Do you remember your first real race? Do you remember how you felt? Your thoughts? Fears? Any of it? I read an article this weekend about a man’s first race, and it brought back a lot of memories for me. I read with a smile on my face as he spoke of his nerves and uncertainties, the excitement and pride of getting the race shirt, and the adrenaline rush of the crowds cheering for him. It was a great and vivid retelling of his experience, and it got me thinking about a lot of things.
The first was how I had forgotten what it used to feel like when I went to a race. My very first race was in eighth grade track. I remember training but having no clue what the meet would be like. I was nervous as I piled onto the school bus with my friends on the track team as we headed to a nearby town to race. I forget the town, but I remember not having a clue what to expect or what to do when we got there. Thankfully my friends had run track the year before and walked me through everything. I listened intently all day when the announcer would call racers to the start line for their races. I ran the mile and the two-mile that day so if you know track you know I had a long day. The two-mile is basically the first thing to happen, and the mile is pretty much the last. I remember nervously walking up to the starting line and being lined up on the waterfall. I had no clue what it was because we never talked about it in practice, but I was told by a race worker, “Son, you need to step up to the line.” “I am, sir,” I said, as I stood on the straight starting line. “No son, you need to be up here on this line,” as he pointed down to the curved line a few feet in front of me. I was pretty embarrassed not knowing that the waterfall start is where the two-mile starts. For those of you who are not familiar, the waterfall is a curved line that starts at the inside of lane one, and then as it goes across the lanes it curves outward, allowing for an even start, although it really doesn’t do much toward that goal. The gun went off, and I remember having no strategy at all. I watched a couple of guys take off, and I wondered if I should try and keep up with them. I saw that I was in front of a lot of people, and I wondered if I should slow down. I had no idea how fast I should be trying to run so I decided to just run as fast as I could, and I did. I cannot remember how I placed, but I know I did not win. I did, however, cross the finish line and go straight for the infield grass to fall down. I was exhausted after running eight laps as fast as I could possibly go! My coach yanked me up and told me stand up so I could breath. I distinctly remember wondering what that meant as I was breathing just fine lying there on my stomach. Actually now that I sit here reliving that moment on my computer screen I remember coach climbing on the bus to go home and giving me my third place medal. I got third place in my very first race, and I thought right then that I had a real chance to be a world-class speed demon if I worked hard enough. I tanked the mile later that day because I was exhausted, but if I trained more I could do both faster, and I was dead set on doing so.
Fast forward to today. I go to a race without blinking. I feel zero nerves even when I have no clue where things like the starting line are. Most races are about the same in set up, and if you’ve been to one you can manage the rest. I’ve lined up at starting lines more times in my life than I can remember, and my nerves are hardened. In most cases there isn’t even that much excitement in my system. I’ve trained myself through years of competition to keep it calm and under control and focus on the goal of good times, and finishing. It’s all business now. I wear my shirt advertising my site; I wear minimal shoes and field questions about why and how I run in them or in nothing at all. Don’t get me wrong; I still love racing. It’s just that the feelings are different now. I no longer have a sense of that young kid who had no idea what to do, and the feeling of wonderment about it all has moved on. It’s given way to knowledge, experience, and strategy.
Maybe it’s a metamorphosis that all runners go through; I don’t know. I know I did, and I lost touch with that youthful nervousness about racing. I had lost that by the end of my sophomore year in cross-country. By that time I had already developed nerves of steel, and each course was a technical challenge to master as well as an opportunity to test my skills against all who came to challenge me. I think that’s why I loved reading about that man’s first race. Here he was a grown man with a family, and yet he felt pride like a kid accomplishing something for the first time. Maybe that’s what it’s all about? Maybe it’s about that childlike excitement and pride of wearing a finisher’s shirt around as a badge of achievement. Maybe it’s the youthful freedom we can find in running if we just relax and enjoy it. Maybe it’s not; maybe it’s about competition and drive. I’m not sure I know anymore. I know races are fun and I love when I finally get to a race where I can put all the training that was once in front of me, behind me and enjoy the fruits of my labor. Is that what it’s about? The sense of accomplishment we get when we cross finish lines? I like to think it’s a bit of all of that. It’s about the work, the efforts, the dreams of success, the thrill of a cheering crowd, “free” shirts, medals for finishing instead of winning (unless you did win), tired legs, sweat soaked clothing, and so so much more, but in the end maybe it is about feeling like a kid again. Maybe it really is about that childhood freedom that we felt when we ran so fast the wind blew our hair back and we felt like nothing could touch us because we were super human. Maybe it’s about that. Maybe…just maybe it is.