Why Race If You’re Not in Peak Shape?

2012 5ks of Christmas, Kirkland, WA
The start of the 5k. I’m in the back. The WAY back. (Photo: Irwin Dolobowsky)

This past weekend, I got up early on Sunday morning and went through my normal pre-race routine: small breakfast, attach chip and bib, drag husband out of bed, head to the starting line. I stood around with my husband until just before the start, when I gave him my jacket and then headed into the start corral to huddle against the chill with the other runners.

I gave this 3 mile race all I had, and for this one that can be tricky since the entire first mile is uphill. Half a mile in to a race like this one it’s hard not to wonder, Why do I do this?

With my quads and hamstrings still whining about the yoga class I’d taken the day before, the uphill proved to be a bit more challenging than I would have liked. Still, I chugged on up the hill, taking it one step at a time and only giving in to the growing temptation to take a walk break right before the summit. At that point I’d been running uphill for almost 10 minutes straight, so I figured a wee break was okay.

The killer first mile gives way to an entirely downhill second mile, where you can catch your breath, rest your legs and try to make up some time and pick up a bit of speed. I flew through the second mile in 10:25 – significantly faster than the 12:55 it took me to get up the climb of the first mile. The third mile looks flat, but is actually slightly uphill. Still, after the first two miles of the race, it doesn’t feel all that unreasonable. My goal was to stay as close to the 10:25 of the second mile as I could without completely killing myself, and I can say that I managed to do just that with an 11:01 split. From there it was around the corner to the 100% downhill finish, which let me give a good kick through the finish line. My final time?

35:31. Almost exactly 10 minutes off my PR, which I ran just two short years ago.

Yes, I’ve added 10 minutes to my 5k time over the past two years. It’s a long story that can best be summed up by this equation: injury + surgery + grad school = less running and more eating. I was in the best shape of my life when I ran that 5k PR in November 2010 and now? Not so much. I’m working on getting back to that, but it’s been a long journey filled with months of setback for every week of progress I make. Yes, it’s been frustrating. Yes, it’s been depressing. And yes, I’m still racing, even though I know I’m not in anything even remotely resembling “competitive” shape, even though I’m only competing against myself.

You might be thinking, “Why bother? You’re not gunning for a PR, so why not just take it easy? Or save the $30 and skip the race altogether?” Those are excellent questions; questions I’ve asked myself several times over the past couple of years. It boils down to the fact that I believe racing is an integral part of training, regardless of where your fitness level is. If nothing else, racing keeps me motivated.

There’s something fun about the energy surrounding a race, something you get when you line up with hundreds or even thousands of your fellow runners that you don’t get when you lace up and head out the door alone or in a small group. Being around that helps jump-start my desire to keep at it until I get my speed back, especially when I’m feeling frustrated and out of shape. Plus, I just happen to think that racing is fun. Yes, it hurts. Yes, I sort of want to die about halfway through (especially in a 5k), but that just makes it feel that much better when I cross the finish line knowing that I’ve left it all out on the course, regardless of what the clock says.

On top of that, racing is a skill that requires practice. Everything about running a great race – from knowing how hard to push to how long you can suffer to where, exactly, your edge is between leaving it all on the course and leaving your breakfast on the side of the course – is unique to each runner and even to each race. Everything from your health to how much you slept that week to the details of the race course to the weather can affect where your personal limit is that day. Yes, that limit will be significantly different when you’re out of shape than when you’re ripped and ready to rock, but the signs your body gives you will be similar. If you’ve been out of the racing game for a while, getting back into it early will make you better acquainted with how your body feels when it’s pushing 110%. If you haven’t, racing in less than prime shape will let you keep your mental skills sharp, even if your body isn’t.

Licorice finishing 5ks of Christmas, Kirkland, WA
The best part about this race? A downhill finish. (Photo: Irwin Dolobowsky)

Lastly, racing gives you a way to track your progress. Yes, you can go by how your daily runs feel or what your average pace is or how many miles you’re racking up in a given week, but absolutely nothing will tell you where your fitness is like racing. Running against the clock in an all-out time-trial tells you exactly where you are and how close to your goals you are. Sure, you can set up your own time trial and race the clock by yourself, but most people (including me) will run faster and push harder when there’s a crowd and competition. If you live in an area where they run several races a year on the same course (for example, there’s a Shamrock 5k that uses the same course as the Holiday 5k I ran this weekend), you can use that course as your benchmark to check your fitness a few times a year.


As to the question of why I don’t just enter the race for fun and then run easy once I’m there? I can’t do it. I know plenty of runners who can use races as supported training runs and do so successfully, but I’ve never been able to. For some reason, when you put a bib and/or a chip on me, all bets are off and I hit that course like I’m never going to be able to run again. I figure if I’m there I’m going to go for it. Even if “it” is a time that’s in a different zip code from my PR, as long as I give it my all it’s a good race.

Do you race when you’re not in peak condition? How did your last race compare to your PR?

In a previous life, I worked on computers and spent all day sitting. Thanks to running, I've rebooted my career and am now a running and triathlon coach and soon-to-be physical therapist. I've also got the mind and spirit of an elite trapped in the body of a back-of-the-packer.

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  1. I really enjoy racing when I’m not in shape, too. First, of all, there’s no pressure for place/time! It’s also a great opportunity to practice strategy and really learn to run by feel rather than think about target splits.

  2. Such a good point racing can be such good motivation and inspiration. I was going through a bit of a running funk and running a half marathon with my husband helped me remember why I love running so much

  3. girl, I haven’t seen peak condition since well before I started running. and I race like it’s going out of style. should be interesting to see what happens once peak condition comes out of hiding. : )

  4. I actually used to only race when I was ready to race. Now I run with my kids, my Girls on the Run girls and fit it all in. There is accomplishment and joy in all of it if you set your expectations appropriately. Some of my favorite races were not raced. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

  5. I really needed this post. I’ve not run for EIGHT DAYS!!! Actually, I’ve done NO EXERCISE at all for eight days. Partly due to sickness, then travelling then MURDEROUS jet-lag which is currently sucking all life out of me and almost making me into Ebenzer Scrooge. My running mojo is gone, drowned in a vat of red wine.

    And next week I’m signed up for a 5m trail race. Every day I change my mind – do I run? do I stay in bed? do I run? do i stay in bed? So many good reasons to do both.

    But yesterday, running round the living room with my toddler, he stopped to put a medal over my neck. And I felt this flicker of passion and excitement which I haven’t felt before about next week’s race. I want another medal. Shallow but true.

    Thanks for this post – I needed it. I think I’ll run (I may still change my mind) and I needed the reasons to do so!!! Thanks.

    Off to celebrate the return on the mojo with some more red wine. And hopefully some sleep, tonight!

    1. Cathryn – I feel your pain! I ran a 5k last month that was not only my first run in a week, but my longest run in several months. I say go for it! 5 miles on trail isn’t too long, and you can always enjoy the middle chunk as a nice, relaxing hike if you need to. Glad to hear I helped bring your mojo back out of hiding!

  6. I loved your post. It was very motivating, especially since I wouldn’t say that I have ever been in peak racing shape. That said, I am definitely in better shape now then I was when I started running.

    So I absolutely use races as my benchmark of improvement. My last race was my personal best. I ran my very first 5K last year and my time was 37:08. This year I crossed the finish line in 35:51. I was thrilled since the other races I ran this year had me stuck at 37 minutes. I did not think I would ever see anything other than 37. With this PR high, I am so excited for my next race, on New Years Eve.

    Chasing a PR is a thrilling motivator. I am working towards an eventual goal time of 30 minutes.