When I Woke

Yesterday morning I woke up in that blurry line between dream and reality, when it’s not quite clear which is which. I had just received an offer for a job I’d be perfect for, with three years worth of pay upfront. The number was written down on a note and slid across the table to me, just like a scene out of a movie. I would have been crazy to turn it down. In reality, I devote my time to pretty difficult and obscure pursuits, one of which I may never be physically capable of reaching a high level at, and one of which I have innate ability and a lifetime of experience to match, but don’t necessarily have the entrepreneurial skill set or magnetism to make a viable go at it on my own. In my dream I was being offered an out. I woke up before I could make a decision, but still the choice weighed heavy on my heart.

It’s easy to romanticize difficult pursuits, especially when the outcome is picture perfect. Overcoming hardship makes for a great story, like Boris Berian going from working at a Walmart McDonald’s to becoming the 800m 2016 Indoor World Champ and a member of the 2016 US Olympic Team. But what if you take away the happy ending for a moment and go back a couple years? You have a non-sponsored college dropout working a minimum wage job while chasing a pipe dream. Put yourself in his shoes two years ago when asked the seemingly simple question, “So, what do you do?” Responding that he was an employee at a fast food chain certainly wouldn’t have told the whole story. But saying “I’m a runner” would likely have been met with curiosity (at best), a blank stare, a change of subject, quiet skepticism, or prodding for more information, leading to “well, I’m training to be a professional runner… no, I haven’t run a marathon… no, I don’t get paid…” I can’t speak for Berian, but as a fellow pursuer of feats in fringy terrain, conversations like those naturally happen all the time. As much as everyone loves a good story, not everyone is accepting or comfortable with the making of one.

Boris Berian Pre Classic 2016
Boris Berian after winning the 800m at the 2016 Pre Classic! Read more about his incredible story here.

I left my full time job in 2012 to pursue music instead and it was probably the most awkward time of my life. I resumed taking classical piano lessons after a few years off since college, began writing and recording music under Pink Feathers, and signed on to tour with the first RAC live show in 2013. I was doing all the things that I loved and felt like I was taking my life in the right direction, but I was temporarily jobless and very uncomfortable talking about it. Former colleagues would ask “So, uh, how’s that music thing going?” with a hint of sympathy. When I’d mention the upcoming tour, it felt like a lie because it hadn’t happened yet. I thought of my parents, who had been completely supportive of my decision, when they would inevitably be asked by their friends or colleagues, “So, what’s Liz been up to?” and wondered what they’d say and if they felt weird about it too.

As the years have gone by and as I’ve put out music and toured North America and beyond with RAC many times over and even with Pink Feathers this past fall, I’ve come to better terms with what I do but often times it feels like a double life. It feels odd to tell people I’m a recording artist and touring musician because it’s not normal (on a related note, Alexi Pappas just put out a short film very fitting for this topic, “When Runners Don’t Have Real Jobs“… ha!). I’m not some big rock star, but I do make a living from playing music. One of my biggest struggles is putting off or holding back on sharing what I’m working on or being totally wild onstage out of some sort of self-preservation. The more you put yourself out there in any pursuit, the more likely you are to get torn down. I know from experience, and I have a hard time dealing with it. There are moments when I come out of my shell, but many more moments that I play it safe. Despite the constant self-doubting, the thought of accepting that perfect-on-paper job out in whichever alternative universe brings me no joy at all; it just presents an easy way out.

Two weeks ago I went to Eugene, Oregon to watch the US Track & Field Olympic Trials, where the Olympic Team was determined by the top competitors in each event. I can’t tell you how much of a thrill it was to see these athletes run (and jump and throw) their guts out in the pursuit of a dream they’ve been working toward for years and years. After witnessing the events in real life and meet some of the runners and hear their stories, I had a sort of revelation that these weren’t otherworldly superhumans, though they certainly looked the part out on the track. They were regular human beings that worked really, really hard to get there. Even innate talent needs to be developed. Seeing what they were accomplishing gave me a renewed belief that I can get to where I’m going too, however rocky, embarrassing, or heartbreaking the path may be.

Athena Delene Trials Marc Wieczorak
My friends and I randomly bumped into Mark Wieczorak at the US Olympic Trials. I remember when I first saw him compete at the 2012 Trials. He was an unattached (no sponsor) high school cross country coach competing in a stripey American Eagle t-shirt and matching sweatband. He surprised everyone by placing 7th in the 800m final with a crazy fast time of 1:45. Read more about Mark’s story here. Photo by Athena Delene

In a recent ballet class, my instructor observed me and the other students as we performed the adagio routine she had just taught us. I wobbled around as I struggled to hold my balance while performing a series of slow, controlled movements on one leg. Afterward she faced us and held her arms up, elbows drooped, back hunched, and chin jutting out. She asked as what looked better. That way? Or this way? She then rounded her arms, brought her chest forward, elongated her neck, and gazed out to an imaginary audience. We tried the routine again. With the simple correction of fixing my posture and presentation, thus looking the part of a confident and poised dancer, I completed the combination with ease. I was reminded that you can work and work at anything as hard as you want, but you need conviction and belief in what you’re doing to match or it will never come to fruition. On race day you need to believe you belong on that start line. On show day you need to believe in and emote the lines you’ve written.

I had another dream. This time I was literally rolling and crawling around the front edge of a stage, grasping onto the monitors, my hair wild and unruly, just singing my face off. Whatever I was feeling the audience was right there feeling it and singing it right with me. Even when I woke, I knew that was exactly where I belonged.

RAC at the Fonda Theatre by Jesse DeFlorio


6 responses to “When I Woke”

  1. Jonathan Hsieh Avatar
    Jonathan Hsieh

    liz, i might not know you on a personal/friendship level, but after reading this, i just want you to know — you are one of the most incredible artists i have ever had the privilege of listening to.

    it’s rare for me that i feel like i can really know someone through their music, but i admire you and andre immensely because i can feel your stories through your works. you are truly an inspirational artist and i can definitely say that your work has profoundly affected me.

    i hope you always continue making music, because you are incredibly talented! i know you will find success in whatever path you choose. but if you ask me, you belong on stage :)

    i wish i was as brave as you and andre, but knowing that you two went all in and dedicated yourselves 100% to your craft; it’s gives me inspiration to take risks and chances. thanks!

    1. Liz Avatar

      There must be a lot of onions in here or something.. :) Thank you Jonathan.

  2. bacasmith Avatar

    You are amazing🤗

    1. Liz Avatar

      You’re amazing too, half marathon champ!

  3. Sara A. Avatar
    Sara A.

    This all resonates a lot with me. When I quit my ‘real job’ to bake cupcakes at home ‘for a living’ soooo many people gave me the side eye. I felt so silly at times. But I kept my eye on the dream, put the work in day after day. Lots of 14-16 hour days. And here I am 3 years later, doing exactly what I said I was going to do.

    I think people are so afraid to take risks and feel uncomfortable that they put off their dreams and what they really want to do. I think some people also don’t realize the amount of WORK entrepreneurs put in, whether that’s creating a brand, a business, building a fan base, etc. I try to give a bit of perspective when people ask how it all came to be and share that it wasn’t easy, it’s still not easy. But it’s so worth it to not be stuck in a 9-5 slump just getting by.

    I really enjoyed reading this Liz, and love following your journey!

    1. Liz Avatar

      Thank you Sara, that means so much to me. I’ve loved following your journey and progression as a baker, from when you made cupcakes for the girls on the XC team to having your own display and menu at the wine bar to having your very own bakery. I admire the hard work you’ve put in and belief you’ve had in yourself to do it. I hope a tour takes us through Ohio soon so I can see it all (and you) in person!


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Who is Mercury?

Liz Derstine, trail name “Mercury”, is a distance runner, endurance hiker, writer, and musician residing in Boston, MA. She holds fastest known times for women on the Appalachian Trail (supported, northbound), Long Trail (self-supported), and Pinhoti Trail (self-supported).

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