It was supposed to be an easy fun-run for me. A way to break the boredom of my usual routes and mix things up a bit. A way to keep myself fresh.
Instead, the day before my 5K I felt incredibly insecure.
The race was the Cross Country Kickoff Challenge, a 5K course making drunken loops through Daffin Park to get all three miles in the grass and mud. For good measure, they throw in a few hay bales on the course for us runners to jump over too. I’ve been enjoying trails so much lately I thought this would be a fun way to simulate a trail race. To top it off, the entry fee was low, went to a good cause, and I got a tech shirt. How could I NOT do it?
The event is also the kickoff of the high school cross country season, and the kids were going to be running the course after us. I knew that meant there would be a good crowd (tons of teams from all over the region, along with their parents and cheering sections). That would just add to the fun race-day atmosphere, right?
But then I went to pick up my race bib the day before the race, and saw that there were only a handful of runners signed up to do the public 5K. My bib number was 8.
EIGHT. This was not good.
For a runner like me – a back-of-the-pack kind of gal – there is great comfort in numbers. I don’t run to be noticed. Sure, it’s great to have my own family and friends there cheering me on, but I don’t want to be a spectacle.
I suddenly imagined coming in way behind, finishing under the watchful eyes of high school track athletes who’d been standing around waiting for me to clear the course so they could run.
The speed with which I was able to break my own spirit was startling.
I have always – ALWAYS – preached the sermon that it doesn’t matter where I place as long as I cross the finish line. That I’m not competitive. That I’m just in this for the exercise and camaraderie.
But suddenly, I began doubting all those mantras. I had come face-to-face with the reality that I’m really not very good at this sport. That was the truth, and it wasn’t pretty.
Race morning Lee and I walked over to Daffin Park as the sun rose and sat in the bleachers near the starting line. As the runners began to gather, I recognized a few from other area 5Ks – the ones who run shirtless or in sports bras, fit and trim, with their sub-20-minute finish times.
Usually, when I line up for a race, deep in the middle-back section of runners, there is this great collective energy. We are all bad-asses, all about to challenge ourselves and meet that challenge.
But this time, lining up with 52 other people, I didn’t feel like a bad-ass. I just felt like an ass.
The starting horn blasted and off we went. The course was an incredibly wet slog through dew-soaked grass and mud. The field of runners began to spread out, and I resisted the urge to look behind me to see if anyone was back there.
As we began to loop though, I couldn’t help but see the back section of the course. I was relieved to see that a few people were running my pace. Maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t embarrass myself.
I don’t think I’d ever been so happy to finish a 5K. To be DONE with the drama inside my own head. I finished in the bottom 3rd, but not alone as I had feared.
As I waited for official times to be posted, and removed the carpet of wet grass from the bottom of my shoe, I asked another runner how her race had been.
“Ugh. I came in last,” she said. “I’ve never had that happen before. It doesn’t feel very good.”
I wanted to give her a sweaty hug and welcome her to my pity party.
Instead, I started running. I had 5 miles on my training schedule for that day, so I took off around the park to get my 2 additional miles. It was a good thing too, because I was in sore need of a run therapy session with myself.
I thought a lot about running, about how one little 5K could shake my confidence so thoroughly.
Then I thought about half-marathons, my favorite race distance. There is such great victory in finishing 13 miles, even at a turtle’s pace. Sure the leaders are resting at the finish line, eating bananas and getting their awards before I hit mile 7. But I’m spending a long time on my feet, pounding that pavement, not giving up. And there is glory in that too.
Then I had this simple thought. “I will never have fast feet. But I have a lot of heart.”
Yes, it’s true – I’m not very good at running. But it’s also true that I’m pretty great at the other qualities required of a distance runner – determination, commitment and heart. I don’t sign up for races because I think I’m going to perform well. I sign up because they keep me motivated, keep me wanting to do something that simply doesn’t come naturally or easily. I don’t run to be good at running; I run to be healthy and sane.
That has to be good enough. Winning a race? That’s bad-ass. Being a runner with absolutely no talent who still gets in there and puts in the mileage? Re-convincing myself that that’s bad-ass too.