It’s occurred to me that the last race I ran may have really been my last race. Even though my knee is improving, and I’ve joked since that race that it may have been my last, it just hit me that it may be true. I’ve always assumed I’d move from runner-training-to-race to runner-just-running at some point, but thought it would happen when I decided. It’s not that I was waiting to get slower to make the transformation–that happened a long time ago. I was waiting for the point when I knew I’d enjoy running more without it, and that’s not the case yet.
Why do I like racing, even though I’m slower than I used to be? Well, I like the racing itself, most times. Competing against other runners—tracking them down, holding them off, cruising in a pack, fighting to the finish. I like the chance to test myself, to see what I can and cannot do. I like the challenge, the fact that it’s hard, the opportunity to lose track of myself in the race—forgetting everything else and just thinking about putting one foot in front of the other. I like to go to the starting line with the hopes that it will be one of those days–when I’ll feel light, fast, strong, and in control, when my body will do what I want it to do and say, “Gladly, no problem, let’s maybe turn it up a notch, huh?” When it’s going well, there’s a sort of split between body and mind and it’s like I’m just along for the ride. That doesn’t happen on bad days–fatigue is all-encompassing–my body and me are all of the same. But energy seems to come from somewhere else. I like racing because sometimes I can tap into that. Those days don’t come often, but when they do, there’s nothing like it.
I like training to race too. I like planning ahead and saying to myself, for example, on a morning eight months from now–rain or shine, hot or cold–you’re going to line up to run 26.2 miles and all your training from this point to that one is going to be designed to make that happen in the shortest amount of time possible. Having a goal gives my training a sense of purpose, and maybe my life too. I do a lot of other things besides run, and I’ve got ambitions, set goals, and work hard, but I’m much less deliberate about these other things. I kind of go with the flow and grow and evolve and succeed and fail as nature and the world allow. But with running, I’ve got clear goals and I don’t let nature or the world dictate when I’ll race, how fast I’ll try to go, what workouts I’ll do to get myself in shape. I like mapping things out months at a time, with mileage goals, workout goals, race goals. And whether I succeed or not, I like to think I’ve done my best and I accept the results. It gives me a sense of peace I don’t quite get from anything else.
And if I’m just running-to-run? I’m afraid I’ll feel like I’m in some kind of vacuum, like I’m wasting my time, and I think runners know the value of time as well as anyone. Like I said, I expect one day to make this transformation to the next phase of my life, but I’m not ready yet. I feel like Rocky in his last movie, Rocky Balboa, when he tries to explain why he wants to fight again by gesturing to his midsection and saying, “There’s still some stuff in the basement.” I feel like that. It’s not a matter of regrets. It’s just a matter of still more to do.
When I set out to write this I was going to describe my last race, but I’ve already said so much. Well, maybe a short recap…it was a marathon last October. I missed my goal time by just over a minute. My training leading up to the race hadn’t gone great—I was coming back from a knee surgery in April, so my goal wasn’t real ambitious. The race itself went well: I felt strong at the start, ran a little too fast between miles 8 and 14, and was still on goal pace until the last few miles, when I fell slowly and painfully just a little behind. It was a point-to-point course and there was a slight headwind. If anyone asks, I like to tell them I finished the race with a torn meniscus, stress fracture in my femur, and damaged cartilage, because that sounds pretty heroic, but I really didn’t feel it until about two minutes after the race when my knee stiffened and began to swell. When the race was done, I wasn’t satisfied with my time, but I was satisfied with myself because I knew I couldn’t have gone any harder.
As in the immediate aftermath of every marathon I’ve run, I questioned whether or not I would run one again, but I never thought it might be my last race. It was just another race, another step along the way, not the end, not even close to the end. Because I’ve still got more races to run. I’ve still got some “stuff in the basement.” I’m working hard on my rehab, in the pool, on the bike, because I like it, I enjoy the workouts I’m able to do, but I really hope I get the chance, like Rocky did, to get that stuff out of the basement. Will I need one more race or years of racing to do this? I don’t know. I don’t know, but I sure hope I get to find out.