Monday, March 3, 2014

The Things You Realize When Running a Race

I finished my first race! The Mardi Gras Chaser 5k was this past Sunday, and it was COLD. So cold that running 3.1 miles was really the only feasible way to avoid frostbite. 240 runners participated at Montrose Harbor, not far from where Jimmy Fallon plunged into Lake Michigan and millions of sensible Chicagoans slept in their warm beds.

Not me, though. I had beads to win!

So given that this was my first race, I wanted to speak generally about what I noticed. As a racing novice, I think my first impressions might be valuable to someone considering getting in to running and race culture. You can consider this a follow-up to my earlier post on what I worry about when thinking about race. With that in mind, let’s talk first about the most obvious new factor: people.

You might have noticed that races are full of them.

When you start a race, you do so surrounded by other people at the start line. (If this earth-shattering insight just blew your mind, hold on, because I’m only getting started.) Initially, I thought there might be some sort of order. Fast runners will have their area outlined, with average paces descending through the middle, and of course walkers in back. Generally speaking, though, this only happens with the extremes. Yes, the very fast people are going to the front, and yes, the walkers are going to head to the back or stand to the side, but the vast majority of us are just kind of left in the middle.

I found myself in that cacophony of middle-runners in the five minutes or so before the race, when I imagine most of us were wondering if we would ever feel our extremities again. I filled this time with intense worrying about everything. I scrutinized the runners ahead of and behind me; would they slow me down? Would they pass me? I imagined a gun going off and immediately a hundred differently paced runners start bouncing off of each other in some sort of epic dog pile.

Pictured: how I worried the race would start

Instead, I found out that the race starts off with everyone slowly shuffling forward until the traffic clears ahead of them, at which point you start running and passing people. Then I remembered that this race isn’t to catch the last chopper out of Vietnam, so people probably aren’t going to go all Lord of the Flies in order to shave six seconds off their time. So crisis one was averted.

During the race itself, I noticed a few things that I would warn first-time racers about in the future. First, the race is going to seem longer than that same distance usually does when you're running by yourself. I run 3.1 miles every day anyway, but I felt like the race was twice that distance. While I didn't expect this, it’s easy enough to explain. During your regular runs, you can zone out. You know the route, so you don’t have to anticipate any surprises. During a race, you have a new route, plus hundreds of other runners, plus people cheering you on, plus general performance anxiety. You’re going to be focused on every second, so the run will feel longer.

This leads into my second piece of advice: a race is a great time to evaluate yourself as a runner. Because you have all these distractions and other motivations for running during a race, a lot of your personal motivation might get obfuscated. Ultimately, most of your runs don’t happen to benefit charity or with the support of a crowd. You pick yourself up at some point in the day, strap on some shoes, and listen to a voice inside of you that says, “Run!” (My inner voice usually follows that up with, “Then you can eat all the cheese you WANT!”)

With that little voice drowned out, I spent some time not enjoying the run like I usually do. I was too focused on who I was passing and who was passing me, what my pace was, how much I had done and how much I had left. At a certain point, though, I reminded myself that running, for me, is about that communion you can achieve between mind and body when they’re both pulling in the same direction. There’s a great simplicity to it, which is part of what makes it both so hard and so easy.

I finished the race more mindfully than I began it, and I think that, secondary to the community and charity races promote, THAT should be a race’s biggest draw for distance runners. When you finally do have that cheering crowd, it can make you appreciate your own internal motivation all the more. So that's my advice: run a race with the same attitude you have during any other run. It will help clarify exactly what that attitude is.

So in conclusion: I loved it. Yesterday, I felt proud to complete a race in a community of other runners, and I also feel more proud of every run I have completed in company with myself. That’s a great gift.  

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