As runners congregate at a race’s start line, I never know where to line up, but I do know that I am a bundle of nerves. My stomach churns, filled with a mixture of apprehension and excitement. These dichotomous feelings remind me that I am very much alive and full of adrenaline, but at the same time semi-nauseous with fear. Before I have time to overthink things too much, we are given a minute’s warning until the race start. This creates an ominous lull among the corralled bodies.
The start gun pierces the silence, triggering bodies into the motion of methodical chaos. I can see in the runners around me and feel in myself flaying elbows and arms, as well as a hyper-rapid cadence in our legs. From our loaded running belts and hydrations packs, soft flasks and energy gels go accidentally airborne. The jostling for position continues and it feels like everyone for themselves. For these first few minutes, time speeds up, yet slows down.
I continue to cover distance, despite it feeling ugly and messy. The more runners there are, the more drawn out this process seems to be. This is not how I like to run, and in the moment I think it is absolutely absurd given the distance of our race. My opinion stems the nerve-racking feeling that internally emerges from the perceived pandemonium. Barely into the race and I feel like I’ve just had four caffeinated gels, but really I’ve had none. I fidget with my earbuds, but no music plays yet. At this stage, the earbuds are a façade, my coping strategy for blocking out enough of the mayhem while still staying safely aware of my surroundings.
I keep my eyes forward, focus on form, and try to not worry about the other participants. Out of habit, I glance at my watch and then reprimand myself for doing so, telling myself to get it together and find my rhythm. I need not focus on time or what other racers are doing.
Over the years, my approach has evolved. In my early years, at local races, my tactic was to simply not get beat. At larger races, it was to finish in the top 10. I looked at previous results and created expectations that at times made me feel as if I was grasping at straws. These preconceived notions of finishing times and placements based only on what others had run in different years added pressure and took away the idea of running in the moment. I was overlooking and undervaluing execution and personal performance. My goal-setting method was not taking into account factors such as weather, trail conditions, course changes, or where I was at in my training. Consequently, I recall several wins that lacked joy because of what I perceived to be my lackluster performance, me self-questioning when my time didn’t match those of others who’d raced years before me.
Shifting my focus from others to myself has proven to be a process–one that’s still in progress. In all aspects of life, I often have to remind myself that I only have the ability to control my own performance. In training, I strive to follow the prescribed workout, to trust in my coach and myself so I can put the best version of me on the line. During a race, I tell myself that I am my own competition as I methodically strive to pull everything out that I can over a given distance. When I cross the finish line, I want my tank flashing empty, having balanced both finishing strong but using almost all the gas in my tank.
My approach to competition may sound egotistical–this attempt to focus on me–but I assure you I encourage other participants along the way no matter their gender or position. Sometimes this encouragement is a quick sharing of words or a small pat on the back, while other times there are hours of conversation. I now thrive on and look forward to the camaraderie within competition as it provides a great deal of fuel to my engine and soul and hopefully it does for others, too.
Placing focus on myself and little else–not the movements of others, the weather, trail conditions, or another external element that is beyond my control–allows me to channel all my energy on personal execution. Regardless of the outcome, I can take pride in my pursuit of pushing myself in all aspects of life. Winning isn’t everything and accepting this has been a healthier approach for me not only as an athlete, but also as a human.
Call for Comments (from Aliza)
- Who or what is your competition?
- Has your perspective changed over time? If so, how?