If I’m asked what the most important attribute is for an athlete, I have a simple answer: “Belief.” Sometimes, the interviewer follows up and asks: “Belief in what?” Then, I throw a smoke bomb and disappear into the shadows, since vagueness lets me sound profoundly smart.
If the smoke bomb tactic fails and the Men In Black memory eraser is on the fritz, I’d say that I mean belief generally. Belief in yourself matters, sure. But so does belief in your training, in your future, in the meaningfulness of striving in the first place. Belief doesn’t mean thinking you will win every race; it means thinking you can continue to grow even when you’re handed evidence to the contrary.
Because you will be handed that evidence, over and over again. In an athletic life, your available evidence will tell you that you suck so often that you’ll practically be an honorary member of the New York Yankees. Nowhere is that more painfully clear than in crappy races. You put it all on a start line, and you proceed to crash and burn. Your time sucks. Maybe you have to DNF.
If you can identify with that experience, congratulations! You are officially a member of the crappy-race club. Every single athlete that gets even remotely close to their potential is in the club with you.
Crap Hits The Fan
Meg Mackenzie entered this summer with big dreams. She was going to do the Golden Trail Series for the second year, looking to improve on her top-10 finish from 2018. It’s a Big Freaking Deal (BFD), with each of the races thronged by screaming fans, plus big prize money at the end. And Meg is a BFD in her home country of South Africa, with lots of running media tracking every race.
At the first race, Zegama, all the stars aligned. Her fitness was cresting, her mindset in the perfect spot. It was going to be a dream day. Oh … wait. That’s not how this all works. She had no legs on the first climb and she DNF’d before the halfway point. “Ummm,” you could imagine her subconscious screaming, “Maybe that acronym stood for Big Freaking Disaster all along.”
What happened to her at Zegama? If there was a good answer to that question, all of this would be way easier. That Fates can be punks.
Now it’s time for a mental exercise. You are Meg … what do you do? Gosh, I’d be tempted move to a cabin in the woods and befriend a pack of amiable beavers that didn’t know about the sport of running. But Meg didn’t turn away from the storm. She steered directly into it, owning the day and showing up at the next start line with the same relentless optimism. She took a courageous leap of self-belief because that’s how Meg got here in the first place. And that’s what Meg has decided to do even when she’s as far from first place as possible.
At the Mont Blanc Marathon, she absolutely slayed it. Her 6th place against a stacked field put her back up the list in the Golden Trail Series. She followed it up with 8th at the Dolomyths Skyrace. Then she flew all the way across the world, running up and down a 14,000-foot mountain for third place at the Pikes Peak Marathon. That right there … that’s belief in action.
Here’s the thing, though. Meg is going to have more crappy races. If you decide to race, you probably will too, sooner rather than later. That’s especially true if you choose races that challenge you. I’d argue that running is such a strong opportunity to learn and grow because of the ubiquity of those failures. But knowing that crappy races are common doesn’t make them easier to live through in the moment.
So how can you be like Meg and cultivate persistent, resilient belief in a world when your hopes and dreams are dashed the more you put yourself out there? The answer is that you give yourself an entree of love and patience, with a side of planning for the crap before it happens. Here are five steps to think about now, before the crap hits the fan in a race.
1. Accept uncertainty.
Training is chaos. It’s thousands of variables interacting in non-linear ways that can’t be modeled by a supercomputer. You can get a pretty good feel for it over time with experience, but the more you know about training, the more you realize you don’t really know much at all. One thing that every expert would say: you can do everything right, and still everything can turn out all wrong.
That doesn’t mean that your training sucked, or that you need to change everything. It’s just the nature of fitness. It’s not a math equation or a soup recipe. It’s a concerto or an impressionist painting. Yeah, there are some principles underlying the madness. No, you can’t plug numbers into an algorithm and have it spit out race results.
That’s the fun part! If it were a math equation, it would probably reward people that could add up the biggest numbers, and we’d replace races with Strava competitions. I have seen so many lifelong breakthroughs follow shortly after lifelong disappointments that I have stopped trying to find every algorithmic answer that my brain so desperately seeks. A bad race or two is normal, and you have to accept that you can’t always be sure why it happened. If it happens often, yeah, rethink things. But if you view every race (and god forbid, every workout) as a verdict on your training or fitness or pursuit of the sport, you will probably never stick to an approach long enough to give your body a chance to reach its potential.
Races aren’t tests, they’re celebrations. They are celebrations of life, existence, and yes…uncertainty itself. So give yourself permission to celebrate no matter how the day actually unfolds.
2. It’s OK to grieve.
You can know all of that celebration stuff intuitively, but it still stings when a day doesn’t turn out how you had hoped. It’s healthy to let yourself feel your emotions, even the bad ones. You aren’t being dramatic when you get a little depressed after races. All I ask of athletes is that they talk about it.
The world inside our two ears can be dark and confining. After all, the ears are only a few inches apart and light doesn’t shine through the skull. So get outside your own head. Talk to friends, training partners, coaches, therapists, hairdressers, Uber drivers. Tell them that the crappy race made you feel less worthy. If they know anything, they’ll tell you that you’re freaking awesome as you are.
Give yourself time to get to acceptance. And it’s no rush either. Bad races are part of the reason to do this sport in the first place. If every race went perfectly, it’d be immensely boring, like playing a video game on the easiest setting.
3. Your fitness is your best day, not your worst.
Now we’re getting to a couple of practical points. There’s a temptation to use bad races to judge your fitness, thinking that the day gives you a benchmark from which you can evaluate your progress. Bad race? Bad athlete. Bad training.
That’s not how the body works, though. I like athletes to think of their fitness at any point in time as their best possible day, rested and ready, when the neurons and muscle fibers are spitting hot fire. That’s when you uncover your true running economy, lactate threshold or whatever other evaluation mechanism you’d consider worthwhile. The bad day could be stress on race week, those eggs you had at dinner, where you are on your menstrual cycle or anything else you can think of.
To put it another way, you aren’t the quiet rain falling from a summer storm. You’re the bolt of lightning that crashes down a moment later. With training, you can bottle up that lightning and start to make it more predictable. But if it doesn’t strike right when you want it to on race day, that happens. You still have the lightning inside of you, waiting to strike at the next opportunity.
4. Bad races can be good training days.
The physiological reason why so many breakthrough races follow poor ones is uncertain. It could be neuromuscular, related to the central governor or other fatigue-related models of performance. It could be the training stimulus itself, with that unique race stress hard to simulate outside of races themselves. Whatever it is, you can use that race stress to get stronger and faster.
That bad race is another brick in your wall, and it’s a big, sturdy brick, the type that you can’t really get from normal training. Yeah, it might have some graffiti on it, but damn it can still make a strong wall.
5. You are heroic.
Earlier, I talked about the courageous leap of self-belief. That’s a staple of every hero’s journey. As explained by Joseph Campbell, the hero’s journey is the common adventure myth we all know and love, shared by everyone from religious figures to Jason Statham characters. Most of us think that of the hero’s journey in terms of other people. That legend, that pro athlete, that character who is both too fast and too furious. But in choosing running, a sport where you put yourself out there and grow and change in an unpredictable jumble of narratives … you are the hero.
The call to adventure is when you pick up running and journey into the unknown. In this construction, a crappy race is part of the road of trials, transforming yourself through striving against tall odds. There’s a reason that famous book Once A Runner calls the training process the “trial of miles.” Nothing is given to you in running, and it will drive you to your lowest points if you care about it enough for it to matter at all.
The magic that the main character learns in Once A Runner is the same epiphany most lifelong athletes have eventually: you don’t run in spite of the trials. The trials are the whole point.
Crappy races are a chance to reflect on the journey, to grow along the way. Wins are awesome, but they never taught anyone much of anything. No, the point of your running journey is the striving.
The good races matter. Celebrate them. But the bad races are where the magic happens, where you learn and grow and get the resolve to make a courageous leap of self belief. So if you can, try to celebrate bad races most of all. That is when you become a hero in your own story.
—David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now on Amazon.