The Secret to Racing

Great news, folks! I’ve discovered the secret to racing. It took only twelve marathons, two ultramarathons, and countless half marathons, 10Ks, and 5Ks, but I’ve finally cracked the code. I get it now. I get it.

The secret to racing is this: You have to learn how to race.

I know, I know. The concept of “learning how to race” isn’t a new one. Twelve marathons ago, when I was just a wee, naïve, cute little thing, I would have said just as much. But you can read about splitting the atom. You can know how to split the atom. But it’s quite another thing to actually split the atom.

And if you think I just compared running the perfect race to splitting an atom, you’d be right. 

“I was feeling pretty positive, but now… I don’t know," I lamented as Jake and I ran early Sunday morning. "My legs are tired. I wanted to run Frostbite yesterday, but I just didn’t have it in me.”

“Yeah, well, it happens.”

“I know, but last year at this time, I PR’d my half marathon, ten-mile, and 5K.” I couldn’t tell if I was proud of the fact or devastated by how not awesome I was currently feeling. “I’m nowhere near that now. That’s why I didn’t race Saturday. I was afraid I would be too discouraged.”

That conversation actually happened, you guys. And it looks even worse in written form. I didn’t race this Saturday because I didn’t think it would go well. I was like Tom Cruise at the end of Top Gun. He finally arrives at the final fight scene only to fly through some jet wash, relive the horrors of Goose’s death, and promptly leave Iceman to fight the entire Soviet air force. His excuse? 

“Eh, it’s not good. It doesn’t look good” 

Goshdarnit, Maverick’s disengaging.

But I wasn't done with my sob story.

“I don’t understand how Lisa races so well or so often,” I continued as the sleet stung our faces. Lisa is a fellow RunnaBabez teammate who is basically the Iceman of racing. “It would take me months to recover from the races she runs back to back.”

“Well, sure. First, Lisa is a high caliber talent. But second, she has a history of racing and mileage that you don’t have. She ran track in high school and college. She’s used to racing hard, recovering, and being ready to race again the next weekend. Heck, she’s used to racing two events in one day.”

“Yeah.”

“She’s spent years training her body how to race. And she’ll tell you she’s still trying to figure it out. You can’t tear yourself down by comparing your fitness right now to your best performances. You have to look at the big picture.” 

In other words, you can’t be your own Harold Bloom. (Hang with me on this one.)

One of my favorite Cold War Kids songs is named, intriguingly, "Harold Bloom":

…Then you set out to make something great,
But nothing comes out.
Are you quick on your feet?
It’s time to dig deep.
Don’t lift your heroes up so high
That you can’t touch.
Don’t let your innocence go dry
Before the flood.

This song has nothing in the whole wide world to do with racing. But, of course, I’m not going to let something like original intent deter me from inferring metaphorical allusions to racing. Setting out to do something great, being quick on your feet, digging deep… Geez. Who wrote this song? Steve Prefontaine?

But then the really profound lines pour out: 

Can you be wise if you never leave the room?
There will always be another Harold Bloom, Harold Bloom,
To criticize your every move.

For any non-nerds out there, Harold Bloom is a legendary American literary critic and the Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University. In fact, Mr. Bloom has written over twenty books on literary criticism. This guy has built an award-winning career by taking the world’s most talented writers and ripping their masterpieces into shreds, one punctuation mark at a time.

You know, kinda how we analyze every. single. race. 

The Bigger PictureBut, as Jake said, racing is about the big picture. You could race every weekend for years on end and still learn something new every time. That’s because racing is not a static entity. Courses change. Conditions change. Our fitness changes. Our bodies change. Racing is a dynamic sport with a million moving pieces. You have to make judgment calls on the fly. Every race is a multiple-choice quiz, and our options are contingent on our aggregate experience. And as the song implies, you can't truly be wise if you never leave the room. Sure, you can glean a lot of things in class, but experience isn’t one of them. There is no substitution for doing. 

When Thomas Edison was asked about his many failed attempts to create the light bulb, he responded, “I have not failed ten thousand times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those ten thousand ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.” In other words, Edison is quoting the old adage, “Experience is knowing a lot of things you shouldn’t do.”

Or, as I like to say, “How do you PR a marathon? Answer: Not like that.” 

I’m still learning how to race. So is Lisa. So is Ryan Hall. So is Kara Goucher. Because as long as you’re racing, you’re learning how to race. So don’t be discouraged by a “bad” race. And certainly don’t be afraid of one. We need those races to help us figure out which strategies are duds and which strategies are winners. We need those races to help us answer the question, “What will you do in this situation?” We need those races to help us determine the quality of our training and recovery. We need those races to learn how to race. Because the perfect race isn’t found by epiphany. The perfect race is found by process of elimination. 

The secret to racing is simply learning how to race. And the only way to learn how to race is to race. So go. Do it. Race terribly. Race spectacularly. Leave the room.

Besides, I think one Harold Bloom is plenty.


Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner and Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story.  Click here to receive Amy's weekly article via email.

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