This post isn’t about Halloween-themed races, costume-clad runners or someone jumping out of the bushes 10 feet from the finish line to scare the bejeezus out of you. It’s simply about racing, at any distance, in any discipline, at any time of the year. Yes, we’re told that races are supposed to be fun, exciting affairs — and, in a lot of ways, they are — but they’re also scary as hell.
Last week, after a few months away from a starting line of any sort, I found the guts to sign up for my first race in a while, a popular local half marathon a little less than 14 weeks from now. As soon as I clicked “register” on the online entry form I was overcome with the full-bodied tingling feeling you get just before getting on a roller coaster you’ve ridden a hundred times since you were a kid — you know exactly what you’re in for, can anticipate every screaming downhill, blind turn and upside-down flip, but the thought of doing it yet again still scares the shit out of you.
A small dose of fear, much like a serving of vegetables, a few minutes of daily exercise or the occasional glass of red wine, is a healthy thing.
What makes racing so scary? For a lot of newer runners, it’s usually the fear of the unknown. For many veterans such as myself, it’s that same fear of the unknown mixed in with the fear of knowing exactly what you’re in for on race day. Regardless of how many races you’ve run, there’s no escaping the fact that the outcome of each event is a great uncertainty for everyone, and that’s usually enough to put a little knot in any runner’s stomach.
For me, someone with deep competitive roots in the sport, racing has always been a way to test myself against other people, the clock and myself. In the weeks and months before a race, thinking about the goals I’ve set for myself — whether it’s beating one of my top rivals, achieving a personal best or running faster than I have in recent years — can be a scary proposition. I know that even if I do everything perfectly in my preparation, there’s still no guarantee that I’ll achieve my desired result on race day. Carrying around that small bit of fear in the weeks and months prior to a race, however, is what drives me to do everything in my power to train hard and smart. The better I prepare for a race, the less fearful I am when I step on the starting line.
The race itself, however, is inevitably one big fear fest. No matter how much confidence I carry into a race, I know that at some point it’s going to hurt — usually a lot — and that’s a scary thing to think about just seconds before the starter’s gun goes off. Willingly diving head first into the pain cave — a place I’ve been hundreds of times before — without any idea of what the end result will be, is downright frightening.
As Alberto Salazar, three-time New York City Marathon champion said, “I had as many doubts as anyone else. Standing on the starting line, we’re all cowards.”