So You Had a Bad Race

Fargo Finish This post is for all the weekend warriors out there – anyone who participates in running, cycling, triathlons or other “race” events.

Whether you participate in these events competitively or not, we each want to do our best every time we go out. Chasing a PR (personal record) is what these events are all about for most of us, even if we tell ourselves that we only signed up so we’d be motivated to train regularly. If that were the case, we’d just lace up our shoes and go run, bike or swim against the watch on our wrist, right? There is something about that “official” time and the environment of competing with hundreds or thousands of other people that ups the ante. That’s why, when a race goes badly, the disappointment is so much greater than when you just have a bad workout on your own. This happened to me this past Saturday.

I ran the Fargo marathon on Saturday with the hopes of breaking 4:30:00 (yes, that’s four hours and 30 minutes – I don’ run so much as plod). I told myself beforehand that if the race were going badly, then I’d settle for just a PR – my previous best time was 4:38:40. My brother and I were running this race together and had been training at similar speeds, and we both thought that 10:00 to 10:05 miles were possible. Unfortunately, that didn’t prove to be the case.

For the first 18 miles, we were nailing it, but at mile 19 my left leg started hurting badly, aching all the way from my heel to my hip. Shortly after mile 21, I walked slowly through a water station, and when I started jogging again, serious pain shot through my left knee. For the next five miles, I walked and jogged at or below 14 minutes per mile, limping the whole time. Much to my chagrin, my brother waited for me. I told him to leave me and try to get his PR (4:42:00) but he wouldn’t. We crossed the finish line together, step for step, at 4:47:28 – my slowest marathon time ever.

The next morning, there was only minor pain and swelling in my left knee, but the post-race depression I felt was suffocating. In the months before the race, I had vowed to myself and everyone I knew that this would be my last marathon, so having it end so badly filled me with sadness. On the long drive home, I looked out the window and wondered, “Did it really hurt that bad? Could I have pushed myself harder?” And, of course, I thought about all the things I’d do differently for my next marathon.

A few days have given me some clarity and perspective, and I realize that getting so upset over finishing 18 minutes slower than I had wanted in a race were more than 1,000 people finished ahead of me anyway was silly. Still, days later, the memory of the disappointment is more clear than the memory of the physical pain, and I cannot definitively say that Fargo was my last marathon.

I’m happy to report that my body is recovering pretty quickly on it’s own. In order to coax along the mental healing process, I’m looking for the positives I can take away from my bad race. I learned some important things, and although these lessons are specific to my bad race, I think they might apply to many people’s similar experiences, so I thought I’d share them with you:

1. It’s a bad idea to set pace goals I haven’t practiced at. In the future, I need to practice at the pace I hope to race at. If I haven’t put in the work, then I need to adjust my goal downward on race day.

2. When something starts hurting really bad, I shouldn’t just keep going. Instead, I should get off my feet for a bit and try to alleviate the source of the pain rather than tough it out. (Back at the hotel after the race, after lying on my back with my legs up in the air for just two minutes, I felt 100 times better and was able to walk around pain-free for hours afterward.)

3. Next time something goes wrong (if there is a next time), I will tell my brother that if he doesn’t go ahead and finish the race at his own pace, I’m going to lay down in the street and not move until I can’t see him any more.

4. I need to re-evaluate whether I should continue training for and running these long races, or if it’s time to shoot for different goals.

I haven’t signed up for my next marathon yet and I don’t intend to any time soon. I do have a half marathon I’m looking at, though, and a couple of days ago I bought a new pair of minimalist shoes that I plan to wear when I break a 25-minutes 5K sometime this summer. Today I went out and jogged three miles slow along the river, just because it was such a nice day. It was probably a bit too soon to be back out pounding the pavement, and I’ll take a few more days off, but I know that once I’ve recovered, I’ll be lacing up my shoes and heading out again.

Maybe the the most significant outcome of my bad race is that I finally consider myself to be a runner. Regardless of pace, distance or time, and whether I PR or limp across the finish line, running has stopped being just exercise for me. The lure of the race keeps drawing me back again and again.

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