Fiona in Focus
Racing -- It's not just physical
On the surface, running appears to be a purely physical sport. To the casual observer, we runners might look like crazy, carefree individuals who derive great pleasure from working up a sweat and feeling the wind in our hair while speeding along at a comfortable pace.
The same casual observer might assume that our minds are full of happy thoughts, of the new running shoes we just purchased or the giant breakfast we are about to consume. While this might undoubtedly be the case with some runners, it is certainly not the case with all. There are days when we really don't feel like running, and heading out the door takes a huge effort, yet we do it because we know it will improve our mood and make us stronger. On these days, running is as much a mental effort as it is physical. When we decide to go one step further and enter a race, mental toughness really comes into play.
Many seasoned runners experience anxiety at the thought of racing, despite the fact they have great talent. There is no question that competing can be stressful and we have all had our moments of self doubt – the fear of failing to cover the distance or being beaten by a rival or not meeting the expectations we have placed upon ourselves.
The night before a race our anxiety might manifest itself in a dream where we show up to a race after the gun has fired, we forget our running shoes or we finish dead last. Stressing ourselves out by choosing to compete makes no sense. We are paying a fee to race while we could be out jogging in the park for free with no stress! Racing is supposed to be a fun activity, yet for some reason our stomach is in knots and we feel like throwing up. Racing, where times are recorded, somehow makes us vulnerable to the world.
As a frequent racer I still experience some pre-race anxiety but have gained a certain perspective over time that helps keep nerves at bay. I am hoping that my thoughts might help others who are considering competition but are dealing with the demons of self-doubt.
There are certain elements that we can't control when we compete and that not every event will be an "amazing" experience. Instead of focusing on the negatives after a race, and the runners who finish ahead of us, it is healthier to focus on the positives – how we felt, what we learned, the new friends we made. We will have good days and bad. A hectic week at work might affect our performance. A late night concert, illness or adverse weather conditions might also be factors. We have to remember that, while our own performance can be influenced through training and nutrition, short of pulling a Gillooly, we can't affect the performance of anyone else.
Of course we aren't always competing against others. We often end up competing against ourselves -- or younger, fitter versions of ourselves -- and, apart from a few runners who seem to have defied time, we generally lose out. There is a reason why races offer awards for different age groups. Like many runners I have been guilty of setting unrealistic time goals, but I have slowly come to the realization that the time on the clock is only a small part of why I race. Like many, I enjoy the challenge of pushing myself to my limits surrounded by other like-minded individuals doing the same. Racing against strong runners in my age group motivates me to work harder and pushes me to do my best. Although I am sometimes frustrated when my times are slow, I appreciate the fact that I can still run and compete in my fifties -- something I never would have believed possible thirty years ago when I was a chubby teen huffing and puffing my way around the University campus, trying to lose my spare tire.
We are fortunate to be able to run and race as many of our peers could never imagine even running a mile. The fact that we are racing is impressive and the reality is that, unless we are sponsored professional athletes, nobody really cares if we run a 5K in 15 minutes or in 35. Instead of beating ourselves up over a bad race, we should chalk it up to experience and look forward to our next adventure. By doing so a race is no longer an event in itself but becomes part of a journey of self discovery.