For most recreational runners, racing may not even be on the horizon, but a lot of us love the thrill and challenge of competition, and spoiler alert - I’m one of them! Successful racing, good results, and faster times become addictive, which in my opinion is not always a healthy situation. David Roche, running coach and author put it bluntly in his book The Happy Runner, “No one gives a crap about your marathon PR. No one cares about how many races you’ve run or how well you placed.” He’s probably right.
I think a lot of amateur athletes forget this, and before they know it, their self-worth and identity become intrinsically defined by their race results. It’s somewhat inevitable. We race well, we receive congratulations and high fives, and with every pat on the back a little shot of dopamine! Before we know it we’ve signed up for the next race and begin training in ernest. The problem is that there’s no guarantee that that next race will go to plan. What then? Are we suddenly a failure, a loser, with whom no one will want to associate? And even if it does go to plan, you realize on Monday morning that nothing has changed! It’s unlikely there’ll be a million dollar Nike contract waiting for you.
I recently asked a very successful Bow Valley runner about competition, and dealing with disappointment.
Elizabeth Halleran, from Banff, is the 2019 Canadian Death Race champion. She’s had some incredibly successful races over the last few years. I asked her how she deals with doubt on race day. One of Liz’s techniques is to remind herself that there are factors over which she has no control. Whilst she is highly competitive, she states “Trying to go fast or be competitive is always on my mind, but it's a secondary thought, and that keeps me focused on running within my ability, and being proud of the results. You can't control conditions or how fit your competitors are.…”
Personally, I have come to realize that the journey is every bit as important, if not more, than the destination, and I try not to get hung up on results. Sure, I love race day, but I probably enjoy most of my long training runs in the mountains more than the race itself! Elizabeth is absolutely correct - you cannot control how fit everyone else is on race day, so try not to worry about it, it’s out of your control. Whilst it is gratifying to set a PR or win a race, for most of us that’s just not realistic. Learn to embrace the journey and to celebrate all the hard training that got you to the start line, and as Liz states, be proud of your accomplishments!
Goal setting is an oft used technique to motivate and inspire us towards some lofty target. We may set a goal to run a marathon in under 4 hours, or to exercise for 6 hours a week, but heck, life can get in the way, and I believe that ambitious goal setting can also back fire. Circumstance has a nasty habit of sabotaging even the best laid plans. During the Finlayson Arm 100km race, Halleran realized early on that she had set a way too ambitious time goal.
“….when I realized early on I was nowhere close to making it, I completely checked out and couldn't motivate myself to keep going, knowing it would take so much longer than I had anticipated. I dropped out!”
I asked her how she felt about that and what she learnt. “I realized just how much worse a DNF (did not finish) felt than finishing at all…. It made me realize I shouldn't have placed so much value in getting a time that 'looked good'. I also realized I was really burnt out and needed to give myself a break.”
When we fall short of our goals, we beat ourself up, but you know what, your self-worth is not governed by your last race result. I tell beginner runners not to worry about pace or distance. Racing or not, embrace the process, enjoy your time on the trails no matter how slow or fast, and don’t fret the details. Whilst that QOM/KOM on Strava may garner you some additional kudos, it really doesn’t matter.
I’ve also learnt over the years not to over-analyze other people’s training logs that are out there for all to see on social media. Nagging concerns that competitors are training harder than me begin to creep in, and this leads to self doubt, worry and ultimately pushing too hard in my own training. It’s easy for this to escalate and lead to injury or burn out. Enjoy what you are doing, listen to your body, and try not to worry too much about everyone else’s training.
My advice: on that next run, stop and enjoy the views, smell the flowers, and enjoy the journey!