Like many runners, I look forward to a new calendar year full of races. A fresh season is a time to reevaluate running goals, find new races, and give old races another try. It’s also a time to reflect on your reason for racing.

If I’m honest, I love all the superficial things about races. I love my collection of race bibs, the tech shirts and hoodies, and, yeah, the finisher’s medals. This year, instead of just collecting things from my races, I’m going to focus on collecting experiences.

Doing “just one thing” in today’s world—like running a half marathon without headphones—is a chance to take in my surroundings that I don’t often find when accompanied by a smartphone and easily-accessible inbox. I’ve long admired this reflective quality of running. I hadn’t associated it with the act of connecting with a specific bit of nature until I raced somewhere I’d already lived a while.

For the four years I lived in the Palouse, I ran on paved activity trails and gravel roads. Only after leaving did I return to run the Snake River Half Marathon. I quickly realized the years of missed opportunity: running long distance on a race course helped me tune in to the geography. The dramatic hills that sloped to meet the river were mesmerizing, despite cold running temperatures and sleet. I don’t have to tell runners how strangely euphoric a race can be. More than hiking along a peaceful mountain trail, the adrenaline-fueled vision made me focus on the details of the land.

The Snake River Half has been my tradition to kick off race season for the last several years. Each time I run there, I gain a slightly better understanding of how the sparse brush reflects in the river, how the sun diffuses along the water, how the snow clings irregularly to the rocky land. What I’m choosing to focus on this year, aside from race swag, is taking away a sense of place from every finish line.

Using a race to explore new territory comes down to intent. My younger brother—heretofore my host in the Palouse for those Snake River races—is moving across the state. To connect with the new town where he’ll live, we both signed up for a race in Everett. My motivation with this registration was clear: I didn’t sign up to force myself to train in winter months, but to get a feel for a spot on the map. I tracked the course online and imagined how the view of the bay might look in early spring. I’m planning to spend a fair amount of time gazing, setting personal records aside.

It’s likely I’m writing about a race topic that many of you already prioritize. I know lots of folks who sign up for events just to travel somewhere new. I’m hoping that however you choose to race this year—via bike, watercraft, or your own two feet—that you’ll take time to focus on the world around you. When we connect our personal stories with the spaces around us, we create memories far richer than race medals. //