A race can be very similar to a training run with a friend. If you don’t take it too seriously, the main differences are wearing a bib number and friendly volunteers handing out cups of Gatorade.
For me, however, a race is a performance, even if no one is watching me. I’m watching myself and will know if I executed well. It is not a casual endeavor.
I am reminded of a running shoe model I used to wear. It was called the “Trance.” It fits the state of mind required for a great race performance.
I don’t mean the kind of trance that is a hypnotic daze, in which one is less aware or in control. Rather, my racing trance is a hyper awareness and focus.
I just ran the USATF Trail Half Marathon National Championship at Lake Padden in Bellingham. Before the start, I felt a tinge of reluctance because I knew my fitness didn’t match my ambitions. But still I wanted to test myself with a hard effort.
The starting line was a wide grassy field, and we took off, cross-country style. I was swept up in the tide of elite runners as we swished through the grass and funneled onto a flat trail, the gravel crunching under our thudding footsteps.
I ran smoothly, but faster than I have in awhile. I wasn’t trying to keep up with the champions at the front, but I was pulled along, somewhere close to tenth place, where I wanted to be. We went around Lake Padden and began the first climb. The hills weren’t long, but they were steep and frequent. The trail shrank to a winding single track, twisting around tree trunks, traversing big rocks, swooping up and down with the terrain.
For those first miles I was living through my muscles, feeling the strain and burn and reacting to it. I’m sure my face wore a hardened expression as I swallowed the discomfort and tried to not think of the many miles to go.
Around the five-mile mark a trance fell over me. The unpleasant strain was still there, but I was detached from it. I inhabited my mind, elevated above my body, which ran with graceful precision. I adapted technique to trail changes without thinking. My trained muscles took over so I could feel the thrill.
I started noticing the other racers. Hungry to overtake them, I hurtled downhill and ticked off the uphills with steps that hardly touched the ground.
Some sections of trail were splattered with fallen leaves over hidden rocks. It was an optical illusion of shifting patterns. In the trance I could mute the over-stimulation and pick a perfect path. The low clouds made some forested sections feel like dark tunnels. Then the light would brighten as we broke out into open patches, but I wasn’t distracted.
At the top of each climb I would feel a lactic build-up so strong I could taste its bitterness. Each time there would be a second or two of slower running, a stooped recovery. Then my shoulders would rise and I would feel a surge to bolt again. What had made me weak in the knees actually made me stronger and more determined.
A smile had replaced the grimace on my face. I ran that way all the way to the finish line, which was uphill after a long flat mile. My surges put me four minutes ahead of the women who were near me at mile five and edged me closer to my faster competitors, though I never caught them.
Afterward, the trance slowly faded away. I was left with a feeling of transformation and cleansing. No matter my finishing place, if I can race like that, facing fear and getting to the other side, it is a powerful experience. I just can’t simulate that in a training run. Now I remember why I love to race.