Racing Well: It’s All About Attitude

In this second installment on how to race well, I am struck by the similar post race statements I’ve heard from athletes competing in the USA Track and Field Nationals held last weekend. It seems to me that what sets the best runners apart from the rest is their mental approach to racing. I see this in elite runners, local age group winners and back of the packers. I’ve written before about the meaning of the word “compete”. This word is derived from the Latin “competere” which means “to strive together”. Think about that! I spent many of my early running years fearing competition, wanting to run away from fierce competition rather than to embrace it. At one point, the fear of failure and of losing the approval of others almost paralyzed me in the sense that if I felt I couldn’t win, I didn’t want to compete at all. This was obviously a no win situation as I realized that surely it’s better to at least be out there trying than to be sitting at home wondering what could have been. Further, as we age, we know that just being able to toe a starting line uninjured, free from sickness, and with the time and space to actually race, is a gift!

Once I learned that to compete is to “strive WITH” my opponent, a light bulb went off! My competitor is the one who is going to help me run my best. My competitor is going to pull out of me more than I could have achieved alone. Because of the gift of this competition, I am going to find out how far and fast I can really go. And isn’t that partly why we do this “running thing” in the first place? Those of us who join teams or who race want to get better. We want to challenge ourselves. We want to become better human beings in all dimensions and we strive for that excellence in our athletic pursuits. We enjoy the challenge of the work itself and then of the test, the race where we put it all on the line and see what we’re made of. Sometimes we come up short and sometimes we exceed our own expectations. Either way, we’re thankful that we were able to travel that road, to work through the process of the difficult training. This sense of gratitude and excitement about GETTING to race can be the antidote to a paralyzing fear of failure.

Running Times editor Jonathan Beverly conveys this so well. In his latest “Editor’s Note” he remembers the “Rocky” movies we old-timers watched as kids. He states, “the parts that get to me are the moments when Rocky decides to stop being cool and start to care, to try, to work, to dream.” Beverly coaches middle school runners and when they get nervous about a race he says, “That’s good; it means you’re alive, you care. Then I watch them go out and risk pain, failure, embarrassment, and I see them not settle for OK or ‘I did my best’ but want excellence.”

He concludes with this: “And that is what running is all about in the end. In the aftermath of Boston, there was a feeling that everything we do is a bit trivial, even running. But that feeling soon turned 180 degrees to a resolve that running is vital to some of us for a meaningful life. The activity itself isn’t sacred, but the process of wanting more, setting goals, planning and acting are core aspects of being human. It is this that brings tears when I recognize it, this that I want in my life still.”

Do you know what the athletes at the USA Track and Field Championships were saying? Alysia Montano, winner womens’ 800 meters: “I knew it was going to be a [tough] race and I was excited for it.” Brenda Martinez, womens’ 800, 2nd place: “She [Montano] is very tough. I’m glad she didn’t make it easy on me.” Galen Rupp, 2nd in the men’s 5,000: “I talked to my coaches and I really wanted to challenge myself…this was a great chance to work on closing hard in a fast race. It was good, good practice.” Shannon Rowbury, 3rd, womens’ 5,000: “I was pretty tired on the warmup today and wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out and, even that last lap, they were pulling away but I just kept thinking happy thoughts and how much I wanted to be in Moscow.”

The common themes here are confidence, excitement, and a strong desire to get the most out of oneself, even if that isn’t first place. Top athletes get excited rather than fearful about competing. They use pre-race “butterflies” as a catalyst to great performances. Instead of fearing a potential bad outcome, they instead focus their mental energy on channeling those pre race jitters into an excellent performance.

The next time you feel nervous before a big race, remember that you’re alive, you GET to compete, your opponents are going to help you to a great performance, you’re going to find out what you’re made of and then be able to go back to the drawing board and begin the work again. Think of your opponents as a gift which will enable you to strive towards your best performances.
[I welcome comments on this post!]

2 Responses to “Racing Well: It’s All About Attitude”

  1. Su-Lai Hamilton Says:

    The 2 things that personally helped me with my Racing is-

    1) Sign up for a lot of Races ( last year I signed up for 21 Races and Raced 15 of them and Ran 6 of them).
    I think it’s good to Race some but it’s ok to just Run some of them also and just have Fun without worrying about time and pace.

    2) I hired Doug to Race with me helped me with Pacing and to use Race strategies that would have never occurred to me. Also helps challenge me.
    He introduced the concept of warming up before a Race never did that before a Race like ever.

    I used to not sign up for Races that my Running Buddies that I was close to on our Racing abilities because it was too stressful for me.

    After reading this blog I can see now that I need to change my point of view on that.
    See it as a positive thing than a negative one.

    Never really liked it when my hubby signed up for the same Race as me, even though most of the time I end up Running the Race of my Life with him in the Race.

    I think the biggest problem for me personally in Racing is Mental Confidence and trusting my Training but most of all Myself.

    I think in every Race there comes a point where we ask ourselves if we have more to give and we always have more it’s just a matter of believing that we do, and that’s when I mostly don’t believe that I do.

    Thanks for posting.
    It gave me a lot to think about.

  2. Says:

    Yes. Paul Tergat, the Kenyan multiple world cross country champion said, “Ask yourself: ‘Can I give more?’. The answer is usually: ‘Yes’.” And that is quite true. In most hard workouts and in racing, when we are working at a very high level, we can ask ourselves this question. Perhaps the answer will help us pull just a little more out of ourselves.

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