “Yeah, watch out for me.” I just got this incredible surge of momentum where it felt like I was speeding up and everyone else was slowing down. And I had just enough gas in the tank to be able to sneak by my own teammate at the finish line to win my heat. So, that was my experience of it.

Heather K:

And I think afterwards, when everybody was just celebrating and telling me how amazing it was and how they couldn’t believe I did that, I was like, “You guys, I don’t really understand. It wasn’t that big of a deal.” And then my dad pulled out his video camera and showed me how I had actually fallen. And I didn’t just touch my hands to the track for a second, I fell on my stomach and was skidding on the track and really took some time down there for a second. And that was just completely not a part of my memories. I don’t know if I just shut my eyes really tight or what was going on there. But I think that when you have a really strong vision of what your goals are before you even start something, that positive vision is so much stronger than any obstacles that might step in your way. So for me, I think that that vision and my goal was just so prominent in my mind that it made everything else fall by the wayside so that I could still focus on what I was there for.

Warwick F:

I mean, for listeners who haven’t seen it, it’s a really incredible video of Heather falls down and gets up. And it’s like a movie except it’s real life. It’s somehow you overtake folks and edge out the other person to win. I mean, it’s unbelievable. And somehow this video, as you say, has gone viral, but I think you’ve hinted at it. But when people look at it, what’s the message that a lot of people get from it which is not the message you take? So talk about that, because you could watch the video and be inspired. But what’s the typical inspiration when people see it? Most people see it. What do they think?

Heather K:

I think the first thing that a lot of people say, well, one of two things, either never give up is the phrase that’s dropped on a lot of the versions of the videos with the music of choice and everything that people drop in there, or they just say, “Wow, that girl’s a beast.” I’m this competitive animal. And I’m like, “Man, I’m actually this really Midwestern polite girl who…”

Gary S:

Right.

Heather K:

This really only comes out in me in competition, which is partially why I love track. But yeah, it was a pretty magical moment.

Warwick F:

So the message for some people is, “Hey, when you fall down, don’t give up. Pick yourself up, you can still win.” But I think as you’ve just hinted, that’s not the message. I mean, I’m sure you’re not against that message, but the real message for you is somewhat different. What’s the real message for you?

Heather K:

Yeah. I think two things really, the first being what I’d mentioned about how I barely realized I fell. I think it’s really important to visualize whatever you plan to achieve in your life to really have that clear vision. And also I can adopt the whole never give up phrase, but I think I just need to add a little bit more beyond that to say, “Sure, never give up for all the reasons that people say about resilience. And you never win if you never try,” and stuff like that. But for me, it’s never give up because you never know when your greatest obstacle becomes your greatest opportunity to do things you never imagined you could, because I would never have pictured that I could have gotten up with 200 meters to go in a sprint race and win. But that gave me so much confidence going into the Olympic trials that summer and to follow through in the rest of my professional career to believe that I have this gear somewhere within me that I might need at some point again and it could be another magical moment like that.

Heather K:

And I’ve had so many opportunities throughout my life to speak in New York City for companies, and for schools and churches, and teams all over the world that are just interested in this compelling story, because anyone can look at a race and identify a moment in their life where either they’ve literally like me or figuratively at some point in their life felt like they fell on their face. And it can be really tough. And it usually doesn’t happen from fall to finish in 30 seconds.

Warwick F:

Right.

Heather K:

But it’s still is so important for you to stand back up and keep trying, because it might parlay into an entirely different career opportunity for me. It has to be able to speak and connect with people and just share a hopeful story.

Warwick F:

Yeah. What’s interesting, we talk a lot on this podcast about success versus significance and… Like you, both Gary and I, are people of faith, and so that has a certain context from that worldview. But you’ve achieved a lot of success at University of Minnesota and just some of the professionally and all, but yet you’ve had challenges. From what I understand, you’ve been injured a lot, which seems to be part and parcel of being an athlete. It’s just how many surgeries have you had. And just seems like it’s enormous for whatever reason. It just takes a toll on your body. So from understand, you’ve had a dream of making it to the Olympics and the Olympic trials, injuries and whatever made that a challenge. So talk a bit about that. Both what happened in terms of injuries, Olympic trials, and that whole success and significance. Because I often find that whatever success you have, if that’s what owns your soul, there’s always another level.

Warwick F:

We talk on it’s tough to be considered the greatest of all time, whether it’s in track or tennis or whatever it is, because somebody else like… Yeah, I love tennis, Roger Federer, he’s got like 20 majors, Rafa Nadal is at 20, and Novak Djokovic. If he’s healthy, he stands a pretty good chance of winning the US Open, winning four majors in a year, which hasn’t been done since rod Laver in ’68 or something. And so in all probability, he won’t be the greatest of all time. So you get the point is, you could translate that to track. So talk a bit about just the injuries, the Olympics, and the whole, if you had your self-esteem all wrapped up in success, and goals, and times, and… Anyway, does that make sense with all that?

Heather K:

Yeah, definitely. And I totally agree. I think even if you are the greatest of all time for now, time is still moving on, so the greatest is yet to come as I think we’ve seen with a lot of the young people at the Olympics.

Warwick F:

Especially in track, is there one time that’s 30 years old in track that still exists as a world record? I don’t know, but it’d be hard for me to believe.

Heather K:

Yeah, they’re moving along quickly.

Warwick F:

Yeah.

Heather K:

Yeah. I guess for me, the interesting part of my story is that I had been very durable for a very long time in my career. I had no major injuries that took me out of training or race in high school or college, or the first several years of my professional career. So my first major injury was the spring after I turned 30 years old. So I joke that it all goes downhill after 30, although that’s not the case.

Gary S:

It’s after 50.

Heather K:

And I think what’s challenging too about it is that a lot of times I think runners who stay healthy take up a lot of… It’s a point of pride to stay healthy because it’s a responsibility of yours to prioritize recovery and nutrition and stuff like that. But I just happened to fall on the ice while I was walking my dogs on a Minnesota winter day, and probably got a bone bruise on my sacrum. But I was literally walking the dogs before I was heading to the airport to go race in Scotland to that day. Not that day for racing, but flying out.

Warwick F:

Yeah.

Heather K:

And I think just all the sitting and then the competition and doing a long run and coming straight back into training 75 miles a week was too much to heal a bruise bone. So, that turned into a stress fracture a couple of months later. So, it’s like, I don’t want to say through no fault of my own, because I definitely should have been more respectful of the pain that I was having, but I just thought it’s because I fell, and it’s fine. So I’m just going to keep training. And I was preparing to try and make another world championship team outdoor that year. So, that was injury number one in 2017. And thankfully I got back from that one fairly quickly and was still able to race at the US Championships, albeit I had been running for about a week prior. So it was not the best performance I’ve ever had.

Heather K:

So following that, I think we just did so much physical therapy on that left side of my sacrum that I ended up having two consecutive stress reactions on the right side of my sacrum shortly thereafter in December in the spring of 2018. So after that, we’re just like, “You know what? You’re not as durable as we thought you were. We can’t just rush back into things. So let’s take a significant amount of time off just to really be able to get through this.” And from there, most of my injuries were mostly just soft tissue, tweaking hamstrings or calves or quads or something like that. But the timing I think is particularly what you’re referencing. That’s been really tough for me. So I was probably the fittest I’ve ever been then, and maybe ever will be at this point now. I ran my personal best in the 1500 meters and the 800 meters just before the Olympic trials in 2016.

Heather K:

And I really felt like I had a good shot to make that team. But I was doing a workout maybe a week or two before the trials, and was limping a little bit between sets, but didn’t really think too much of it because I just never had an injury like that before. But that turned into a full on blow out of my calf that I wasn’t able to walk or run at all really for the days leading up to the Olympic trials. And we did a lot of praying and a lot of care for it, and I was able to be back on my feet, but again, just didn’t perform the way I would want to given that you need to be basically at a hundred percent fitness and sharpness to be able to make a team in the US in such deep events.

Heather K:

So, that was probably the most heartbreaking one for me, because I really knew that everything was aligning perfectly for me. And then just so close to the actual moment where you really need that fitness, it didn’t align. And then since then, it’s just been similar stories of injuries popping up right before really important races, and trying to not freak out and manage them responsibly and get back on my feet to be able to perform well. But you have this time enough of getting into really good fitness and then never really being able to demonstrate that the way you want to, and knowing that that potential still exists within you, but feeling thwarted a lot of times. So it can be pretty frustrating.

Gary S:

In that situation, what you just described, what does resilience look like for you in that moment? What you just described. You’re getting in shape and you want to perform, and then you come to a point where you’re not able to perform. How do you move beyond that? How do you manifest resilience in that moment? Because throughout whatever crucible our listeners have been going through, there comes a time where they hit a wall. There are obstacles and there are walls which are a little bit harder to get through. How do you manifest resilience to get beyond that wall and maybe go to a different place or have a different goal? How does that work for you?

Heather K:

Yeah. For me personally, I think it’s a combination of things. The first would just be an unyielding optimism and belief in myself that I am capable of those things that I’ve set out to do, and a belief that I still have purpose and meaning throughout the process. So even if I’m not performing at my best, if I’m showing up and I’m sharing my story and I’m letting people know where I’m at, I think that is oftentimes more powerful than just watching someone who’s on the top of the world win everything.

Gary S:

Right.

Heather K:

Because that’s not very relatable. So I’ve been very intentional in involving and sharing my story with my fans and people who want to follow my experience in this sport, so that they know that even these people that you might elevate to superhuman levels because they’ve achieved great things at one point or another go through these hard times as well. And then as my coach would say, I’m a very developed goal setter. Whenever we have goal setting sessions, I’m coming with pages and pages of process-oriented goals along with the outcome oriented goals that I want to achieve. And it’s always important for me I think to focus on those processes, I guess, of the things that I can do on a daily basis, on a habitual routine that will in all likelihood lead towards success. And if I’m managing my sleep, and my recovery, and my nutrition, and listening to my body, and being an advocate for the things that I think I need in training with my coach and with my doctors, then in theory, things should work. And I get a lot of confidence and faith in that.

Heather K:

And then at the same time, if I’m hurt, I decided that I just want to be able to do 15 pull-ups in a row, and just start using my upper body in ways that I haven’t before, because I know that will lend new strengths for me later. And yeah, I don’t know how much of a math nerd you might be, but when I speak with kids, I always pull out this graph of an asymptote, which is basically Y equals one over X, so as a denominator.

Gary S:

Am so not a math nerd. I had no idea what that word meant when you said it. But I’m sorry. Go ahead.

Heather K:

No, it’s okay. So, if you picture a fraction where it’s one over X, any number. And that number is continually getting bigger and bigger. That fraction is going to get smaller and smaller and smaller, approaching zero but never actually reaching zero.

Warwick F:

Yeah.

Heather K:

So this has been my approach to my entire career. I think that on any given day, if there were no wind, if the weather were perfect, if I had the right people in the race, if I felt amazing and most perfectly healthy, maybe my absolute potential could be achieved. But most of us never actually have that perfect moment or the zero on this graph that we’re reaching towards. But as long as you’re still moving forward, as long as that denominator is getting bigger, you’re still learning, you’re still gaining experience, you’re still developing different skills you didn’t have before. For me, I think that that has been the process that I’ve decided to pursue is maybe I’m not exactly where I want to be, but I’m exactly where I need to be right now. And I’m going to gain as much knowledge and strengthen fitness as I can from this, and use it to push closer to that perfect day that we all keep chasing in the sport.

Warwick F:

What’s interesting, Heather, is a lot of us watch athletes and sports. And I always love the post game interviews. The vast majority of the successful ones talk the way you’ve just spoken. They say, “I focus on the process. What can I do today to get better?” The results and the outcome will take care of itself if I’ve trained well, eaten well, cooled down, warmed up, all of the things I need to do, analyze tactics. I’ve done all of the process well, then they’re able to accept the outcome as best as anybody can. They tend to be process orientated, the successful athletes. I mean, is that makes sense in your perspective?

Heather K:

Yeah. I think if you’re only focusing on the outcome, then you forget a lot of the things that you need to do to actually reach that outcome. And a lot of times in track and field, it’s not entirely in your control because there’s 10 to 12 other people on the starting line for me who have been trying to focus on their process and outcome as well. So you can only control yourself in those situations. And you see people fall down in races, which has happened to me plenty more times than just the one that we discussed today, that haven’t resulted in the same magic necessarily. So sometimes you think you’re doing everything right, and that’s all you can really control to have confidence on the starting line. But most recently at this Olympic trials, that was the case for me, where I thought I was doing everything right and was feeling really good, and then just started feeling a little bit off before the trials, only to learn that I had two stress reactions in my pelvis that I was just unfamiliar with what that pain is supposed to feel like.

Warwick F:

And this is the most recent ones for this year’s Olympics?

Heather K:

Yeah, in 2020.

Warwick F:

Yeah. So I just want to go back for a second, because what you went through, especially in 2016 was devastating. You thought I have a real shot of making the team and making my first Olympics, and then some injury comes at the worst possible time. And you’ve from what I understand in the last relatively recently retired from, I guess, I don’t know if you’d say professional athletics or just competitive in that sense with Olympic or national all age level. I mean, how did you get beyond this? Because I know you’re a person of faith like we are, but you’re still human. I mean, how in the world did you get beyond that? Because it would be easy to say, “Well, be angry at God, the universe.” It’s like, “Hey, this is so unfair.” I mean, I had a real shot. I was doing everything right and injury comes on. I mean, come on. I mean, really. How did you get beyond that? But it felt like this is so unfair.

Heather K:

Right. Yeah. I think partially for me it was a bit of recognizing that we make plans and God laughs.

Warwick F:

Right.

Heather K:

You think you can assign a purpose for yourself and you can tell yourself, “God has made me to be an Olympian.” I thought that this was my purpose and what I was meant to achieve and that I could use that platform to do good things in the world. And so, yeah, especially in 2016, I just felt like, “Okay, then what do we do all this for if we’re just going to take it away at the last second?” And he gives and takes away in all aspects of life. So I think just recognizing that maybe in those moments it’s an opportunity for me to recognize that, I was trying to impose my will on God instead of letting God’s will happen for me. And similarly, I raced at the World Championships indoor in 2014, and it felt like one of those God moments, because I actually didn’t qualify.

Heather K:

I was the alternate to make the team. And then days before the competition in Poland, I got a call that said, “Hey, Heather, the winner of the National Championship is injured, so we need to send the alternate. Can you get to Poland in two days?” And I’m like, “Wow, this is grace that I do not deserve, but I’m just going to go and try and make the most of it.” And I ran a personal best in the prelim, made the final, and I’m like, “Okay, I’m ready to medal. This is God’s perfect for me. He wants me to medal.”

Warwick F:

Yeah.

Heather K:

And I got tripped up and fell and knocked my knee out of the joint and got up and still was able to finish the race. But I just remember that you always wear a race bib on your chest.

Warwick F:

Sure.

Heather K:

And it was flapping from having fallen on my chest, and it wasn’t staying really in place. So, in that moment I just tore it off and threw it to the track to just finish the race in that really embarrassing, really far off distant last place. And it was in that moment that I was like, “Wow.” I forgot that I wasn’t representing myself, I wasn’t representing Team USA, I was here to represent God. And somewhere along the lines, I decided that I need a medal. And I think that He’s been entirely a little bit too Old Testament for me in terms of how quickly He roots me back into putting my faith in Him, instead of believing that I am just deserving of all the success. But it’s humbling for sure. So I think if anything, in those moments, it’s a chance for me to retool where I’m investing my identity and why I’m doing these things and what my purpose is in the sport, and making sure that I try to put God first in what I’m doing

Warwick F:

As listeners would know, I mean, it’s a different parallel, but I’ll try and make it short is, again listeners would know I grew up in this 150 year old family media business, very large, founded by a very strong believer. So I felt like as a person of faith, clearly it’s God’s plan for me to resurrect the company in the image of the founder and have it be well run. So I did this $2 billion plus takeover at age 26, which ended up failing spectacularly for a number of reasons. So I felt like I knew God’s purpose, and clearly if He’d want it to happen despite a lot of the setbacks I’ve faced, which most of them were my fault, still if God wanted to happen, it would have happened. So clearly He had another purpose. But to me it was pretty certain, “Hey, I’m going to be prominent in the country of Australia and I’m going to do this wonderful thing through this newspaper company.” Just seemed evident.

Warwick F:

And so I went to Oxford like other ancestors, worked on Wall Street, Harvard Business School. I mean, I’d did the equivalent of training my level best to be qualified for this position. And it didn’t work out. So that’s like 30 plus years ago. And so I’ve had some perspective. So talk about… As we’re in this resilience series, your professional career is now ended. Some of the goals you achieved, some didn’t. But what are the lessons that you’ve learned from that, and what do you see as your future, maybe the message maybe God has put on your heart or… Because people are going to be thinking, gosh. What’s the lesson in all this for Heather for us? And what’s Heather’s purpose now. So how do you look at all that?

Heather K:

Yeah. I mean, I think I’ll always look back fondly on these years of being able to compete at the highest level, and just test myself to see where I stack up against some of the world’s best. And I think that what I’ve learned from that, or what I’ll take forward from that is that if I put my everything into whatever I decide to do next, I can do something great there also. And just to have that sense of belief that there are more, I guess, adventures that I can explore and try to apply the same level of discipline that I have with this. But yeah, it will be memories that I will be very excited to share with kids that I coach. I coach some adult athletes, and regardless of whatever level you’re at, I think that it can still be so applicable and relatable to be able to share those kinds of stories.

Heather K:

So it just made me who I am as a person. And I think you’re molded through both the triumphs and the failures, and it will just make me more resilient, as we’ve been talking about, to be able to face whatever’s happening next. And yeah, I definitely think that I’ve applied what I’ve learned through athletics in facing challenges in my employment, and in my marriage, and in friendships and family and stuff like that, that I don’t know how else I would have gotten such clear evidence in a world where it’s safe to make mistakes. If you screw up in a race, it’s sad and maybe it will be for me a reason that I don’t get another opportunity or I don’t make as much money in the sport.

Heather K:

But you have those four and a half minutes in a mile to really put yourself out there and take risks and see what you’re made of. And then you can go back and eat dinner and go to bed and start your next day over and keep training. So it’s like a really short way to just test yourself, giving everything that you have to something, and then apply that to the things that are most important, long-term.

Gary S:

I have to say, do you say four and a half minutes in a mile? I’m thinking, “Oh, come on.” It’s like nine minutes and 45 seconds in a mile for me, but that’s a whole different story. I thought it was really interesting Warwick that you told your story in the context of our conversation with Heather. There was a story. One of the things that I did some research on as we were preparing for this, Heather, was a story that the Mankato Free Press did on you, off of a speech that you gave to some marathoners. And in the second sentence of their story, they’re talking about the 2008 fall, get up, finish the race, and win. And then they say, “Search her name plus fall, and you can see it for yourself.” So I thought, how big is this? So I searched Heather Kampf and fall, and it returns 6,170,000 results. Now, Warwick, I know you feel like… And there was a book written the Fall Of The House Of Fairfax about your takeover.

Warwick F:

Sure.

Gary S:

And you said many times you feel like that’s all people know you for. You’d be happy to know, I think, that Warwick Fairfax and fall only has 2,270,000.

Warwick F:

Thank you so much for telling me.

Gary S:

No, here’s my point though. Here is my point for bringing all this up, neither one of you are defined by the falls, right?

Warwick F:

Right.

Gary S:

You’re defined by the resilience and how you came back from that. Heather, you’re speaking in that story. Warwick you’re hosting this podcast and writing your book coming out October 19th. You’re not defined by what Google says you should be defined by. So it doesn’t matter what terms people put in there. You’re living lives with resilience, focused on achieving significance not just success. And that’s something I think I hope listeners can take away from this conversation as we continue.

Warwick F:

Yeah. I mean, such a great point. I mean, what I’m curious about really in this vein, Heather, is there’s a dance between… there’s nothing wrong with going for your goals, for trying to achieve success. I think most of us have seen Chariots Of Fire. And I guess as an athlete, you probably have seen that movie. And there’s a great line when Eric Liddell, the great Scottish runner, says, “I feel like God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” I mean, that’s just such an incredible line. So talk about how it’s okay to strive for goals. But how do you stop having your whole sense of self wrapped up in a goal? So, how do you be both as excellent as you can be, which I believe scripturally we’re meant to give our all as if we’re doing it unto the Lord, there’s scripture backing that up? But how do you give it your all, but yet not have the result own you? How do you achieve that balance?

Heather K:

Yeah. I would say that I have worked on it a lot over the years because I definitely have had moments in my life where my identity was more wrapped up in running. And I think this beyond just the learning moments of recognizing, “Wow, I cried for days over false starting at this one race,” and life will go on and more opportunities will exist. And just getting the benefit of hindsight in those situations, but also just grounding myself in real things and recognizing what my priorities are, and knowing what will be there for me no matter how things turn out. So for me it was like my coach in college would always say, “Well, the sun will rise tomorrow and your mom will still love you.” So regardless of how you perform, the sun is still going to come up tomorrow and you’re going to still have people that care for you, the person, instead of just you, the athlete.

Heather K:

And I’ve been so blessed to be surrounded by just the best coaches and the best teams of people who have supported me because they want to see me do well and they want to share in that success with me. Because I think when you talk about success versus significance, Gary, it’s just really to me like significance is success shared. And what I love most about that Big Ten video that nobody gets to see because they cut it off right after the race is over, is that A, I didn’t actually win the Big Ten 600 meters in 2008. I was second. And that is because they split the race into two heats. And my heat was usually considered the fastest heat. They put all the fastest heats in that one. But there was a girl who ran two tenths of a second faster from the first heat.

Heather K:

And I didn’t realize that until the very end of the meet, everything had already been tabulated for the team results. But we knew that we had won the meet as a team. So I’m really excited for everyone. We’d won by eight points. And it wasn’t until they’re having us each come up for our individual medals that I was standing at the medal podium waiting to take my first place medal for the 600. And this girl had to tap me on the shoulder and be like, “Heather, I actually won.” And so I had to hop down to the second place podium spot.

Heather K:

But for people who are aware of track and field, you get 10 points for winning a race and you get eight points for getting second. And our team margin of victory was eight points. So it was just that moment where it’s like, “Wow, if I hadn’t gotten up, or finished the race, or finished just exactly where I did, we would have tied or lost at best.” So it’s just like those things you never really know how it’s going impact the hundred women that were on my team and the coaches and the people who have had the pleasure of watching this video, all 6 million of them or whatever it is. And I just think that is the definition of significance is when you can touch people’s lives and give them hope and a reason to keep thriving for whatever they’re chasing in their life. So yeah, just being able to share that success and being humble enough to know that it wasn’t just all you, but it came from somewhere beyond. That is pretty great.

Gary S:

And this is the moment in the show where I customarily say, “Did you hear that? That’s the sound of the captain turning on the fasten seatbelt sign.” But Heather gave me a tip beforehand that I can say, “Did you hear that bell? That bell means we’re entering the final lap of the race.” So we’re getting to the point where the tape will be broken here in a little bit, and we’re going to finish our conversation. But we’ve got a little bit more time left, so stick with us listener.

Gary S:

I want to point out one thing that you just said, Heather. You probably didn’t even realize it in the same way that you didn’t realize exactly everything that happened in that viral video when you fell down and how far you fell down. You said in that video 6 million or whatever people who watched it, right? There was at least 12 million people who saw that video based on the story I saw, which was from two years ago. The fact that you don’t know that number speaks volumes about what’s important to you, what your character is like, what significance versus success looks like for you. Because you don’t have a tally somewhere in your house where you check off each new million person that gets in. And that’s a critically important thing.

Gary S:

I want to read something from the article that led me to even find you. And that was Forbes Magazine in 2018, did a story called the Three Strategies Experts Use to Overcome Failure. And they cited your fall, your getting up and winning that heat. And this is what they say here, “Everyone would have understood if she’d stayed there on the ground, convinced she’d failed and there was no chance of recovering from a fall like that. But she didn’t stay on the ground. She got up, she finished what she started, and she emerged the champion.” Well, they didn’t get that right. The champion of that heat will say that Heather went on to become a four time US national champion, and now professionally competes internationally as a middle distance runner.

Gary S:

Here’s the end of this thing that I want to pose to you because it’s a question. And I would like you to answer this for our listeners. What if she had let that moment define her? What if she had stayed on the ground admitting defeat? What if it had changed the entire trajectory of her career or her life? How would you answer those questions?

Heather K:

That’s heavy. Yeah. I don’t know. I think in some ways maybe what they don’t realize, because it was less on anyone’s radar, was that I had done that once already. I had stayed down. I didn’t finish a race after I fell in high school, and I realized that I never wanted to do that again. It was the state meet my senior year at cross country and I tripped and fell and was completely falling off the lead pack of the race where I thought I should finish. And I got up and was a little delirious, and I was weaving around, and somebody asked me, “Are you okay?” And just looked right at me. And I just started bawling and I didn’t finish the race. And A, it was really embarrassing to be ranked in the top 10 in the state and not even to finish the race, but B it gave me a lifelong lesson that I never want to feel that way again.

Heather K:

So I think maybe if I hadn’t had that experience then, and I had stayed down in college instead, it would have probably given me just knowing my personality, the same general trajectory of knowing that after that day. I would never want to feel that way again. I know I’d still keep fighting and trying and just showing up. But yeah, I guess if it maybe had some deeper impact on me that made me realize that maybe I’m not cut out for this, I’m not as tough as I need to be, I probably wouldn’t have continued in this sport after college. And that would be the end of my running story as far as people who follow it. But no.

Warwick F:

Wow. Well, I guess as we conclude Heather, thank you so much for sharing. People listening will have had setbacks, failures. What kind of message of hope would you give them? Because sometimes when we’re young, we have this dream of what we want to achieve. And we might achieve some goal but maybe not all of them. Sometime maybe the gears have to shift, like in your case, competitive running at least in terms of all age groups as you’ve now moved to a different phase. So talk about what would a message of hope be for people that have had setbacks, or maybe the original dream they had was partially achieved, but maybe not completely, they’ve had to move on. What message of hope would you give people?

Heather K:

Yeah, I think first of all, it sounds trite, but it’s all about the journey, not about the destination. So if you’ve made the most of your journey along the way, then you can rest peacefully knowing that you gave everything you had to get to wherever you did. And that is commendable. And then I guess now from the perspective I’ve been, when Gary and I first spoke to decide that I would be coming on this podcast, I wasn’t able to talk about retirement without crying.

Gary S:

Yeah.

Heather K:

So the fact that I am getting through the entire podcast to be able to define myself as a retired professional runner is a good sign. And what I didn’t expect to find on the other side of this was a little bit of relief or peace, and just recognizing that you put so much into something and you still… As much as I try not to invest my entire identity into it, it is a little bit of a trap. And when you escape from that trap then you give yourself the chance to just look at the world as your oyster in this new opportunity.

Heather K:

I’m headed after this interview to go probably accept a new job offer. And it’s really exciting to just have a new avenue to explore in my life. And I guess I perhaps maybe even held onto the stream for a little bit too long and looking back at things now and just recognizing the ups and downs of my injuries that weren’t healing, that perhaps I could have had this experience sooner. But for me it was the right time. And I was really glad to get one more shot. This was my fourth Olympic trials this summer. To just feel like I left it in a place that I can be okay with no matter the outcome. So if you can be intentional about that and just get to that place where you know you gave it all, then just get really excited for whatever’s on the next page when you turn it over.

Gary S:

Wow. I’ve been in the communications business long enough to know when the final word is spoken on a subject, and Heather has spoken the final word, broken through the finish line tape, won her heat, and I’m going to award her the gold medal on this one for her perspective on resilience. Before I go into and do a wrap up of what I think are three excellent takeaways from what you said here, Heather, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give you the chance to let listeners know how they can find you perhaps on social media so they can follow what is next in your life as you continue to use resilience to chart your course forward.

Heather K:

Sure. I am primarily most active, I would say, on Instagram and Twitter a little bit, just because everything posts there as well. But it’s just my full name at Heather Rae, R-A-E, Kampf, K-A-M-P-F. And that’s my handle on both of those things. And yeah, you can follow whatever’s next in my hobby jogging and my dogs, and whatever else I do in my career.

Gary S:

Awesome. Well, here listener are those three takeaways really quickly in this episode of our resilience series that come from Heather. First one, never give up. There’s a caveat to this. I’m going to keep talking, because it’s not just never give up period, exclamation point. It’s never give up in the short-term or the long-term, because as Heather says, you never know when your greatest obstacle will become your greatest opportunity. That’s something that Warwick talks about a lot here at Crucible Leadership as well. Number two, have a plan and stick with it. Heather’s plan was not to fall during the final third of that Big Ten race in 2008, it was at least to finish and win her team a point in the competition. That was what got her up off the ground. The rest was the result of that resilience to follow the plan even against long odds.

Gary S:

And the third point, and I love this phrase to the point that you should copyright it, Heather, because it’s good, develop an unyielding optimism. I’ll say it again, an unyielding optimism. That’s what Heather said she has developed. You can inspire people often in deeper ways by continuing on in pursuit of process oriented goals rather than achievement oriented goals, which to me sounds a lot like pursuing a life of significance not just a life of success. It’s fitting in episode three of our Harnessing Resilience series, featured a distance runner, because we’re now halfway through our journey to the finish line in our exploration of this critical aspect of moving beyond our crucibles. Be sure to join us next week when you’ll meet Lucy Westlake, a young mountain climber who was barely a teenager when she tried to scale Denali, the highest peak in North America. She did not succeed, but she also did not give up. She harnessed resilience and tried it again four years late. What happened, you’ll have to listen September 14th when part four of Harnessing Resilience goes live.

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