I have no doubt that there are runners in this world who truly enjoy tapering, and who, while they are counting down the days before a big race, feel confident and elated with the knowledge that they have arrived at the important event both supremely fit and shockingly well-rested.
I am not one of them.
For me, the final days of preparation are like an obstacle course in which the object is to avoid all the activities that — for better or worse — are part of normal training. .
During hard training, one’s entire focus is on doing the next intense workout, or the next long run. There’s not a lot of time to worry about actually feeling good, and if you do happen to feel good, you know the feeling will pass soon enough.
But during a taper, if you don’t feel good then you assume something must be wrong. Maybe you didn’t do enough base mileage months ago when you had a chance. Maybe you raced too much, or too little leading up to this point. Maybe you began tapering too soon. Maybe you did the wrong kind of track workouts. With too much time to think, endless questions rush in to fill the vacuum.
During hard training, it’s very satisfying to complete a tough track workout or a grueling tempo.
But during a taper, there’s little satisfaction in performing short, mostly joyless runs that occupy space on the calendar, but otherwise seem devoid of meaning.
The payoff is supposed to be that you feel great on race day. I wish that were true for me, but mostly feeling “great” is merely the absence of the familiar aches and pains. It’s true that for a few days, at least, I’m able to walk down the stairs in the morning without easing myself from step to step like an old man. Other than that, there aren’t many signs that I’m actually prepared to run faster.
It’s occurred to me that maybe I don’t like to taper because I don’t like to race. But I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think the anxiety I feel about racing is unusual, and I accept that a certain amount of anxiety is the price one pays for caring about how one does. In any case, running without racing is not my preferred way to enjoy the sport.
No, I think I don’t like to taper because it gives me too much time to obsess about things that could still go wrong. I find myself thinking “Please don’t let me catch that nasty stomach bug that’s been going around. Please don’t let me forget my spikes, or lock myself out of my car, or step in a pothole on the way to the track.”
I tend to have a hard time staying in the moment, anyway, without spending every waking moment worrying about things that, however improbable, might happen to derail my intentions. But these last few days and hours before a race, what is there else to do? Other than doubt my preparations or imagine the results of them, I’m not sure how to experience these moments for what they are.
One thing that gives me comfort, though, is that I know there will be relief. Whether it goes well or goes poorly, the race itself is the cure for the melancholy of tapering. In that sense, all of this resting will, finally, bring me that elation I seek, but it will have to wait until I’ve spent the currency I’ve been saving up.