In-person racing makes a big return this fall. Internationally, all of the marathon majors are being held in the fall for the first time ever. Locally, races such as the Mohawk Hudson Marathon & Hannaford Half Marathon, the Stockade-athon, and the Troy Turkey Trot will see in-person fields this year. After many months of pandemic disruption the question emerges: why race?
The flippant answer is: “Why not?” But seriously…why not? For some runners, it is a natural progression to the starting line and an outgrowth of the process through which they’re getting fit, relieving stress, enjoying the outdoors, and socializing with friends. For other runners, racing represents the next phase of a philosophical or spiritual journey to a better self. Every person who steps on the starting line will have a different path that brought them there and different individual goals for the experience. Collectively, though, races are moments when we can all come together to celebrate running as a sport and demonstrate our communal love of this highly personal activity.
Of course, racing is an opportunity to test your fitness and your training. The race –– a known distance covered over a clocked time –– allows participants to ask and answer the big training questions: “Are my interval workouts working yet? How is my endurance? Do I need to do hill work? All of these questions can be answered in a race. Running guru George Sheehan had much to say about the importance of racing and the nature of the race. In addressing why it works so effectively at assessing one’s running goals and aspirations, he explained, “The race does what every good drama does. It tells the truth.”
Racing’s essential “truth” is, of course, dependent on the individual runner’s specific goals and aspirations. What defines success is different for every runner. Some fast dogs, for instance, will be in the hunt to win outright. Others will be angling for age-group glory, while still other runners will bask in the accomplishment of completing a new distance. There’s room for us all in the running community. What other sport allows everyone to compete at the same time and support each other as we strive to make ourselves better?
The clock, moreover, is not the only assessment instrument. Legendary distance coach Jack Daniels cautions runners not to get overly caught up in times and results in every race. He suggests that you can use a race to work on specific elements in your training. Try going out hard the first mile, for example, and sticking with the leaders. See what this feels like. It might be difficult, but it can be fun to test your limits without having to worry about staying strong for the finish. Or, you could make the decision to attack the hills. Then again, perhaps this is the race that you are going to make sure that you don’t get caught running by yourself in “no man’s land.” Just like a good drama, there are acts within the race that can provide plenty of challenges by themselves.
On another practical level, race participants can benefit from learning about the experiences of fellow competitors. This is how different training methods, injury prevention strategies, and race opportunities are passed around. It is where friendships are made and strengthened. Through these exchanges –– the “good jobs” and the “that felt awfuls” –– that we say to each other, we’re making running’s culture. Races are places where we collectively express what it means to be a runner. That’s why races need you and what you bring to the table.
There are also philosophical rewards because races can –– ok, stick with me here –– bring you to better self-understanding. Racing is an experience that can transform individuals by allowing them to test and overcome their limits. The people that have successfully surmounted various challenges in their own lives because they could manage the difficult physical and mental challenges of the weekend road race are probably too numerous to count. George Sheehan called the race “my transforming experience,” and frequently discussed it as a “true experience” in which “everything is seen and felt exactly as it is.” This, incidentally, is why so many avid runners feel personally offended when athletes cheat using PEDs. It represents an attack on the honest risks we undertake when we put ourselves –– our imperfect always-unready selves –– on the line in a contest against ourselves. Let’s face it: most of us are competing against ourselves at least as much as we are competing with others. This reality extends to racing at all levels, and elite runners –– although their professional success within the sport ultimately depends on their racing placement –– also recognize that the race is a culturally unique combination of personal striving and communal support. Notice that I said placement rather than success, because even at the elite level what constitutes true success is a very individualistic experience.
For those whose livelihoods depend on running, the race can become downright mystical. Retired elite U.S. marathoner Ryan Hall, for instance, warned runners about being overly consumed with chasing performances. Clearly for Hall, racing was about something more. In a profile in The New Yorker, he exclaimed, “Dude, no matter what you accomplish, it’s not going to fill you up. It’s not what you’re looking for.” Although known for his front running and attempts to make every race into a gut check, Steve Prefontaine’s attitude towards racing actually reveals the importance of the race as a more communal test for runners, rather than merely a thing to be won. At times, he verged on thinking about the race as a kind of art in which an ensemble of athletes collectively created something transcendent. In Michael Heald’s 2013 article for Runner’s World, “Why Pre Still Matters,” Heald explained how in the aftermath of the 1972 Olympic Trials 5000 meter race, when asked about the upcoming Olympic race, Pre seemed to be more interested in the democratic aspects of the upcoming race: “He’s not promising victory. He's promising to run a race that will give everyone in it the opportunity to do something special.”
Runners believe that through effort they can become their better selves and the often-petty concerns of day-to-day life can be transcended. On race day, we realize something larger through the medium of authentic struggle. Hall, Prefontaine, and Sheehan talk about running in religious terms and it is no coincidence that local road races are regularly held on Sunday mornings. Coming to an honest accounting of oneself before others who know your struggles and share your faith offers rewards sweeter than any medal or trophy. Although the race demands a lot from us, we can expect much in return: a transcendent place where the running community can help us to fulfill running aspirations and our desires to be better.