What.a.week. Sorry for the late recap, but this week has been a roller coaster of emotions between the inauguration and Boston Women’s March. I’ll touch on that more once I’ve had some time to reflect, but today I want to talk all things race, pace, and PR.
Ready? Set? Go.
Last weekend Chris and I went up to Vermont and indulged in lots of reading, great meals, crosswords, board games, and generally relaxing by the wood stove while fluffy snowflakes fell outside. It was perfection, and a great way to relax before a busy week ahead.
We headed back to Boston on Sunday (aka Martin Luther King Jr. Day) for the November Project Sunrise 6K, which they aptly renamed the ML6K. Weirdly enough, I was super nervous for this race since I haven’t been running much this winter. I also felt horrible during the 6K last year and bailed at the halfway point, which was a first for me and something I definitely didn’t want to repeat. I told myself that finishing would be a PR, and that eased some of the pressure.
On Monday, I set my alarm for 5am (because anything earlier seemed absurd on a day off). Chris had to be at Pleasure Bay early to set up for the race, so I went with him to help. And by help, I mean sitting in the car warming my toes while he ran around. As people started to arrive closer to 6:30, I got my butt off the toasty seat heaters. After a quick bounce and group photo, we were racing off into the sunrise.
I immediately found myself moving way too fast, but I couldn’t overcome the mix of adrenaline, nerves, and pressure of trying to keep up with my fast friends! I also found myself hyper focused on my heel, almost waiting for that nagging pain to pop up. Instead I realized that I had gotten so cold pre-race that my feet and hands were numb. I always stay so warm during winter NP workouts, so I was pretty thrown by the unsettling frozen feeling.
Once the numbness wore off, I settled in and stopped paying attention to my watch. I was trying to go easy on myself knowing that I wasn’t in great shape, but I was hoping to run under 8:30 minute pace since that seemed realistic but challenging.
And I felt great! …until the mental game came into play. A few people passed me and my ego took a hit, so I started to feel pretty frustrated. That little voice that says “You can’t do this. You’re too slow. Why even try?” started to creep in. Looking back, my pace actually slowed right after these thoughts took over.
Luckily, I dug a bit deeper, swallowed my pride, and tried to just hang on until the finish, which felt so far away on that long loop back around Castle Island. 6K is a tough distance to race, since it’s basically a 5K with a lovely bonus kilometer to wrap things up. I had to remind myself that it was a beautiful morning, and that I was so lucky to be running pain by the ocean with almost no wind in January. My mind finally hit that quiet place of “just a little more” as I turned the final bend.
After crossing the finish, I walked around for a bit and tried to absorb what had just happened. I felt a wave of disappointment about being passed, before the absurdity of that thought hit me. Was I really judging my performance based on everyone around me without even paying attention to the goals I’d set for myself?
I took my eyes to my watch. Not only had I finished my first 6K, but I also found myself with a new 5K PR! I also ran an 8:18 min pace, which I’m pretty confident would have been lower had I not gotten so discouraged and stuck in my head at Mile 2. I decided not to worry about anyone else, and focus on how great it felt to hit all of my goals and know that I haven’t lost too much fitness despite my inconsistency lately. A finish and a 5K PR meant that I was stronger mentally and physically than I have been in the past, and that was an undeniable milestone.
Why this race?
After the race, a group went out for brunch and I had a very relaxing day before teaching yoga that night. This left me with quite a bit of time to think about PRs and the mental side of racing. I’m normally pretty good about doing my own thing and not comparing myself, so I wasn’t sure why this negativity had popped up during the 6K. What was it about this race that had made me feel competitive in the worst way?
A few things came to mind. First, I knew almost everyone there. In most races, you’re in crowds of strangers and you know nothing about their goals or training. In a race this small, it’s easy to see where you fall amongst people you know and train with regularly. In most races you’re also surrounded by people moving at every pace. While there is a range at any NP event, a lot of the group is super fast and that can always be downright intimidating. The course was also mentally challenging. Castle Island and Pleasure Bay are gorgeous and so much fun to run around, but it is tough when you can literally see everyone the whole race, particularly as those ahead of you fly by at the turnaround point.
I think it’s also generally difficult to just focus on yourself in running. I still consider myself new to racing, and I’m sometimes mystified by the mental challenges in running compared to my other athletic experiences. In yoga, there is no competition or end goal (ideally), and you’re actually encouraged to avoid striving for outcomes. Even in team sports, there isn’t one single banner of performance like there is in racing. There are so many ways and opportunities to contribute and so many factors involved in winning a game. If I didn’t score any goals in a given soccer game, I still might feel good about several plays or my defensive game. You can certainly have moments like that in running (a good split, a better attitude, etc.) but it’s tough that racing comes down to numbers. Numbers aren’t up for debate; they’re out in the open and readily comparable to those around you.
It’s no wonder then that people tend not to share their pace and goals. This was something that really confused me at first when I joined NP and run groups – why wasn’t anyone talking about fast they wanted to run? Were they embarrassed? Or trying to be humble? Do we all feel that our pace reflects our value? It sometimes seems ridiculous to me how avoided this topic is, when it’s something every runner thinks about but rarely discusses.
As the linked article above describes, I think it all comes down to runners feeling a bit protective of these numbers. It’s called a Personal Record for a reason. It’s personal. Every PR is hard fought, and is the result of individual effort. Even if you have abundant support, a PR or goal is only possible if YOU put in the time, effort, miles, crossing-training, nutrition, rest, etc.* No one can get you there except you. Same for pace. Your pace isn’t going to just magically improve; it’s only going to change if you are working on it.
This was part of my problem in the 6K: I was expecting big results without having put in the time. With so little training under my belt of late, how could I expect to keep up with runners who have been working their tails off and/or have a lot more experience? I shouldn’t expect to just suddenly be on par with people who have worked super hard every day for years. I surpassed every goal I set for myself that morning, and it was something to celebrate free from comparison. I’m so glad that I was able to consciously shift my attitude since it made it easier to be happy for those around me celebrating theirs. It also made it easier to listen and sympathize with those who didn’t have good days but still crossed that finish line before me – their goals are their own and should in no way impact my estimation of my performance.
I’m personally working to be a little bit more open about my pace and my goals because I know speed has literally nothing to do with worth. As one of my yoga teachers always says, “Yoga does not make you a good person. Handstands do not make you a better friend, partner, or human.” Same goes for running: we all know it’s the journey to the goal that’s important and where the lessons lie – not in the final number. Your speed might reflect how much you’ve been training, but there’s no pace that will suddenly mean you are a strong runner or a good person. To me, it really doesn’t need to be such a point of pride and/or embarrassment.
Plus, I’ve found that acknowledging my pace is a great way to find people to run with. Just this weekend, a few people joined me for the Saturday morning Nomadic Run Crew with Janji because I threw out my goal for the morning and asked if anyone was in the same boat. I ended up running in a little pack and had so much fun, and it might not have happened had I not put an actual number out there.**
I’m also going to continue working on staying focused on my own goals, speed oriented and otherwise. One goal is to not let being surrounded by fast people take away any feelings of accomplishment for me. If I can let their collective strength lift me up, inspire me, energize me, and give me a little more drive, I’ll be so much better off than if I consider everyone my competition.
Here’s to focusing on our own goals without comparison. When it comes to PRs, pace, and success, it really is all relative.
*This is NOT to say that PRs only happen when someone has done everything right. I think almost any runner has experienced the feeling of training super hard and then finding that things just didn’t come together. Off days and “just not the day” races happen, and those are the times when we have to acknowledge our effort and work in other ways. It’s important to celebrate something you’ve never before accomplished, even if that is staying positive throughout a race rather than a number at the finish line.
** I’m also not saying everyone should be sharing their pace and goals all the time. That’s’ a personal call for sure!