Stats. The intimate friend of every runner. Two years ago, I ran a 16-kilometre really hilly trail race in 1 hour, 32 minutes. I finished with the lead pack, 1st in category. Last weekend, I ran a 20-kilometre really really hilly trail race in 3 hours, 20 minutes. I finished at the back of the pack, just ahead of 7 other athletes. The only thing that was the same between those two races was how I felt: exhausted and awesome.
Having spent most of my running life in the mid-pack, a small portion of that time in the lead pack, and an equally small segment in the back, I feel I am well positioned to share three constant truths about racing at any pace.
Truth #1: The only race that really matters is your own.
I am competitive. I love the chase and being chased. I’m driven to pass the person ahead of me and the next after that. But, that is just the game. The joy of the race has nothing to do with anyone else but me. Beautiful surroundings, technical trails, pushing hard, breathing hard, challenging myself, leaving it all out there. That’s my satisfaction.
If the podium is what you chase, missing it will leave you frustrated and empty. If you have to beat your rival, you will feel defeated when a race goes sideways and they surge ahead. If you need to be known as a certain type of athlete, you will feel sidelined and invisible when life hands you less than how others perceive you. Don’t let yourself be measured by anything other than your own effort.
Not long after I started competing against quicker folks, I attended a small 50-km mountain race with tough elevation and even tougher athletes. I remember standing among the fourteen females at the start of the race and thinking – “These are the fittest women I’ve ever seen.” The first place finisher was a world-ranked athlete who had showered, changed, had lunch and a nap before I finished. I came in third from the end, chasing cut-offs the whole way. That was my first time in the back of the pack. I dug deep, worked through some tough moments, and never let myself slow down or give up. I still have that medal in my office, the only one I display. Take pride in your own race.
Truth #2: Data doesn’t tell the story.
We know this is true; otherwise, nobody would ever do a race report, right? The report tells you what the data doesn’t. Yeah, I ran a 6-hour marathon but it was in the mountains and – man – if you knew how many things went sideways and how tough the conditions and, also, I was recovering from a bad cold, plus blisters!! The bigger the fish, the better the story. I’m not judging that. I like fish stories! I have a few of my own.
Here’s the problem with letting data tell the story: data doesn’t measure significance. Sorry, Strava, not even if you give me trophies and FKTs. As a training tool, data can be a great resource. That’s all it should ever be. What counts more? – a fastest time ever in ideal conditions, or leaving it all out there in the worst conditions? One builds fleeting satisfaction; the other, character and strength.
Last Saturday, my first race in two years, I started at the back of the pack and my goal was to pass 1, maybe 2, runners. That was it. With an ear-to-ear grin that said – “It’s great to be back!”, I pushed as hard as I’ve pushed at any pace …50 extra pounds, new kinds of chafing, breathing like my blood was on fire, walking every uphill – even the anthills… What do I remember most about that race? – a Mother Moose, glorious and immense, summitted a ridge above me and galloped across my path. It was amazing! The athlete in front of me didn’t. even. notice. He was looking at his watch. As I excitedly yelled and pointed, his earbuds blocked out the snorting beast and he missed that moment, convinced that the real story was on his screen. Let your race story unfold in front of you and around you. The race is the story. The experience is the thing.
Truth #3: The only person who will celebrate you the most is you.
There are a lot of great races that also do a great job of making the lead pack runners feel like a million bucks. Perfect photos that rapidly join personal Instagram collections, fancy medals and even fancier podium prizes, full aid stations and the best finish line crowd. There are very few great races that do a great job of making the mid-pack and back-of-packers feel as valued as the lead pack. I’ve been a lead female coming into cheers and high fives. As a mid-packer, my short frame was usually lost in the crowds. As a back-of-packer, I’ve shown up to mostly-empty aid stations and one or two people at the finish line.
As anti-climactic as it can feel to finish a hard race with very little by way of recognition and applause, I’ve learned that my pride in my race is the best recognition. Yes, I sulk for a few minutes, not gonna lie. And then I let it go and tell myself – “good job, proud of you.” More than that, at whatever pace I’ve raced, I celebrate every success from start to finish. Nobody is cheering at the top of that crazy straight-up one-kilometre climb. Nobody is paying attention when I fly down a gnarly technical section like I have wings on my feet. Nobody notices that I never slowed down on that last climb even though my legs were on fire. I am the best positioned to celebrate me. That’s why I tell myself – out loud – “good job” or “you’re awesome” at every opportunity that I know I’ve earned it, throughout the race and especially at the finish. Nobody else will appreciate my hard work more than me. We don’t need reasons to critique. We need reasons to celebrate. Be your biggest fan. Ten years from now, those who noticed you or didn’t notice you probably won’t be around. You’ll always be there: be the one who cares the most about you.
These principles also apply to life.