Learning to love the pain of an awful race

What happens when a race goes completely wrong?

December 21st, 2017 by | Posted in Runs & Races | Tags: , ,

By Katelyn Verstraten

If I “accidentally” fell into the ocean, would I be expected to finish this race? This was the thought that flashed into my mind at kilometre 12 of the BMO Vancouver Half-Marathon last May. For the first time in my 10 years of running races, I was crashing hard. And there were more than nine kilometres to go until I reached the finish line.

Panic began to set in along the Stanley Park seawall, one of the most stunning routes in, well, the world. Dreams of running a personal best were shattering as my watch began clocking slower and slower kilometres. “Run faster,” I told myself, but oh, how it hurt. My legs felt leaden, my face was on fire and my breathing was… embarrassing. But even more painful was the crushing disappointment I felt. I was well trained, had properly tapered, slept, eaten well. I had no excuses. What had gone wrong?

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In a moment of sheer desperation (one most runners will have at some point in their racing career), the “throw myself into the ocean” idea actually popped in to my head. If I “fell” in water the exquisite agony, the psychological and physical torture, would be over. Did I dare?

There you have it: the joy of running. What is it that separates a glorious, Earth-shattering, euphoric run from a nauseating, excruciating, soul-sucking one? Why do some races seem like gifts from the running gods while others seem like karmic redemption for deeds performed in our pre-running lives?

Just months before my nightmare race, I ran a blissful half-marathon. I’d joked with volunteers at water stations, high-fived small children as I pranced along, and set a PB of 1:44:12. Sure, the race had hurt – but the good kind of hurt, the kind of discomfort you expect to feel during a run you’re proud of. Nothing compared to the “throw myself into the ocean” type of pain I felt with nine kilometres left to go in the BMO half-marathon.

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I’m happy to say that I fought the overwhelming urge to throw myself into the ocean, and finished the race in a respectable (but disappointing) 1:51:29. Upon crossing the finish line (sadistically placed at the end of what it seemed to be a never-ending hill) I burst into tears. Finishing took everything I had, physically and mentally. The race had sucked in a way that only a truly bad run can, and my running confidence had taken a strong hit.

This year, hungry for redemption, I ran the BMO half-marathon again alongside one of my closest friends. The spectre of my nightmare race had propelled my training all year. I was ready. The race went smoothly (no manic thoughts of dramatically dropping out this year), and I ran a 1:46:27, cutting more than five minutes off my time. The demons were finally exorcised.

But here’s the thing: with time, that torturous, awful race has gone from being a source of disappointment and shame to one of pride. Glorious races may give us bragging rights, personal bests and an unparalleled runner’s high – but it’s the painful ones that teach us what we’re made of. We run to be better, in all ways, and it’s the brutal races that test us, bring us the closer to being the best runners we can be. Even if sometimes you contemplate throwing yourself in the ocean during the process.

Katelyn Verstraten has worked as a journalist for the Toronto Star, CTV Vancouver and the Globe and Mail. She now works for the Terry Fox Research Institute.