Along with about 700 other people in Tucson yesterday, I ran the Cinco de Mayo 10k race. I hadn’t done any special training, and I didn’t have any race specific goals but I decided to go do another road race.
I should have done my homework. Then I might have been mentally prepared for a hilly course. I really didn’t know where the course went, I just knew where to park my car at 6:00 am. So I parked my car and found the race start and tried to stretch out and warm up.
The thing about a running race is that even with the iPod blasting in your ears, you still have plenty of time on the road to think.
The first thing I thought about was how much my back was hurting me. I had done heavy deadlifts and lots of kettlebells at CrossFit during the past week, and my muscles were tight. And sore.
And running uphill with very sore lower back muscles is its own sort of unique torture. It feels like you are right on the verge of a muscle spasm. Just without the muscle spasm. But you keep thinking that any second you’ll be hit by a muscle spasm. And so you just keep waiting for it. And almost wishing for it, because then you could justify a short walk break.
The muscle spasm never came.
Instead, I was struck by a wave of insight. Because as the race unfolded, and I climbed one rolling hill after another, I questioned why exactly I continue to sign up for these silly running races. After all, there are thousands of people who run every weekend, and only a few hundred who actually sign up and race. And I certainly don’t need any more race t-shirts. So I challenged myself to answer the question: Why Race?
Here’s the answers I came up with between miles 2 and 6.
I race to challenge myself. I just never push myself quite so hard when I’m out for a jog by myself. Peer pressure really works. Put a race number on my shirt and put a few hundred people around me and I’m guaranteed to push myself harder than I would when I’m alone.
I race to measure myself. The finish time on the clock is an absolute measurement. It doesn’t lie and unless you cut the course short, you really can’t cheat. The race clock tells you exactly how fit you are on race day.
I race to surround myself with stories. When there are 700 people running in a race with me, I can be sure there are 700 unique stories on the road with me. Everyone has their own story about why they run and why they race, and how they came to be in this specific race on this day. There are kids and parents and grandparents out there and everyone has their own story. The woman standing next to me in the bathroom line had been running for 28 years and was on her 3rd knee.
I race surround myself with heroes. At 7:30 am on a Sunday morning, I had just crossed the halfway point in this 10k race. And I was short of breath and I was sweating and my feet hurt and I was facing another uphill climb. I was leapfrogging with another woman and she was in front of me but I knew I’d catch her on the next downhill. We were having our own little mini-battle. And I was loving the drama of our silent unspoken challenge. And I realized that while I was having a classic battle with a nameless woman in a white shirt, most of the rest of the city was still asleep. While most of Tucson was enjoying their lazy Sunday morning, there were 700 of us out here on this road, doing epic battles with each other and with ourselves. And I found myself grateful to be surrounded by other heroes, other warriors, who got out of bed and paid their $30 to do something heroic. No, we didn’t save any lives out there today. Except perhaps our own.
I race to gain self awareness. Racing well is actually about knowing yourself and knowing what you are capable of. Especially in shorter races like the 5k and 10k, the trick lies in accurate pacing. If you overestimate your ability, you will go out too fast and you will crash and burn out early. If you underestimate yourself, you’ll save too much in the reserve tank, and you won’t find your fastest time. That’s why so many racers love heart rate monitors and GPS watches – because they are slick tools that help you improve your self awareness. They provide instantaneous feedback about how your body is performing. These days I prefer to race without any tools. I leave my heart rate monitor and my GPS watch at home and I haven’t used them at all this year. Instead I’m learning how to listen better to my body and push myself just a little bit harder than is comfortable.
Every time I race, I improve my self awareness. Every time I race, I found myself grateful for the other racers and grateful for the race organizers. Because how cool is it that we can roll out of bed on a Sunday morning, lace up our shoes, and go do battle on the road or the trail to become the hero of our own life?