Every 4th of July, my town hosts a 4 mile road race. When I became active in my junior high school track team, I ran this race for the first time. After that, I ran it every year I was involved with running competitively, from Junior High through High School, and into the first two years of College.
It was always meant to be a “fun” race, but never really felt that way. I felt as if I should run it, but at the same time, felt overly competitive and put a lot of pressure on myself to do well. As a result, the days leading up to the 4th of July holiday were wrought with nervous tension, anxiety, and constant mental imagery of running this race.
My dad would run with me (he has run the race for over 20 years now), and he would always say “have fun and relax”. This is much easier said than done for a BP. The hours leading up to the start of the race were nerve wracking, and tended to ruin most of the holiday.
8 AM: Get out of bed and have cereal for breakfast. Stomach feels nervous and my body feels tired, even though I made sure to get to sleep early. This is typical of how I used to feel before most races: tired, lethargic, and nervous; instead of energized, upbeat, and hungry for competition.
9 AM: Go with Dad up to the town parish center and enter race. I wasn’t an elite athlete, so I just paid the day of the race and picked up a number an hour before. Stomach feels queasy and nauseous.
As I see others I recognize, I begin to get anxious about running against them, and worrying if I will do well or not. I see some top athletes stretching, doing warm up runs, and appearing very ready for competition. This tends to psyche me out a bit, because I never feel quite confident before a race.
9:30 AM: Return to home and put on running shorts and shirt. Usually, once I pin the number to my jersey, the real nervousness starts. To kill time, I wander around the yard, stretching here and there.
Most years, unbeknownst to my father and family, I would vomit a couple times behind the trees, out of sight. Vomitting before and after races was typical for me: before the race because I was so nervous, and after the race because all that nervous energy collided with fatigue from running.
10 AM: The gun fires, and off we go on a hot day. I usually get a good start, but tend to fade by the 3rd mile. As I run through town and the many spectators, I get a little lift when people yell my name, but otherwise I am feeling very tired and nervous about the last 1/2 mile at this point.
10:20: I’m now within or approaching the last mile. This is when the nervousness I had before the race meets the fatigue of the final minutes of the race. As others begin to finish with a kick, I start to run harder too, in part because I trained as a 1/2 mile runner and have some sprint in me.
Race Finish: As I approach the finish, if I’m really working hard, I tend to vomit in my throat as I cross the finish line. Once in the race “chute” or line of competitors waiting to collect their place cards, I might also vomit again out of sheer exhaustion. I feel like I have just gone through a race with someone pointing a loaded gun at my head.
After collecting place cards, it’s over to the local fire department’s spray/shower of water that is setup to cool runners down after the race has finished.
Typically, the race had about 800 competitors. My best finish was 29 th one year and 36 th another – a good achievement, but my times were nothing to brag about, nor competitive if I was running a college race.
Once the race is over and the town center clears, everyone heads home. Usually we’d all stand around and talk with others about the race and socialize with the neighbors.
After returning home following the race, I felt a sense of relief come over me, that I could finally relax emotionally and physically and enjoy the rest of the 4th of July. In the early afternoon, my Aunt, Uncle, and cousins would arrive for a trip to the beach, where I just laid on the blanket most of the time, exhausted from my race that morning.
I guess the thing that really got to me was the intense emotional anxiety and accompanying physical response to this stress.
Some years, I would watch the top competitors prepare for the race, and they always appeared calm, collected and energized for the run. During the first mile, I would watch as the top runners would distance themselves from the rest of the field, flying way ahead of the pack at a fast pace.
Sometimes, I would see people vomit at the finish of the race, so I didn’t feel alone when this happened to me. At the beginning, however, I didn’t see much vomitting (except for my own). I could see that some people were nervous, but not the nervous sensations I experienced in the 36-48 hours prior to the race start.
My Dad used to stay: “(NAME), You look like you just saw a ghost”. I hated this remark, but in many ways he was right. All the nervous tension from the hours and days before actually took a lot of good energy out of me, which made me feel like I was running half empty.
As I look back on this tradition, and running in general, I am slowly coming to peace with my feelings about it all. I think that all I wanted was to be one of the best. I practiced hard and wanted to experience the magic of competition, and let it push me to great results.
To a degree, I did do pretty well, but I was never satisfied. The nervousness I felt was really from the pressure I put on myself to be happy when I crossed the finish line. Even though I wanted to impress others, I still had to live with my own thoughts before, during, and following the race; and this became a constant critic of sorts that would beat me up.
Hence, the “fun” of the Fourth of July race was lost amongst anxiety, vomitting, and putting a lot of unecessary pressure on myself.
As I’ve said in other posts, elite athletes are elite because they can control their emotions, feel positive, and possess the ability to “out do” themselves when the money is on the line (so to speak).
If I had to do it all over again, I think I would choose to have the mindset of an elite athlete, even if it meant I ran slower than the nervous wreck that characterized my running career.
Being competitive is not about beating yourself up physically and mentally until you improve….. it is about BUILDING yourself up until you succeed, and always remaining confident in your efforts.
Somehow along the way, this feeling was lost…..