Does competing in races detract from the experience of running trails in the woods? It’s not that I don’t have fun racing. I really do enjoy racing, although I don’t know why. Additionally, I enjoy running paces to prepare for racing. I like the fartlek runs, the interval workouts, LT runs and sprints–anything that makes me think of racing. I enjoy the sensation of running fast. I like the challenge of running faster, especially on trails. However, something inside me does not want to worry about the day’s workout and how well I ran it.
Sometimes I finish a race and realize that I hardly saw my surroundings. When I’m in the woods racing I feel like hiking back over the route I just ran in order to see what I missed. My experience with a few races recently has got me thinking about the issue. Would I have more fun if I simply ran trails in the woods, bounding across virgin stretches of leaves, hiking whenever I feel like it, looking around and seeing more? Do my recent race experiences provide any clues?
In early November, I ran a four mile trail race at the Salato Wildlife Education Center. I had never visited the nature center and had never seen the trails. I was late arriving there, so I warmed up a mere two hundred meters or so. As I waited at the starting line, I knew that I was over-dressed for the race, even though the day was chilly, windy, and rain had just started to fall. Because of the short warm-up, I would shed layers in the early going as I got warmed up. The chip-timed race starts on one side of the entrance road, runners crossing immediately and running some rough, grassy areas on a winding route to the woods. I hardly remember the lay of the land because I was concentrating on not stepping on the occasional large stone that appeared to have been transported to the fields by some mischievous race volunteer. Cross country races should have such hazards. Otherwise they should be called strolls in the park.
Ahead of the front pack entering the woods a herd of deer alerted race volunteers to ready themselves. These woods are perfect. I did not see any invasive shrubs. I wondered if there would be any honeysuckle bushes cluttering the under-story. If there are any, I was too busy concentrating on running to see them. The trails are true single track, and very technical in many places. I was surprised how many steep hills the course has, continuously rolling up and down, difficult to run fast either up or down. These are fun trails–challenging and beautiful. I remember thinking that I couldn’t believe I had not been to the Wildlife Center to run or hike these trails. And yet I could not look around very much because I was racing! Maybe that herd of deer was watching us race–I wouldn’t have known. As a challenge, this trail race is awesome. As for sightseeing, better to come back and hike the trails.
My next race was a ten miler on flat roads and trails (asphalt, gravel, boardwalk, sand, mud, roots, woods, double and triple-wide single track trails). Instead of a forty-five minute drive to my previous race, I drove more than ten hours to try to earn a coveted pint glass and a gift certificate to Dick’s. I had just cashed in my gift certificate to Sportsman’s Warehouse from the Salato race, so I was willing to smash my buttocks into the car’s torture seat for some more variable ratio reinforcement. On the plus side, I would be within another short torture span to red wolf territory, and to the ocean, so the brutally salient features of the car seat did not scar me for life. The whole time, I was reminded how stiff I felt while racing, and how tired my legs got almost immediately. Then I remembered having been chased by another runner, reaching the beach area on the banks of the Tar River and not even seeing the view from the race course because I was so focused on holding my lead in the soft sand. I held my lead and ended up finishing a minute or so ahead of that masters runner, but I hardly saw the woods for the trail. It was fun racing, but I left the state park feeling cheated out of visiting for a while.
Today I think of how thankful I am for the ability to run as I do, as mediocre as that is. I raced this morning, a timed one miler not just for kids. There was no trail, just hard asphalt and a big hill. My legs were stiff, a little sore, but everything went fairly well. A twenty something guy won the race in a time that I believe I’ll be able to run in a few weeks. But why should I care? I hardly took the time to look around at rolling, bluegrass-covered hills on a gorgeous day.
Sometimes I wonder why I need to compete to have incentive to get outside and enjoy the day or evening, to exercise and stay fit. What consolation for my aging body is an engraved medal or stamped mug? How many shirts do I need, and what should I have spent my money on, instead? I guess when racing doesn’t give you everything you want, you question your sanity for doing it. Something about a race feeds the ego, fuels the desire to try hard, or provides some external justification for doing what we already love. The trick is to find a balance between those sorts of motivation and the search for tranquility.