Buckle up, kids, because this is a long one. Because this blog deals with my race at the Halloween Haunting 10k, I have chosen to go with a Halloween-ish theme. Yes, Halloween was a week ago, but so was my race. Just go with it, OK? As you may have guessed, I’m using lyrics from one of my top five favourite musicals of all time: The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Maybe I was a bit hard on myself in my last blog. I thought I was making an effort to be pretty positive, but it seems that my definition of positive is rather skewed. I realized that something was wrong when I asked a certain reader of mine if he had listened to the songs I posted at the end of the blog entry. He replied with something along the lines of “no, by the time I was done reading your blog, I was so depressed that I wanted to curl up in the corner and cry while listening to My Chemical Romance in the dark. So no, I didn’t watch the YouTube videos.” In light of this evidence, I’ve decided that perhaps I should try to be more positive in the future.
The difficulty is that it is often tough to deal with disappointment in competitive running. In a sport where all of our performances can be objectively stacked up against those of others (and our own), a sub-par race can seem even worse. Falling short of one’s expectations is a tough pill to swallow. But often, having discrete measurements of my own fitness leads me to put too much pressure on myself on race day. Looking back on two Saturdays ago, I think this might have been the problem at the Zoo Run. I knew that I was fit because I had some great workouts before the race, so I had some pretty high expectations. This, in combination with the competitive field at the race made for a potent cocktail of stress and anxiety. I realize that in my last blog, I said that I felt relaxed on the start line. Perhaps this wasn’t entirely accurate. Before the starter fired his pistol, I was excited to race. The problem was that I had been putting pressure on myself all week to run a fast time and I might have crumbled under the accumulated stress.
Two weeks later, I was offered an opportunity for redemption. I was to run the Halloween Haunting 10k in Springbank Park, London, a race put on by Runners’ Choice. Great, I thought, I nice low-key race in good old familiar London where half the field will be wearing Halloween costumes and the women’s winner last year was 39 minutes. But as the race drew near, it became apparent that this race would be no costumed-walk-in-the-park. First, Speed River runners Dana Buchanan (national steeplechase champion) and Lydia Willemse (10:05 steepler and also a national medalist) signed up. Next, Lanni Marchant (third at the Canadian 10k road race championships) appeared on the start list. Yes folks, this race was turning out to be a hardcore Halloween hammerfest. I spent some of the days leading up to the race being nervous, until eventually I realized that it would be better to relax. Yes, this is easier said than done, but I’ll get into what changed my mentality later. I simply decided that I would enjoy the morning of racing with my friends.
On with my overly-long story about the race! The first kilometer was slightly insane, due to the fact that it was downhill and the tendency of runners to get excited at the start of a race. On the start line, I had positioned myself beside the top women (Lanni, Dana, Lydia, and Winny Tonui), so I tried to stick with them without feeling like I was straining too much in the first kilometer. Lanni, of course, took off, but I stuck with Dana and Lydia. And by “stuck with,” I mean that they gapped me by about five meters in the first kilometer. I thought, “oh, here we go again,” as the pessimist in me assumed that I was having another day where my competitors would take off on me and I would never see them again. This changed when I looked at my split for the first kilometer and realized that despite having the most conservative start among our group, I still ran a 3:20. I eased up a bit, even though the 3:20 felt too easy to have been a 3:20. I spent the next kilometer drawing even with Dana and Winny while trying to maintain a good steady 10k effort. I managed to get into a good rhythm of 3:35s for the next few kilometers. I was a bit surprised at how much I felt I had to force the pace to hit these splits; I thought at least the first half of the race would feel fairly easy. I’m not sure if this was a result of the heavy mileage I had been running for the past two weeks, my general aversion to any race shorter than a half-marathon (no, not really), or simply my inexperience with the ten kilometer distance. I had only raced three 10ks prior to the Halloween Haunting race, and only one of these races went well. Perhaps I was still unused to the effort required in the early stages of a 10k. In any case, I had to push hard to maintain my 3:35-per kilometer pace, but it still felt like an effort I could maintain for the remaining three-quarters of the race. At around the two kilometer mark, I passed Dana and Winny, which gave me excellent motivation to keep pressing in order to maintain my pace. I wasn’t sure what Dana was capable of, but I figured I would test the waters first by pushing the pace in front of her and seeing if she followed. For a while, it seemed as if I wouldn’t get rid of them. When I went around the hairpin turn about three and a half kilometers, I had only put a few meters on Dana and Winny. I thought about easing off a bit and joining the pack to let them lead, but my stubborn tendencies won out and convinced me to keep hammering away in front of them. Fortunately, this paid off as I increased the gap over the next mile or so.
I was somewhat in no-man’s land as I finished off the first five-kilometer loop of the course. After the turnaround, I tried to simply focus on my own effort rather than letting the women behind me rattle me to pieces. Eventually I had put a sizeable gap on them. The road was rather empty in front of me, until I noticed someone ahead of me, a man with flowing blond locks, an impressive mustache, and an Oregon uniform. Was I hallucinating in my anaerobic haze? What was this vision, this mirage of Steve Prefontaine doing appearing midway through my race? As I looked more closely, I realized that my oxygen-deprived brain had simply jumped to an erroneous conclusion. Why, it was none other than Tim Hain, dressed as Pre for Halloween! Nevertheless, his appearance spurred me onward, and I tried to work my way up to the phantasmal running legend ahead of me.
I went through the first five-kilometer loop in 17:40, which I was quite pleased with. However, I had to temper my enthusiasm because I knew that because of that fast first kilometer, I wasn’t really running 17:40 pace, and I would need to pick it up in order to run under 35:30. I cruised through the next kilometer, since it was the easy downhill one and I figured I wouldn’t need to push very hard to bring the pace down. I figured right, as my split was 3:29. After that, I pushed a little harder to bring the pace down to low-3:30s on the flat sections. I felt like I was moving well and at that point, I had a big gap on Dana. Unfortunately, this meant that I was in no-man’s land for the last four kilometers of the race. But I was feeling good and I had a nice rhythm going, so I continued to press hard.
Nearing the eight-kilometer mark, the pain started to set in. But that alone would have been too easy. So the race had to throw another curve at me: the added challenge of weaving through lapped runners. Despite my state of oxygen deprivation and blurred vision, it wasn’t too terrible and I doubt I lost very much time as a result. I was hurting throughout the final kilometer, which had a bit of uphill to make things even more unpleasant for me. But after looking at my watch at the nine-kilometer mark and seeing 31:48, I got pretty excited when I realized I was about to run a good time. It sounds a bit silly, because I got every split along the way, so I knew that I was running well, but it wasn’t until this point that it sunk in. My last kilometer was my slowest in 3:38, and it HURT. In the race photos, it looks like I’m not enjoying myself very much. In truth, I was the happiest I had been in two weeks as I ran that last kilometer. I finished in 35:26, which is only nine seconds slower than my 10,000m track personal best.
My splits were: 3:20, 3:34, 3:35, 3:35, 3:36 (17:40 5k), 3:30, 3:32, 3:33, 3:33, 3:38.
As one can imagine, I was pretty excited after this race. I very happy with the time I ran and I certainly didn’t mind coming in second to a runner of Lanni Marchant’s caliber. I was also pleased that I was able to stay relaxed before the race and perform to my potential. After my disappointing race two weeks earlier, it was nice to run a time that I could be proud of and that reflected my fitness. After the Zoo Run, I didn’t doubt my fitness this season, but I questioned whether I could ever pull everything together. I knew that I was training more consistently that I ever had before, and I was hitting splits in workouts that would have scared me a few years ago. But I feared that all of this was irrelevant, because I kept putting too much pressure on myself, which kept me from racing well. The 10k last weekend seemed to be a vindication of everything I had done. I was finally able to figure out the mental aspect of racing, in part thanks to an epiphany of sorts that I had a few days prior to the race. What kind of epiphany? Well, gentle reader, I’m glad you asked. Let me explain…
The Zoo Run forced me to think seriously about my mental preparation for each race. I realized that my best results have always been after I got back into shape following an injury. My breakthrough year in university was after I spent indoor track season of my second year sidelined with a knee injury. I spent the summer getting back into shape and had my best cross country season ever in my third year. There were many reasons why I started running better, one of which was the fact that I had stopped freaking out before races. In my third year, I was simply excited to be on the start line, healthy and fit. Fast-forward to fourth year: I had run some good races throughout the previous year, so I put an enormous amount of pressure on myself. I wasn’t enjoying my training or my races, and I was constantly stressed out over running. I ended up overtrained, having a string of bad races, and then injured. Fast-forward again to last summer. After a long-string of injuries, I finally got a consistent block of training in over the winter. For the first time in months, running wasn’t a horrible task, but something I enjoyed every day. I decided to get on the track to see what I could do, and I ended up having a great season. I was relaxed at every race because I didn’t have very many expectations; I was simply happy to be healthy and fit enough to race. This fall, I started to fall into my usual pattern of realizing that I was running well, then putting too much pressure on myself to run certain times or to beat certain people. And surprise, I raced poorly.
This changed when I started thinking about my tendency for self-sabotage. I realized that I raced best when I was simply happy to be running. Now, I couldn’t go and injure myself so that I could deprive myself of running, and then get healthy just so I could be mentally prepared for nationals. So instead, I decided that I would simply try to find joy in running every day. The pressures and expectations would still be there, because the reality is that I have specific goals for the future. But I could counter any negative pressure with my love for the sport and the idea that I was thankful to be healthy and fit instead of having to sit out yet another race because of yet another injury. In the days before last weekend’s race, I told myself: “Leslie, you’re going to love every unpleasant and painful minute of your 10k because you love running more than anything in the world and you know that running and racing is infinitely better than sitting on the couch, unable to run, because your foot has swollen up to twice its normal size or your sacroiliac joint is so messed up that you need painkillers to be able to sleep at night.” And I did indeed love every minute of the race.
This is definitely not the definitive guide to controlling race-day nerves. I’m still figuring it out. But I think I made some progress with my epiphany. I challenge anyone reading this to try this strategy. Ask yourself why you run, and try to be thankful for the simple fact that you can run. This may sound silly, but I’ve actually started a journal of sorts where each day, I must complete the sentence “I’m happy I ran today because…” It doesn’t matter what the reason is, so long as there is a reason. It has helped me to understand that having a bad race isn’t the end of the world and that my love for running doesn’t depend on my race results.
Now, enough of this.
It’s time for more important topics, like fist bumping and high school race results.
With some great races over the past two weekends, this blog would be incomplete if I didn’t hand out props to a few people and teams. Perhaps the giving of virtual fist-bumps could become a regular feature on this blog? No, before I could do that, simply updates would have to become a regular feature on this blog. In any case, here are the recipients of a fist-bump:
First off, congratulations go to the OUA competitors last weekend. Props to the Queen’s women for finishing on the podium, to Guelph for being insanely good, and the McMaster women for stepping up every year in the face of the cross country equivalent of Goliath. I will also dole out some fist-bumps to my LRDC teammates who raced on the roads last weekend (particularly to Andre LeFort, who went from a 43:20 10k in August to an 18:02 5k last week, and to Turnbull and Marquez, who both had some good races on the roads). A high-five also goes out to Aaron Hendrickx for his performance at OFSAA. I’ve heard that OFSAA is a pretty big deal, so Hendrickx is now a legitimate cross country stud.
In other news, I also discovered that I am quite old and boring. I always used to get frustrated with my friends who finished their undergraduate degree and suddenly became boring people as they went off to grad school. They stopped coming to parties and being fun. Well, it’s happened to me. I tried to celebrate my good race with some pizza and beer, and I only managed to display how pathetic I am now that I’m out of school. After about three beers, I collapsed in a giggling fit and fell asleep. For now, I will not say that this weakness is because I am old; I will insist that it is because I’m training hard. The past two weeks have each been 160 km. And besides, on Monday morning I was about to knock out a good pace on my morning shakeout, so at least my ability to recover hasn’t been compromised by my old age. Wait, why did I tell this embarrassing story? Because I’m struggling to include Rocky Horror songs, that’s why. Well, I suppose that’s what I get for trying to relate running and the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
OK, that one was a bit of a stretch. I’m not sure what I can say that has to do with that subtitle. So I’ll end with more song lyrics that sounds deep but are actually meaningless.