Today at noon, I will be lining up on Charles Street to run the annual Reebok Boston 10K for Women, formerly known as the Tufts 10K for Women, formerly-formerly known as the Bonne Belle. The weather looks decent for racing, for which I can count myself very lucky. I have no idea what kind of day I personally will have, but here’s the goal: care deeply about my performance, and care not at all about my finish time.
I have run 60 road races since I started running in 2005, but I have not cultivated the best mental habits around competition. Given how often I’ve raced, you might think I’ve had a clue now and then about what I was doing, but mostly, I have not. I entered most of those races with no real sense of my fitness level or what I could reasonably expect in terms of a finish time. So much the better; placing any kind of importance on a race result threatened to show me something I didn’t want to see. When I sign up for a race, even now, I fantasize about beating my personal record at that distance: imagine what it would feel like to run a PR at the 10K distance today! It would validate all the effort I have put into running for the past 13 years! It would prove that I am doing things right! It would show the world that I am getting stronger and not weaker! It would make me an athlete! It would convince me that I am worthy of running.
I say all of this from a relatively comfortable and secure place; I don’t think I could have talked about my issues with racing this openly a year ago, but it’s been a good year for my fitness and my confidence. Still, the kind of pressure I put on race results is strikingly disproportionate to their actual meaning. I have run three PRs in the last 12 months, and while I can confirm that setting a PR for the first time in 8 years was fucking cool, it did not cure all of my personal insecurities.
So whenever I knew that there was a good chance a PR was out of my reach, or if I was afraid of how hard it would be to actually achieve it, here’s what I would do instead: just run for fun! By which I mean, I declared that I was not invested in the race whatsoever and I was only there because I wanted to pay 50 bucks to run with a bunch of other people who would probably annoy me in 16 different ways. These were my two choices: care about the result such that only a PR would satisfy me, or have the decency to pretend I wasn’t really trying.
Here’s where I think I might finally be paying attention, and maybe even learning something about myself: running a race without any attachment to the outcome is actually really, really hard. I would submit, in fact, that I am still not really ready to do it. Running in such a zen state of self-acceptance with hundreds or possibly thousands of people around you requires effort, thought, preparation and intention, and I approached it with the opposite. When I said I was running for fun, I would back that up by neglecting all serious preparation for the race. Sleep, food, who cares? I’m running for fun! If I suck today, I can blame external factors and pretend it didn’t matter anyway.
Maybe some people can do this with a genuine sense of fun; I am not one of them. If you, reader, are a runner, be really honest with yourself about what goes through your head when you run a race “for fun.” I won’t presume to speak for anyone else, but here’s what happens inside me: I put on a race number and say to myself, “I don’t care how fast I run; I’m here to have fun!” Everyone goes out faster than me, and I am running for fun, so I “don’t overthink it” and try to keep up. In the absence of reasonable expectations, why not indulge in magical thinking? “Maybe I will shock myself and run a PR today without even trying; YOU NEVER KNOW!” At every mile marker I see the race clock, and despite my best efforts I am mathing away and trying to extrapolate what my finish time might look like. And I fight the urge even as I am doing it, because I don’t want to ruin the fun. I am bargaining with myself now; “maybe I’ll still finish in under XX:XX, and I will find that acceptable.” And then I remember, “last year, I ran XX:XX. And my PR at this distance is XX:XX. I’ll probably never be that fast again BUT I AM FINE WITH THAT! I AM HERE TO HAVE FUN!”
So here we are mid-race, and I haven’t been running easy, but I’ve also been unwilling to run really hard, because that isn’t fun. I keep doing math and deduce that no matter how hard I run now, I’m not going to PR this race. And I did not come here to actually try and then fail, so fuck it, I’m just going to slow down a little, because FUN! And I cross the finish line, and the finish time is whatever.
And I get home from the race and I start comparing that whatever finish time to all my other finish times at this distance. And I’ll never know how else today might have gone, because instead, I let myself slow down, in the name of some lie I told myself about not caring. Which brings me to the conclusion that I will never get faster, or better. And now I have this ugly oversized shirt that I have to somehow cram into my overflowing running-clothes drawer.
I don’t go into every race needing to knock it out of the park. I have, however, learned my own mind well enough to know that I need to define clearly what I need to get from every race. If what I really want is to run for fun, then what I need to do is take that desire as seriously as a time goal.
Today, I am not running for fun. I haven’t done the mental preparation for that. I want a good performance out of myself; the kind I can be satisfied with regardless of the clock. If I do it right, I will be miserable the entire time, because that’s the 10K. My run coaches recently interviewed Alex Hutchinson on the Train Like A Mother podcast, and he said at one point that when you are really gunning for your best possible performance in a 10K, you should cross the 5K mark – 3.1 miles – and feel like you aren’t going to finish. In the optimal version of that scenario, you would be wrong in your assumption, but you are working so hard that your mind is screaming at you to stop already. That’s where the fight is going to happen: between your ears. If all goes well, I can expect to finish the race today in somewhere between 55 minutes and an hour. That’s short enough that I should be very uncomfortable the entire time, but long enough for that uncomfortable effort to feel interminable.
Here’s the performance I want to see: I let the crowded Beacon Street stretch keep my pace slow enough to make me slightly worried for the first mile. Then, I start to open it up as we cross the river to Memorial Drive. If I hit the 4-mile marker and feel dread for the rest of the race, I am right on the money. By the time we are crossing the Mass Avenue bridge and heading back to Commonwealth Avenue for the final mile, I am burning and miserable and begging for mercy. I finish with my arms tingling and my ears ringing and my stomach in knots. I really don’t know what the time will look like, but just “for fun,” I’m going to guess it will be my 4th fastest 10K, assuming I do everything right. On paper, it barely sounds worth getting out of bed for, but I am learning to get out of bed for races that aren’t going to get me a PR. Here is my promise to you: if I execute a race like I just described, I will be grinning for the rest of the day, and I will forget what the clock said by dinnertime.