After a couple days of thinking, the true concept behind my nervousness is actually related to the idea of being a big fish in a small pond. It is the difference between being casual at a local race, and sizing up the competition at a big race and writing myself off before we even toe the line. Being ‘fast’ is merely a matter of opinion, as what is fast to a casual runner is merely pedestrian to an Olympian. While it is good to have goals and standards, to approach every race with the intention of winning or being close, can be disappointing after a couple ‘bad’ races or those with elite competitors.
Most local races are 5ks, with a hundred or less participants. While I get excited about these events, and seeing the local runners, it rarely seems to increase to the level of nervousness. The majority of the time, I can run a 16:30 or faster and rarely race with anybody. There is always a chance of an ‘outsider’ showing up, which makes it fun. There have been several times I have been thoroughly dusted at an event I came into expecting to win, and it is nice to be put into my place. The only downside is, I usually train through these events, so when it does happen, I miss a chance to duel.
Half marathons almost always make me nervous. There have been a couple where I endure mild insomnia the evening before, experiencing difficulty falling asleep or waking up multiple times in the night. It also can affect my appetite, eliminating my hunger, which can be dangerous because the last thing I want to do at a 13 mile race is toe the line hungry. I counter this by eating as much as I know I need to, not how much I feel like I need. I find it odd the half does give me that kind of trouble, as I approach that distance as merely one to finish, not to truly race. It is run at a tempo pace, but I try not to be overly aggressive about it.
The races that really give me the jitters, from nausea, shakes, insomnia, upset stomach, all the symptoms of being highly stressed, are the 5Ks and 10Ks where I know I have my work cut out for me. No matter how solid my previous races have been, when I head to a race where I am shooting to merely place in the top 5, or even 10, I am my own worst enemy. I feel much better once the gun has gone off, but that is little comfort when I spent the time before the race countering the symptoms instead of prepping for the run. On the way to the race I cope by sipping water and focusing on music. I do a little bit of race visualization and go over a mental checklist of how my body feels in relation to running. Once at the event I find that a slow easy jog helps dispel the physical feelings and I try to avoid scoping out the competition. Many times I have told myself I was out of my league when I have run the time that ended up winning the race.
I am trying to remember that the key to focus on is what you bring, not who else shows up. The competition does not have any bearing upon my training or abilities. While place can be a reflection of the competition, the finishing time is a product of the training you have done. It is easy to get psyched out by people in professional looking singlets, sponsored athletes, and shoes that cost three times as much as mine. But appearances can be deceiving and everyone has their weaknesses. Fast guys can falter on the hills, some elites can be shaky in inclement weather. It is in those moments, when gaining on someone, it pays to remember the cold rainy mornings, the long hill runs, speed intervals, and ignore the harsh burning of the lungs, forget how heavy the legs are getting, and kick, because we all are running for the same finish line. Nervousness and fear are nothing but self doubt, that allows you to beat yourself and if you can conquer that, there is one less competitor.