Tomorrow at 7:30 a.m., I’ll be starting my first race of my season. I’ve got my race clothes laid out and my number ready to go. Today I picked up a pair of Newton Distancias that I’ll be testing out for a local running store, and after I finish this and take the dog for a walk, I’ll be updating my iPod playlist with some new power jams (TM Cait at Rad Racer). I’m about as ready as a person could possibly be.
I feel good about the race, albeit a bit nervous. I’m always nervous the night before a race, even a small 5K like this one. I know how silly this is. I’m not a professional, after all, and it’s not like money or prestige is at stake.
And still, the night before a race I can always count on waking up seven or eight times, just to make sure the alarm clock didn’t malfunction and cause me to miss the start. Then, of course, the alarm clock does go off after I’ve finally been able to fall asleep, usually when it’s still dark outside, and I spend the first twenty minutes of the morning asking Brian why we do this to ourselves. “This is so stupid,” we say to each other. “Why don’t we just go back to bed? This is so stupid.” Every time, we do this.
Then we actually get to the race, and we start to see people in running clothes with numbers pinned to their shirts straggling down the road and toward the start line. Next comes a bit of warm-up, a final pee in what is hopefully still a relatively clean port-a-potty, and then we line up.
And every time, I look around at all of the other runners, and I think, “We are all so dumb. We paid to do this. We said, ‘Here, let us give you money so we can run around in circles while everyone else is sleeping.’ Every person here is stupid.”
Yet for seven or eight months out of the year, I spend most of my weekends doing this. In fact, I’ve already signed up for six half-marathons and a full marathon, and I’m sure I’ll sign up for a dozen more 5Ks and 10Ks by the time I call it quits for the season.
A lot of runners don’t do this. A lot of them are just content to wake up in the mornings, strap on their shoes and head out for a few miles. Others are fine with doing one big race a year – a marathon or a half-marathon or something.
And then there are some like me and Brian, who go out, weekend after weekend, and hit up everything from the big races that draw people from neighboring states to small 5Ks that draw a couple hundred people. We see those runners all the time, and we even know some of their names (usually because they consistently clean up in their age-groups).
There’s something about racing that really hits that little pleasure bar for some runners. Brian says he likes them because they are like celebrations of the physical, like little parties for people who are excited about their good health and their wellness. I like them for that reason, too, but I have to admit, I also like the competition. It makes me work hard and it makes me push myself harder than I could if I were to just run around on my own.
I consider myself a good middle-distance runner at the local level. I’m not excellent or very good, although I think I have the potential to be a very good runner. I am good enough that I can consistently take age-group awards in 5K races, even ones with fields of considerable size. In the longer distances, like the half-marathon, I usually finish in the top third of the field.
I used to jokingly credit my good showings in my age group to the fact that women my age – 25-29 – were either lazy or having babies. But then I turned 30, and I kept placing, even though I was in a considerably more competitive age group. I had to reassess at that point, and I realized that I had a talent for that I should consider developing.
My point is not to brag, but to say that I take racing pretty seriously. The prospect of going out onto a course and testing myself in a structured environment motivates me like few other things. I mean, I spent the summer training my legs and my core, working on my running form, changing my eating habits, and even losing a few pounds, all in hopes of being able to blow past a goal I set for myself. It’s not just some little hobby I do to pass the time or to keep my butt looking cute. It’s something I’m passionate about.
And when I do blow past those goals, which I did several times last season…it’s an incredible feeling. Because it’s about more than just running a few miles faster than I ever had before. It’s also about all of the hard work and discipline and focus I put into the weeks leading up to that race. It’s about seeing something tangible that I can point to and say, yes, I’ve gotten better, I’ve gotten faster, I’ve gotten stronger, the effort has paid off.
The wonderful thing is that this is true for everyone who likes to race, not just the speedy ones who toe the line or the one or two aspiring Olympians who circulate in our local running community or even someone like me. Just because my aim is to hopefully break twenty-two minutes in the 5K, it doesn’t mean another person’s goal to run the entire 5K without stopping is somehow less worthy.
In fact, one of my favorite things to do after I finish – and after I grab a post-race snack – is to go to the finish line and cheer on the racers who come in toward the end of the pack. I still remember how unnerving it was the first time I ran a race, and how even though I finished in the lower third of my age group, I was beyond thrilled anyway because I had actually finished. I think it has to be a lot harder for someone who is older or overweight or out of shape or has a disability, because they may think a race isn’t for a person like them. And yet they get out there and they do it anyway. It’s a feat as worthy of applause as a first-place finish.
The post-run bagels (and sometimes beer, yum!) and the spiffy technical shirts and the cool medals and the goody bags are all awesome little perks, but that’s all they are – perks. The real joy comes from being part of a community of people who come together in celebration of a sport that has changed our lives. It’s that sense of competition mingled with conviviality that makes me continue to get up early, Sunday morning after Sunday morning, even though I am always certain that it’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.