By Katie Merrill, FHR member since 2013, sometimes successful amateur racer
If you’ve been running or racing long enough, you’re bound to have a race where things don’t exactly go according to plan. You train for weeks, months, sometimes the better part of a year, only to get to race day and have things fall apart. This can be heartbreaking, especially if you’ve sacrificed other important things in your life, like traveling, social engagements, or time with family and friends. And the longer and more detailed the training was for the race, the more difficult it can be to swallow the idea that it just isn’t going to happen like you hoped. Knowing so many runners, and running many races myself, I feel like I’ve seen and experienced such great race moments that I stay hopeful that any race has the potential to be my best yet. Likewise however, I’ve seen a lot of careful plans fall apart. My most recent experience with this kind of race disappointment was when I decided to race a half marathon for a PR in early June this year (because, you know, June has such excellent racing weather). I trained for 2 ½ months, doing workouts at race pace and speed work on the track to be ready for the big day. When the day of the half marathon finally arrived I got to mile 6.5 at my goal pace before completely falling apart in the heat and feeling like I was going to vomit. For the next 5 miles I walked up every uphill, and shuffled the down hills until I finally was able to jog to the finish line. For the next week I was in a funk and declared things like “I don’t think I really like running that much.” This isn’t just tied to running however. I once did a triathlon and at the start of the swim I got kicked in the side, felt myself starting to have a panic attack, rolled over onto my back, and hyperventilated while back stroking the entire 400 meters to shore. My time was still decent but as I hobbled through the transition area and tried to stop shaking I thought, “Why have I been practicing my freestyle for 6 months if I was just going to float to shore!?”
I know I am not alone in these experiences. I know this because I have had to watch other people go through these moments as well. In 2015, while cheering for the Boston Marathon at Mile 23, I watched a young woman step into a little pothole, twist her ankle, fall, and not get back up. A stretcher and ambulance ride were the last few miles of her race. In Burlington, VT this past Memorial Day weekend 2016, the temperature got so warm during the Vermont City Marathon that officials decided to actually stop the race. Months of training turned into a really long walk for many runners in 90 degree heat. This past September, a slow train cut through a marathon course in Allentown, PA, stopping runners for almost ten minutes, and no doubt crushing many people’s dreams of hitting their needed times for a BQ. During this year’s Western States 100, Jim Walmsley, who was on pace to not only win but also beat the course record, missed a turn and veered off course at mile 93, sending him miles off course. He ended up finishing, but he did so four hours later than he anticipated, losing the record and the win.
Knowing all this, and knowing things can go spectacularly wrong, why do we keep signing up for the chance to fail? And maybe even more importantly, how do we pull ourselves together during a race to finish (if we can), when we know that it is not going to be the race we hoped for and might really, really suck through the end?
I’m not sure there are definite answers for these questions, and I know it probably varies from person to person. I know for me personally, the chance that things might not work out makes the moments when all the pieces do come together all the more magical. If I knew ahead of time that I was going to get my first Boston Qualifier at Baystate in 2015, it would have made the emotions I felt at the finish line a little less euphoric. The fact that I knew there was a real chance I could fail made my success that much sweeter. Additionally, I think it is who we are in our failures, how we respond, and the lessons we learn, that helps define us. I’m not always proud of myself after a race goes terribly. (As my fiancé can tell you, I whined like a brat after that June half marathon; not something I am proud of.) The struggle within you can be real and it can be ugly. But we learn so much about ourselves, and hopefully we learn that we are resilient and strong, and that taking chances is how we grow. Running is such a great metaphor for life, and (trying to avoid being too cliché) my hope is that I can apply the skills I learn as a runner to other areas of my life as well; from my career, to relationships, to other personal battles I may encounter.
One last thought I had while biking home the other day, thinking about running and success vs. failures, came to me as I passed a young man in a wheel chair. We are so lucky to be able to run, to move through space at whatever speed our body allows, for as long as we can keep putting one foot in front of the other. I know I will keep signing up for races, knowing there is a chance it could go terribly wrong, for the thrill of testing myself to see if I can be the resilient and strong person I hope to be.