Us runners are a funny lot. We train for months, sacrificing sleep and social time, enduring early mornings, late nights, cold, heat, wind, rain and snow, with our efforts and hopes pinned on a single event. When things go right, and we have a great race, we are jubilant and left with a sense of satisfaction and purpose realized. But what happens when a race or event doesn’t go as planned or hoped? When, after months of training, we don’t achieve the outcome we toiled so hard for (be it a goal time painstakingly planned out, or a DNF – did not finish) how do you reconcile the outcome? What then?
No one sets out to have race that leaves a sour taste in your mouth and that sinking feeling in your gut. Inevitably, after a race that doesn’t go as planned, there is a lot of second guessing, feeling of disappointment and even bewilderment. What happened? What went so very wrong?
I think it’s important to realize that if you race long enough, you are bound to have a “bad race.” (more on why I have this in parenthesis later) No matter how much you train, whether you are at the front or the back of the pack, crappy races happen. And while I can’t tell you not to be disappointed in a race that doesn’t go as planned, I do have some advice on how to overcome such an event, and how to use it to your advantage the next time you line up at the start line. Let’s turn a negative into a positive, shall we?
For starters, I think it’s important to keep perspective. One (or two) lousy races doesn’t define you as a runner or person. You may laugh reading that, but fresh off the burn of a disappointing race or a goal unmet, I am always astounded how many people use this as a barometer of judging their self-worth. Your value as a runner or individual is not in any way directly related to your finish time or place. Period.
On that note, don’t compare your results to someone else’s! I cannot stress this enough. It’s so easy to get caught up in the comparison game we find all over social media, where it ranges from subtle to overt (who hasn’t scrolled through their feed to see a plethora of PRs and impressive splits) to websites like Ultra-signup that literally ranks runners and assigns them a % based on past performances in races (as well as predicting future race performance). It’s amazing to me how so many get caught up in this game of comparing times and places at races. While I think a healthy dose of competition can be fun, constantly comparing yourself to a person in your Insta feed who is nailing race PR after PR is not productive at all. You are not them, just as they are not YOU. So they won their age group at a gnarly race this weekend while you tanked at yours. News flash – this doesn’t make them better than you. Your ability to be gracious and cheerful when things aren’t going your way, encouraging to others, and grateful no matter the outcome, speaks volumes more than a time or placing.
Let’s talk expectations; were yours realistic going into the event? Time to be 100% honest with yourself! I am a big believer in setting big goals and going after them, but this must be balanced with a solid dose of self-awareness and honesty. What were your expectations going into the event? Were they realistic based on how your training cycle went, your past experience with races and similar terrain/conditions, as well as your strengths and weaknesses and how that factored in with the course you were running? Are you a flatlander that signed up for a high-altitude mountain adventure, with little hill training under your belt? Did you come up short on your marathon goal time, but your last training cycle reflects that you missed all of your key long runs and speedwork? Sometimes it’s easy to dream big (yay!) but lose a sense of realism at the same time. There must be a fine balance between the two.
Evaluate! I believe every race is a great opportunity to learn, grow and fine tune ourselves as athletes. In fact, I have come to find that the races where things DIDN’T go as planned have always been the ones I learn from the most. I encourage all of my clients (and you bet I do this too!) to reflect post-race and write down what right, what didn’t go as planned, and what they learned that they could apply to future training and races.
This goes into the “bad race” disclaimer I mentioned earlier. While no one is immune to races that come up short and leave us feeling deflated, I truly believe there are no “bad” races. There is an old saying that goes something like this; you either win, or you learn. Every single race is a chance to improve, learn and grow. Yes, even the DNFs. Sometimes those epic crash and burn events are the stepping stones to reaching that elusive PR or completing a distance you never would have attempted before. Try to use this experience to catapult you to future success!
If you do find yourself in the post-race doldrums, I find it best to remember why you started racing in the first place. Was it about a PR or a podium finish, or was it more about pushing yourself, becoming part of a larger community of people, of traveling to new places to experience them on foot? Was it about setting goals you never imagined you could reach? What were your motivations in the first place?
Give back – nothing lifts me up after a tough race or injury like volunteering at an event. You get to be a part of the amazing energy that goes hand in hand with races, all while helping and encouraging others to reach their goals. Whether it be officially volunteering at an aid station, pacing a friend at event, or simply standing at the side of the road, cowbell in hand, showing up at an event you aren’t competing in can almost be more rewarding than doing the event yourself.
Look ahead – use what you learned from this event, and use that to look ahead and plan a future race. You’ll have that fire in your belly train smarter, more effectively and hopefully with a little less pressure and more joy. Alternatively, pick a race with a “no pressure” clause. I often pick “rebound” races that are simply for run and to reconnect with myself, a good running buddy, and the running community in general, with no pressure or expectation of a time goal.
Killian Jornet said it best “Winning isn’t about finishing in first place. It isn’t about beating the others. It is about overcoming yourself. Overcoming your body, your limitations, and your fears. Winning means surpassing yourself and turning your dreams into reality.” Thinking this way can put a whole new spin on your racing experience, no matter the outcome.
Adventure on, friends!