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To race or not to race?

This week at Striders, we are bringing up an absolutely terrifying topic that many of our runners want to avoid.  You guessed it!  We are talking about how my best friend was eaten by Wolfrats on a mission trip to the mountains of Mexico nearly twenty years ago.  Wait.  That is not what we’re talking about.  We are talking about RACING!  While it may not be as terrifying as a pack of vicious, hungry, man-eating Wolfrats, the word RACING can still strike fear in the hearts of many high school and junior high cross-country runners.

As coaches, one of our biggest challenges is convincing our runners that racing isn’t a test to dread but an opportunity to celebrate! In the past, I've made the mistake of comparing training to homework and racing to a test. While there’s some truth to that comparison, no one enjoys taking tests!  As soon as we equate a race to a test, we have a bad taste in our mouths.  Tests create anxiety and are a pass-or-fail situation.  Tests are what my teacher said I was better at my third time through fourth grade, but they were also the reason I didn’t graduate high school until I was 20 and didn’t start driving legally until I was 22.  On the other hand, referring to racing as a celebration it creates a positive connotation in our minds.  Who doesn’t love to celebrate? Celebrating is fun!

We can call a race a celebration, but our athletes aren’t fools.  When you are racing against and being compared to your peers, baking in the heat, being timed, pushing your legs and lungs to the point of explosion, starving your brain of oxygen, and collapsing at the finish line from fatigue, you can call something a celebration all you want but the truth for many runners is racing is more similar to torture.

So, how can we reframe a race as difficult and painful as it is into something athletes actually look forward to? I believe the answer lies not in the race itself but in reminding them of two critical concepts: control and reward.  

When we experience pain without consent, it is called suffering, and no one wants to suffer.   However, when we willingly put ourselves in a potentially painful situation, we are simply facing adversity, and adversity is how we grow.  In this case, the pain has a purpose.  We choose to go endure the pain to reach the reward.  It’s like getting a shot at the doctor’s office, getting a tattoo, riding a roller coaster, or eating a banana.  Maybe it’s not always fun, but the end result is worth the struggle.  Racing is no different.  Racing hurts.  There’s no way around that.

However, when the pain serves a purpose, such as running a PR, making the Varsity TEAM, or winning a championship, the pain becomes meaningful.  When the potential reward is important to us, the pain, even if unpleasant, now holds value.  We remind our runners that they have chosen to put themselves in the racing situation, and therefore, they are the ones in control. It’s important to remember they aren’t suffering; they are facing an adverse situation and learning more about themselves in the process.  Runners need to be reminded they control the narrative.  They can stop the pain at any time!  Maybe they have to live with that choice, but it’s their choice. Ultimately, as coaches, we have no say in how an individual’s race actually goes; it is on them entirely.  That can be terrifying for some runners because not all races go well.  Some will honestly go pretty badly.  It’s especially difficult today because everyone has access to everything.  Runners can compare themselves almost instantly, not only with the other runners in their race but with runners from other cities and states.  What if they don’t stack up?  What will their teammates think about them?  What about their coaches or parents?  This fear of comparison, in my opinion, for a teenage runner is worse than the pain of the race.  We must constantly remind our athletes that their value lies not in their performance but in who they are as a person.  

It is also common for young runners to struggle with thinking that one bad race is how it will always go forever and always.  We all have a tendency to catastrophize the negative, and this is especially true for young runners.  If we’re not careful as coaches, one lousy race can derail an entire season.  This is the risk of running in the race in the first place.  Without risk, there can be no reward. It takes a lot of guts in the blood for our kids to toe the line and put themselves out there.  Probably a lot more than we adults give them credit for.

While a few races might not go as planned, most will be just an average race, but those few times when it all comes together, and our kids do run a PR, move up a training group, or win a championship, it's incredible how quickly the pain fades away.  Suddenly, the euphoria of doing something so difficult and conquering it overwhelms the pain and makes it all worthwhile. This is why we race!  We dedicate months to

working incredibly hard for those brief moments of joy. But isn’t that how life is?  We work all year to go on vacation for a week.  We wait and wait for months for Crumbl to finally have waffle cookies with syrup.  

So, when everything is said and done, racing isn’t a test to pass or fail.  It’s an opportunity for our runners to showcase the work they’ve done, to face down adversity, and grow as an individual and a team and then celebrate like crazy!  It was incredibly satisfying as an athlete when everything came together, and the race went well, but it is a thousand times more rewarding as a coach to see our runners experience the joy of a great race.  It’s why we do what we do!  (That and the dozens of dollars a year, of course.)

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