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Am I As Good As I Once Was?

rabbitPRO Eric Senseman ran the Bandera 100K last weekend, which was the first Western States Golden Ticket race of the year. Eric didn’t quite have the day he was hoping for and he shares his powerful and very relatable experience on the blog. This is another incredible read from Eric and we hope you enjoy it as much as we do:

If you’ve ever had a running nightmare, it’s probably come in one of several forms. The setting is typically race morning or during the actual race. In the nightmare, it might be that you can’t tie your shoes properly or that you can’t find them (your shoes) at all. Other times your jersey doesn’t fit properly or you forgot your shorts. Perhaps, in the nightmare, you went horribly off course while in the lead or you couldn’t find the course at all. (As an anecdote, I’ve had a nightmare in which I typed in the race address to Google maps only to arrive at the destination in complete darkness and with no one around. Apparently it was the wrong address.) Probably the worst type of running nightmare is when you’re running but you’re not running well and in fact you’re running quite slowly and it feels like you’re running through quicksand while everyone else if floating along and people are passing you and there’s nothing you can do to keep up. 

I’m not sure how many people have running nightmares or why they occur. I guess they develop out of insecurity or the harrowing depths of uncertainty. Maybe you’ve had some decent race results in the past and you fear that you might not be able to replicate those again and maybe those solid results were the exception instead of the rule and perhaps it was all a fluke and you aren’t as good as you thought you were and there’s a growing bundle of anxiety deep within your psyche that causes them (the nightmares).

Rarely in life do we have a metric so objective and consistent as time by which to compare ourselves and the sport of running allows us to use that metric with absolute precision so that if I cover a certain distance in a certain amount of time one day and then I cover the same distance in a greater amount of time four years later (and if in both cases I’m trying my hardest), then I can rightly conclude that I’m not as good as I was four years earlier. (Coaches will often tell you not to compare times present with past times, especially in training, but good luck with that.) 

Then there are the oh-so-easy to compare race results that take that objective, consistent metric of time and combine it with an equally universal metric that is a race course (provided of course (pun not intended) that the race course does not change year-to-year) and suddenly you can compare your current self to your former self with an unforgiving level of exactness. So much so that if like me you’ve run 5:46:54 at the JFK 50 Mile or if you’ve raced your way into the Western States 100 twice by finishing fourth at the Lake Sonoma 50 and third at the Black Canyon 100k, then you can later say you aren’t as good as you once were if you run a slower time at those races or don’t finish among the top ten or whatever.

This past weekend in Texas I ran the Bandera 100k, the first of five races that grant entry to the Western States 100 to the first two male and female finishers. I had anything but a good race and it was quite a lot like the worst type of running nightmare where people keep passing you and you’re completely impotent and rather early on in the race it got to a point where I had to repeatedly ask myself why I should even bother to continue. I decided each time that I should continue and ultimately I finished and I came in 12th place and I’m not sure that I was relieved or happy or anything except for sad when I finished. In continuing on and finishing despite another underwhelming and disappointing day (I was coming off a rather unremarkable performance at The North Face 50 Mile Championships back in November when I finished 29th), I don’t think it made me heroic or courageous or anything besides persistent. What it really made me was a bad professional runner. And if you want to be good at something, and I do want to be a good runner, then the last thing you want to be is bad at it. (If it occurs to you that you might be bad at the thing you want to be good at, you’ll probably be sad.) So during the race and after I reluctantly found myself asking some rather unappetizing questions about how good I really am at running and perhaps how really not good I am at present. Those types of questions inevitably lead to deeper questions about why you’re doing what you’re doing and whether you should keep doing it. I’m not sure that anyone can answer such troubling questions with complete honesty but if you really force yourself to be sincere (and I should note that when you’re 50 miles into a race you’re rather vulnerable and it’s a very opportune time for sincerity) you can find out who you truly are and why the hell you’re continuing to run when anything you wanted from the race is no longer achievable. 

What I realized this past Saturday amidst some tragically slow miles is that I don’t know if I’m as good as I once was. Could I once again win a prestigious event or race my way into a prestigious one? I hope so but I really don’t know. What I do know is that I still want to try to achieve those results again and so I want to train hard and make sacrifices for the sake of getting better and show up to competitive races and attack them with a fearlessness that suffocates any real-life running nightmares. And I also realized that it’s the trying and attempting to be my best rather than the success itself that keeps me racing. (To that end, there are countless aphorisms that make the same general point about the process being more important than the outcome. They are almost cliches. A few gems: “Success is a journey, not a destination.” “It’s not where you end up, it’s how you got there.” “One bad day doesn’t make a bad life.”) 

Ultrarunning will teach you a lot about yourself if you let it and if you’re truthful. You’ll learn the most on days when things aren’t going your way. I think I kept moving forward on Saturday instead of dropping out because I knew that even though it wasn’t a good race for me, my best race that day meant finishing. And if I dropped out early and knew that I hadn’t given the race my best, I think I would have had a very hard time looking at myself in the mirror this week and I’d go to bed each night with regrets and I’d struggle to speak honestly about why I dropped and I’d make excuses and basically lie to people to cover up the fact that I really didn’t give the race all I had that day. The truth is that I might not be as good as I once was. At least not this very moment. But in a way, as a person, perhaps I’m better than I once was because the race forced me to ask and ponder and listen and answer honestly. 

Ours is a sport that exposes performances for what they truly are. It can also allow us to find out who we truly are, deep down. I hope you can do some searching the next time the going gets tough. You might not always like what you learn but you’ll be better for it. 



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