What to do when faced with the difficult decision of whether to race or not?
After a long, hot summer the fall racing season is finally here and many runners are no doubt wavering as to whether they should even show up to the start line of their goal race. Even though the date has been circled on the calendar for months, there could be any number of reasons they are seriously considering pulling the plug on their race plans:
• they missed some important training while on vacation;
• they were well off their target pace in key workouts, with heat and humidity playing an oppressive antagonist; or
• a nagging injury has plagued them in recent weeks, either causing them to push through severe discomfort or miss some training altogether.
For those of you who are on the fence as to whether you should cancel your race plans, the first question you should ask yourself is “what is the likelihood that this will be a positive experience?” This article discusses a number of factors to consider before making your final go/no-go decision.
You’ve already paid the race entry fee
For many big city mega-races, you have no choice but to register months in advance, sometimes before you’ve even run your upcoming goal race. And with many events having a “no transfer or refund” policy, it can often be a gamble whether you’ll even get to enjoy the experience you’ve paid for, versus making a donation to the race coffers. This is what economists refer to as a “sunk cost” – the fact that your money is long gone should not impact future cash-flow decisions. When you factor in flights, accommodations, meals, souvenirs, lost wages or vacation from work, etc., that entry fee you paid for months ago is chump change when you tally up the total cost of the trip. Next month’s credit card bill will only add insult to injury if you’re still hobbling around from attempting a race you shouldn’t have.
It’s a “bucket list” race you worked hard to earn a spot in
I was in Houston this past January for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials (read RF interviews with qualifiers), and it was evident that there were several athletes who were determined to compete against their physiotherapist’s wishes. I recall a young lady in the Women’s race who got lapped by the medalists on an 8-mile loop course – clearly running on a stress fracture. But this may have been a once in a lifetime opportunity for her, so I can applaud her tenacity in giving it a valiant effort in an event only the best of the best can earn the right to compete in. For amateur athletes, a marathon like Boston or New York for instance, with its challenging entry standards, may be a race you’ll someday tell your grandkids about, and you’re willing to accept a greater risk in order to collect that medal you’ll always be proud of.
Oppressive summer weather contributed to disappointing workouts
In the summer of 2008 I was training for my fourth marathon, which was the Detroit Marathon slated for the third weekend in October. I distinctly remember having only 3 successful long runs within the entire 18 week training cycle leading up to that date. Often I would hit the wall about 5 miles from my car and have to do the “shuffle of shame” in order to retrieve my vehicle. Then I’d check my phone and have a voicemail from my girlfriend at the time, now wife, Maura asking if I could pick her up at a random gas station miles outside the city – she had bonked on her long run as well and had no way of getting home. It was pretty deflating for both of us, and it didn’t seem to matter how well hydrated or carbed up we were. But we chugged away all summer and finally in late October we got that crisp autumn morning every runner hopes for. After a humbling season of training everything came together on race morning – I ran a 7 minute personal best, and Maura got her BQ with a 19 minute personal best. I’ve seen a similar phenomenon happen to others as well. The moral of the story is that hard work and perseverance will often be rewarded when it counts.
You’re healthy but undertrained
This is common for many runners, including a number that I’ve worked with. They’ve missed a few weeks of training here and there, usually because of vacation, injury, or just a lack of motivation, but they’ve gotten things back on track in recent weeks and are no doubt physically capable of getting to the finish line in one piece, although they aren’t likely to hit the goal time they initially set for themselves. In this situation, the decision to race or not often comes down to pride. Those that don’t race are afraid of having a time beside their name that isn’t a reflection of what they think they’re capable of. If you fall into this category, ask yourself:
• “Will my loved ones be ashamed of me?”
• “Will my training partners no longer want to run with me?”
• “Will I be a pariah in the running community?”
I would hope the answer to each of these questions is a resounding NO! Adjust your expectations and approach these race situations as a developmental opportunity. My experience has been that races like these can be a tremendous fitness boost worth a couple weeks of training. It can be very rewarding to see how much you improve in your next race.
You’ve been bitten by the injury bug
There have been a few races that I’ve really regretted running – not necessarily because I ran poorly, but because I was flirting with injury beforehand and the race tipped the scales and put me out of commission for weeks or even months. Attempting to race while injured can be a real gamble, and in the “bucket list” example I mentioned above, you have to accept that you’re taking a real chance of having to miss an extended period of running afterwards because of injury. As disappointing as it is to miss a race you’ve worked so hard to get to, are the physiotherapy appointments and hours of cross training worth it? Consider your tolerance for risk and what is more important to you.
The decision whether to race or not is a personal one. An important factor for you may be trivial for someone else. If you’re having doubts, I recommend discussing your situation with someone you trust and whose opinion you value so that you have no regrets with how you ultimately answer the question “What is the likelihood that racing this event will be a positive experience?”
About the Author: Greg Wieczorek is a Chartered Accountant and 2:25 marathoner residing in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He has coached his wife Maura from a 4:17 marathon debut to a personal best of 2:58 and helps others maximize their road race potential through his online coaching service Project PB.