I truthfully have no idea how many races I have run. I know I have run a lot of races. I have run 5K to 100 milers. I have run multi-day events. I have run trails and roads. And while each race is unique, they all have one thing in common, fear. Every time I toe the starting line, I have the butterflies of anxiety and the undercurrent of fear.
So what are we afraid of and more importantly why do we as runner’s persist in an activity which evokes fear and anxiety? Let’s start with the fear. Most fears can be defined as rational, or reasonable concerns. For runner’s, the reasonable fears are getting lost, running out of water or nutrition, injury, not finishing, heat, cold, chaffing, and the ever dreaded . . .potty disasters. All of these are rational fears because they likely could and often do happen to runners at some point during their running career. The good news is that with proper training and planning, these anxieties can be easily mitigated.
But what should the wise runner fear? A wise runner fears the battle between his “demons and his better angels“. If a runner ever tells you that she has no jitters before a race, she is a liar. The runners who are truly honest will tell you that they always fear the “demons”. The “demons” are the inner voice we all have; the negative self-talk. The “demons” catch you off guard and make you feel like you are worthless. They whisper sweet consolations that can make you dump months or even years of training down the drain because you are suffering. The battle between the ears is truly where races are won or lost and goals actualized. I have run phenomenal races only to crash in the last few miles because my demons said “we are done”. The demons are clever; they know exactly what to say to make you slow down, rationalize less than your best, or make you not care about something that was once an ambition. The distance of the race is no matter. I know 5K runners who have caved under pressure when challenged during the last quarter mile. I know 100 milers who sat on the trail and pondered DNF (did not finish) at mile 90.
So the next time you set your site on a race, remember, you must first rally your better angels to silence the demons. Then, you can worry about the location of the next restroom on the course.
Now for the why. Why do runners subject themselves to such a physical and mental battle such that the very act of competing, makes a runner experience fear and anxiety. The answer is . . . because we must know. We must know who we are when we suffer. Part of what makes us human is the quest to define who we are. And what better way to know thine self, than at a time when we are pushed to our limit. In short, we put ourselves through “this mess” in pursuit of our best self. We want to do the hard thing. We want to be weighed and measured against the best runners, the hardest trails, the longest distances, and our own demons. . . and we want to be found worthy. In the end whether we succeed or fail isn’t what matters. What matters is that we will be better for the struggle. We will come to a greater understanding of ourselves, and we will be better prepared for our next trial (or trail). Because let’s face it, there will always be a next time.