2014-02-19

Pre-Half-Marathon Musings

This Sunday, I'll be running the Cowtown Half Marathon in Fort Worth, Texas. I have spent the last few weeks trying to build up as much of an endurance base as I can, considering a uniquely tight schedule and some various passing illnesses. This isn't the first time I've run a race despite being completely unprepared, but it is perhaps the longest race I've ever been unready for.

Why run such a long race if I'm not ready? The answer to that question is, like virtually everything I blog about (heh), multifaceted. Let's take a look.

The first thing I must say here is that, as someone who started competitive distance running at or around the age of eight, I am not one who typically has to worry about being truly unprepared. As long as I keep up the exercise with some bit of regularity, I can be confident that I'll be able to finish pretty much any distance. And since most half marathon participants are in it for the participation of it - the experience, the satisfaction of merely finishing - I can safely say that I am every bit as prepared as the average racer.

This implies that my being "unprepared" is more about whether or not I'm in good enough shape to win, or to run well, or to place near the front of the pack. To be sure, it's an attractive prospect, one that dominated a significant portion of my childhood and young adulthood. But I often forget that it's a prospect that ultimately proved off-putting for me. That is to say, I retired from competitive running on purpose, and I did so nearly fifteen years ago. This brings me to my second reason for running.

Even if I were in peak shape right now, I would certainly not win the race. I would almost certainly not place in the top ten. I may place in my age category, but it is also equally likely that I wouldn't. The fact of the matter is that, whoever you are, whatever your history with athletic excellence, at a certain point you reach a stage in life when winning isn't everything. People who start running as adults are already at that stage of their "running careers" the first time they put their shoes on. People like me, who spend many years with "excellent distance runner" tied up in our identities, need to go through a transition from "I am an awesome distance runner" to "I used to be an awesome distance runner, and now I do it just because I enjoy it. And I don't have to win, or even run well, in order to enjoy myself."

So a major objective in my running this half marathon while being unprepared is to help myself transition to that later stage, to help teach myself that I can participate in an actual race, with actual medals and trophies and cash prizes without feeling obligated to make a go of winning.

It sounds preposterous to some of you, I'm sure. But before you judge me too harshly, consider this: I once had the opportunity of hearing a speech from legendary American distance runner Billy Mills. He told us the story of how he used to mentally prepare himself for his eventual Olympic win. He told us he used to repeat the date of the (future) race, the time he wanted to finish in, the place he wanted in the race (first, obviously), and that he would repeat this over and over in his head obsessively. (I'm not sure he used the word "obsessively," but I don't mean it in a bad way.) That mental preparation translated into a glorious win for Mills at the 1964 Olympics, but that's when it really gets interesting. Even now (he told us), when he goes for a run, his mind goes back to rehearsing his goal and the date of the 1964 Olympics.

The point is, once you acclimate yourself to this mental space, it's a real challenge to go back to being normal. When I left my college track team, I spent the next five years or so running without a watch. I needed to stop timing myself. I needed to stop keeping track of my pace. I'm finally back to where I like to track it again, but the simple fact of the matter is that a transition to normalcy is important. That's one of the things I'd like to achieve - or at least a goal on which I'd like to make some headway - this Sunday.

A third reason I'm doing it is hidden between the lines of everything I've written above. It might not be totally obvious to some of you, but it's true: I'm doing it because it sounds like fun. I know I can finish the race, I know what it feels like to run that long a distance, I haven't done it for a while, I like getting up and running in the morning, I like being part of a road racing community... In short, it sounds like fun. So, despite my lack of preparation, I want to do it. I know that if I don't do anything stupid (like try to win), I'll have a good time and I won't hurt myself. So why not?