The Race Is the Reward | January 18, 2015
Ultrarunning is rife with setting and pursuing big goals. It might be the conquest of that first ultra finish, the first mind-boggling try at one hundred miles, or maybe a time goal such as a sub five hour 50K or a sub 8 hour 50 mile. Who hasn’t pursued such a goal and not let the weight of it drag them into a psychological pit of anxiety?
You set up a training plan and then take on the task like a dog worrying a bone. Each morning, you get out of bed and feel like you’ve got Everest to climb. With every run you measure yourself against the final big effort and feel like you’re lacking. The training miles go by almost unnoticed as you focus on that final day when you will put it all on the line. The pressure is screwed on as tight as a stuck lid.
On race day you’re wound up like a drum. You were too keyed up to sleep, of course. You blast off the starting line trying to get the whole thing over in the first couple of hours, and naturally you find you’ve gone out way too hard. You tighten up from all the fear and anxiety about failing, which makes it even harder to run. You struggle through to a disappointing end or you fail altogether. Either way, you don’t enjoy it much. The whole thing was a nightmare.
Goals are a wonderful thing. They define your effort. They keep you motivated. They push you to improve and reach your potential. But the space you inhabit while you’re reaching for your goal, the process of getting to that goal, that is where you will spend most of your time, and it should be where you maintain your focus, not on the end product.
Yes, the goal is out there, but just like you break down a race into manageable segments and let the finish take care of itself, you should pursue the goal focusing on one training run at a time. Every run, no matter how familiar, can be an adventure. Feel the process of running, the breathing, the rhythmic swing of your arms, the contact of your feet on the ground. Pay attention to all the sights and sounds around you. Track the flow of your thoughts through your mind. Enjoy the company of your running partners.
When it starts to hurt, thank your lucky stars that you are healthy enough to be out there pushing yourself. The strain, the fatigue, the soreness, the doubt in your mind that you can keep up the pace, these are all a natural byproduct of your doing your best, striving to build a body worthy of taking on that final goal.
Reach for even more adventure in the routes you choose, the weather, and the time of day. Go long on a hot day. Get out in a rainstorm. Start your run right when you would normally go to bed, or get up before the dawn and challenge the night. Go out to trails you’ve never seen before. Commit to races with scary names like Sky Climb, Hell and Back, Cruel Jewel, and Nobody Comes Out Alive. Strive to enjoy the process of training, the process of just running. And then appreciate that post workout glow when you feel good about yourself.
Finally treat the race itself as a reward for doing all the training. It should be something to be enjoyed, something to savor. How many people are lucky enough to get to line up to try their first ultra? Relax and just let race day unfold. Approach your participating as something to observe and to enjoy, and ironically you are liable to do better than if you succumbed to worrying too much about the result. Maybe you will succeed and maybe you won’t, but the real triumph was in your preparing to try. That was accomplished before you took even one step in the actual race.
In the iconic film “Rocky,” the centerpiece of the movie is not when Rocky finishes the climactic fight and achieves his goal of going the distance against the champ. He actually loses the fight in a decision. The triumphant moment is when he runs up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and dances in a circle with his fists in the air. That is the moment when he feels the result of all his hard training, when he feels his power, when he’s won back confidence in himself and earned the respect of his friends and family. Your triumph will come out there on some remote stretch of trail during a training run when you realize you’ve become the runner you wanted to be. The race is just the reward.