Run Wild: Why Race?

On the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend I completed a new-to-me feat: back to back half marathons (Windermere and Coeur d’Alene), with just a week between the two. With Bloomsday, it added up to three races in May. For some people this is probably a normal (maybe even light?) race schedule, but for me it was. . . a lot. 

Honestly, the only reason I’d signed up for all three was because I’d gotten two for one prices by signing up early. Once I clicked the “register” button, I started to wonder: was it smart to push myself that much in a short span? Was this going to backfire somehow? Would it make running feel more like work than fun? Why exactly did I want to do this, again?

Underneath all of this was another question: Why do I race at all? Because here’s the thing—when I say “racing,” I certainly don’t mean “racing as if I might win.” Even on my best day, I’m probably not even placing in the top five in my age group. 

I’m not a racer; I’m a runner. What I love are the humble, everyday runs, accompanied by my go-to podcasts, peering over favorite vistas, thinking meandering thoughts, coming back so sweaty my daughters won’t let me anywhere near them. These runs feel just right. They keep me fit, clear my head, boost my mood, and broaden my perspective. I’d never describe running as easy, but I find it comfortable and reassuring,

“Comfortable” and “reassuring” are the antithesis of my race experience. There’s just something about a timed, public run. Race day means being tested via what feel like thousands of small decisions: what to eat the night before and the morning of, how early to wake up (if I can even sleep the night before), what miles to push through and when to go easier, how to handle those paper cups of water without dousing myself. The act of committing to a date and distance, paying the money, setting up carpools or drop-offs, getting myself to the starting area, finding a porta potty, warming up, checking my gear bag, and jogging in place and nervously stretching as I try to place myself amongst people my own pace—well, all of that is tiring and sometimes frustrating and certainly anxiety-inducing. 

And then there’s the race itself: an hour or two with no stopping, no breaks, just running straight through strategically, hopefully at my fastest. Even though I’m rarely trying to beat anyone except my past self, racing means there will be tangible results, and the pressure of results urges me to turn down the persistent voice of my inner pessimist and push through hard sections like that (terrible! interminable!) stretch down Broadway each year during Bloomsday. I’ve learned that racing only goes well if I believe it can. Racing sharpens me, revealing the contours of my inner competitor, someone who secretly wants to be put to the test. 

And so, I sign up. I like being one of hundreds or thousands of others who’s anxious to see what they have to give on race day. I like seeing everyone who comes out to support that. In my May races I high-fived children cheering along the course. I was encouraged by the clapping and shouts of hundreds of strangers. I talked with runner buddies post-race about how things had gone, commiserating about low points and celebrating strong moments. Friends offered me energy chews and I checked on a runner who’d fallen. I ran side by side with a man for two miles of a half marathon, never speaking a word to each other but still, by simply being present, helping each keep going during a tough stretch. 

After my three races this May, I felt elated and seriously proud of myself. Each one had gone better than the last, with Bloomsday being mildly disappointing, Windermere going about as I hoped, and Coeur d’Alene exceeding my expectations. I felt mentally tougher at race number three than at either of the other two. I was a little bit more seasoned. I hadn’t fallen into bad habits and over-trained. I think getting into that “doing-my-best” gear was coming a little more easily with more frequent race-day practice. I even got (very slightly) better at running while drinking from a paper cup. I liked how strong and capable finishing those three races made me feel. At the same time, I’m glad to get back to my humble, everyday runs—until I sense the need to test myself again. 

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