My thoughts rolled as the car engine hummed on the drive back from another unsuccessful competition: Do I hate racing? I had not been beaten by the others on the track, I had been beaten by myself. Again. I have been fighting demons on race day for 34 years and losing.
There are often two types of runners who toe the start line, those who like racing and those who like to train. The racer lives for the battle, the adrenaline, and the challenge. Those who like to train often like the journey, but struggle when it comes to proving their fitness or achieving their goals on race day. You can guess which I am.
I am a runner who has run track, road races, marathons, ultras—everything, and now have taken up competitive racewalking. Yep, that means I have to compete. I have goals. I like going hard, going fast and achieving things. I know I put a lot of pressure on myself and have big expectations. That pressure and expectations—with a big capital E—turn into two frothing, head pounding demons on race day. These two idiotic demons can turn a fit, confident guy into a self-doubting, weak-willed mess. Its embarrassing, confidence crushing and can ruin a day.
The effects linger.
I think I am done running marathons. I am happy with my running accomplishments, although I know the demons held me back. I no longer feel the need to run competitively, but I love to run. The trails are my happy place and I love exploring and even running far and at my own pace. But I think I could do well at racewalking. What do I do? I think I might like to compete if I can do it without demons breathing down my neck. So, before I hang up my racing shoes, I plan to take an inner journey of discovery. A search for a way to handle race day.
My friend Paula James, a former national-caliber university runner, who broke and holds records and now even competes at a high level as a Masters runner, reached out to me. “Did you know when I was winning national university medals, I quit for about 6-weeks. The stress was too much. Internally or externally imposed expectation can suck all the fun out of sport. And I remember even after running well, feeling more relief that it was over than joy in the outcome.” Paula came back to win a gold medal at Nationals. It was good to hear I was not alone in the struggle.
Long-time US racewalker and coach Carmen Jackinsky wrote to me and expressed how she beat herself up mentally when she was competing but found some solace when coaching, “I’ve had so many negative experiences that spoke, ‘you’re not good enough,’ but I had to find a louder voice to drown that out. Coaching others really helped me realize how much better I spoke to my athletes than to myself.”
I plan to look for answers by talking to other runners, the recreational folks, the elites battling for Olympic selection and to sports performance specialists who help athletes arm themselves against race day monsters. I would like to find a way to be able to not be eaten if I decide to challenge myself, but if not be okay with just enjoying running and racewalking and challenging myself in other ways.
Follow Noel on social media between articles as he continues conversations with others and looks for answers and a way to survive a fall race. Find the articles here on iRun. Twitter @NoelPaine Instagram @Runningwriter.