Friday, July 7, 2017

Why I Participate in Races, Even Though I Stand No Chance of Being Competitive or Winning

Mother's sometimes have a way of saying things that no one else can get away with expressing to another individual. Mine happens to have no filter when it comes to people she knows and strangers alike, so the questions she asks at times shouldn't really surprise me (though they sometimes leave me apologizing to strangers). Now in her 70s, that filter seems to be nearly non-existent, so if I thought her verbal spouts were difficult to deal with at a younger age, I am learning that the verbalization of whatever enters her mind is becoming more frequent as she gets older.

Recently though, mother dear posed a question that I thought was rather interesting (even if I was slightly offended at the asking). We were chatting about recent happenings and I mentioned that Sam and I had participated in a running race. Her response was, "You? You were in a race? Running?"

It was a mostly legitimate question as my body has taken some blows over the last couple of years that have resulted in both my hesitancy to want to participate in group activities and that often keep me from being able to run. Not to mention that I am, of course, overweight. The combination hardly makes for a good recipe for success in a race of any sort.

My response was that, yes, I participated in a race but for the most part, I didn't run because I wasn't capable when I arrived to race on the day in question. It's not as though it was the first race she thought I'd completed, so her question seemed a little out of place to me, but it still had me thinking.

The thing is, I had entered the race knowing that there was a strong possibility I wouldn't be capable of running on race day, and also well aware that I stood no chance of being competitive regardless of whether I was running or walking.
I have joked with others that I participate in races to make everyone else feel better about themselves. I say it really in half-jest because I am conscious of the reality that I stand no chance of winning any foot or wheel race, or even placing in my age division or any other category. It's just my reality. I have never been fast at anything and regardless of my training regimen, I will never be faster than the slowest individuals.

So, why participate in races at all?

I have pondered this over the years, but never really put it down on paper (or computer in this instance), so I thought I would share thoughts for anyone else who may believe him/herself to be slow or who may be hesitant for whatever reason to participate in races. My reasons may be different than others, but perhaps sharing them will be of benefit to someone who is thinking about entering a race of his/her own.

Personally, I tend to be a go-big-or-go home sort of person. My very first race ever (other than being forced into events in physical ed in school) was a marathon. Yep. My first race as an adult was running 26.1 miles. I did not run the whole event, but I did ultimately complete it. Most people start with a 5k or 10k, but not me. Nope, I headed straight for the big show. Honestly though, I did this because I was afraid that if I entered a shorter race and didn't do well or it didn't go well for me physically, it might keep me from doing the marathon, and I was determined to complete a marathon.

It was both one of the best and worst experiences of my life. I was not properly trained for the event, I didn't understand the need for fueling during an endurance race, and I had a number of obstacles to endure throughout the race including heading off in the wrong direction half way through, only to find myself about a mile off course before someone informed me that I was going the wrong way.

But there were amazing things that I will never forget about this race like having my very own unknown-to-me cheering section that followed me from mile 8 to about mile 11, and actually completing the race, which was something I wasn't sure would happen by the time I hit about mile 16.

Surprisingly, I was not the last person to finish, which I was certain was my fate. I had been very slow and added about two miles to the course, so as I watched others pass over the finish, I admired the fact that not one of them had given up... and believe me, we had plenty of opportunities.

When I reached mile 14, the race barriers, cones and water stations were all being removed. Vans for the event started to circle and ask individuals if they wanted a ride to the finish line. It was very demotivating, I must say, particularly as they seemed to come around every 5 minutes. By mile 17, I realized most participants were likely done and I felt very alone on the course. I was also in a lot of pain. My back had started to seize up, and I had no water or food with me.

I had a bright spot though. There were a group of ladies, who had finished the half marathon operating in tandem with the marathon, driving around offering water to those who were still on the course trying to finish. About every mile or so, they'd come around again asking if I needed anything. These few ladies were seriously one of the big factors allowing me to get to the finish line because by mile 20, I was seriously considering conceding and taking a ride to the finish line.

I imagine for any competitive runner there are always pains too, and that running 26+ miles isn't easy for 99% of the population, but when a person is slow it is that much more time that s/he is on their feet which creates additional aches and pains. Imagine walking or running for 4 hours versus 8 hours - it's a huge difference to any body.

The miles between 20 and 23 were some of the most painful in my life. I had to stop several times to issue out some positive self-talk and remind myself why I was doing this race.

Why was I doing the race? Completing a marathon was a bucket list item for me. It seemed so ludicrous to be able to finish that I wanted a big challenge to see if I could get it done. When I had moments of doubt, I told myself, "You never have to do this again. Just get to the finish line." Remarkably, it seemed to help. Nearing the end of the race, my legs were barely moving, and I had absolutely no idea where I was in the race because all of the markers had been removed.

At this point, there was a police officer in the road still assisting those who needed to cross a busy spot during the race. As I crossed I asked of him, "Do you happen to know what mile this is?" He responded telling me I was at mile 23, and suddenly I had a renewed pep in my step. "Really?" I couldn't help but gleefully respond. That meant I only had about 3 miles left to go. I could do three miles, I thought, even if I had to crawl over the finish line. It was also a very obvious reminder to me that our minds have so much control over our bodies.

Happily, I did not crawl at any point during the race, and Sam, who had finished hours before me, came out to meet me with about two tenths of a mile to go. It was perfect timing as I needed that push to get through that last little bit.
*Image here
After the marathon, I pretty much swore off races. If I wasn't going to do another marathon, what could ever compete with that type of distance? But, as it turned out, it would not be my last race.

Which brings me to the real point of this post. The reasons or the motivation that keep me entering races both on foot and bicycle.

Really, there can be one to several reasons I choose to enter a race. I've participated in races simply to help out a friend who was starting a new race and needed participants to sign up, or because I wanted to support a charitable organization. I've participated because the course just sounded fun, challenging, or both. I've done some races simply because I needed a kick in the rear and to have a goal to work towards. But most often, it's just the need to challenge myself and improve on the past.

The reality is most people who enter races know they aren't going to win. If the goal was simply winning, there would be only a handful of individuals who would participate in any race. For the vast majority of participants, I would say the purpose or goal is something found within themselves. Maybe they want to beat a prior time on the same course or they want to better a time from a similar distance on another course. Perhaps they just enjoy running or cycling and being in a group headed toward the same goal is helpful. It may stand to reason that a person simply wants to visit a city and participating in a race is an easy "excuse" to have a mini-vacation. It's not for me to say what, where or who motivates another person to race, but I do think that everyone finds their individual reason(s).

My point is, just because I'm not fast doesn't mean I should shy away from a race. In fact, during a race recently, I was at the very back of the pack to start. I had told Sam before we began that my only goal was not to finish last, so when I realized where I was I knew I wasn't off to the best start. However, it turned out to be the perfect spot for me. It takes me awhile to warm up and I could see where everyone was in front of me. A few had started out too fast and it became a mental game to try and overtake as many individuals as I could. As soon as I'd passed one person, I'd set my sights on the next and tell myself internally that I would not allow the person I'd just passed to get in front of me. Not only did it make the distance seem much shorter, but it was great motivation as well.

If I were to offer thoughts or tips to anyone who is considering a race and who hasn't raced previously, I don't know that I'd advise him or her to start with a marathon run or a century ride, but I suppose it would depend on the individual. For me, I thrive on the possibility that I may not finish at all (it's a bit of a twisted thought process, I do understand), but I also participate in short distances which can be just as much if not more challenging and/or fun.

Ultimately, there are some things I wish someone had told me before the first time I raced. Here are a few, in no particular order:
1. Understand that endurance races require fueling. You will "bonk" without taking in some sort of nutrition. I used to think because I'm bigger I didn't need fuel. Unfortunately, the body doesn't work that way. For me, if the race is longer than 2.5 hours, I know I need to start fueling every 30-45 minutes from the start. If it's less than 2.5 hours, usually water is sufficient. Your mileage may vary though, of course.
2. Test your food/gu/energy product prior to race day to know if your body will tolerate it or not. I've had some quite unpleasant reactions trying to test energy products on race day.
3. Invest in proper, comfortable equipment/clothing.
4. Don't test new shoes, clothing, saddle, handlebars, bike, etc for the first time on race day.
5. Take care of injuries and rest when needed; trying to push through training when injured only delays healing or intensifies the injury.
6. Recognize the difference between true injury and excuse-making to miss a training day.
7. People have always been kind to me during races, encouraging me when I needed it or offering support, and I try to return that favor whenever possible.
8. Many races have cutoff times, but if you're concerned you won't make it in the allotted time frame, look for another race that allows everyone to finish (walker-friendly events are great resources for runners who are slow), or contact the organizers to see if they'll allow finishers after the listed cutoff.
9. Don't shy away from something that seems scary simply because you don't know if you can finish. If you don't train and try, you will never know.
10. Slowing down or going slow doesn't mean you're a failure or that you should give up. We all start and end somewhere and finishing always feels better than quitting, regardless of the finish time.
11. Race/action photos are some of the worst photos I have ever seen of myself. If it's going to make you crazy to see a bad picture, just don't look at the photos at all (or have someone you trust preview them and tell you if it's safe to look).
*Image here
The saying goes, slow and steady wins the race, but that definitely hasn't been my experience. I suppose it depends on ones definition of "slow" though, and the definition of "win" as well. There are lots of moments that take place during a race, whether a person has the best overall finishing time or not, that can feel like victories. I sometimes wonder where I'd be today if I'd never tried a race at all, but I don't truly want to know what that world is like. Every race teaches me something about myself - whether I want to learn a lesson or not - and, the great thing about being slow is that there is always room for improvement.

Racing isn't everything to me, and my world doesn't come to an end if I don't participate in an event, but it's a nice, occasional practice to remind myself that there is competitiveness within me, even if it doesn't show by finish times or to anyone else who's racing. Plus, it's always fun to see if I can improve, even a small amount, from one race to the next.

Any other slow racers out there? On foot, on a bike, or any other sport? If you have words of wisdom or your own race stories to share, please do!


  1. This is wonderful. I love the reminder that if the only people who entered a race were serious contenders to win it there would hardly be anyone doing them. I've never done a race or an organized event of any kind. I keep meaning to sign up for organized rides, but there's something that holds me back. I seem to have a mental block about knowing that I'd have to complete a certain mileage on a certain day. On the other hand, I don't have any trouble motivating myself to go out and do a long ride all on my own on any given day. I finally decided to stop worrying about it and just ride!

    1. I think if/when the time is right, you'll figure it out, Kendra. It'll likely just plop into your lap and it will make sense. I think riding to just ride or for transportation is enjoyable in itself and most of the time, that's what I stick to doing. The last couple of years I find it's the best way for me to enjoy - to just do and not have the pressure of time, but occasionally it's kind of fun just to see how things play out in a race, even at the back of the pack. :)


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