Why We Race

Not long ago, some guy over on one of those running forum board things (how’s that for trying to sound like I don’t waste half my life reading those boards? ) started a thread about whether or not his wife would be ready to run a marathon in 90 days if her long runs were now only at 6 miles and her mileage was zipping along at about 15 miles a week. He tossed in the gem that she doesn’t really like to race, but he just knows that she can at least finish The Marathon if she only tries. He concluded by pointing out that his wife was really unhappy with her training, but “haven’t any of YOU  felt you were totally un-prepared for a marathon, but you did it anyway, and made it through?”

Oh, for the love of sheesh.

What followed was a good old fashioned “She can do it! Rah! Racing is about finishing, not competing! Marathons are AWESOME! Your wife is AWESOME!” versus “WTF? She’s totally not ready!” donnybrook.  Some RAH! types crankily conceded that maybe she wouldn’t be very fast, but that the marathon experience would change her life. Perhaps, it was, suggested, she just needed more motivation.

Around page four of lofty motivational speeches, this fast guy I know who used to have long hair but recently got a cute boyish haircut wrote this:

You know what’s really awesome?

 When it’s beyond the point of motivation. You know what I mean? 

 When all the stuff that people tell you just rings hollow. Stuff like: it’s hardcore to run a marathon or you’re gonna feel so good when it’s done or it’s going to be a first step on the path to a lifetime of fitness or completing this will help give you the strength to complete your other goals in life or I’ll be so proud of you or running is stupid or why would you put yourself through all that or runners are weird.

What’s really awesome is when none of that stuff matters. When you race because you have to race. Because you can’t not race. Because you’ve got fire in your belly and legs like coiled snakes. When you realize it’s totally absurd to hurtle yourself like a madman down the road for 26.2 miles … You do it anyways.

Love it.  And this is not to say that it’s wrong to run a marathon, or any race, for any of the above motivational reasons, but there is something groovy about racing just because the race is there, and you want to go fast and see what will happen. Or what won’t. The medals, the shirts, the cocktail hour braggadocio, the checklist, the bucket list, the Swamp Racing List (heh), the glory, the wackiness, the pomposity all fade into a dull mudpuddle of So What. You race because you can’t not race.

I couldn’t really remember why I started racing when I was 19. There wasn’t really much connected to road racing that particularly impressed anyone, especially if you were a girl. Sports as a metaphor for success in life was mostly reserved for boys and teams. Race results weren’t posted anywhere unless you were one of the winners, and there were no goody bags or guaranteed medals. Hell, I didn’t even have a race bib to scribble vainglorious notes on from my first few races. Once when I returned to my dorm after a 10k in the rain, three of my suite-mates (alas) looked at me with aghast bug-eyes and said, “What happened to you?!”

Then, last week, I was going through a mountain of old journals I had kept from my late teens into my twenties. I wrote nearly every day, a bottomless paroxysm of angst, self-doubt, melodrama, wretched introspection, drunkeness, and heartbreak. Occasionally I’d throw in something that cracked me up, and once I simply wrote “HA!” for my entire entry. Otherwise, however, it was a grand collection of gloom, doom, and I Suck. After reading through one exceptionally mirthless January, I wondered how on earth I ever got from there to here.

Weaving very sporadically and briefly through these tomes were mentions of races. I rarely went into much detail, but whenever I wrote about racing, it was with a sense of relief, worth, and (God forbid in a Teen Angst Journal) excitement. On a summer Saturday night in 1980, I filled 4 pages with withering woe only to end it with, “I get to race tomorrow! Yay!” It wasn’t like I was cranking out incredible times or even remotely basking in any kind of glory. I raced because I had to race. Later that summer I wrote, “Ran today under 40 minutes. That felt pretty fast, so I feel good about that. See? I’m actually good at something, assholes.” (I liked to swear a LOT in my journals.)

Decades later, I can’t see that my reasons for racing have changed very much. I’m still not breaking any speed records or impressing anyone. I don’t feel my life has necessarily changed based on the distance or number of races I’ve run. Granted, my life is a tad cheerier and my self-esteem a bit grander, but there’s still something about the risk, the pain, the going to the edge that pushes me out of that day-to-day whateverness. There isn’t too much that compares to the scary, very personal thrill of racing a race.

And, so, I still get that buzz the night before a race and think Yay! I still feel good if I feel fast. I still can’t not race.

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8 thoughts on “Why We Race

  1. Yes, but you, being the gracious and refined woman that you are, extend me the invitation!

    MTA: By the way, “sheesh” is slang for the “sheesha” tobacco that middle-easterners burn in the hooka machine. They may burn other things, which you may infer. As you may know hashish is the Arabic word for “grass.” Ehem. So, when you said “for the love of sheesh” it had a special meaning to me.

    Thanks, Tanya!

  2. Yes, I still get those magical butterflies in my stomach before a race (racing since late 70’s). I couldn’t and don’t want to go without.
    Thanks for the reminder.

  3. all this time i thought “sheesh” was slang for “jesus” whereby i thought by using it i was tangentially* invoking in vain the name of the lord. lo & behold, here i learn that i have instead been inadvertantly invoking the toking.

    *that word looks like tangerine, don’t you think? and, i am not even high. sheesh.

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