Racing four very different races in a six-week period gave me a lot of time to ask Why? Why do I repeatedly register for something that sort of feels like taking a hard test? Races sap energy and hijack a lot of family time. They usually make me nervous, and they dampen a Friday or Saturday night if I need to go to bed early and abstain from wine in order to wake up before dawn, ready to race. Why not sleep in instead and have a lazy morning?
One of the answers (#3 below) appeared in the sky as I drove over the Bay Bridge toward the starting line of the Marin Ultra Challenge 50-miler at 4:45 a.m. last Saturday. A full moon hung near the horizon, magnified to three times its normal size. As I drove over the bridge, it glowed behind the San Francisco cityscape like a golden floodlight silhouetting each tall building. I had never, in all my years in the Bay Area, seen a view of the city quite like that. An hour and a half later, in the first two miles of the race, I viewed San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge from a hillside trail leading to the Headlands. As the sunrise bathed the buildings in a pink-tinged light that made their windows sparkle, I realized I had this race to thank for the opportunity to experience that stunning contrast between the moonset and the sunrise.
The truth is, I’m always so satisfied and grateful following a race, even a shitty one, that I can think of numerous reasons to race. I list four big ones below.
First, though, a quick recap of the races, since each itself is a reason to race; that is, each unique race or group running event is like a gift you can give yourself, a carpe diem opportunity to unplug from work and its attendant devices, get outside in a vigorous way, and reconnect with others you probably wouldn’t spend time with otherwise.
The May 19 Tilden Tough 10 Miler was a speed fest on the Nimitz trail in the Berkeley hills. The woman who won, Anna Bretan, did it in an hour flat—that’s a 6-minute pace on a hard, hilly course! I finished in 1:14 (7:24 pace). The June 2 Lake Chabot Half Marathon took place on a trail looping around the lake and through the eucalyptus groves in Chabot Regional Park, and I finished in 1:47. Then came the June 16 Woodminster 9-mile trail race in the Oakland hills, which includes one of the hardest hill climbs in Redwood Regional Park, and it took me 1:14.
Those three races make up the East Bay Triple Crown Series, which I ran and won in 2011. I committed to the Triple Crown again this year not only to simultaneously build both speed and endurance, but also to measure myself against my 2011 times. I wasn’t racing the other women out there as much as I was racing the 2011 version of myself. I was thrilled to shave more than four minutes off my cumulative time from two years ago, finishing runner-up for the Triple Crown championship.
One week after the Triple Crown, it was time for Inside Trail Racing’s Marin Ultra Challenge 50M. I really debated whether to run this, because a couple of niggling injuries were talking to me (a sore big toe joint, which an X-ray diagnosed as a mild case of hallux rigidus, aka arthritis with a little bone spur; also, a pain in the butt that involves the glute and piriformis). My legs were tired from those three speedy races and high mileage in the weeks in between. My coach advised that doing the Marin Ultra Challenge wasn’t worth it. I agreed I shouldn’t succumb to Fear Of Missing Out and sabotage the training season for the sake of this event.
Ultimately, however, I decided to do it as a training run to practice pacing, hydration and refueling for Pine to Palm 100 in September. I wanted to meet the challenge of running all day at a steady, conservative pace, suppressing the urge to chase down others, and run it as if it were the first 50 of a 100. By Thursday, my quasi injuries were barely noticeable, so the risk felt minimal.
The Marin Ultra Challenge took me 9 hours, 43 minutes and turned out to be just the kind of physical and mental practice run I hoped for. I had some uncomfortable low points, but to roughly paraphrase something my friend Jennifer once said: Problems that arise in ultras usually turn out to be different from what you anticipated would be the problems. My butt and toe never bothered me significantly, but I had other minor issues and an unpleasant face-first trip and fall. Mostly I had to battle “rigor mortis,” the gradual stiffness and all-over ache that sets in around Mile 30 and gets worse before it gets better. I call it rigor mortis because it feels as if I’m slowly dying and stiffening like a dead person, and inevitably I contemplate dropping out. But by now I know to expect it and run through it. It just takes patience and practice.
After mulling it over during all those miles, I concluded that these are four main reasons why I race:
1. To become the best runner I can be.
Without a doubt, racing makes me a better runner. A race creates a goal, which in turn creates the motivation to reach it. It’s a chance to practice all the factors that go into racing well. And perhaps most significantly, the other competitors push me beyond perceived limits in what becomes a game of speed and strategy to catch the person ahead and not get passed from behind. That intense effort sharpens fitness for races that follow.
Of the four races above, I probably raced the best at the Lake Chabot Half Marathon. I pushed so hard to improve my time from two years prior and to open up a gap between myself and a woman on my heels.
Speaking of which, have you ever played “the road kill game”? Try it, and you’ll likely have more fun and do better in the second half of a race. Give yourself a point for each person, aka road kill, whom you pass, and deduct a point for each person who passes you. Keep it gender neutral; i.e., count both the men and women. Make a pact with a friend who’s also racing to play it on the honor system and see who earns the most road kill. Cheap thrills! Which leads to reason #2:
2. To relish the drama and sense of accomplishment.
A race never fails to be exciting, and the runner’s high is earned and enhanced by the lows.
At Mile 40 in the Marin Ultra Challenge, I ran down the rocky face of a treacherous hill on a trail called the Miwok Cutoff, quads crying from the beating of a descent following nine substantial hill climbs (see elevation profile below). The biggest, baddest climb loomed ahead. Rocky outcroppings banged my toes and made me stumble. But I had a manic grin because I was doing it, goddamn it, while listening to a particularly good song on my iPod (which I had saved to wear for these final segments, running without music for the first 30 miles). A line in the lyrics precisely captured the correlation between difficulty of endeavor and joy in accomplishment; that is, the harder it gets, the better it feels to get through it. It was the song Jump On My Shoulders by AWOL Nation, and toward the end, the singer belts out, “It’s not supposed to be easy. That’s why it feels so f***ing good!”
3. To make what’s old seem new again.
I’m always checking out websites of races in places I’d love to explore, such as El Cruce Columbia or the Lesotho Ultra. Except for going to Southern Oregon for the race in September, however, I don’t have any destination races or running-oriented travel coming up.
A race presents an opportunity to experience a familiar place in a different way and possibly discover something new about it. These recent four races took place in regional parks I’ve run around countless times before. But racing with others and being part of an event made the experience feel fresh.
A different runner hangs by your side for a few miles, the weather shifts, the foliage looks a little more green or brown. The view you think you know so well actually holds countless details you never noticed until you look a little closer or see it in a different light. If you’re lucky, the race director will take the course in a direction you never followed. This happened in the Marin Ultra Challenge when I ran a couple of trails I never set foot on before (Oakwood Valley and Wiley). The double loop from Tennessee Valley to Muir Beach along Pirates Cove felt quite different and even looked a little different the second time through.
4. To get to know some of the best people you’ll ever meet.
When my parents were my age, they played Bridge with a group and went to the bowling alley weekly on League Night. My mom arranged flowers with her Garden Club ladies, and my dad played golf with his raunchy friends. I don’t have those kinds of social clubs or affiliations in my life except through running. (I socialize while volunteering at my kids’ schools, but it’s really not the same. I certainly wouldn’t pee, belch, tell lame jokes, reveal intimate details and admit insecurities in front of the meticulous moms on the middle school parents’ board or the high-powered dads on the high school board of trustees.)
I’m eager to see the faces of people I’ve met through this trail-running tribe when we reconvene at the next race. I hardly ever see them in other settings, unless you count Facebook, but that’s OK. We pick up where we left off and get to know each other a little more each time, bound by the shared experience of a humbling endeavor that strips away pretenses to reveal who you really are and what you’re made of.
Call for comments: What’s the main reason you race?