Pursuit of Over-Performance: Reasons to Race When You Aren't Fit
I have a confession. One of my many pet peeves is when a social media post starts, "It wasn't a PR, but....."
Maybe it's me being jaded from the reality that the faster you get, the more difficult it is to PR, or maybe it's because I hold racing as sacrosanct, but the measuring stick we so often use of whether a race was "good" or "bad" based solely on whether or not a PR was acquired makes me kind of sad.
For so long, I heard influential people around me say that they wouldn't race unless they knew for certain they could win or PR that it started to make me believe that's what I should do, too. I didn't realize that it made me completely lose my enjoyment for racing because if neither event occurred, I was often asked (or left questioning) why I didn't win or run a PR - regardless of my current fitness.
Another belief I have heard is to only run races as controlled workouts until you're ready for your "A" race - another principle I can't really get behind because at its core I believe we do this to try and protect our egos from being hurt if a race effort doesn't deliver a desired result. [also, on principle I can't pay for a race I'm not going to race!]
Now, I'm not at all saying someone should race hard every single weekend. But, I want to make a case for getting out and racing, especially now that races are beginning to happen again [if you feel safe, if the race is held in a safe manner, and the risks you take are fully calculated] because there are so many benefits to standing on a starting line when you're not in the best shape of your life that I think many runners overlook.
On Saturday I raced the XC Town USA Meet of Champions, which was 6K cross country at Lavern Gibson in Terre Haute. It has been 11 YEARS since I last raced a 6K. Here are some unobjective truths I knew going into this race:
-I was not going to run a PR
-I was not going to place in the top 10
Since my mountain 25K 4 weeks ago, I have hardly done any running. First, I was sick (covid negative) for an entire week following the race. Then our 19 year old dog developed Idiopathic Vestibular Disease, which is basically extreme vertigo for dogs and she required constant care, and then the election happened. I honored my body and the cumulative stress first and foremost and ran an amount that felt best, which was a lot of easy 3 - 4 mile days. My last "speed" workout (16 x 400 m hill alternating up and down) was 6 weeks ago. The last time I did anything faster than 6:00 pace was......June?
Going into a race knowing there was no pressure (internal or external) to win [whatever winning means to you!!] or PR was a weird mix of exciting, freeing, and terrifying. My goal was simply to see how much I could overperform. I ran an open xc 5K the week before in 19:38 (6:18 pace), which I was actually pretty proud of given a number of different factors. One week isn't enough time to gain any fitness from that race, and I felt a good over-performance goal was to run the 6K at 6:18 pace or faster, especially since Lavern Gibson's 6K course is, in my opinion, one of the toughest ones around. My second goal was to simply run a smart race and not get passed by anyone.
A funny thing has happened to me every time I have ever raced in Terre Haute - I am ALWAYS in starting box 1 or 41 (aka on the farthest extremes of the starting line). This has taught me to always run the tangent. Smart move number 1 of the day!
I'm the lonely woman on the far left of your screen
I knew I wasn't going to be the fastest person off the starting line, which I also thought would work to my advantage. I am very comfortable starting behind and working my way up. Unfortunately there were no clocks on the women's course (just the men's. boo.) so I don't know any splits, but I felt strong and in control.
Around 2K, on my favorite part of the course where there are a lot of mini roller coaster hills, I realized I had stepped on what felt like a massive wood chip. I looked down and could see pieces of a tree root (?) sticking out from either side of my spike. It felt uncomfortable but I really didn't want to stop during the race and try to remove it from my shoe (also, I'm just not that coordinated and I probably would have wound up falling down or something) so I powered through. I kept reminding myself that people lose shoes all the time and still run well, so certainly this isn't much different of a situation. After about 1000 m I kind of forgot about the root and was incredibly surprised when I finished and saw just how massive the root was! Lesson: 1/2'' spikes are high risk, high reward. I don't think this would have gotten caught in 1/4'' needles! Also, I'm probably lucky I don't have a compensation injury.
The rest of the race is a bit of a blur. I had visualized all week getting to 3K and picking off women from there, which is pretty much exactly what I did. Dave thinks he saw on his watch that I was 12:10 at 2 miles (I don't wear a watch when I race) but he isn't certain. At 4K I strongly felt like I was going to puke but I started counting my breaths and was able to calm the feeling and forge ahead. I passed a few women the final 1K, ran down the world's longest homestretch into a head wind (if you know the course you know south winds are the worst there!), and was pleased to have finished 52nd at 6:13 pace (goal 1 met) not having been passed by a single person (goal 2 met).
It's definitely odd to be excited about what I believe is one of my slowest ever 6Ks. But, regardless of your fitness nothing beats the feeling of knowing you left everything out there. Truthfully, I almost think there are more reasons to race when you're not fit than when you are! These include:
Nothing Beats a Race as a Workout
I have never been a workout hero, meaning I have never been able to over-perform in workouts. Likewise, I've never been able to hold myself back in races. When you aren't fit, pushing yourself to your limit in a race often provides a better workout than one you could do in a scheduled workout. I know that in two weeks I will be more fit than if I had done a tempo or track work.
Racing Without Fitness Makes You Rely on Your Mind
What was the most important thing I did this week knowing that I wasn't fit? Work on my mental game. I prioritized 10 minutes of visualization every day. I visualized different scenarios, such as starting the race dead last, running the first mile way too fast, running the first mile just right, passing people the entire way, negative splitting, positive splitting and powering through, feeling strong, etc. During strides this week I focused on a mantra for the race so that I would use it when the race felt tough. I focused on setting realistic goals. I made the race more about the process and less about the exact outcome.
Racing without Fitness Hones Your Race Skills
If you want to have any chance at a good day when you aren't fit, you have to be smart. NOTHING is going to save your ass if you run your first mile close to your mile PR and still have 2.75 miles to go. Tangents are more important than ever. Finding someone faster than you and sticking with them suddenly feels like it makes even more sense. Throwing yourself into the fire suddenly makes you appreciate all the little lessons you have learned.
When I go into a race and I'm fit, I'm often terrified of making a mistake and running slower than I know I can. However, when you already know that time or place isn't going to matter (whether that's an AG award, a podium finish, finishing ahead of your seed time, etc.) you allow yourself a little more wiggle room. With 1K to go I knew I didn't have to worry about blowing up the last 400 m and getting walked down by people behind me, which helped me push harder that final 1K and be okay if that was a mistake. It wasn't. I didn't feel like I had to protect my position and was able to test out an earlier kick.
Dare I Say....It May Be More Fun?!
Okay, so I'm not sure I'm willing to go there just yet, because running fast times and winning (whatever that means to you) IS a lot of fun. But, also, I was pretty burned out on the notion that racing should only occur if you're fast and/or in a position to win/podium. The last three races I have run (the 25K, 5K xc last week, 6K xc Saturday) have reminded me of why I love racing so much [and why I can't seem to stop the pursuit of fast times].
Practice Makes Perfect
If you want to be a better racer....you have to spend more time racing. Plain and simple. Much like socializing a dog and exposing it to new experiences to help it create coping mechanisms for stress, racing all types of distances, terrains, field competitiveness, personal fitness levels, etc will always help you learn something and cope with the type of stress that is unique to race day.
Nothing is More Motivating
When you finish a race you usually say, "I never want to do that again," followed by, "when can I do that again?" Racing when you aren't fit is SUPER motivating because you know you have nowhere to go but up, and you can relish in the pride of knowing you did something hard when not everyone would have felt comfortable putting themselves in your position.
Obviously I know that not everyone can head out next weekend and find a race to run. Even though my race only had 100 people AND Lavern Gibson is one of the widest/spaced out courses AND it has a sufficiently wide start/finish line AND we all more masks until the gun went off and put them back on as soon as we crossed the finish line, there were still risks involved. What helped me feel safe is that I know many of the people who put on the meet, and Dave was a course marshal. My recommendation right now is running races where you know the course/area and are familiar with the people in charge.
I am hopeful that races will be coming back in the next 6 - 8 months to a larger degree. If you want to enjoy the benefits of racing right now but cannot take the risks, I also recommend trying a time trial or a virtual race. I was extremely skeptical that I could get the same feeling from virtual races, but in some ways I found them just as enjoyable. I had pre-race butterflies before my virtual races and really had to work on digging deep, which will certainly help me in the future. I also enjoyed the aspect of racing myself which allowed me to try different things since I didn't feel like I had to protect my place. Knowing there were others out there my time would be ranked against kept me motivated to keep pushing harder and harder.
Moving forward, I realized that no matter how fit I am, over-performance should always be the goal. Doing all the work I did this week and having it pay off in such a real way was so rewarding. Just focusing on whether I could run better than my fitness level helped me avoid common pitfalls, like looking at the entry list and wondering if x, y, or z person was going to beat me. Looking inward and knowing what I needed to do in order to perform my best that day, and protecting that, is definitely something I want to carry forward from this experience, and it's a little funny to me that my slowest xc time is what it took for me to realize that.
post-race reward...my yearly peppermint mocha!