On Sunday, the Gordon Track was a familiar circus of activity. On the infield, sprinters and jumpers warmed up with their choreographed drills and dynamic mobility exercises, or rehearsed steps, starts, and hurdles. Officials wielding clipboards checked in competitors for the field events or milled around the tables near the finish line where heat sheets were being generated, results were being compiled, and hundreds of meet details were being resolved. Around the outside of the track and on the backstretch, runners jogged or did strides. In the stands, spectators followed the latest event, while athletes chilled with their iPods and Smartphones, or cheered on their teammates. On the track itself, runners were called to the start, held steady by the starter’s commands, and then sent on their way with the crack of the gun. Races unfolded and came to thrilling or anticlimactic conclusions, accompanied by a rise and fall of the crowd noise — the necessary soundtrack for the strenuous efforts of the athletes.
The Greater Boston Track Club indoor meet has always been near and dear to my heart. Held on the third or fourth Sunday in January, it almost always falls within a few days of my birthday, and I almost always mark the occasion by running a mile or 3k (or both). I do this because I like to assess my fitness and compare myself year-to-year. If I run close to (or better than) the times I ran a year earlier, I’m very happy. If it goes the other way and I’m much slower than the previous year, then I reluctantly accept the new baseline, and resolve to make more time for training in the weeks and months ahead. It doesn’t really matter if the passing years see me slowly slipping back through the pack into the slowest heats; what matters is that I compete against last year’s version of myself.
So it was with a bit of melancholy that I attended the GBTC meet yesterday not as an athlete, but merely as a coach and spectator. I wasn’t injured. In fact, I’m feeling pretty healthy for the first time in a while. Nevertheless, I never pulled the trigger to sign up, just like I never signed up for one of the BU Mini-Meets in late December and early January, or for the Nutcracker-rich “Assault on Mount Hood” race a few weeks before that.
It’s obvious to me that what has kept me out of all these races is an ambivalence about racing that stems from challenges faced in 2014 and unrealistically high expectations for my “first race back.”
In the last ten months, I’ve raced exactly three times. Three. One of those races was really a 5M tempo run back in August. The other two were a 5K XC race at Elm Bank Park and the Lone Gull 10K, both in September. I didn’t feel especially prepared or confident for any of these races. Since the end of the cross country season, I’ve tried to address the fundamental issue, the lack of consistent, healthy training. Two months in, I’m starting to feel training momentum again, but I’m still ambivalent about putting that training to a real test. I keep waiting to feel that itch to run hard, to push the limits and see where all of my recent training had brought me. But there’s a lot of doubt about what will happen when I try to take the effort from 90% to 100%, and whether I’m mentally ready to push through the tough parts of a race, especially a short, fast race on the very public stage of the GBTC meet.
What I’m experiencing is very common, I think, among younger runners who were studs in high school or college but have taken some time away and are trying to get back in the sport. They have such high expectations for the level of preparation required to race confidently that they make training a mountain and contemplate it with grim determination and purpose that itself becomes a barrier to progress. I’ve seen these guys and talked to them. They’re always trying to get into a routine, trying to put together 3-4 months of solid mileage. Some of them push through and re-invent themselves as club runners, and others never seem to make it past the foothills of training, finding it hard to balance their new careers, relationships, and families, with the kind of day-in, day-out training that would become the foundation of their retooled running selves.
Anyone who was a serious runner will find it hard to reset their expectations to that of a recreational runner or weekend warrior.
On the other hand, I’ve had a lot of practice resetting expectations over the years. I don’t have many illusions about tearing it up when I get back onto the track. It really shouldn’t be that hard to take that first step.
I was talking with a work colleague the other day who mentioned that she was signed up for a five-miler in a few weeks, and was running two-three times per week to prepare. I was struck by how matter-of-fact she reported this, as though running — racing! — a five-miler was something so casual that it required nothing more than a modest commitment to getting out a few times and stretching one’s legs. I thought about my own long hiatus from racing and wondered whether her five-miler would precede my next race. How strange, I thought, that so many people run races with so little anxiety or concern, when I train seven days a week, including weekly long runs and hard interval workouts, and feel so unprepared to step to a starting line.
The disease is strange, but the cure is no mystery. You have to start somewhere. You have to race, keeping expectations as low as possible. Then you have to accept the result and build on it without condemning yourself for your woeful performance. Maybe this is the hardest part, not being discouraged as you think about and compare yourself to that guy with your name who used to be pretty good.
But no, the hardest part is, and always will be, the fell moment when you send in that entry form, when you pay your money and make a commitment. That’s the moment when all that training starts making sense, and future training starts taking shape. That’s the moment when you decide whether you’re running to keep your heart healthy, your weight down, and your brain agile, or whether you consider those promised benefits to be mere distractions from why you do this stupid sport in the first place – the opportunity to humble yourself — again, and so thoroughly! — in the crucible of racing.