Sharing your goals makes it real. It’s a way of having others hold you accountable. Goals change, and that’s alright too. In fact, knowing how and when to dial it back, can be a good thing for athletes at every level. That said, it isn’t an easy decision for anyone—least of all elite athletes.
For Canadian Olympian Natalia (Hawthorn) Allen, pictured above, it took time and planning to make the decision to step back and take a break from competitive running. While Allen was comfortable with her decision, sharing it with the rest of the world wasn’t so easy. “I think it’s something that a lot of people go through regardless of the level,” says Allen. “It shifts your identity and, in elite sport, it can seem very black and white to make the decision to retire.”
So how did Allen go from making her Olympic debut in the 1,500 m at the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games to making the decision to step away from the track and competitive racing?
It didn’t happen it didn’t happen overnight.
Allen says her decision was made in 2019, long before recently sharing the news of retirement on her social media channels earlier this month. At the time, having completed her kinesiology degree at the University of British Columbia, Allen made the decision to focus full-time on training for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. “I wanted to be at the Olympics, but then Covid-19 hit and it didn’t happen until 2021,” says Allen. At the same, Allen found herself wanting to see where she could get with good health and consistent training, while, in the back of her mind, she knew she had a defined time frame for achieving her goal. “I knew the time I wanted to commit,” she explains, “I want to make sure my heart is in it for the right reasons.”
With the idea of retirement on her mind, Allen says she had conversations with other Canadian athletes, to hear their experiences with retirement, including two-time Olympian Malindi Elmore. For her part, Elmore is a shining example of an athlete who shifted perspectives and distances (going from the 1,500m in Athens to crossing the line for a ninth-place finish in the marathon at the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games). “Malindi told me this summer: never say never. It’s never too late to come back.”
Last fall, just this after competing at the World Athletic Championships in Eugene, Oregon, Allen experienced a shift in her mindset: “After Worlds,” she says, “I went out on the trails at the Whistler 50K relay, and it made me think maybe I could jump into some races for fun, so I went back to cross country.”
Allen speaks casually about reframing her relationship with running, which seems to have contributed to her ability to easily make the switch on and off the track. All runners should heed her advice: just because you run 5Ks, doesn’t mean you can’t tame the marathon. Look at Allen: earlier this year, she competed for Team Canada at the World Cross-Country Championships.
“It’s not black and white, it’s shifting,” she explains. “I have always loved to run, and I’ve loved being an athlete, I want to keep the personal enjoyment side, and challenge myself in new ways.” While she doesn’t have any current, specific goals, this summer she’s planning on having more mountain biking and kite boarding in her life. “Running is still a big part of my life, I love seeing my team and I will run a few days a week,” she says.
For anyone considering making the decision to change distances, or even levels of intensity, Allen’s example is one of a measured approach. “Evaluate the pros and cons, even after you decide to step away, identify the aspects you want to carry on afterwards.” As for any plans to return to competition, she says it’s a decision you can make at any time. “I’ll jump into the occasional race, and I would like to give back to the community in ways that I can,” she says. For now it seems like Allen is comfortable with her decision, honouring her time and refocusing on the new opportunities that are most certainly ahead.
If an Olympian can tweak her approach, and prioritize enjoyment, we can, too.