Racing and I have a fickle, tumultuous relationship. Sometimes I love racing - it can be one of the biggest drivers in my life. Sometimes I hate racing - it can feel heavy, stressful and icky. Typically it's either love or hate; rarely if ever in-between. I remember when I first started racing about 10 years ago. I signed up for our local trail running series. I showed up to the first race with some nerves, but primarily excited.
The racing scene was relatively new to me so I didn't have any expectation. No one knew who I was. I was just going to go run and then eat a cheeseburger. By the time the sixth and final race of the summer came around, I felt tremendously nervous, and not really excited. Over the course of the summer, I developed feelings like I needed to do exceptionally well, I couldn't lose to people I'd previously beaten and I had to prove myself to the racing community.
I've been at this competitive race thing for 10 years and you'd think over time, by the process of doing what is now well over a hundred races, I would be better at managing nerves, pressure and expectation. But that unfortunately hasn't been the case.
This last winter I did a total of 25 skimo and Nordic races between November and April. That's quite a few for me - more than I've ever done before in one season. What I found to be peculiar was that my level of nerves, stress and expectation was generally the same whether I was doing a local 45 minute uphill race, or an actual World Championship race, of which I did three. There was some variation, but in general, I felt the same. Freaking stressed out.
For me this looks like - being anxious and preoccupied the night before. Being neurotic about what I'm eating and how much I'm drinking and if I should have some beet juice? Or will it hurt my stomach? Should I take an iron supplement to help me with my pre race bowel issues? Or will that hurt my stomach? Should I look at the course again? Did I choose the right socks? Where is my bib? Does my car have gas in it so I'm not late to the start? Did I train hard enough? Did I taper enough? Or too much?
THIS IS EXHAUSTING! And yet I ask these questions every time I race. And I have a gaggle of butterflies flapping around in my belly every time I race.
Then typically right before the race I wonder, why am I doing this? Is racing worth the stress? Is racing worth generating so much expectation for myself? Prompting so many questions about my ability, strength, relevance and capacity? Often it doesn't feel worth it, and I don't want to race. But I always do. I get in the car and head to the race and this drive is typically the pinnacle of my stress and nerves. But once I'm at the race start, the stress seems to dissolve a bit. Because what happens is I see my buddies.
I see my friends and some of them carry this race stress burden right along with me. (I get by with a little help from my friends - The Beatles) We say, "It doesn't really matter how we do!" "Right?!" "Right!" "It's not like we're saving lives or anything. We're just racing". And it doesn't really matter. But it does matter. Because we are athletes, that in whatever way it fits into our lives, we are dedicated to our sport.
We wake up early or stay up late and train. Often hard. We eat right (Kate's Bars!) and we research and we try to make ourselves better. Because I think the real allure in all of this is human potential. What am I capable of? How fast can I go? How much pain can I endure? What am I willing to do out on the race course? But with all of that comes self-pressure. Self-expectation. And navigating through all of this is really hard! At least for me. So how have I moved forward?
Well, after the last race I did I wrote myself a letter. It's a letter that is intended for Pre-Race Nikki as written by Post-Race Nikki, to remind her why I do this. My letter is as follows:
Dear Pre-Race Nikki:
I know. You're nervous. You're worried you're not good enough. Not fast enough. That you won't feel well. That'll you'll make a mistake. But I, Post Race Nikki, have a better vantage point than you. This is all quite simple - you just do your best. And by doing your best, and pushing yourself to the max, you will feel rewarded and proud and so happy you challenged yourself.
You may not win, and that likelihood is rarely in your control. But remember, you're not doing this for other people. You're doing this for you and only you. There will always be people faster than you and there will always be people slower than you. This reality is irrelevant to what you're trying to do. You're trying to be your best self. Your job is to dig deep, keep your head space positive, be thankful your body is healthy enough to be out there, and try your best. And then what happens is you finish and you'll remember that racing is totally awesome! Because humans love resistance.
We love battling and pushing and working our way through things. This stimulus is what keeps us going. So go out there and push! And smile and grit your teeth and be prepared for that wonderful sense of accomplishment that only comes through having started in the first place. It's undoubtedly worth the stress you're feeling. So butch up and get out there and stop worrying about your socks. And get over yourself - you're not in the Olympics.
As you've likely gathered if you have actually have read this far is that I'm still a hack at dealing with all of this. BUT! I really like my letter and I plan to use it the next time around. If you're anything like me, maybe you should write a letter too. If enough people write letters we could make a Pre-Race Book and read it before each competition and this will all be a non-issue. I know, I'm a genius.
Your fellow Kate's Bar athlete and friendo,
Photos courtesy of Carl Zoch