Racing is a skill. It has taken me a long time to learn this. I never ran competitively in high school or college, and as such, my relationship with running formed as a friendly one—I was a hobby jogger, an after-work park-looper. For years, my sole focus was on the easy daily run. When I first decided to race about three years ago, I was a little apprehensive—intimated, even. I had no idea how I needed to adjust my daily running to accommodate the demands of racing. After a first successful yet utterly humbling trail marathon in 2015, I decided that if I was going to attempt something like that again, I needed to seriously train.
Over the last three years, I have worked to prepare for specific, far-off goals. Two-to-three races a year, max, was all I thought I had the ability to handle. I would spend three-to-four months with one singular light at the end of the training tunnel. If that block didn’t go perfectly—if there was any hiccup or forced downtime—I believed my chances of succeeding at the race were shot. Yet even when training did go flawlessly and I found myself at a starting line healthy and fit, I kept disappointing myself. There was something missing. Paradoxically, it occurred to me that I was spending too much time training—I lacked the confidence and ability to race, to honestly and wholeheartedly venture to the bottom of the well and leave every ounce of fitness I had out on the trails. I was finishing races feeling like I could have kept going, like I had just been on a long training run. It was after I started working with my current coach, David Roche, that I realized that almost exclusively focusing on long, slow training runs is going to make me good at running long, slow races. If I wanted to really express my fullest potential and toe a starting line with actual intentions to win—which I felt I had the capability to do—I needed to get good at racing.
Racing and training, while inextricably related, are two different skill sets. The specific dynamics and challenges of racing are things you hardly ever get in training alone: managing the pre-race butterflies; taking in food while running hard and finding the right concoction of transportable calories; learning to ride that fine line between sustainability and overexertion. Racing at one’s potential sometimes feels like walking a tightrope—a delicate balance between effort, terrain, distance, fatigue, and competitors—and if there’s one thing I know about circus performers, it’s that they practice.
Earlier this year, I planned to incorporate a few training races into my schedule to feel better prepared for my A goals. The Wisconsin North Face Endurance Challenge Series, which was held in mid-September on the Ice Age Trail in the southeastern part of the state, fell perfectly on my calendar: two months after my previous big race and two months prior to the next. The weekend is a celebration of trail running, with seven races over two days. I chose to run the marathon, requiring an honest effort and small taper beforehand, but not long enough to require weeks of recovery afterward.
The terrain is a mix of rooted singletrack, sweeping grasslands, choppy trails with punchy climbs, and a touch of road to start and finish. Out of all the North Face races, it is by far the most runnable, and as such, the race went out fast. A group of 8-10 ran hard off the front, cruising on roads for the first mile. Once we hit the first climb of the day, the pack thinned and I fell into second place behind Arnaud Enjalbert. He ran hard and fast from the gun and kept me honest for the first hour or so as I would catch glimpses of him bobbing up and down rolling hills ahead of me. I ran by myself for the first eight or so miles until we caught up with the 50K and 50 milers, who had started hours before. This was by far my favorite part of the day: getting a chance to see back- to mid-pack runners with massive smiles on their faces, digging deeper and running farther than a lot of them ever had before, providing nothing but encouragement and stoke. It’s a cliched observation, but it really is true: this is what the sport is all about. Regardless of how fast you’re running. we’re all out on the trail doing something silly and abnormal. We owe it to each other to do everything in our power to help those around us get to the finish line and enjoy the experience.
I finally caught up with Enjalbert around mile 13, at the far end of the looped course. He was running strong and after making the move around him, I owe him a ton of credit for keeping me honest. Miles 13-15 are by far the hilliest and hearing his footsteps not too far behind truly allowed me to find a gear I didn’t know I had. And this ultimately is the benefit—the whole point—of racing: it’s a chance to have experiences that you never could in training. It allows you to discover new things about yourself as an athlete and redefine what is normal, what is possible.
I managed to hold on for about 90 or so more minutes after passing Enjalbert, finishing in 3:02:38 and missing the course record by 17 seconds. The win was fun and I’d be lying if I said the ego didn’t enjoy it. But what I’m ultimately walking away happiest about is simply knowing more about myself as a runner and racer. If you want to be a good racer and not just a good runner, you have to race.
To put a fine point on it, here are a few lessons I took away from last weekend and from working with my coach, David Roche:
- Don’t overtrain and think about remaining fit and fresh most of the year. Build-ups to races, even massive goal races, do not have to be Herculean effort of volume and endurance. Don’t get me wrong, specific goals require specific training and preparation, but training should not be viewed as all or nothing. A runner who’s focused on healthy, long term development and trains consistently without massively overreaching will always be within a month or so of race-ready shape. Training adaptations compound and consistent small efforts will always trump massive periodic training blocks.
- Don’t overthink racing. Even if you don’t win or show up to the line at your full potential, there is stilla lot to be gained from toeing a starting line. Plus, you will probably surprise yourself! You are fitter and stronger and more wonderful than any ho-hum training run would have you believe. Show up to a fun low-stakes race and let it rip!
- Racing is a time to practice all of the small things. Running long distances is a logistical puzzle and solving that puzzle is half the battle. We train lots to prepare our body, and jumping into low-stakes races is a time to work on the other half of the equation: dialing in race-day gear, timing how and when you eat, carrying your calories and extra layers, storing your garbage, managing aid stations, packing drop bags, coordinating your crew, etc. This is the time to hone in the non-sexy parts of racing!
- Racing is fun! Imagine going on a long run and every five minutes you an opportunity to meet a new friend or encourage someone else on their own journey. Races, especially longer trail races, are a lovefest. Who wouldn’t want to swap out a solo long run for one filled with smiles, friends, and cowbells?
- All of that said, respect the effort! When racing, you will run harder and likely farther than any normal training run. This takes a lot out of you. Even if it’s not a goal race, that type of effort demands recovery. Respect the effort and adjust your training accordingly.