I love trail running. Not only is the physical act a pleasure, I love the atmosphere of a trail race, I love the wacky nature of trail runners, and I love to get dirty!
It wasn’t always this way. I started road running when I was 30, but I didn’t start doing road races until I was 46, when my youngest son graduated from high school and went off to college. I had a bad case of empty nest syndrome. I spent a lot time when my three boys were growing up attending soccer, football, and baseball games and tennis and wrestling matches, not to mention shuttling them to practices and sometimes pulling team mom duty. (Side note: I was the worst team mom ever! Whenever I was supposed to keep the scorebook for my kids’ Little League games, my mind would wander, or I would get caught up in conversations with other parents. There would be a kid on third base, and I would have no idea how he got there. I always marked it down as a triple!) I needed a way to fill the void, so I upped my running game. I started out the conventional way, with a 5K, and placed third in my age group. I was hooked! I started running farther, did a 5 miler, then some 10Ks, then some half marathons, and finally, 2 years later a full marathon.
I became a fairly fast runner. What that means is this: in a small, local, race I could usually win or place in my age group. If a really fast runner showed up, I was toast! I also developed a lot of friendships with other runners. Women who run make fabulous friends. My theory is that running makes them feel good about themselves, so they have a positive outlook on life, and, therefore, they are fun to be around. My running friends were also always going to races, so I had a lot of opportunities to travel. One time five of us traveled to South Dakota to do a marathon, and we all stayed in the same tiny hotel room for nearly a week, sharing one bathroom! It was a riot! We laughed a lot and told a lot of stories about our lives to each other.
At the time, I felt that my friends expected me to run fast and expected me to do well in a race, but I now realize that those expectations were all my own. I expected to do well in races and for my race times to go down. Because I started racing so late in life, I was setting PRs (personal records, or the fastest time for a particular distance, for those who are non-runners) well into my fifties. Of course, I didn’t set a PR at every race, but the possibility was always there. Winning my age group was the same way; I didn’t win every time, but at each race I might. Until I didn’t. As I aged up through my fifties, it became more and more difficult for me to win my age group. PRs became very scarce, then non-existent. I was no longer meeting my expectations, and I was burning out on running. It was becoming less and less fun to train for long grueling races.
There is a difference between expectations and goals. Goals are fine. In fact, setting goals is great. When you set goals, there is a hopeful, positive aspect to the whole process. Setting goals can motivate you. It can give shape to an amorphous training schedule. It can help you to decide what is important in your life and what is not. Ideally, you set a goal, which could be to achieve a certain time for a race, to log a specific number of miles in a week, to complete a race at a new, longer distance, or whatever you want to accomplish. You then set about doing what it takes to achieve that goal. You might increase your training miles. You might start doing speedwork. You might start running more hills. You may or may not achieve your goal, but, as a runner, you know that a lot of times, a fair amount of chance is involved. You may be the most well-prepared runner in a race, but if you don’t do well in the heat, and it is extraordinarily hot on race day, your goal probably goes out the window. So many things could go wrong before any specific race that it is amazing that we achieve any of our goals at all. It could be too hot; it could be too cold or too windy; it could be raining or sleeting or snowing, and that is just the effect of the weather. You may have had a fight with your husband, you may have been unable to sleep the night before the race, your pre-race dinner may not agree with you, you may get sick. I used to be a teacher. Before a marathon, when students would hand me papers, I would tell them to just put it on my desk. I didn’t want to risk four months of hard training by handling germ-y papers from 100 kids! The important thing is – setting goals shows that you believe in yourself.
Expectations are different. Expectations weigh you down. Buddha said that expectations are the source of suffering. Humans are fallible. When you have expectations, you are setting yourself up for disappointment if you don’t meet them, and you will not always meet them. I guess there is a certain amount of satisfaction that comes from meeting expectations, but it is not the same sense of triumph that comes from achieving a goal. If you don’t meet expectations, disappointment follows. Why would you plan for disappointment? When you have expectations, you are living in the future, not the present. You focus on “shoulds”. It is an anxiety-producing way to live. It eventually caught up to me.
That is where trail running came in. When I run a trail race, I have no expectations. I know that my time is going to be slower than a road race of the same distance. Two trail races that are the same distance can have vastly different elevation profiles that will alter finish times by hours. Even the same race run in two different years can produce vastly different times. I have one favorite trail race that I do each January. In fact, I have even signed up for the 2019 version of this race before I have run it in 2018! One year it rained steadily for almost a week before the race. The course was a muddy mess. I finished grinning from ear to ear, but my time was slow. The next year, it was cold and everything was frozen. I finished just ahead of the sleet (still grinning), with a time over half an hour faster than the previous year. Trail runners are a different breed than road runners. Road runners are often Type A personalities, who trim precious seconds off a race that will take them four hours to finish by gagging down a drink at an aid station while running, rather than slowing to a walk in order to drink. Trail runners, more likely Type B, will stop at an aid station to have a quesadilla, nachos, Fig Newtons and a flat Coke, and probably chat with the volunteers before setting out for the next aid station. One trail race is advertised for “deviants, delinquents and dirt-bags”. Adult beverages are often served after (or even during) the race. Walking (rather than running) up steep hills is the norm. I love it! I want to enhance the Type B side of my personality.
I have once again started adding in some more road races with my steady diet of trail racing lately. I am trying to let go of my expectations. It may be because I am older, and I am often the only woman in my age group at many of the trail races that I do. (Runners are the only people I know who actually look forward to milestone birthdays, because it puts them at the bottom of a new age group.) It may be because I am learning. How about you? What expectations could you let go of? How could you make your life lighter?