“What are you training for next?”
This is one of the most spoken questions at group runs, at random grocery store encounters with other runners, and on the wide world of the internets (according to data that I just made up). I would venture to guess that most of us who have taken part in organized races have fallen into the racing “trap.” This is where we believe that we must race and must use a race as a means to support our love of running, training – or just the mental clarity time that we seek while doing the forementioned activities. We feel that we must train for a race to pursue this passion. This feeling, my lovely ladies, is a trap. It’s like when you go to Dunkin with the plan to have only one pump of caramel goodness in your coffee – because you are cutting sugar and being healthy and all – but then you realize, well…it tastes so good with four pumps, and it’s the same cost, so why the heck not.
None of us are immune to this trap. And there are times when we fall into it, catch ourselves, but we now have a race on the calendar, so (shrugs shoulders) we now make do. Let’s train! Fill the calendar with group runs! Never have a morning to sleep in again! There is a race on the calendar! Time to train like a mother trucker and forget that life exists!
I was a race volunteer before I was an active race participant. In fact, it was volunteering that drove me to want to race more! I will never forget watching the amazing humans come into the aid station that I was at – humans of all shapes and sizes – who all were doing the same thing. Smiling. And cussing – there was a lot of that, too. But generally, everyone was happy. It moved me. It motivated me. It made me want to race – so that I could find a piece of that. Goodness knows that I was missing some happy in my life.
So, I entered a race. By myself, I trained insanely hard or what I thought was hard. I ran a trail half marathon race with a hiking backpack, a packed lunch, a first aid kid and change of clothes… because… I didn’t know any better! I finished fairly well; despite the ruck I was unknowingly carrying. I sat alone at the finish. I didn’t find the happiness that I saw in the other people at races I had been at. So, I entered another race. I was on trails all the time. I trained all the time. I was rarely with another runner. I would pick up group runs here and there, but they were usually at times (and places) that did not work for my work schedule. I loved running with these groups and felt totally at ease when doing so. Somehow, though, timing overruled joy, and I continued to train solo. And race solo.
Eventually, I was invited on a group mountain run with people who were (and are) so much stronger than me – and, most importantly, at a timeframe that worked for me. I was ecstatic! OhMyGoodnessPeopleNoticedMe! Squeal! I was like a little puppy… so overjoyed with the attention that there was no way I was going to leave their side. Especially when they continued to invite me – and it continued to be times that worked with my work schedule. It was awesome. They are doing these races, so I will too (And thus, the trap was entered.) You’re doing what race? Okay, I will too. Let’s train together! Every weekend? Sure! Let’s do it!
I developed consistent training partners. I had the weekend crew for long distance and mountain adventures. I had the local crew for, well, local runs. I even had the race-volunteer crew, where we would only see each other while volunteering. And through this race training, I found something amazing. I found some of my best friends. (Enter another race… don’t lose the friends!)
The time on trail with my trail community – my friends – has been priceless. I fooled myself into thinking that I had to have races on the calendar in order to have these people in my life.
Trail running has, like it has for so many, changed my life! I am a total introvert, afraid to walk into a room alone, unwilling to approach someone that I do not know… yet, with trail people, I will feed you oranges on a trail since you just finished putting on lube and your fingers are… gross. I’ll hoot and holler for you as you crush that downhill, even though I don’t know your name. And I’ll stuff Oreos in your hand when you make it to my aid station.
People talk about the “why” – and for me, personally, running was just a journey that was never supposed to even happen. It was, and apparently still is, my path towards continual life stubbornness. I was once told that I would never be able to walk upstairs, let alone be able to trail run, so being able to run trail races – and do them well – overtook my sense of “why.” My running with training partners, having fun in the mountains, became a bit shadowed by a sense of wanting to perform at the highest level (that I could), even if it meant training so hard that I needed to do much of it solo – without the people – without the “why.”
Maybe it is age. Maybe it is wisdom. Maybe it is the rising cost of all things, including races. But at a certain point, training for the race became a job. Making sure that I checked the box to have a certain milage or a certain vert – or both – and making sacrifices in “living” life in order to do that became grueling. I know that we have all experienced this toward the end of race-training. And when it clicks, it clicks hard. Yes, it took injury caused from a bad fall, for me to see how I had entered the trap. But at least I realized it.
“Hello, my name is Salas, and it’s been 100 days since my last run.” This was me – about fifty days ago, as I was recovering from an injury caused by a fall during a race. During my break in training, I still maintained my community of trail-friends. I still enjoyed time and friendship with my best friends. While they ran and did amazing things, I picked up a new hobby. I cleaned my house. I purged my old shoe collection. I attempted to sell my “overstock” gear, thinking that I would never run again. I found what was important. People. My people. People are my primary “why” and my stubbornness to do things is the secondary.
And with that, races have just become a little less important. Training for the love of the trail – ding ding ding, we have a winner! Being with your people – there aren’t enough bells that can ring on this victory realization!
For the first time in my life, I ran a race… as a training run. It was already on my calendar (pre-injury), and I decided to keep it there. I didn’t plan to finish – my goal was to make it about 20 miles and then drop since I knew the people at the aid station and knew they could get me out. I didn’t go out to compete. I didn’t even go out to run every step. I planned to enjoy the trails, to take pictures, to cheer on others, to see my friends on trail – and to be able to talk to them during the journey.
On this journey, right at the start line, I found a friend whom I had not seen in person in three years. Its funny, we live about 20 minutes apart… but life had not brought us together since we met on trail in 2020 and she completely turned around my race experience and motivated me to keep moving. We started talking and did not stop for nearly 8 hours. I took pictures. We talked to other runners. We cheered other runners. We did it at that popular term of “sexy pace” – and it was the absolute most fun that I have ever had in a race. And, despite being wholly undertrained, I had zero pain the next day. Sexy pace is awesome, y’all! I spent an entire 50K with people. I had that experience that I observed at the first race that I had volunteered at. In a crazy turn of events…it was the exact same event that I had first worked. Full circle. I found my joy and I was that person that I saw – happy and joyous and talking and laughing.
Racing can be fun. I’ve seen so many people coming through aid stations with their buddies – friends who started the race together and will take every step in-sync or newest trail friends suffering together. I admire all these racers and I can now say that I have experienced this. This is where racing is there for the fun and laughs, even though it might get dirty along the way.
But you know what? This same thing happens outside of racing. It just doesn’t have avocado wraps and grilled cheese unless you plan-ahead and leave yourself a drop bag along the planned route. Which, for those who know me, know that I have done – that bag of donuts at Skeenah hit the spot one day.
People. Find your people. Make time for your people.
A week ago, I finished my first season of coaching a high school sport. We had our state meet. It had been a very, very long day – both physically and mentally. My investment in the lives of those young people consumed (consumes) me. But, I had been tracking a race all day. I knew two dear friends ran a taco-truck aid station. It was on my “before coaching” plan to work that station. Timing wise, after the state meet, I knew it wouldn’t happen. But you know what would…surprising a friend running the race at an aid station. Off I went. In the car for several hours of driving, just to get to an aid station with a surprise face. I know she was excited. But for me, I was filled with emotion. She eventually went on to finish running a hundred dumb and hard and special miles. I was just there to watch, cheer, and say hello to all the strong athletes doing amazing things.
I encourage anyone reading this to find those “outside of race” moments. Find your people. Take a run. Take a hike. Go with the fast group. Or go with the slow group. Feed someone oranges. Just…make sure that you find your people.
I still have races on my calendar. And I am certain that I will still train for them to some degree. It just won’t be life. Because racing isn’t life. People are. And also, sexy-pace is pretty awesome.