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Why we race, part two: the fear

Why we race.

Why we race.

Last week I described the various possibilities for racing. I just wanted to set the table for a deeper discussion of why we race, and what we can do to feel good about it.

Here’s the thing: we all bring various reasons for why we run to the table. It may be having a group of people to hang out with, a good excuse to buy fun clothes, a way to burn off stress, a way to relax or a way to keep fit (mentally and physically). The one thing we all share is that we want the results that come from competition. Maybe we don’t like racing much, but we like and want to see our performances improve. This is fun! When our aversion to racing comes up against our desire to improve, we can get pretty nervous. What is good about this is that it is a sign we care. Whatever we are nervous about, it is part of the process. So the way to deal with it is not to try to be less nervous, but to understand the role those nerves play.

A few weeks ago in our club, we had a little “practice race” or “time trial,” as some would call it. It was a 2000m run on an indoor track. The reason behind this was to remove all the distractions of racing such as travelling, checking in, strangers in our race, other races going on, parents, friends watching and just focus on the performance. What we found is that the nerves are still there. So, from this we can glean that it is not any of these outside things that make us nervous (or at least, even without them, there are still some nerves). We can see more clearly the essence of our fear. We can get to know it a bit better, and hopefully start to embrace it. Fear is associated with racing and racing is an opportunity to perform. The opportunity to perform is simply an expression of your current state in a very specific way. It’s not a judgement, or a general statement about you. It’s just a way of putting all you have done — the running, the jumping, the talking, the shopping — into one small space in time. There’s a lot of energy behind you when you think about it that way!

This is not to close the matter and say, “See, now you don’t have to be nervous.” Rather, the awareness of the role pre-race nerves can play will allow you to not add layers of anxiety about being anxious (“I’m so nervous, oh no, I shouldn’t be. What’s wrong with me?”), but to embrace the feeling (“These nerves are part of the process, it means I’m ready to race!”).


When I ask most runners what it is they are afraid of, there are two answers: fear of pain and fear of failure. Once you decide that the pain is an inevitable and important part of racing, you can view the nervousness not as fear of pain, but of preparation for pain. It’s not an easy switch to make, but if you’ve never considered it, now at least you have that tool.

While much of the fear can be related to the pain we know we are going to feel, some of the nerves are also connected to our expectations. This is fear of failure, and it’s a whole other kettle of fish for next week!