Monday, October 14, 2013

Hearts: a race report

On Saturday morning I pinned on a race number for the first time in three or four years. Maybe it's been  even longer, given that people in the running club kept coming up and introducing themselves as if they'd never met me before.

I almost didn't run. I'd tweaked one of my knees a couple of days before and on Friday I woke up hobbling. It was an old injury and I knew that if I just rested it a couple of days, it would get better on its own and I could go on as if nothing had ever happened at all. But I didn't have a couple of days, as the race was the next day. If I went ahead, I ran the risk of sidelining my return to fitness for more than just a couple of days, and the event on Saturday was not really one I was planning to "race" anyway. Racing--actually running hard to beat a clock or an opponent or some kind of inner demon--is hard on the body. It takes time to build the strength of your muscles to support all those inelastic bits and pieces that hold us together. No, I didn't plan to try racing for another few months or more. This was just supposed to be a fun, festive day of running--just another day in the training calendar.

In the long view, the event on Saturday hardly mattered at all. It is the race I'm planning to run much farther down the road that counts. This is not about this weekend, or the next, or even next year. This is about getting fit and healthy and staying that way for as long as my luck and grit hold out. It is about the race I plan to run when I'm in my eighties, the one that will keep me out of the wheelchair, out of the nursing home, in the garden, on the bike. That race has priority over all the others. That is the race I am training for.

So I made a plan to see how the knee felt when I woke up on Saturday. If it was even a little bit tweaky, I'd skip the run and look forward to the next one.

And it was fine. I rose, ate my breakfast, dithered over what to wear: Would shorts be warm enough, or did I need tights? I settled on shorts, and pulled a pair of old track pants over them as a back up. And then I pinned on my number. As soon as I did, I started to get the old butterflies.

I ran varsity track and cross country in college, and though it has been many years since then, I still get nervous watching track meets on television. I used to get nervous, too, before the local club races, though the pressure to succeed was not at all the same. In college, I feared letting my teammates and coach down. As a Masters runner, I only had to fear letting myself down.

Plus, I am a hypochondriac. Runners--all athletes, really--are hyper-tuned to their bodies. And when your performance depends on how that body is working, every little tick and tremble becomes amplified. And, in the manner of all committed hypochondriacs, I can take the smallest thing and swiftly take the shortest possible conjectural distance to the worst possible scenario: Is that twinge behind the knee something serious? Will running on it make it worse? Will I need surgery? What if something happens during surgery (as happened to someone I knew)? What if I die?

There you have it. Twinge behind the knee (which I happen to know is a torn meniscus) to death in five steps. It sounds funny, but I don't really mean it to be so. Fear and worry are not really funny matters. In fact, if I had the power to change only one thing about myself, it would be to make myself less fearful.

Driving to the race course, I kept having to talk myself out of turning around. In fact, I even started to turn off on a side street, but swerved back into the main lane, talking out loud to myself the whole time. My heart was pounding. Silly, I know.

And then, naturally, my imagination went from pounding heart straight to heart attack on the race course. That's just two steps. Count them.

It has always been a particular fear of mine, heart attacks. I don't know why. I've never had any reason to think I'll drop dead exercising. I don't smoke, I exercise more or less regularly, I've had stress tests and echocardiograms, and etc., etc. But even when I was young and running track, I had this phobia. I think I'd read one too many well-meaning-but-ultimately-not-helpful tales about runners dropping dead suddenly and inexplicably, and given my hypochondriacal tendencies, they stuck like burs in my mind.

I started thinking, though, about this TED talk by Kelly McGonigal, about the body's reaction to stress. McGonigal says that the reaction--pounding heart, sweat breaking out, rapid breathing--are actually good things, and should be viewed as the body enabling you to meet the challenge ahead. Moreover, if we recognize them as such, embrace them, if you will, that we will come to see the reactions as positive and (here is the big kicker) they actually make us healthier.

I thought about this all the way to the park, and was still thinking about it as I walked from my car to the place where the race would start. In fact, I was embracing my stress reaction so hard that at one point I thought that the leftover chicken quesadilla I had for breakfast might make a comeback. Gradually, though, all that subsided. I saw a friend and we chatted. Then I saw some more friends and I chatted with them, too. I found a place to stash my track pants and jacket, and then stood around rubbing my arms against the cold. By and by, the race announcer called for us to toe the line, and then, the gun.

I started the race by walking at the very back of the pack. As I said, I had planned for it to be just another training run. I know myself pretty well, after all these years of toeing up at the line, and I anticipated that my adrenaline would be high and the urge to race difficult to fight. By walking and letting everyone get well ahead, I hoped to run within myself--calm and steady, without regard to where I was in the pack. And it worked out that way, mostly. I walked with a friend to the edge of the parking lot, said I'd catch him later, and then began a slow jog.

The morning was cold, as the best mornings for racing always are. The air was clear and still. There were hills on the course, but they were familiar, since they are part of my regular bike route. I knew the relative steepness of this one, a curve, followed by a false top and another curve, then a slight dip, then the sharp, short climb of my favorite hill in all of Lubbock because I can feel it in my glutes. Beyond that, a drop, and then a slow climb that doesn't look like a hill but you feel it in your thighs, so you know something is there. And so on.

My breathing was steady, my legs were loose and strong. And my heart, well, it was pumping along calmly and smoothly, just below the surface, hardly noticeable even on cresting the hills--not pounding any more, but quiet and sure, like the rustling of leaves on an autumn morning, because this is what hearts are made for.


  1. Great race report! And so true about runners being hypochondriacs.

    As often as I race (which really is not all that often) I still get butterflies before each race.

    Wonderful perspective about what race we are all really in.

    1. I thought about you and your racing as I wrote this, figuring that you would know what I was talking about.

  2. It's strange, you know. The more races I do, the more the hypochondriac kicks in and says, "What am I doing? I can't do this!" It's as if the law of averages has a warrant out on me. But I have a little mantra that settles me down: "I have. I can. I will." I like your thought about the race of life. Will remind myself of that when I get lazy about training.

  3. It comforts me to know that I'm not the only hypochondriac on the race course. I like your mantra. I'll try it.

    Thinking about embracing the stress reactions has helped me, and not just for the racing.

  4. Funny how as you run and race more you build up a repertoire of 'excuses' to throw out there when things don't go as planned.

    I have been reading profiles on the Gnarly Bandit competitors (4 100 mile races + a 100K chaser in one season) and many of them address when things don't go as planned (

    There is also the known effect of tapering aches and pains. It takes much experience not to let that get to you (I say as I sit here nursing a sore, tight quad and have a race on Saturday).


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