On the Racing Rat Race

I love races. I do not always love the act of racing, but I love the aura of races. I love scouting for good deals at crowded expos; I love race T-shirts even when they’re ugly and ill-fitting; I love hoovering up orange slices from the post-race food bins. And I love the motivation racing provides: I might never have run more than five miles if I hadn’t signed up for a 10K, and I certainly wouldn’t have run more than 10 if I hadn’t split a bottle of wine with some friends and talked us all into registering for a half-marathon.

I love races. And they’re also a pain in the ass.

Races cause all this commotion. There’s a rush to get in, to commit now — before the race sells out, before prices go up, before you realize that maybe there are things you’d rather do than run 6 or 10 or 26 miles on that particular day. When the chatter around races makes them seem like they might sell out in minutes — and then they actually DO — it amps up the pressure for a type-A with a plan-A who doesn’t want to be fishing for a backup race because she was too slow on the trigger.

And then! Then the race is on the calendar. The date is set. The money is paid. If it’s a far-away race, travel plans are made, or at least budgeted for. All of a sudden, this idea of racing X miles on Y day is a very real thing that’s going to happen. There’s an answer to “What are you training for now?” and “When’s your next race?” And when something goes awry — which, in my experience, it’s practically guaranteed to — there’s a looming deadline with all this time and money and logistical brouhaha tied in.

Berlin’s an extreme example. We started thinking seriously about the race last September, once we realized we could attach the marathon weekend to the Oktoberfest vacation we’d dreamed of taking. In late November, we saw that there were only a few thousand spots left. We bugged a friend to finalize a wedding date so we’d know if we could make the trip. We made sure we had the cash on hand to register, because a quirk of the registration site meant we had to use debit. We figured out how we’d best travel between Berlin and Munich, and we reserved hotels at each location. When cursory Kayak searching turned up fares we couldn’t refuse, we bought plane tickets. Then we counted up the vacation days we’d need to take and mentally removed them from our vacation day budget for 2012. All in roughly 72 hours, ten months before the race.

Some of that was unnecessary and maybe even a little dumb; we didn’t need to buy plane tickets that early, and that’s clearly the biggest financial hit we’d take if the trip didn’t happen. But heck, we’d have to buy plane tickets at some point; I’ve had race-killing injuries two weeks before a race, too. Was the stress exacerbated by my own haste to get the travel plans settled? Sure. Could I have avoided some of this by choosing a race I could drive to rather than cross an ocean for? Definitely. Do I love Berlin no matter what I do there, and is Oktoberfest going to be a blast even if I haven’t run 26 miles the weekend before? Ja. But we picked this trip, this year, to run a marathon in Berlin.

The bigger point is that having to commit to any race months ahead of time, months in which any number of things can happen, is a huge source of stress for me. I’ve learned this spring that dropping out of a race isn’t the worst thing in the world; I’ve done it twice, and nobody died. But I felt — feel — overwhelmingly guilty about it. And why would I choose guilt when I could choose not to feel that way?

Races do sell out, though, often early. I do want to run fun races in places I adore, and I do want to turn my bigger races into events where I go somewhere awesome and maybe get a vacation at the end, because…that’s how I want my life to be. And I do need to, y’know, train, with a goal and deadline in mind. I like, and crave, the motivation. These things seem fundamentally at odds.

When I started pulling together my marathon training plan, my instinct was to sign up for a boatload of other races. Supported long runs? Race-morning energy in droves? Nothing sounded better. But a schedule as written isn’t a schedule as lived. And I just don’t want the guilt, and the stress, and the worry that if I did that, and I couldn’t run Berlin or any of those other races, I’d be digging myself deeper into the “I’m spending money on this race I can’t even run” hole.

Luckily, I live in a place where outdoor activities are pleasant enough pretty much year-round, and the stacked race calendar proves it. Some races will sell out, but others won’t. Most will hike their prices for week-of or race-morning registration, but I’ve come to realize that I’d rather pay $85 for a race I run than pay $65 four months ahead of time for one I sit out.

So, this summer, I’m playing my schedule by ear. There are a few races I’m particularly curious about, and I’ve marked those dates on my calendar, but I’m not committing to anything new until the week of the race. If it’s sold out, well, I’m running 16 miles for free that day. And if I like it, maybe this will become my standard operating procedure: pick some target races close together, train like I’m going to race one of them, and not commit until I’m reasonably sure I can get it done.

There are holes in this plan, and races I could never do this way. But for now, I’ll trade those things for this little bit of relief.

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6 thoughts on “On the Racing Rat Race

  1. Yeah, I totally agree in most cases. I usually sign up early for short, cheap races because I’m less likely to not be able to do them, “early” means 2-3 months, and if something catastrophic happens, being out $25-30 isn’t that big a deal. But with something like a marathon, I can’t bring myself to sign up nearly a year in advance the way you have to for a bunch of the big races. (How am I supposed to know what will be going on in my life a year from now!) In those cases I’ll gladly pay the full price just a few months out.

    • kimretta says:

      I file this under “yet another reason I will probably never do an Ironman.” I’m usually all about commitment in other life areas, but yikes!

      • Rachel says:

        I was just going to comment about signing up for Ironman! I registered a full year in advance, which is a must because they sell out quite fast. There was definitely a ton of anxiety about forking over $600 for a race when so much can happen in a year. A couple people I know actually had to back out, and let me just say that full refunds are nonexistent. So yea, I feel you on this! I tend to plan for the big stuff and register early and then “fill in” the small stuff as I go.

        By the way, I’m super jealous of your Germany plans. I went to Oktoberfest back in 2008 and it was a blast! And I’ve always wanted to run the Berlin marathon. Great choice!

  2. shelby says:

    It’s kind of crazy how the sport has changed! I can remember my first few marathons in the early 2000s, just signing up like a couple of months before…now, everything sells out way in advance.

    And I think your strategy is smart, financially. It only takes eating the fee from one race that you ditch out on to make up for those $10 and $20 week-of-race registration hikes.

    • kimretta says:

      I did one 5K put on by a running club here where I literally woke up and decided to race, jogged to the start, handed over $5, and ran. And it was the greatest thing of all time. Granted, not so logistically easy for a marathon, but I totally thought, “why isn’t every race like this?”

  3. Kristina says:

    Great topic! I hate to say that I’m feeling so wishy-washy about the next few races for which I’ve signed up (one of which is a half-IM, cough cough), although I think that much of that has to do with the fact that, according to the academic calendar, everything should end in about 2 weeks. I am hoping that once work responsibilities end, then my desire to fulfill other commitments will pick up. But right now, I’m kind of jonesing for a few weeks of doing nothing, nada, zilch.

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