Thursday, March 15, 2012

Learning to Race

Back in 2010, I arrived back to my car atop the parking garage of the Pentagon City mall. I had just completed the Army Ten Miler and hit my goal of crossing the line in under an hour. I stepped gingerly into the front seat, pulled the phone from the glove compartment, and dialed up my dad. Somewhere early in the conversation, I confessed: “Racing is hard.”

I can still flashback to the eight mile marker in that race just before crossing the graveyard of all D.C. races, the 14th Street Bridge, and remember the feeling: beaten down, sapped of strength, and full of doubt. I would pinpoint it as one of the first moments I truly reached within and willed myself on toward the finish line. “I will go to the well,” I remember telling myself as I flipped through my rolodex of character workouts from that hot Virginia summer and pushed on to the finish.

There are races we run for others or in their memory; there are races we run for ourselves; some we run for time; some we run for tradition; and still some we run to race and even win.

When I first started training seriously, my goal had been to run a sub-20 5K. I had inconsistent success at it and when I’d relay my experiences to my dad and uncle afterward, they independently said the same thing: “You’re just learning how to race.”

Learning how to race? I thought. I’d completed many races to that point, including a couple marathons. What was there to learn?

A lot.

As I toed the line month in and year out, I learned more about myself, let alone racing: How much pain could I endure? How much was I willing to endure? Where is my training weak? What sorts of courses do I excel on?

By taking an honest look at my performance in those races, I could pull out the positives, discard the negatives, and apply them to my next race. I know, for example, that I thrive on uphills and can use that portion of a course to do some damage.

Up until the Backyard Burn Trail Series, I ran for time. When I put together a training plan prior to each race, I had a goal time in mind that I could adjust based on how the program progressed. If my finish came with an age group prize, that was just icing on the cake.

But this race – or series – is different. I don’t have much need for a 5.6mi PR. In other words, the clock is pretty much out the window. To do more than run – that is, to race – in this series is to hunt down those ahead of you and outlast the ones behind you. First place in a “slow” time is still first place.

In a recent race, Pete Rea, head coach at ZAP Fitness, told his runner to put the watch away and run to compete. My dad called it “running to win versus running for time.” Such a simple statement that pretty much summed up in seven words what I’d been pondering since winning last weekend’s 5.6mi trail race.

In running books and perhaps even in our heads, we romanticize that feeling of being in extremis and I believe – at least for this runner – that when faced with going to that dark place, I’ll embrace the pain and lay myself bare to obtain whatever the goal is. But saying that you can endure it and then actually enduring it are two completely different elements. I like to think that I answered the bell this past weekend and hope that I can again. Because no matter how much it hurt at the end (and the middle), it all went away when I crossed the line.
The reasons we race are as different as the places we come from. To win, to place, to remember, or whatever your reason, we have an opportunity to learn about ourselves.


  1. Brad, this is one of my favorite posts you've written! 2011 is when I finally started to figure out the whole "racing thing" (I still have a long way to go). Before my first couple tris of last season, I was worried that I wouldn't have the mental fortitude to really race it and my coach sent me some awesome e-mails (kind of like a drill sergeant yelling at you) - I wrote down a number of those choice lines and one of them was not to race the clock, but the people you are competing against. This past year I stopped really focusing on time and focused on chasing those around me and it really seemed to help. Racing is painful but fun - so much to learn every time! Good luck this weekend!!

    1. Thanks, Caroline! Good luck to you, my friend. Will see you at the finish line.

  2. Beautiful post.. I am reading this 48 hours to the eve of my most important race. I will keep with me some of these words on race day and on all of my steps to the finish line. No mater the outcome on Sunday, I am already excited about what I will learn from it. PS. Love the Backyard Burn series! :)

    1. Thank you! Best of luck to you on Sunday. Can't wait to hear the results.

  3. agreed, this is your best post....and youve got some dandies!

  4. I couldnt agree with you more. I hope that I can take this same mentality into my trail season this summer and fall. Hopefully this blog will be in my rolodex of inspiration when I am gutting out some tough miles.


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