Runners are strange. Since I'm a runner, by default, that means that I'm strange too. No surprise there. When I say that we're strange, it's not so much about who we are as individuals, rather it's about the many ways our chosen sport causes us to behave strangely, neurotically even. We are the great rationalizers, mentally manipulating ourselves, constantly making deals with our bodies, justifying our training decisions to fit how we feel, forever watching the weather and judging the terrain we run across.
One of the most wonderful things about being a runner is that, generally speaking, we understand and forgive each other's quirks and neuroses. In fact, we are prone to emulate other runners, even when (maybe especially when) they are making dubious choices. Each of us claims to love/hate hills, flats, heat, wind, trails, rain, roads, mud, cold, rocks or snow when what we really love or hate is ourselves based on how we perform on a given day under the conditions present. We deem certain conditions as being our favorites while we claim to loathe others.
The truth is that we like to run well and feel good so we wait for that to happen and then we reverse engineer the experience so we can believe that the conditions which were present during this good run were perfectly matched to our strengths. In reality, any of us can be good at running, under any conditions, but first we must believe it. A solid mental approach to running can overcome a battered body but the reverse is not normally true. Our thinking can cause failure even when our body is perfectly healthy and ready to run. Or as I like to say, 50% of running is half mental more than 90% of the time. Huh? Anyway, as I said, runners are strange...and we like it that way.
In most sports, competitors attempt to intimidate their opponents in order to throw them off their game. This is entirely unnecessary in running because our heads are already stuffed full of self intimidating, self defeating crap that we've spent years putting there. Nobody else needs to bother screwing with our heads because we've got that covered. For instance, when I hear someone say, "I just want to finish," I don't believe them. I'm not saying that the speaker of those words is not being sincere. In fact, I’m sure that I've said those exact words myself at some point and I'm just as certain that I meant them at the time. But with the faultless clarity of hindsight, I don't think that I really "just wanted to finish." I think what I really meant to say was, “I just want to finish without suffering too much and I would like to look good doing it, and if it's not too much trouble, I would like to finish much faster than I expected to but without vomiting on my new shoes. At a minimum, I just want to finish fast enough to wipe that snotty self satisfied look off my co-workers face because she thinks she's all that since she ran Boston last year. BUT, if the weather is really bad and the course is tough and I have stomach issues and my IT band acts up again, THEN really, I just want to finish.” I think that's what I meant.
Like most battles we have with ourselves as runners, it’s really just a tug-of-war between ego and fear. When I say “I just want to finish,” fear has already won the first battle, but ego is really calling the shots. I am announcing loud and clear that “I may not finish this race but if I do, it might be really slow, so don't judge me.” All of that nonsense is born in ego and perpetuated by fear. It serves no real purpose other than to help soften the blow of failure. In fact, this statement sets the bar so low that we couldn't even crawl under it. It's as if some of us compete at not competing. If there was a prize for being the most noncompetitive, wouldn't that defeat the purpose?
It may sound as if I’m chastising all of us who have hedged our bets or given ourselves permission to perform at a relatively low standard. Maybe I am. But there is actually a positive side to this hedging too. The very presence of fear verifies that I do have an ego. The key is keeping my ego in check without freaking myself out with fearful thoughts of catastrophic failure. What would other people say if I ran a slow time or if I didn't even finish? The painful truth is that they wouldn't say much because even though I might think that everyone is watching me, they’re not. There is really only one person that genuinely, deep down cares about my finishing time. That would be me. As it should be. Through 35 years of racing, my reasons for running have changed as much as my life has changed. I’m certain I didn’t quite understand why I ran when I was a kid. I just knew that I loved how running made me feel.
Today, I know why I run. I run so that I can create a haven for my thoughts and feelings, a place that is protected and hidden from my fears. Running is where I go to be safe, to create an energy zone around me. Running is a cozy house with an alarm system or a sturdy reliable car with airbags or the feel of a loved one's arms around me. Running is serenity and sacrifice and sunshine on my face. Running is the friend I can trust, the lover who won't leave me, the ice cream that won't make me fat. Running is the perfect partner because running gives back to me exactly what I give to it. Above all else, running has taught me humility.
Given the choice, I would always prefer to reach the finish line than not reach it, although arguably the lessons learned from not finishing (I didn't say failure) have probably been more valuable to my long term success as a human being. I have never wanted an easy life and I don't want one now. So instead of just trying to finish, I want to pick up the pace, push myself farther and harder into the uncomfortable, unmanageable unknown, trusting that if I do, I will find new territory to explore both inside of me and outside in the world. I want to go beyond the safe confines of the finish line where there are no course markings or orange cones telling me where to go next. I love the uncertainty of a newly discovered path because there is no guarantee of safety or comfort. Perfection is implausible, if not impossible, so I will rely more on passion than on a well thought out plan. I do want to finish but more than that, I just want to do my best.