Why Running And Racing Are Not The Same Thing

Geoff Roes reflects on his return to racing… and how it’s different from regular running.

By on January 29, 2014 | Comments

Until this past weekend it had been nearly two years since I last ran what I would call a serious race. I have run a handful of short, small, local, charity events, but nothing that I personally viewed as a competitive event. This past weekend, though, I competed in a 30k snowshoe race just down the road from my house. The location and the low entry fee (free) made this an easy choice as something to sign up for back in the fall. At the time I wasn’t really sure I would actually run it, but then as race day drew near my health had taken a noticeable turn for the better. I’m not sure why exactly, but over the past two weeks I felt like I had made some major improvements in getting over the 18-month funk that I had been in. And thus, when this past Saturday came around, not only did I find myself deciding to line up for the race, but I actually felt fairly confident about being able to push myself at a decent effort, and that I might even feel good doing so.

After such a long time without racing, suddenly finding myself on a starting line was not just a surprising and unexpected experience, but it also gave me more insight into racing itself, and the differences between racing and running. Previously I have tried to keep racing and running as similar to each other as possible. I have always figured that if I could run a race with more or less the same approach and mindset as I had on any run then I would be as prepared as possible on race day because it wouldn’t really be any different than just going out for a run. The thing is, though, as I learned this past weekend, racing is a lot different than any, old training run.

Moments before the race started on Saturday, I was still in the mindset that I was just going to run this one for fun, and not turn it into an actual race. I have successfully run many races like this in the past, what you might call a ‘training race,’ and I just kind of assumed that’s what I would do this time. Within minutes of the race start, though, I began to shift my mindset. I remember thinking, Wow, I actually feel pretty good, and as long as there are all these other people out here running the same race, I may as well race them. I didn’t act upon these thoughts right away. I was pretty sure I was going to start racing before the run was over, but for the first hour or so I told myself that I should probably just play it safe (in terms of the physical stress on my body). It is after all very likely that all of the racing I have done in the past is what brought me into this 18-month funk in the first place. There was this other side of my mind though that knew that I was feeling the best I have felt in 18 months, that I really enjoy racing, and that the likely satisfaction I would get from giving this event a more serious effort would far outweigh any effects of over-stressing my body.

Ultimately, about 75 minutes into the race, this competitive side won out and I decided I was going to race. Almost instantly it was obvious that this was entirely different than just going out for a run. I had been just going out for a run for the first seven miles, and now I was going to race to the finish. At first, this thought scared me a little bit. It scared me because I didn’t know if it might be too much for my body to handle. Not only have I been ‘sick’ for 18 months, but I am also in horrible shape. It also scared me because I had no idea if I actually knew how to race anymore, or whether I would ever know how to race again. I’ve known for most of the past year that I could still be a runner, but not once in that time have I known if I could ever be a racer again. Sure, I could be a racer in the sense that I could go out and run races, but could I go out and race races? I had no idea, but I decided then that it was time to find out.

The Sourdough Snowshoe Race has one aid station, 5.7 miles into the race. Then you do a six-mile loop and come back around to the same aid station, and do the original 5.7 miles back to the same spot you started, a classic ‘lollipop’-style course. It was in the loop of the lollipop that I began to experience what it is like to race again for the first time since I dropped out of the Transvulcania 50 Mile in May of 2012.

Geoff Roes - 2012 Transvulcania

Geoff running Transvulcania in 2012. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

When you are racing you do things differently. It’s not a big difference, but it’s enough to notice, and I noticed it almost instantly on Saturday. The first thing I did differently was to ask a group of skiers on the trail how many other racers had passed them? When you are simply running you don’t care how many other runners are ahead of you, but when you are racing you want to know the exact number. My number was either four or five.

Shortly after this I started to pay attention to the snowshoe tracks of the most recent racer to pass through. I knew that if I was making longer strides, I was almost certainly gaining on them. It was quickly obvious that I was gaining on the next person in front of me, so then I tried to gauge my progress in relation to the runner in front of them. This was much harder because most of their tracks were washed away by the racer behind them. Every now and then, though, I could see two or three tracks that were clearly from the person two places ahead of me, and each time it seemed apparent that I was also gaining on them.

When I did finally spot the next racer in front of me, I chose to stop to piss before continuing on to pass him. This had a two-fold purpose, both of which I would only ever think about if I was racing and not simply running. I didn’t actually have to pee too much at that time, but I knew that I was going to need to once more before the race finished, and that I would not need to again if I did at that time. By stopping to piss then I would avoid needing to later in the race when a 10 or 20-second stop might be much more crucial. Earlier in a race, when you are more fresh, it is a lot easier to regain 10 or 20 seconds lost from stopping for something than it is later in a race when your heart rate doesn’t really come down at all in those 10 or 20 seconds.

The other reason I choose to stop at that time was so this 10 or 20-second rest would later help me make a more definitive pass of this racer ahead of me. This part of the course was very soft and punchy snow, and although I was moving a bit faster than the runner ahead of me, I couldn’t really move any faster than I was without having my heart rate shoot through the roof. If I passed him at my current pace he might be able to simply snap out of his pace, into my pace, and stick with me for much longer than I would like. My base fitness is horrible right now, and I knew I would be fading considerably as the race went on. If I was going to finish ahead of any of these runners ahead of me, I knew it was going to be from strategic strength more than from physical strength. If I could pass any of them definitively, I could probably get them to give up on seeing me again. And thus, with a little break, my heart rate came down just enough that I was able to move about 20% faster for two or three minutes. This was just enough to get me past this guy and out of sight ahead of him. I did this all so quickly (from his perspective) that he likely never even entertained the possibility of finishing ahead of me after I was gone out of sight.

Now I was in full-on race mode and instantly stared at the ground in front of me to see if I was in fact gaining on the next racer in front of me. When I discovered that I most certainly was, I got another boost of energy and pushed onward.

In due time, I could see him in the distance ahead of me. This part of the course was very hilly, and for several minutes I ran behind him, keeping my distance, trying to get a sense of how quick he was moving, and which hills he was running, and which ones he was walking. When travelling in soft snow on snowshoes, almost any uphill is as efficient to walk, as it is to run. This said, though, there are two types of walking that happen in a race. There is powerhiking, and there is the defeated stroll. Powerhiking is used because it is the most efficient way to move on a particular incline, while the defeated stroll is used because it is the only way you can move at that point. When you’ve seen enough of both it’s really easy to see, even from a distance, which one is occurring. I watched for several minutes and noticed that this guy was still very much powerhiking. I was moving faster than him, but not by much at all. Simply maintaining his pace was hard work for me. There was no way I was going to be able to pass him quickly. Even if I shadowed him for several minutes I really wasn’t going to get enough rest to make a decisive move.

In this instance I choose to come up behind him and talk with him for some time while we ran together. I hoped I could give him the impression that I was moving a lot faster and easier than I was. I immediately asked him if he knew how close the next person was ahead of him. This would give me some useful information about the next racer ahead, but it would also likely make him feel like I was feeling better than I actually was. It’s only when we are feeling strong that we tend to care where the next racer ahead of us is. If we aren’t feeling strong we tend to care more about the next racer behind. In that moment I wasn’t actually feeling very good, but I knew he would assume I was if I asked about the next racer ahead. No sooner did I ask, and he asked me how far back the next racer was behind. In this moment I knew I had him. His mind was focused on maintaining his position. I hadn’t even passed him yet and he had already given up on beating me.

It turns out there was only one more racer up ahead. I learned this when I came back through the aid station at about mile 12. He had an eight-minute lead on me, and I knew I was not going to catch him. The runner in the lead was my good friend, Joe Grant. He’s a very strong runner, in great shape right now, who has spent a lot of time on snowshoes in the past two winters. I was exhausted, and never even entertained the idea of trying to catch Grant. In my mind, I had ‘won’ my race if I could just hold on to second place.

I had raced hard and smart for 90 minutes, and in that time had moved from sixth orseventh place up to second place. I still had nearly six miles to go to the finish. I knew I wasn’t going to catch Joe, but I also knew that no one was going to catch me from behind. I went into auto-pilot mode: walk the uphills with a purpose, run steady on the flats, and run hard and fast on the downhills. Soon enough the end would come.

And soon enough the end did come. It felt really great to finish a race once again. I know I still have a long ways to go to feel anywhere near 100%, but this did feel like a big step in the right direction. More than anything, though, I learned that I most certainly have it in me not just to be a runner once again, but to be a racer. I also learned just how much difference there is between the two. In that one, six-mile loop in middle of the race, I did so many strategic, little things that I have not done once since the last time I raced. Being nearly two years since, these little things jumped out at me in a way that was impossible to ignore.

I know I have said in the past (both in interviews and in writing), that I don’t think racing is all that different for me than any type of running. The thing is that I had never had enough of a break from racing to really see the differences. The race this past weekend made me realize that running is only one small part of racing. Running is first and foremost where my passion lies, but no question, racing is really damn fun too. I can’t wait to do it again. Hopefully I don’t need to wait two years this time.

Geoff Roes - Return to Racing 2014

A happy return to racing for Geoff Roes. Photo: Patrick Olson

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What are some of the differences between running and racing for you? And, what are some of the similarities?
  • Have you found yourself in a position like Geoff describes, after a long break from racing, where you’re acutely aware of the little things you do when racing that you don’t do when you’re ‘just’ running?
Geoff Roes
Geoff Roes has set numerous ultramarathon course records including the Western States and Wasatch 100 milers. Salomon, Clif, Drymax, Ryders Eyewear, and Atlas Snowshoes all support Geoff's running. You can read more about his running on his blog Fumbling Towards Endurance and join him at his Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camps.