Why I race, and do not just run

Recently on Twitter, Cedric lamented someone asking him, “Why do you have to do races, why not just run?”  If I recall correctly, he wasn’t quite sure of how to answer that.  When I saw it, I knew I immediately had to write something.  Fortunately, a long journey home from Maui has allowed me to do just that (check my Twitter feed for lovely sunset/rainbow pictures).

Why do runners do races, and not just run?  For me, the answers are almost equally valid, and all equal parts.

1.  Races test you better than some, if not all, training runs.

A lot of training runs are not at your race distance.  Marathons, for example.  You’ll infrequently run 26.2 miles unless you HAVE to do so. Sure, you COULD, but you won’t run as fast, because, as is well-documented, without sufficient support and nutrition, human bodies typically exhaust all stored glycogen after 20 miles (the usual max distance for marathon training runs).

Also, even if you’re training for a 10-mile race, why not just run 10 miles?  Actually, many people DO run 10 miles in training for a race.  So it’s not an either/or proposition.  So answer #1 is, “I do run the same distance as some races.  I don’t consider that I have to choose between them.  I do both.”

2.  Race support will always top a fuel belt of water, and some Gu packets.

At races, you have tables of volunteers passing you cups of water, Gatorade, Powerade, and even beer (sometimes).  You have bands playing music, celebrating your very public attempt to complete a distance that some people wouldn’t even consider.

Running on your own requires you to pack all that stuff onto your waist/back.  You still have to CARRY the bottles, even after you’ve had their contents.  You need to find trash cans after you’ve taken nutrition.

In a race, you actually GET to throw them to the ground (although, surprise, I’m type-A enough that I wait until the end of the volunteer lane and throw my stuff in the trash cans). You also get much more support than you would from a training run:  food waiting at the finish, medical attention right there if you need it, and sometimes even a UPS truck with your extra clothing waiting for you, which they’ve checked/stored for you while you raced.

So answer #2 is, you typically get phenomenally better run support at races than you ever would at a training session.  Pampering, almost.

3.  You will typically race faster than you will ever train.

Sure, we all do “Tempo” paces.  We run hard at intervals.  We also might even pick a bike/runner ahead of us, and think, “I’m going to keep at it until I catch/pass that one ahead of me.”  But, in the back of your mind, you know that you don’t really HAVE to do that.  Because it’s NOT a race. That person ahead of you could have just gotten on the trail, or might be finishing up a huge session.  There’s no real meaning to cranking up your pace.

But, in a race, it is Showtime.  Dress rehearsal and Table Reads are over (thinking of you, the Galadriel-eque Pia Glenn).  Every second literally counts.  You have a chip on your shoe/bib that’s tied to a clock, which will result in a public statement that, “It took [this person] X time to complete Y distance.”  Like it or not, for most people, this will be the fastest you will ever go compared to training runs.  You’ll push.  You’ll grind.  You’ll (try to) ignore pains.  Because regret will last longer than pain will.  And you WON’T have strollers, kids, cars, or whatever stepping in front of you.  The paths will be clear.

Answer #3 boils down to, “Racing prompts me to go my fastest possible, and ensures a clear, safe path, without interference.”

4.  Racing presents an opportunity to gauge yourself against others.

You might chat with people at a water cooler.  If you’re into “LogMyRun,” or “RunKeeper,” or any of the social running stuff that I see people post, that’s fine, and you can see how others are doing.  But, it’s not as accurate.  Because you’re reading about people of different sexes.  Different ages.  Different distances.  

A race will not only give you an overall finish time/pace, but it will also tell you how you fared in comparison to people of your sex and age group.  To what end?  Probably, nothing.  But if you’re genuinely curious, it will answer that question.  The good news is that except for a small handful of people, the front-of-the-pack runners get the same swag as those who just make it under the time deadline.

So it’s almost minor, but answer #4 is, “It allows me to gauge my performance compared to others.” 

5.  Races provide motivation for training.

You circle a date on your calendar.  The race looms.  You have told people you’re going to try to race it.  They’re going to ask you if you did it.  Why do people take on workout partners?  Motivation.  Why do we do races?  There you go.

Answer #5 is, “It’s an ominous/exciting motivator.  Plus, you know, I coughed up money for the thing, so I’m damn well doing it.  You can’t wear the race t-shirt until you finish the race.”

Note:  If someone goes to a nice restaurant, we don’t ask them, “Why did you go to that steakhouse?  You could just grill a steak, couldn’t you?”  Seems silly that we are asked these questions about racing.

6.  Races are akin to a public demonstration of healthiness.

We have protests for everything nowadays.  Protests to DO something.  Protests to STOP doing something.  Protests of things that hardly seem worth getting worked up over.  But a race is, to a curious degree, another demonstration.  

It’s an opportunity for people who are into fitness and health to say, “We are tacking this distance.  It’s a long way for a lot of us.  Some of us aren’t sure if we can even DO it, but we’re going to try.  Because we want to be healthy, and we don’t care who knows it.”

And it really is, isn’t it?  Some people collect shot glasses.  Others collect beer growlers.  Others collect SUPER VINTAGE ACTION FIGURES, OMG THEY ARE –NOT– DOLLS, MOM!  



My office has it’s own “ego wall.”  A couple of college degrees.  A law school diploma.  A bar license.  Even a personally handwritten letter from Janet Reno I’d received shortly after taking my Dept. job, discussing a law review article I’d written.  But it also has race swag.

[u]Prominent[/u] race swag.  For instance, it has side-by-side medals of the first two Marine Corps Marathons I’d ever run.  The ones where I’d barely trained beyond 8-12 miles at a clip, and then ran them faster than many people who DO train for them.  They were my first, and are some of my fondest.  I also have a substantial shadow box with memorabilia from running The Dopey Challenge (sometimes called “The Goofy Challenge” at Disney World).

What are those things?  Public affirmations that I put my money where my mouth is.  They aren’t just banners of sports teams I like, or signed jerseys.  They are things that say, “I am into this running thing, and sometimes even Triathlons.  I’m trying.  I’m not the best, because none of these are “1st place” medals, but they damn well show I finished.  And they show I put in the time/effort to TRAIN for doing these things in the first place.  In a pool.  On a bike.  On a running trail.  Or all 3.

So no, answer #6 is, “No, I don’t win any of these races, but I do finish them.  And I’m proud to show that I can DO these events.  How many mementos of finishing races do you have?  Are you able to do those things?  (Possible answers: “Sorry you’re unable,” or “So you just choose not to because watching tv is more fun?”).

This isn’t to rub someone’s nose in it.  It’s to say, “No, I don’t win these races.  But I’ll always place ahead of someone on a couch.”

That is, until they give medals for eating Doritos.

Thanks for the blog idea, Cedric.  Just send them here if they ask you again!

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