What Everyone Else Expects: a Race Report

IMG_6826The 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.”

Spearfish river
It was beautiful, but it felt like the river was whispering everyone else’s expectations to me.

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.”

Amie and me before the race
They may, however, judge the way you walk down stairs after the race. Amie and I were pretty bad at it after this one!

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?

I'm a running mom of two little girls, who is busy balancing life, work and marathon training. It's always training season for me because I'm on a quest to run a marathon in every state, while constantly striving to be the best runner I can be. Running has led me to some great adventures and I always have a good story to share!

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  1. OMG, I needed to read this. I’m currently training for my first marathon – nursing a strained calf right now, and totally feeling like I’m letting people down. Awesome race, btw!

    1. OMG! No one cares … I mean not like that! As Dill says, the only people who care are rooting for you to be your best no matter what that means and all of those people will love you with a strained calf or if you win 🙂

        1. Totally in the same situation as you, strained calf and feeling overwhelmed by (nonexistent) expectations. I hope you get to feeling better and back out there running!

  2. It’s hard to remember, but your family and friends and fellow runners want you to succeed because they support you. They want you to dream big and achieve goals because they want to see you succeed, but your success (or lack thereof) out there on the road or trails does not let anyone down! Take care of that calf!

    1. Thanks! Like I said to Salty, rationally I do know this. It’s just really hard to be rational sometimes, so it’s good to hear it 🙂

  3. This is great! I always feel the pressure of my closest loved ones who are affected by my training (i.e. 3 hour long runs, sleepy after speedwork, sorry-I-can’t-come-because-I-have-to-go-running) that if I don’t PR, itll be considered a failure. But really, as long as I’m having fun, they are happy! When I stopped in Cleveland’s full because of what was likely hypothermia, no one complained; everyone was happy that I was okay and didn’t kill myself to finish. It’s important to remember that even though we like to think of a PR (or breaking a certain barrier) may seem like the biggest feat ever, this is just a fun sport and it’s not that big of a deal 🙂 Great job Bridget, I’m proud of you!

  4. Every breath you take, every move you make…

    Love the title, love the story. A nice encouraging and relaxing piece after the stress of this morning. Thanks!

  5. Congrats on the race and I truly loved reading this. I found myself nodding my head when you talked about crossing timing mats. They are a love hate for me. I like the accountability and feeling like people following along so I need to hold on (can be a good way from keeping me from mentally caving), but sometimes it’s definitely pressure. Boston this year I wanted to run around the timing mats in the second half because I stupidly worried too much what people were thinking as I slowed, and slowed, and slowed more.

    1. I had the same feeling at Boston this year, exacerbated by the fact I had such a great race there last year. I’m local, and it feels like every person in my town is checking my splits! I often raise money for charity in my races too so that’s an added group of people I don’t want to let down. Sadly, living up to all of these (mostly self-imposed) expectations adds so much stress and makes running not fun sometimes. I’m trying hard to keep focused on why I do this in the first place, and shake of the parts that make it feel like a burden.