Running Down a Dream: Radical Acceptance and the Competitive Runner

People running at the 2007 20 kilometer road r...
What are you training for? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When is it time for a runner to stop chasing big dreams?

Recently on the forums, runners debated this very question. We’ve talked about these big dreams here too. Of course, we are all for going after the craziest pie in the sky running goals and the easy answer to this question is never. But, something I’ve come to realize, and something the Letsrun discussion got me thinking about was a slightly different question:

When we have big running dreams, must we always run for the purpose of achieving that dream? 

Actually, this discussion is common in my household and among runner friends. I’ve often heard competitive runners say that if they didn’t have competitions to train for, they don’t know if they would even run anymore. Chasing down the dream keeps most of us motivated. But what happens when you don’t feel like training for a race? Is it possible to run just to run? Of course, the answer is yes but if you belong to a community of runners, it’s not uncommon to get asked on a run, “So what’s up next for you?” Lately, I’ve answered with, “I don’t know. I’m just running.” Then the conversation usually ends.

Right now for me personally, the truth is that I am enjoying running for the simple act of running. This doesn’t mean that I have shut out my competitive days once and for all. It’s just where I am residing right now as a runner. Granted, I was never going to set a world record, but I was following competitive training plans, running PRs, and training with some of my area’s best. However, the time invested was starting to become too much. And, now, as I undergo a career change that includes starting my own business, the type of competition I am seeking has changed.

On New Years Eve, I jumped into a 5k with a friend and ran 24 minutes and some change. Two years ago on the same course, I had run 22 flat. Afterward, it stung a little bit. But instead of beating myself up, I decided to try and use a concept from my recovery called Radical Acceptance. Radical Acceptance does not mean that you have to like or agree with what is. Rather, you just accept it for what it is. It is what it is, anyone?

Enough poetry. When is it time to give up on your dreams? The answer is never. But we don’t have to only run with those goals in mind. Sometimes we need a break from chasing the dream and run for another purpose. But with that comes Radical Acceptance. If you are a competitive runner, but don’t feel like training for a race lately, that’s ok. Accept where you are at. Accept where your passions lie. You may still have big running dreams but there is not room for it in your life right now. That’s ok. You may still feel compelled to train away because you are fighting with Father Time. However, as the Letsrun post demonstrated, there are exceptions to the rule that we have to reach our goals by a certain age or within a certain amount of training years.

So instead of running yourself into the ground, take some time to just be as you are. The following are some additional tips:

It doesn’t have to be so black and white

As our very own Mint pointed out on my Akron Marathon DNF post, we often make running harder than it needs to be. We often think if we are not in tip-top shape than we are no good. Stop! Running three minutes slower than your personal best is sure to be a ball buster the first few times you do it, that is if you jump into a race without having done much training. However, if you enjoyed yourself while doing it, isn’t that all that matters? The challenge comes if you didn’t have fun.

Check your ego at the door

Costume Party
Running in a costume under an alias is ok.  (Photo credit: Shiny Things)

This is also easier said than done. Runners not in racing shape will often enter road races under aliases to avoid the embarrassment of slow times. Stop! I’m not perfect either. I’ve been known to do this at times. But a quick look at my Athlinks page shows that I’ve run a few 5ks out of shape. The one in 2009? 31 minutes? Sure, I can give many reasons for such a slow (for me) time. But, it is what it is.

First and foremost, run for you

Whether you are training for competitions or running for physical exercise, make sure you are doing it for you. Not for coaches, not for Facebook, not for anyone else but yourself. Common sense says if you don’t enjoy something than why do it? Frequently ask yourself why you run. The answer often changes. Right now, I love the simple act of running and how it feels. I occasionally like to sprint for what it is; short bursts of power and speed. Someday, I may come back to the track but for now, I like where I am at.

Do you have a big running dream? Have you ever taken a break from chasing it down? 

I write about mindfulness, mental health, and the professional sport of running with the occasional poking fun at the sport. When I am not running, I'm either helping people as a counselor or trying to make them laugh as an amateur open mic comedian.

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  1. Great post, and something I pondered quite often. Took me ten years to finally qualify for Boston. In the back of my head, I had thought I would die and never achieve it at times.

    Dream nailed.

    Next dream was to BQ every 5 years. No way Jose, especially with the new criteria. Dream deferred until the next life. (BQ times drop drastically for the undead). These days, the joy of a negative split race without time goals is what I’ve been living on.

    If you are finishing a marathon and feeling bad about yourself, then somethings wrong. Goals can be a source of self-flagellation rather than an inspiration. But sometimes perhaps we love the punishment.

    1. That is such a good point! I think we often think having a big goal as a good thing, but it can actually interfere with our overall happiness and when that happens it’s time to rethink that goal.

  2. I am currently on a break from chasing it down. And, newsflash….I am VERY happy. I had to take a “break” from my training due to a pelvic stress fracture. I was restricted to just cross training for 12 weeks. You all might think I am crazy in the running world by saying this, but I am happy that this happened to me (I am one of those people that feel that events in life can happen for a reason). Training for the next race, focusing on my plan, worrying if I was going to get in that tempo run, track work & long run was slowly destroying me and my relationships around me (mainly my with my husband and kids). Running was my identity and not much else. I BQ’d at the Cleveland marathon in 2012. I trained hard, worked my tail off, and qualified by almost four minutes. I then caught the “marathon bug” and didn’t really take a break from training. I went on to run the Akron marathon in the fall of 2012. I BQ’d there as well, so the confidence continued. I fulfilled a HUGE dream of mine and ran in Boston last year. I had the race of the lifetime. One of the best experiences of my life. I was lucky to finish before the terror struck and was more than overjoyed to finish with a time that qualified me for this year at Boston.

    Again, I decided to not take much of a break and go on to train for the Columbus marathon. At the start of my training I felt great, but throughout September, my injury began to creep in. I got the official diagnosis two weeks before Columbus, so that marathon was out. Basically having a pelvic imbalance (my right pelvis was shifted forward) and training hard for four marathons in a row sealed my fate. At first I was devastated. I cried for a week. ALOT. Then I was tired of feeling sorry for myself and looked at it as an opportunity to try other things. Long story short, this experience has been a game changer in such a positive way. I have taken up yoga and rowing and I am absolutely in love with both of those. I continued on with spinning and weight training and threw in quite a few swimming sessions as well.

    I am in a very happy place right now. I am back to running, but only cleared for 3 miles at a time, and that is so fine with me. I have a few spring races that I am signed up for, but I have no time goals and no plans to train for them. I registered for Boston this year, but I am not going. I just don’t want to. I am happy to have a balance and not the next race on my agenda. I am ok with running, just to simply….run. I plan to take up trail running and some trail races this summer as well.

    I needed this to happen in my life. My husband was very supportive of my running, he always has been. But, I was to blinded by my next goal to see that my training was having a profound affect on him and the beginning of resentment towards me. Is chasing the next PR, the next “big goal”, the next “dream” worth the sacrifice of the happiness of those I hold near and dear? NO, a resounding NO!!

  3. What a good read! Last night I was saying how I was going to scale back my racing plans for this year. After having a baby 3 months ago, I was thinking of planning a marathon for fall 2014. I started thinking of all the time and effort that marathon training requires and decided that I’d be better off focusing on my little guy :-). I have my whole life to qualify for Boston. It’s silly to think that Running has to be all or nothing.

  4. Great post and very timely for me. I have been struggling with personal goals as well. I’m at the point where I can be somewhat competitive in local races, usually winning or at least placing in my age group in a 5K or 10K. But beyond that, I just don’t know. Should I dream bigger and risk letdown and/or injury? Or should I assume I’m physically incapable of being much faster than I am, and just be happy with my easy 20 MPW routine that allows for the occasional pint glass prize? I’m 34 years old and a single mom, so it’s not like I’m going to the Olympics.

    I’d like to qualify for Boston someday, and I think I’m *probably* capable of it given a perfect training cycle and a perfect race day, but it would be a stretch. The fear of putting my heart and soul into training for something that I may very well not achieve is terrifying, and it’s prevented me from signing up for a marathon (I’ve only run one “for fun,” and it was 7 years ago, so I don’t know what I’m capable of).

  5. Hi Ginger, I very much related to your post, and also recently read the LetsRun thread you are referring to with great interest as I am in the process of letting go of my dream of becoming a competitive age-grouper. After three years of working hard with a very experienced coach to push my running to the next level, and suffering more injuries than I can count as a result, I finally decided enough was enough. I made the really tough decision to stop training with my coach and to try to run just to get back the joy I’ve always felt from it for the 20+ years I was a reasonably good hobby jogger before I got more ambitious about it. I’m grieving both the loss of my lofty goals, as well as the close relationship with my coach, but I keep trying to remind myself that over my life running has brought so much more to me than just race results and PRs. It’s good to hear you’ve made peace with your own feelings about and goals for your running – I hope I can do this too.

  6. I LOVE this post! It hits the nail right on the head as of late for me. This is something I have been struggling with lately as last year I was fortunate to have an amazing year topped off with my first Ironman which was a fantastic experience. Since then I have taken a break and motivation is just not where it was to be in “tip-top” shape. However I am running Boston in April which was something I chased since my first marathon in Oct 2007, finally qualified Oct 2012 so while I am very happy to be running it I’m not necessarily mentally there to go after it and PR. Of course, that would be nice but right now I want to ENJOY the Boston experience and enjoy running again whether that is a PR or not. It is hard to accept in some ways so I greatly appreciate this post! It’s good to keep these things in mind that things can change-one season be killer and the next be more for just the fun of it!

  7. This post is just what I need to read right now! I’ve been running for almost 20 years, and went from just “going for a run” to beating myself up if I didn’t place in my age group in a race, or if I didn’t set a new PR. No matter how much I tell myself that the next race is just for fun, when I toe the starting line, the only fun involved is placing or PRing. I’m starting to realize that if I continue along this path, my love and enjoyment of running is in danger. The PRs are getting harder to set, and an AG win isn’t always a given, especially in larger races. I need to get back to racing for fun, just going for a run instead of “training” and easing up on the expectations I set for myself when I lace up my running shoes. Thanks, Ginger, for putting into words the things I’ve been feeling. It’s also nice to know there are others who feel the same way!

  8. Applauding from Maryland! I love this post. I am exactly in this spot right now. Well, actually Im injured right now, but…before that, I had decided that it was time to take a break from chasing down my marathon dream time. Treating a race like the chasing Moby Dick gets old after a while and starts to suck the joy out of it. So I reevaluated and decided that it was time to take a break from it. When I do return to running, it will be odd not to jump into training for the marathon, or any race for a while, but I think it’s just fine. At the end of the day, running wins over racing, in my opinion.

  9. After I edited this post I texted Ginger to tell her that this was just what I needed to read. I too am in a similar boat as all of you. I’ve been taking a break from training that’s now gone over 2 years! If you would have told me that 2 years ago I would have been devastated. Instead, I’ve enjoyed my 3rd pregnancy, hanging out with my kids, running with as many friends as I can and as Michelle mentioned, just generally being more available for my family. I am not constantly obsessing about when I’m getting this workout in or that workout in. I just run when I want, how far I want to and how fast I want to.

    Ok. All that being said, I feel like during these two years I’ve had to go through training-addict deprogramming! I actually have felt physical and emotional withdrawal from not training hard. I threw myself into my running and I hate to admit it, but I used it as a place to hide from life’s unpleasantries. House is a mess? Oh well. Gotta run! How convenient! Haha! I ran through physical pain every day for who knows how long partly to chase down the dream, but also because I was afraid of letting go of the training and the hardcore runner lifestyle. It’s a lot harder to be a balanced person than a psycho 🙂 Every day I have to remind myself that it’s ok if I don’t feel like training yet – not that I could if I wanted to. When the time is right, I’ll be ready. I’m just not physically, emotionally or mentally there and it’s ok. It doesn’t always feel ok, but it is.

  10. I think my turning point in how I look at running was last fall when I ran a half marathon as part of a long training run for my first marathon. By slowing down (I added about 11 minutes to my time, and I am not that fast to begin with) I was able to take in everything about the race. Honestly, it was one of my favourite races, despite being my slowest! I have since promised myself that while I will head into some races with a specific goal, I will go into other races purely for the joy of running with a big group of people who made the decision to get off the couch and run. As in life, sometimes you have to slow down to truly appreciate the experience.

  11. I am so appreciative of everyone here who shared their experiences. I am also shocked that we all seem to be going through the same kind of situation right now! Thank you, everyone for sharing and good luck with your running.

  12. I love this too…I turn 39 next month and whilst this is clearly still very young, I’m aware that PRs are likely to become very rare and then non-existent. In addition, my cardiologist has told me not to push to get any faster but to continue at my current (very slow) speed. I’m deferring that diagnosis until I’ve run a March half-marathon where I hope to PR but I do expect to have some mental problems about dealing with no longer getting faster.
    The adrenaline buzz is so addictive.

    I’ve been trying to think of ways we can judge our progress as runners APART from the big old metric of time. And I can’t think of any. There are some like negative splitting, being smarter etc but they seem so boring and unexciting and like a cop-out of actually achieving something. (That would be a great Salty post, BTW…alternative ways to track progress as a runner apart from the clock).