Can you run a race without “racing” it?

On Wednesday evenings, I go to a group run at Fullsteam in Durham. Getting there requires me to leave a little early from work and drive right past my apartment on the way, but ever since I committed to going in February, I’ve gone almost every week when I’m in town and available (which is most Wednesdays). I usually see at least one person I already know and have met several other people there. Yesterday I was running a little late to the run, due to last minute work requests as I was trying to get out the door, getting stuck behind a stalled car, and getting stopped by a train crossing. Ugh. The point is: I was late, so I spent the whole time trying to catch up to the people I normally run with (not smart) and ended up running most of the way alone.

Along the way, I got to eavesdrop on a lot of conversations as I passed people, and the line that stuck out to me was a 35-40ish year old woman who said something along the lines of, “I can’t run a race without racing it. I know me.” And I immediately thought to myself, um trying running the Boston Marathon a little bit injured and a lot bit under trained and your body will almost certainly put a stop to that idea. I don’t know this woman at all and I’m sure I’ve said the exact same thing before, so what follows is not at all a response to her, but instead a reflection on why I think I can run a race without racing it even though I’m a pretty competitive person. My family knows I’m the one to send into a crowd to save seats for everyone (fighting off the parents of newly minted Emory business school grads is not for the faint of heart coughlastweekendcough) and I certainly worked hard in high school to get high grades. I also must admit that I am not a good loser – if I’m losing, I generally throw a tantrum and quit. Yeah. So anyway, what happened to the fire?

The first thing that comes to mind: Duke. The second: running.

Duke is beautiful. Source.

Sometimes I think that freshman year at Duke broke my competitive spirit. Duke students are competitive and intimidating, both academically and socially. I was completely overwhelmed and underprepared for that atmosphere. My econ and calculus classes first semester made it very clear I would not be graduating at the top of my class (not that I ever assumed I would) and I resigned myself to inadequacy, but then second semester I signed up for an econ tutor through the university’s system. I can’t say he greatly increased my understanding of the material, but it was enough to make a difference in my grade in the class. I also joined a sorority (woo Alpha Phi) which in some ways gave me a “home” socially but also led to even more confusion of where I stood socially. I’m definitely glad I joined, and Alpha Phi introduced me to some of my favorite women and best friends. By sophomore year I started figuring it out academically – I might not be at the top of the class but that doesn’t mean I get to give up like when I’m being a brat for losing at ping pong, which has never ever happened… I started working hard in my classes to just do the best I could without caring how well everyone else was doing, and what do you know, occasionally I did have the best grade in the class. Cute, right? So anyway, that was step one in learning to forget how everyone else is doing and focus on what I can do.

Next up: running. In high school, I was not the fastest running on my cross country team, and I got slower each year (thanks puberty). You’d think that would be a good opportunity to learn to just try my best. Nope. By senior year I was not in the top seven anymore (cross country scores are based on your top five runners, and the top seven run in the state meet) and had mentally checked out of the team. But I found a new way to be “the best”: I trained for and ran my first marathon in December of my senior year of high school. No one else in high school was running marathons (and probably for good reason…) and the experience was certainly about much more than doing something none of my peers were, but there was a tiny hint of that in my motivation even though no one outside of my family knew I was training for it. I was the first of two girls in my age group to finish the race. Once I got to college, I didn’t actually know very many people running marathons and half-marathons, but among those who did, I was more or less as fast as them. However, as I started running more (and bigger) races and getting older, I stopped placing in the top three in my age group. I remember one half marathon sophomore year, I had run was then a PR for me, and I thought it was so fast, I must have placed in my age group. Turns out, I was a solid 10 minutes slower than the top three. At some point, I learned to let that go. I’m reasonably fast when I’m well-trained, but there will always be plenty of women much faster than me. I can only compete with myself.

Whereas Duke kind of crushed me and then I learned how to do better academically, running is different. Accepting I wouldn’t always be the fastest was certainly important, but realizing that every run and race doesn’t have to be a competition was perhaps even more important. (While grades are not the most important thing in life, I’m willing to argue that you should pretty much always try to get a high grade in every class). I love to use that competitive spirit to push myself to catch just one more girl and then one more at the end of a race, but every race isn’t about that. I’m learning how to manage the fire. Catching a girl in my age group with half a mile to go: good. Missing out on the opportunity to run a half marathon with my dad because I refuse to run a race for fun: not so good.

So yes. I can run a race without “racing” it. It’s taken a while to get there, and there have been plenty of tantrums along the way, but I’m absolutely ok with going into a race with no expectations beyond having fun and enjoying the company of whoever I’m running with (stranger or friend). Maybe these are just the words of someone who has learned to be satisfied with never being the best, but I no longer think it’s a badge of honor to say you can’t run a race without racing. The adrenaline of a starting line is hard to control, and if you have your heart set on doing well at that race, sure go for it, but there has to be something more to racing than just seeing how fast you can go.

So what I think about that. Happy Thursday!

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