Racing brings out the good and bad, revealing inter beliefs and fears.
Last August, ten grassy miles of trails set out a challenge for a small group of runners. Since I have run my fair share of races my initial start was natural and consistent with the projected effort and pace.
After the beginning three miles, I stopped to wipe off the mud from the bottom of my shoes on a rock. Then waited a couple of seconds for the man running close behind me to catch up. I had heard his footsteps and breathing for the last two miles. We were far enough into the race that there was no one near. The faster men had a few minutes on us and the rest of the race was somewhere far behind us. We quickly made acquaintances, realizing that we were both new Minnesota residents. Having someone to chat with, the next two miles went by faster.
At the 5 mile turn around there was water and snacks. I drank a cup of water, which I later regretted because I run best with no liquids in my stomach. It was delightful to have 30 seconds to forget that this was a race and reflect on the beauty of the Midwest prairies.
Reality snapped us back into the race and off we flew. At that point, my race companion chose to push the pace for a mile or two, while I hesitated since this was my first "long run" distance since moving to Minnesota. Within a minute I crossed paths with the second and third place women.
Now, I did not select this race in order to win. I just wanted a reason to be covering miles and some company for a long run.
Like often happens in races when you are in the top few spots, especially in the races that are of an out and back nature, the other racers call out what place you are in. This can be very helpful if you are competitive and desire to take the win. However, for someone that is afraid that she will blow up after seven miles and is not use to dirt and grass trail running, the exclaims of "first woman" coming from each oncoming male runner, can heighten the pressure. I am sure they wished for the ranking to be encouraging but in reality, it compounded my concern.
I was afraid of failing, afraid of losing. I certainly did not enter the race with a goal of winning. Far from it, I was just hoping to finish in a respectable time.
My race companion had surged ahead of me and so I was left alone to battle the wet foot high grass, few ruts, and rolling hills. I sank deeper and deeper as my mind worked myself into a failure attitude. I kept looking behind myself for the 2nd place woman to seal my fate. On a steep uphill, I let myself walk, feeling hopeless. I even considered quitting the race just so that I could avoid failure. I had convinced myself that she was stronger and fitter and would soon conquer.
At about 7.5 miles as I crested another hill, a thought surfaced. "I could get a second wind and be able to finish the race strong." This was a fact that was derived from dozens, perhaps hundreds, of experiences. I knew the feeling of fatigue and then the sudden rush of energy that could spring up during an extra long or difficult workout or race. It was a proven fact that I couldn't argue with. It was a hope that I could believe in.
All of a sudden I was strong and unstoppable. I imagined not letting go of my lead and possible win. I was strong. I wanted to win. I would fight for it. Like a flip of a switch, I had dismissed my doubts and embraced the opportunity in front of me. I looked forward, pushing my pace forward. I was back to having fun racing, smiling, and taking in the beautiful sights.
It happens that the second place woman never caught up to me and I never had to battle her for a win. I did, however, battle myself and clearly won.
In irony, the second place woman, Stacy, became my running friend and continues to challenge me on trails each week. However, I prefer to follow her lead.
Winning the mental game is the real win. Count yourself as a winner!