Stacey Margaret Jones: River Trail 15K – Don’t Race; Just Run


I don’t like races. I love running for race day, and I live for crossing the finish line, but I do not enjoy lining up at the start and staring down the mileage ahead. 

Racing makes me stressed, competitive, self-doubting, dissatisfied. Running to prepare for race day, on the other hand, inspires hope and aspiration and is focused on my own ability and possible accomplishment.

I recently ran my friend Natalie’s first road race with her, and because it was the first time I had run the River Trail 15K, it was a “first” for me too. Something about this race helped me get outside those comparative confidence-suckers that many races induce for me.

I get very, very crabby on race mornings. My husband’s daughter tells anyone who is part of our race-day entourage to the starting line not to look me in the eye, because it might be dangerous. (I know when she’s spread the word because when I meet the group, everyone turns away to fiddle with their iTunes or set their timing watches.) The crankiness is a manifestation of nerves and adrenaline, I know, and it reminds me of the mood I used to be in before curtain-up for high school plays. Everyone was always talking to each other to boost energy, and all I wanted was to be left alone until I could get on stage to do what I was there to do.

As I’ve mentioned in this space before, Natalie and I are training for the Disney Princess half-marathon. Natalie is training up to the race as a new runner with no previous endurance/distance experience. I’m training back to a distance running capacity after an injury and recovery period. Instead of going for a 10-miler as part of the training program, Natalie found the River Trail 15K and thought she needed race experience before her Sleeping Beauty crosses the start line at the Happiest Place on Earth.

Not being familiar with the River Trail 15K, I was a little worried it would be a small race, populated with elite runners, in which our half-marathon training run would put us in an embarrassingly last position. And although I agree with my friend Deb’s assertion that “DFL is better than DNF, which is better than DNS,” I still didn’t want to be last!

And I didn’t want it for Natalie. She’s been working hard, going from general fitness and activity but little prolonged running to weekly long runs of steadily increasing distances. She thought she needed race experience, and I wanted it to be good, not humiliating.

Good is exactly what it turned out to be. A field of not quite 400 runners meant there were all kinds of fitness levels. The weather was perfect, low 50s with overcast skies. We passed walkers after we were passed by faster runners. Between miles 3 and 4, we saw the race’s winners-to-be come looping back on the path. There was a spot for us in this crowd of varied-ability runners who knew their places in the race and let us take ours. I realized that I hadn’t been in a bad mood before the start, that my energy and adrenaline had been positive and happy, not angst-fueled, as it usually was.

One of the reasons I hadn’t been stabbing cranky that morning was because I wasn’t putting any pressure on myself to do anything but keep Natalie company and encourage her. My insecurities weren’t activated because I knew I could run 9.3 miles (I’d run 10 a few days before), and I was there to share the joy of someone else’s accomplishment instead of pushing myself and, correspondingly, getting upset if I didn’t meet my own goals. 

After we crossed the finish line, Natalie’s kids ran up to congratulate her, her son telling her she was 350th, and we laughed and said that wasn’triver trail 15k copy really what this was about. Later she told me she wasn’t sure this sport was for her, given her competitive nature. I responded with advice for her that was really for me:

“This is a learning opportunity for you, then!” I said to both of us. “If you want to be a runner, you’ll have to teach yourself how to back off the idea that you can’t enjoy something unless you are better at it than everyone else. Put that part of your life away every once in awhile and be open to what you get without it.”

When I said that, I knew why I like training and not racing, why I am so punchy and sensitive on race morning, and why I resent the starting line corrals so much. All those people seem to be telling me what I’m up against: They are personified challenges. But in truth, they aren’t standing in the way of my accomplishments. The greatest challenge is the way I think about my efforts and results—as achievements or failures. 

I’m going to take my own advice, and for my next race, I’m going to go for a run, challenging myself without chastising, glorying in a day outdoors with others who love this crazy pursuit. We all have our own goals and glories ahead. My first goal is to enjoy all of it, even the races.

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