There is nothing more deflating than running a subpar race after spending weeks getting amped up for it and enduring months of training and preparation. It feels like a wasted opportunity and makes you doubt your training, your goals, and perhaps why you pour so much into running in the first place.
This fall I entered my first collegiate cross country race in nearly two years, but it would be my first healthy cross country race in almost three years. The week leading up to the race was filled with nerves, excitement, doubt, and a whole host of other feelings. I felt ready but also very unsure of myself. When I was running in college I always had an idea of what pack to run with, what pace to start out at, and what I was capable of. Now all of that is a mystery. Knowing those things while I was in college was typically very helpful but could also add pressure to my races. The 6k I entered was very competitive and included many teams that I had raced against in college – which freaked me out but also added some excitement.
The race started out well. I felt comfortable through the first mile even though it was crowded, muddy, rainy, and windy. I had to dodge runners who fell down on the course and be very careful with my footing due to the slippery mud and hiding puddles. After the first mile I fell apart. I forgot how to race and soon became disengaged. I could not respond when runners around me made a move. I got stuck in tempo mode because it was familiar and comfortable. I can’t even say with certainty that I had a strong finish. My finish was better than the middle of my race, but not as good as it could have been. It was disappointing and embarrassing – especially when I realized that my half marathon PR was a much faster pace than the 6k race I had just finished.
I tried my best to shake off the disappointment because I didn’t want people to know I was bothered or keep people from celebrating their own victories. When I went to bed that night I was still frustrated. When I did a long run the next day I was fighting my emotions and questioning my training. Although I’m still not 100% sure how I can flip the switch from tempo mode to race mode, I am feeling more confident that eventually I will get there.
The week following that disastrous race I had a great long run, a pleasant recovery run, and a stellar track workout. I ran another collegiate cross country race and was much more pleased with the result and the effort: I started strong in the first 2k, focused on working the middle 2k, and moved up during the final 2k. I finally competed, engaged, and raced. I am more determined than ever to become better at racing but I know that it takes practice to break out of the comfortable tempo zone and move into the gritty race mode.