I love all the memes and stock images of runners and racing. They are so lovely and inspirational. Beautiful toned bodies, effortlessly floating through the air; arms outspread, breaking through a finishing tape; a solitary trail, scenic overlooks, rolling hills and a runner meditating on a long run. Who doesn’t want a piece of that?
And sometimes we do get a run where everything comes together nicely and we get that floating on air feeling. It’s effortless; we are strong, powerful, fast. It is beautiful.
But not all runs are picture perfect. In fact, some runs are down right ugly. We can’t hit our paces right or a nagging pain plagues us. Or for whatever reason we bit off more than we could chew & are forced to decide to spit or choke. It happens to everyone, but what you do about the ugly run can define you as a runner.
I decided to run, rather last minute, the 1st Andover Lake 5 Mile Race last weekend. Unlike my town’s 5k/10k which is practically all flat on the rail trail, this race was mostly pavement and quite hilly. I know the lake loop like the back of my hand. It is one of my favorite training courses – but I wasn’t sure how a 5 mile race would pan out for me two weeks before my marathon. After lots of nudging, I conceded. It was local, it was familiar, and it would benefit my town – why not!
I knew where the hills were, so I knew better than anyone how to pace myself for them. But I also knew what I could push on this particular course, so push I did. And let me tell you, it was not pretty.
There was grunting, a little barking, lots of huffing, and even a minor whimper near the end. I ran a lot of the race stride in stride with a young man, urging him along. He had the potential to do well – he just needed to run faster! I was dropping mile times nearly 30 seconds faster than intended. But I kept pushing it. The last half mile was going to be a serious up hill, with 95 feet of elevation gain. I had only ever run all the way up the hill a handful of times, and none of them at 5k race pace. This was going to be a brutal test.
We chugged on to the hill bravely, knowing our fate but trying to pretend it wasn’t real. At the base of the hill my new running buddy deflated a little. “Oh shit,” he murmured between gulps of air. “It’s okay. We got this,” I huffed back and we charged on. I took the hill slightly ahead and did what I could to keep my form steady, my breathing under control, and ignore my pace. That’s when things got real ugly.
I ran out of steam half way up. I didn’t want to run any further. And this was torture because I could hear the crowd gathered at the finish line just at the top. I knew how close we were. I just didn’t care anymore. The young man began to pass me and urged me to keep going with him. “No, I can’t.” But he insisted. “Don’t say that! You’ve got this!” As we shuffled over the crest of the hill I urged him to make the dash to the finish chute.
No. I can’t. No uglier words have been said in a race. I knew better than to say it out loud, but I honestly wasn’t even thinking them – at least not consciously. My pace was shot, I was now in third place, and my confidence busted. My form was all over the place and my chin was covered in drool & sweat. It was ugly. But what did I have to loose?
I couldn’t hold my pace in the last quarter mile of the race, but I could push through the nastiness that hard races put before us. I dug deep and found a sprint (not a fast one, but still) and pushed it out. I wasn’t going to take my place back, but I really was okay with it. That kid put in a lot of work and deserved that 2nd place finish. It was a hard race, harder than even I had anticipated, but it felt rewarding to look it in the eye and beat it down. When you put everything out on the course and run your heart out you feel beautiful, no matter how ugly it may have gotten out there. And you never dwell on those ugly parts. You just move on, happy to have finished, happy to be strong. Happy to be done.
When the course gets ugly, you get ugly right back. This sport isn’t about being pretty; it’s about being powerful.