Ever since I started running in any serious manner – that is, when I started running barefoot/minimalist – I have developed a totally different perspective on the sport. Most notably, my definition of myself as a “runner.” I’ve come to realize that I don’t feel like a runner unless I’m involved in a race of some sort, either running in one or training for one in the near future. I realized this last weekend when I was at a race I wasn’t running, and I spent the whole day feeling like I wasn’t a “runner” because I was not participating.
That, as well as this thoughtful article by Kyle Kranz, has led me to re-examine my entire thought process on the subject of running races.
I really like races. I like signing up for them and then instantly being filled with all of that excitement and possibility, especially if it’s a new distance or a challenging course. I like training for them, too – building up my mileage and endurance gives me such a great feeling of accomplishment. Having a race at hand keeps me motivated to train at a higher level and always be improving.
I love just being at races, too. Standing at the starting line around a large group of excited runners gives me such a high. I have learned a lot of great things about myself at races that I’d never have learned just running on my own.
I’ve also learned some not-so-great things about myself during races. Like how slow I am, compared to everyone else at that starting line. How much fitter the average runner is than me. And also, how much those things bother me. Often, at a race I’ll be standing around just feeling short, fat and generally very unimpressive. It’s such a negative feeling to have, even around all those super open-minded California trail runners.
Some of my races have been major failures, as well. My last race was a few weeks ago, the Raptor Ridge Half Marathon. Half Marathons are great races for me because they’re not too scary, thirteen miles is a distance I have completed many times. I was so excited to run this race, my first one since moving to San Diego. I practiced this course a few times so I would know what to expect. I even donned a brand new running skirt for the occasion! When the gun sounded I was off with a great big smile. I ran light, smooth and fast (for me) along the first three miles. I even started to pass some people, anticipating my friends Vanessa, Shacky and Kate waiting for me at the top of the big hill the race was named after. I was fast approaching the base of that hill and I was so stinking happy.
And then I tripped on a rock and sprained my goddamn ankle.
It was a super bummer. I was pissed at myself, my ego was bruised, and now I was going to be benched for the next few weeks. But hey – that shit happens during races. The worst part of it all, though, was that I wouldn’t get to finish running that killer course that I liked so much.
As I was sitting under the med tent having my ankle wrapped and iced, and watching my friend Jon point and laugh at me from the comfort of his Merrell table, all I could think about was the money and energy I’d wasted on this race. I kept thinking that now I couldn’t run this course until next year. But…wait. What?
What the hell was I thinking?! I can run this course any time I want! The trail head is twenty minutes from my house – I could drive out here on a Tuesday and run the whole thing if I want. For free. And without feeling bad about my fat, slow ass pulling up the rear of all the other runners.
Somehow, I think maybe I’ve gotten a little too far away from the reasons why I run in the first place, especially since I’ve moved to California and began to spend more time around all my insanely talented distance runner friends. I have blown so much energy on the idea that I must be completing races of long, stupid distance in order to qualify as a runner. That I’m not really defining myself a “real” runner if I’m not collecting medals and cheap t-shirts, and damaging the paint on my car’s bumper with braggy race stickers.
Ok, so yeah I’m proud of having run those distances. And why not be? I finished those races, and I’m officially an ultra-marathoner now. I can walk proudly and wear that title for the rest of my life.
But the title is so arbitrary, isn’t it? It’s a lot like that ironic internet saying “pics or it didn’t happen.” If you don’t run 50 organized, aid-stationed and medal-ed kilometers, then it doesn’t count.
Ahh, but I’m digressing. My aim here isn’t to bash the organized race, but to point out that increasing my own race distances from 5K to 50K over the course of two years may not have been the best idea physically or emotionally. In those two years I have not increased my speed, decreased my weight or even done much work on my overall endurance. Sure, my feet are able to carry me 50 kilometers from here on any given day now, but can they do the job well? I think not.
If you subscribe to the message of any of our barefoot running prophets and sages, like Caballo Blanco, Chris McDougall and so many others, they all share the same notion about running: that the whole point of it is in the practice, not the trial.
In other words, is there really a point in throwing down my hard-earned cash to run long-distance races that I’ve barely had the time to train my body for? Why all the rush to go longer and longer before I’m really ready? I mean, who do I think I am out there: Vanessa Runs?
And, more importantly, would I rather be climbing up mountains at my own pace and whatever distance my body can handle with my buddy Kate, or cranking out three painful, mostly walking 20-milers just to get them done before an ultra? The answer is pretty obvious. I just don’t want to give up the great opportunity to stop and climb up a random group of rocks, explore a dead-end trail or take pictures of ourselves lounging at the summit of a mountain. That stuff is the joy of running for me, I want every time I run to be like that.
Also, I just don’t like thinking of myself as a slow-ass, back-of-the-pack slacker. It’s not a good mental place to be, and I only feel that way when I’m at races. I’ll never run like Pat Sweeney, so why not spend more time running on my own and feeling good about myself, while also using that time to train toward a better, more race-friendly pace?
I dunno. All of this said, I’m still signed up for the Carlsbad Marathon in January (my first). I don’t really want to waste the money or the opportunity to train, so I will. But I’m going to think on this one for a bit, before adding my name to any more lists. It’s possible that I might be all done with racing big new distances for awhile, in order that I can practice more running.