Alexi Pappas: On the benefits of racing below peak fitness

After racing the 2018 Chicago Marathon, I was proud that I had made major strides since my injury a year earlier, but I also knew that I had a ways to go before I would be ready to qualify for Tokyo 2020.

Building up my fitness meant toeing the line at races I knew I wouldn’t win. I don’t like losing, but racing is a very motivational training tool for me, so skipping out on races until I was “fit enough” wasn’t an option. So after Chicago, my coach and I signed me up for a track race in early February: a 10k in San Diego, where the competitors would be chasing the world standard time. Technically, I had the fastest personal best going into the race by about 40 seconds, but my coach told me honestly that I was “not in Rio shape.” In the past I might have avoided toeing the line in such a situation, fearing losing to women I felt I should beat. But the truth is, I knew signing up for this race was the right thing to do.

Why do we sign up for races in the first place? One, a race on the calendar gives us a certain period of time to commit to, a time during which we are focused on the one goal coming up. Two, upcoming races make us nervous in the good way. Thinking about a race is like thinking about Christmas – you know it is coming and you do everything you can to prepare. You think about your outfit, the meal beforehand, and you can hardly even sleep the night before. But that’s okay because it’s Christmas! Three, competing in a race provides an honest assessment of where you are in terms of fitness and readiness, both physically and mentally. It always provides some kind of honest feedback from which to move forward.

When I ran the 10k in San Diego, I was feeling good. I wanted to celebrate my health and run as hard as my fitness would allow. When the race began I put myself in the front pack, running a pace my coach already told me might be too fast for me to sustain for the entire race. The top few women in the race had just qualified for the World Cross Country team, so they knew they were in good shape. I understood this intellectually, but when the race actually started I didn’t have the heart to reign myself in. I wanted to stick with these girls, who I believed I could beat at my peak, but who were now far fitter than I was.

About 5k into the race, I hit a wall. Thankfully it was not an injury wall, but instead it was a fitness wall. My pace dropped off and I finished the race far behind the lead girls. Coach put it this way: I was 100% healthy and 60% fit.

Alexi Pappas racing amongst her competitors at the Pacific Pursuit 10k

Alexi Pappas racing amongst her competitors at the Pacific Pursuit 10k. Photo: Alexi Pappas

I was happy, of course, to be healthy. That was the whole point of this race, to test my fitness and confirm my health after the Chicago Marathon. But I still couldn’t help feeling sad at not running faster. “Bravies” were coming up to me to take photos, and even though I was smiling on the outside, on the inside my mind was racing. I was wondering how long it would take me to get fit, if I’d ever get fit again, and have other great runners gone through this?

I gravitated towards one of the women I just raced – Jen Rhines. She is a three-time Olympian and someone I’ve long admired. “What would Jen do?” is a common refrain amongst her teammates and really anyone who has been lucky enough to train with her. That’s because Jen is known to have an even mind, a long career, and the right balance of grit and wisdom. She is a good example for anyone. I met Jen in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., when we were both training at altitude and have admired her ever since.

I worked up the courage to ask Jen: “Have you ever had a race like this? A race where you didn’t run as fast as your peers because you’re not super fit, but you know or hope you’ll get there?”

Jen nodded immediately: YES! She had been there, exactly in my position, and completely understood and empathized with what I was feeling. She was never afraid to put herself on the line and has had her fair share of races like this. I was so grateful and relieved to hear that from her. It would be one thing to hear this from my coach or my dad or anyone else, but hearing it from Jen, who had literally been in my shoes before, meant the world to me. This is what we can offer each other as peers in this running world: we can share our specific experiences with each other, which will help add to the greater understanding of what a running journey can look like. For me to know that Jen had been in my position before gave me permission to believe that it was an okay and even necessary and good part of the process. She made me feel capable. I left the track feeling optimistic and energized instead of sad and scared.

When I was younger, I would have never put myself in a position to race when I wasn’t ready to run my best. But now I understand the diverse functions that racing can have in an athlete’s career. There are races, like the Olympic Trials or the Olympics, when we should show up 100% ready to race. And then there are other races, less high-stakes ones, which help us practice a specific tactic, and then there are others that are meant to show us where we are. I remember going to a race on the Oregon Coast where I was just meant to practice my prerace routine. Then I ran another race where the goal was to work on my finishing kick. This race in San Diego was meant to kick my butt and pump me up for the season ahead.

It is glamorous to show up for a race when you are ready to compete for the win, and it takes grit and bravery to show up when you’re not. It’s better to confront your limits and get your butt kicked than to avoid them. There is a time and a place to race conservatively, and this wasn’t one of those times. That wasn’t the purpose of this race. That being said, it wasn’t easy losing to women I would rather beat. It wasn’t easy running slower than I am theoretically capable of. But it was the truth.

I heard a story about a world-class athlete who had an injury that took her out of competition for a very long time. Luckily she got healthy and her coach was ready to throw her back into competition. But there’s a huge difference between being healthy and being fit. That’s what’s so hard about being injured: you work so hard to fix your injury only to have to work hard again to claw your way up back to your peak fitness, all the while avoiding getting re-injured.

So this nameless athlete, she was finally healthy again, but she refused to show up to races because she said she “wasn’t ready.” Meaning, she was too afraid to lose. She did not want to race and lose to girls she would have beaten before her injury – she wanted to first regain her fitness, thenrace. But here’s the thing: you will never be “ready.” It takes racing – and losing – to regain your fitness and return to the competitive level you were at pre-injury. When you put walls in front of yourself because you’re afraid, you might find that you are never ready. The fear of racing and the possibility of losing became so large that she was never able to race … her career fizzled out and she never competed at the highest level again.

It takes bravery to race because racing is not about always being ready. The point is that we show up, then show up again, then keep showing up until we finally achieve our goal. When you win or run a personal best, that’s fantastic. But when you don’t, you still benefit. You’ve still committed to something and followed through. You’ve gained experience, you’ve gained fitness, and you’ve gained pride. That’s what racing is all about.