The two most common feelings I feel before a race are enthusiasm and nerves. My enthusiasm stems from the hope that the race will go as planned. My nerves stem from the anxiety that it might not. The only thing I know for sure before a race is when the starting gun will go off.
In a lucky world, the race will go exactly as planned. I will be able to carry out the exact race plan I meticulously crafted with my coach or in my head. The sun or shade will be agreeable too, and shine or not shine at just the right angles and quantities. My race bib number will be my favorite number.
More than likely, though, this will not be the case. The wind will be angry or a foot blister will bloom or any number of other unfoldings will unfold. But this does not mean we should not make a race plan! Rather, it means we must learn how to sculpt our plan around the situation that actually occurs.
Last month, I raced in the USA 15k Championships in Jacksonville, Florida, where the weather was hot and humid. Last weekend, I raced in the Bank of America Chicago Shamrock Shuffle 8k, which was both cold and windy. I do not feel amazing when I run in extreme cold, extreme heat, or high winds. I feel the opposite of amazing. But just because I do not feel amazing does not mean I should abandon my race plan. It is important to be aware of how I feel moment to moment, but I must also know that I need to have confidence in myself and commit to my race plan no matter how much I’m hurting in any particular moment.
In the Jacksonville 15k, my plan was to compete with the top women in the race – to go out with the front pack and close the race hard. I went out with the front women, but it did not feel like I was running like a front-woman. It was hot, the race hurt from the start. I closed in a 5:03 – the second-fastest closing time in the entire women’s field – but it did not feel like I was closing in a 5:03. Even as I crossed the line in 5th, I did not feel beautiful. I probably did not look beautiful. However, I executed a race plan. I finished in the top group and I closed hard.
In Chicago, my coach advised me to take control of the race after the second mile. The conditions were cold and very windy. I have never raced in pants, high socks, or long sleeves and in this race I was layered in all three. Once the gun went off, I immediately began reconsidering my race plan. I knew that it would not feel good to make a move at mile 2 of a 5-mile race. But I had committed to a plan and I was going to stick to it. At mile 2, I took off like I stole something and then held on for dear life. During the course of that mile, I put an 11-second lead on the other women – but I was not sure I could hold it for the final 2 miles of the race. I felt most unbeautiful, but I continued to put in Alexi race effort.
I managed to hold the 11-second lead for the rest of the race and finished in first place. It was not because I was running particularly fast; it was because I was putting in the same race effort no matter what the conditions were. I committed to my plan, I trusted my plan, and that enabled me to power through any pain or doubts I felt from moment to moment.
I have learned how to rethink what I think about me during a race. I no longer rely solely on how I feel in a moment – because it will almost always be the case that I will (in time) be hurting. As I began improving over the course of my collegiate career, I thought I would break through some threshold and never feel pain again during a race. But now, I’ve realized that feeling of roughness mid-race does not ever go away. Improved fitness does not mean reduced pain. It just means the pain hits you at a different threshold.
In a race, we are not what we feel in a moment. I am not what I think. I am, rather, what I know. What I know is that there exists an Alexi that my coach and I carefully crafted and trained over months and months who is both physically and mentally prepared for such an experience.
So, racing is not about how you feel. It is about how you feel about how you feel. And while this distinction will not matter in a race that goes exactly as planned, it will matter very much in a race that goes otherwise. It will matter in a race that hurts. Which, in my experience, is every single race.
I became more successful in running, and probably in life, when I discovered how to embrace not knowing exactly what I was about to experience. I prepare with enthusiasm and nervousness, but I will never know anything for sure except the start time of the race. And even that may change due to weather.
Alexi is an avid tweeter and her thoughts can be found @alexipappas.
Alexi Pappas graduated magna cum laude from Dartmouth College before running off to compete in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene. Alexi then joined the Ducks as a University of Oregon fifth-year student, helping lead the team to two NCAA championships in 2012 and 2013. She currently runs professionally for the Nike-sponsored Oregon Track Club Elite in Eugene, Oregon, with her eyes on 2016.
Alexi is also a writer, filmmaker, and actress. She co-wrote the script for the award-winning feature film Tall as the Baobab Tree, and is currently in post-production on her second film,Tracktown. Alexi was a Top 9 Nominee for the 2012 NCAA Woman of the Year Award, and is also a graduate of the UCB Theater improv program in LA/New York City.