I fell in love again with an old flame on Thanksgiving morning. We met at the start line of a local Turkey Trot (of all things). I knew he would be there, and I had jitters in my stomach from the moment I left my house—before, even. I could barely focus during my warm-up, and the shivers that gave me goosebumps and made my skin tingle weren’t from the cold (even though it was all of 18 degrees). By the time we lined up at the start, sardined by thousands of runners, I thought my heart was going to explode from my chest.
“Runners! Take your mark!”
The horn sounded, and we were off—a 3.1-mile love affair at full speed. At times I felt like I was flying. At others I thought I was going to throw up. I felt the simultaneous (and strangely compatible) sensations of being near death and absolutely alive. It was awful. It was glorious.
It was racing.
I had forgotten how much I love racing. We had been apart for so long. A disastrous marathon last December on top of a rapidly developing case of burnout had been the breaking point. Plus, my love/hate relationship with racing had always been a little heavy on the hate (or so I thought). Over the course of twenty-four months, racing and I had seen less and less of each other until, finally, last year, I announced our official separation. I need a break, I said. I needed space, I said. Things weren’t working out. Racing was just too demanding.
After our breakup, I embarked on a one-year fling with carefree, goal-free, pressure-free running. I didn’t wear a watch. I had a flagrant disregard for pace. I sniffed at time with cavalier insouciance. And distance? What of it? I ran for fun. I ran for the heck of it. I ran for the love of running. The miles and I… we were familiar friends. We were comfortable. I gave in to pure, unadulterated love of the sport. And that was enough.
Or so I thought.
It wasn’t until I toed the start line of my first true race in nearly a year that I came to a startling and yet obvious realization: There’s more to the sport of running than just running. The miles alone don’t a sport make. Running—the sport of running in contrast to the simple action—is a two-part harmony. It is both endurance and passion. It is both steady and fierce. It is both reliable and constant and yet utterly untamed and unexpected. To love the sport of running is to love more than just the daily miles; it is to love the crazy, rollercoaster chaos of racing that goes along with them.
Racing is the rebellious face of running. Racing is the unruly nucleus of a sport driven by consistency and method and formula. Racing is defiant. Racing is dangerous. Training may be our Jimmy Stewart—all It’s a Wonderful Life and “Atta boy, Clarence!”—but racing is our James Dean and Steve McQueen. Risky. Defiant. Tragic. And utterly forthright.
I’ve been thinking a lot about distance running lately, a series of contemplations prompted by the collision of my return to racing with a national discussion on our society’s evolving relationship with the sport. Earlier this fall, The Wall Street Journal published a fascinating and provocative article by Kevin Helliker documenting the shift in young Americans’ approach to distance running. While the article acknowledges that more people than ever are tackling the miles—which is a very good thing—it also observes that an epidemic of “performance-related apathy” is permeating the ranks, noting that two of our country’s fastest growing run series don’t even use a time clock. While the number of runners is mushrooming, the level of competition—more than that, the demand for competition—is dwindling in comparison.
But there was one line in particular that caught my attention. It was the final line of the article, and whether or not it was premature or perhaps even tinted yellow, the conclusion was rather startling. Races, it said, noting a systematic cultural embrace of mediocrity, “are turning into parades.”
The image of a 1984-esque world in which everybody runs but nobody races struck me with full, Orwellian doom.
[Insert moment of silence.]
They say the opposite of love isn’t hate: it’s indifference. And racing, by its very nature, cannot be indifferent. Racing precludes apathy. Enzo Ferrari once said, “Racing is a great mania to which one must sacrifice everything, without reticence, without hesitation.” And I’d have to agree. Yes, there is a time to simply have fun. Yes, there is something to be said for tossing pace out the window and simply enjoying the solitude of nature, the hilarity of friends, or the beauty of our surroundings. (I do quite often.) Yes, sometimes we need relief from the self-imposed pressure of training for a PR. (Ditto on that as well.) But a sabbatical is not the same as abandonment, and the sport demands our effort as well as our time. As Prefontaine said, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”
Racing is different. It is distinctly, innately, unapologetically different. And it is not defined simply by the desire to win. In fact, to only an elite few does racing mean vying for the podium. No, to race is to pour yourself out. It is to do your very best in that moment. It is to risk failure in pursuit of success. It is to endure not just distance, but discomfort; not just pace, but pain; not just some, but all. Racing isn’t just about your right to win. It’s about your right to lose, fair and square.
Racing is exciting because victory and defeat hang in the balance. It is thrilling because it is fueled by desire. It is terrifying because failure and glory duke it out before your very eyes, within your own body. The allure of racing is its danger.
And every relationship needs sparks.
The sport of running cannot be divorced from racing. If it were, the sport would cease to exist. Far from diminishing my desire to race, my brief hiatus firmly substantiated what I’ve suspected all along: I am madly in love with this sport.
Whether you race once a week, once a year, or once a lifetime, race. Even if it’s just a one-and-done deal, go for it. Throw it all on the line. See what you can do. Push to the point of failure and then keep going. Take a chance. Be risky. Hurt. Fail. Try again. Fall in love with the sport. Fall out of love with it. Make up. Be enamored. It’s awful. It’s glorious.
Because it’s better to have raced and lost than never to have raced at all.
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner. Her second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story, will be released in 2014.