Yesterday I was driving and thinking about the time when, in the middle of a five mile trail race, it dawned on me that racing means racing, as opposed to just being out for a run that I pay for, I guess. I had run a number of races up to this point but it just hadn't clicked in my head that racing meant something different. I always had a race goal; I always went into the race with a strategy from my coach; and I always showed up with all the butterflies and trepidation that a start line brings. But until this particular race day I just didn't get it--not until a midwestern (kind of passive aggressive) competitor posing as a fellow middle-aged woman out for a casual race-run ran up beside me for the third time on the course.
The first interaction with her didn't hit my bullshit radar at all. She came up alongside me, said a friendly hello, then proceeded to chat about how she started the race a few minutes late, how she loved running these cross country type courses, how good she was feeling, and something about the grandkids. And then she pulled ahead.
I didn't think much about it. We were on a flat, beautiful section of the course and I could see her winding along the trail up ahead. As she hit an incline she started to slow and I closed the gap and passed her. Once the trail flattened out I heard her come up behind me again. When she caught me this time she began to tell me about how many races she had run lately and that she hadn't even been sure, right up until this morning, if she would run this one but decided to jump in. This was followed by more talk about the grandkids while sprinkling in veiled bragging about her running accomplishments. Something wasn't sitting right with me but I had been trained for 50+ years to be nice, even at my own expense, and although I was beginning to shake off that always be nice thing, I was still kind of a novice. For a second time she slowly pulled ahead and, frankly, I was glad to be rid of her because she was getting under my skin.
Once again when the terrain got a little more tough she began to slow and, once again, I caught her. And once again, she started talking: grandkids, what a beautiful day it was, her running resume...she said she had a coach (So do I, lady, I thought) and that her coach said she should do this race because it would be easy for her. At this point she is full on bugging the crap out of me when it dawns on me: OH! She's trying to bug me! She's trying to get under my skin! She's racing me! This is her race tactic! As this occurs to me it also occurs to me that she's seems to be struggling. And it occurs to me that I can race too--that I am, in fact, in the middle of a race and I should be racing!
But what's my tactic?
At this point we are running together and heading towards a big gully. My mind has been blown open and she is struggling (but still valiantly throwing down her running credentials), and as we head down the side of the bluff and into the creek I realize that my race tactic is not talking. My race tactic is going to be to go inside myself to a place where the singular thing I am doing is racing. My race tactic is going to be to dig deep--so deep that her words are just fuel that drive me deeper, that bluffs and creeks are just fuel that drive me deeper.
As soon as we cross the creek we hit the steep hillside up and out of the gully. She is behind me, she is no longer talking, and I am in race mode. The first part of the climb is so steep that we are crawling and pulling ourselves up using tree roots. As the incline lessens I can stand and hike with my hands on my knees, propelled forward by the force of my new realization. At the moment I crest the hill and am able to stand upright I hear her say "Wow, my legs are like noodles--they're burning. Are yours?"
"NOPE!" I said as I turned and ran out of the woods.
Yes my legs were burning! Yes they felt like noodles! But I could also feel all my training--I trained for this. I was ready for this. And now I was racing this. As I took off running on my burning, noodly legs I said to myself: Diane, you f**king dig deeper than you've ever dug before! You run like tigers are chasing you--as if your life depends on it. You do everything in your power to get to the finish line first. You have to beat her or die trying. I don't walk through daily life with that mindset--that was my new race brain talking.
We were running the perimeter of a farm field with about a mile and a half to go, so it was easy to keep an eye on my competition and the distance I was putting between us. Plowed, chunky, ruddy fields are by far my least favorite kind of terrain, but it didn't matter--I let that irritation become fuel too. By the time I rounded the edge of the field and back onto the straight away towards the finish I could no longer see my new friend, but I didn't let up on the gas until I saw the timing clock and crossed the line.
I got some water and my banana and walked slowly to my car feeling emptied out and satisfied in a way that I hadn't felt before. As I started my car I looked up to see my race buddy walking across the finish line, eight minutes after me. "Good race, lady" I said to myself in my car. Yes, I was glad I came in first, really glad, actually; but more than that I was grateful that she showed up that day and grateful that she pulled out some stops to try and get the edge. That's what racing is, and she taught me that.
I don't know why this memory surfaced, but I needed it today. Earlier someone had asked how my knee was after my second surgery and how long had it been since I've run. "It's been a minute!" I responded. When I got in my truck and drove away I realized it had been a full year to the day since I've been able to run. It's been two surgeries, lots of rehab, and very little respite from thinking about my knee since I've been able to run. I hesitate to talk much about it--I want to stay positive and forward focused and I am genuinely grateful for all the gifts that have also come with these surgeries, gifts I could not have received except for the surgeries. And maybe that's where that memory came from, because, like the surgeries, racing brings gifts that only racing can give. Race day holds excitement but also a certain, special dread now. I know when I stand on that start line that I am intentionally running towards discomfort and that I will, on the best of days, ask all of my body, mind and spirit to first dial in and then turn themselves completely inside out in service of one goal. I haven't raced for a very long time and I was worried that I had lost my race brain, but then I realized that these two surgeries, this entire past year, has been kind of like waking up every morning and standing on a race start line. My race brain has been on alert and ready to jump in to action when needed.
But this memory also helped me realize that I have not lost the most important things: my passion and drive for running. I was concerned that my passion and drive would fizzle. Actually, concerned is the sugar-coated word masking the real fears going into these surgeries:
- What if, after my surgery, I don't have enough fight in me to recover?
- What if, after my surgery, I don't recover and I can't run again?
- What if I realize that I don't want this as badly as I think I do?
- And what if I do want it, but I don't recover, and I become irrelevant because I'm not a runner anymore? Then what will I be? And what will I do?
Fortunately my fears, although they felt very real, were unfounded. Even though I haven't been able to run, I have been able to rely on running and my running community to see me through.
It's been a long haul, but after this second surgery things are looking up. Fingers crossed, of course, but the outlook for running is good. I absolutely want this as badly as I think I do, maybe more than ever. Actually, yes, for sure, more than ever. And during this process my running world prospects have expanded, not diminished, and my community has shown up in spades. And as for a fighting spirit: I do have enough fight in me and, on the days I can't find it, my race brain shows up says:
Diane, you f**king dig deeper than you've ever dug before! You fight through this recovery like tigers are chasing you--as if your life depends on it. You do everything in your power to get to this recovery finish line. You give this everything you've got (or die trying!).
As it turns out, my little internal racer is fierce and, running or not, she shows up when I most need her.