The lumbering elephant of a school bus had been on its bumpy slog through the Black Hills of South Dakota for about 45 pitch black minutes when it suddenly slowed to a stop. I peered out the window and could only make out darkness and the outline of a few Port-a-Potties that were gently illuminated by the headlights of the school bus. When I stepped outside a blast of cold and nerves struck me and I began to shiver uncontrollably. I used the bathroom and climbed back into the comfortable blast of warmth coming from the school bus and took a seat next to my training partner Amie.
Then we waited. We waited in the darkness with just our thoughts and our nerves for more than an hour.
Amie: “My stomach feels weird.”
Me: “Yeah I think it’s the heat on the bus, I feel like I could throw up.”
Amie: “I’m not sure how this race is going to go.”
Me: “Me either. I think the altitude is going to be a problem.”
Amie: “Me too.”
Me: “You know what’s going to happen? We are going to go for a nice long run down a beautiful canyon. Forget what everyone expects. Let’s just run.”
Except I wasn’t so sure I could forget “what everyone expected me to do.” I’ve been chasing a sub 3:30 marathon for a few years now and I’ve been pretty open about it. Most of my running friends believe I have it in me, a few are skeptical and a handful of others don’t really care, in spite of my nagging insecurity whispering that they do. I’ve had runners ask me what my PR is and when I tell them, they’ve said, “Oh I thought you were faster than that. You can totally break 3:30, I’m surprised you haven’t.” I guess this is a compliment?
Race after race I find myself at the starting line with all those little voices in my head. Most are well-meaning, but they swirl round the inside of my brain, making their way around my stomach tying it in knots, drying out my mouth and turning my confidence into self-doubt.
As I stood shivering at the top of Spearfish Canyon waiting, I thought to myself, “Screw it! Screw what everyone thinks I should do today. I’m just going to run. Simply run.” Then finally, we began the race with a half mile climb uphill. I looked at Amie and said, “I can’t breathe.” As those words came out of my mouth, I heard them echoed over and over as other runners breathlessly said the same thing to one another.
Me: “This is going to be terrible.”
Amie: “It’s the altitude.”
Me: “Our first mile was a 9:10.”
Amie: “I know.”
Me: “I’m not going to look at my watch. I’m just going to run and maybe I’ll get into a groove.”
As the miles went on, I found myself distracted not by crowds or bands, there was none of that in this tiny race of 121 runners, but by the sheer beauty of the canyon around me. The air was dry and I was soon grateful I decided to carry a handheld bottle (I would stop four times to refill that little life saver before this race was over). Amie and I ran together for most of the first half. One of us would fall behind at a water stop and I would feel weak and out of sync until we were together. Together we were a team reeling in and passing runner after runner.
That whole first 13 miles I ran without worrying if I was letting anyone down. The only clock on the course was at the halfway mark. I did some quick math and figured we were around 3:36 and some change; I was happy with that. For a brief moment I wondered what the folks tracking me at home would make of that, and then remembered that thankfully, that there was no runner tracking at this tiny race. Every time I cross a timing mat in other races I think to myself, “Now everyone knows I went out too fast,” or “They know I’m moving too slow,” or “Oh gosh I’m doing so badly everyone must be thinking my legs fell off.”
With no one at home “watching” me I didn’t give the time another thought and I began to pick up the pace a bit. I started to pull away from Amie, but I still felt strong running solo. Each time I rounded a bend in the canyon I would catch a glimpse of the runner in front of me. Slowly I would close that gap, overtake her and set my eyes on the next runner.
Around mile 18 the sun had reached a point where we were no longer shaded by the canyon walls. I wiped my neck and my hand was covered in salt. Without the humidity I wasn’t sweating like normal, but I hadn’t realized until that moment how dehydrated I was. Then the pain in my legs hit me. My gait was off because my right calf hurt from the camber in the road. The downhill course had beaten up my legs. I kept thinking of a friend who told me how the downhill start at Boston “Thrashed her quads.” Boston was nothing compared to this. The word “thrashed” echoed around in my head becoming a sort of anti-mantra. Except for the runners I would pass here and there, I was alone.
Alone with my thoughts and the sometimes bubbling, sometimes raging Spearfish River.
I kept telling myself that slowing down would only make the pain in my legs last longer. I focused on keeping my breathing under control. Even at the lower altitude, I was still felt like someone was sitting on my chest.
At mile 25.5 I blinked and thought I must be seeing a mirage; who would put a water stop a half mile from the finish? Nonetheless, I stopped. As I dumped cold water over my head, I was roused from the fog I was in. What the heck was doing? I had a half mile left! I took off and passed one last woman, crossing the line in 3:34:08. A negative split, 2nd fastest time ever, 8th overall and I couldn’t walk one more step.
Later back in the hotel I said to Amie, “I’m so proud of myself, I didn’t worry about what everyone expected of me. I just ran and I almost had a PR.”
Amie replied, “You know it’s not other people’s expectations, it’s what you think other people expect of you.”
With that simple statement she summed up all of my issues. No one else has any expectations for my running, and even if they did it wouldn’t matter. Because of the internet, with race results easily accessible online and live tracking, running has changed. Anyone can see how you did in the local 5k charity run. Your creepy co-worker, your ex, or even your running rivals can watch your progress during your marathon.
With anyone having access, it’s easy to think that people are judging your performance at each run, but are they? Probably not. Sure, there are some trolls and creeps and insecure people out there, but for the most part, no one is watching you. Or if they are, they’re most likely cheering you on. So set your own expectations for yourself, then go out there and exceed them.
Do you worry about what others are thinking during your races?