By Heike McNeil
The most difficult part of this race was not the elevation, not the distance (I personally find 10 miles a very difficult distance to race), not the stiff competition in one of the premier trail running communities in the NW, not the workouts leading up to it, but the most difficult part for me was to actually put my toe on the starting line.
I signed up for this race as it was during spring break and there wasn’t a track meet. Not how you set your typical race schedule, I guess. I was inspired by my fellow trailblazers competing in races all over the place, as well as by the athletes I coach at NCU.
I love to race, I am extremely competitive and I love pushing the limits of my body and putting all I have out there. BUT… being super competitive has been my biggest enemy for a while. About 10 years ago, I dragged myself off the track after a brutal 1,500m race at the master’s world championships in Sacramento. I had worked so hard for that race and was so very disappointed with my finish. I hated it when I saw my name flash across the scoreboard at the track associated with a horrible time and finish. I smiled when I congratulated my competitors - but I was very frustrated and vowed to train harder starting the next day.
This plan went sideways as I hurt myself and ultimately couldn’t continue running. The years of cross training that followed gave me some valuable perspective and healing that went beyond the broken body parts. For the first time since before high school, my life wasn’t dictated by sports. It was freeing in a way, and yet I missed that physical challenge, the idea of pushing my body beyond what I thought it was capable of. Over the years, I had toyed with the idea of racing again but I was afraid. I was afraid that like that day at Hornet stadium when my name flashed across the scoreboard my name would be on the list of results next to a slow, embarrassing time. Even though I would have never admitted it, I was afraid my athletes would lose their respect for me if they knew how slow I was. I didn’t want to be embarrassed.
Last year I bit the bullet and rode the High Cascade 100 mile mountainbike race – trained hard and competed well – and was hooked on competing again. I promised myself I would do it differently this time around. I would race my mountainbike and even get back into running races – but my motto would be to “RACE HAPPY”. I wouldn’t put any pressure on myself but would enjoy the part I love so much about racing: the joy of being able to give it your all, pushing your body to its absolute limits, and even more importantly the friends you make along the way and the camaraderie out on the trails.
So after I had signed up for the Horse Butte race, I suddenly found excuses for not doing it: I hadn’t put in enough speedwork, mileage, etc,…. I had to remind myself of my motto and to be honest I can hardly believe how difficult it was for me to let it all go and get out there and do it for the fun of racing.
I tried to be as relaxed as possibly the day before the race. No mandated pre-race foods, no crazy pre-race routine. My heart rate went up when I pinned the number to my jersey, that’s about it. My goal was to push as hard as I could and to break 1:20 (even though my secret and slightly unrealistic goal was 1:15) – but mostly I wanted racing to be fun again. I told myself what I tell my athletes: Give your best for that day.
Apparently, I was a little excited because my first split was a 6:50 mile. Oops. A bit too ambitious on a sandy trail with 9 miles to go – for my current fitness level. I thought about what I tell my athletes when they start a race too fast: Now live with it and prove you can handle starting at that pace! Up we went to start a climb that would continue until mile 5. I decided to go for broke and race up to the top and then take a breather for the first ½ mile of the downhill and see if I can recover enough to push from there. I started to get the feeling back that I used to have when I LOVED racing so much. The part when your body says no and you keep going and tune that little squawking voice out, take in the surroundings, the views, the backs of your competitors and you start the hunt. That feeling of being a little reckless – because you are taking a gamble that your body will continue to let you push it this far – but yet being fully aware that when you are being too conservative you don’t fully set yourself up to finish at your best. It is such a fine line, such a delicate balance and I mostly have to rely on my gut to hit it just right.
Because it’s been so long and I had a LOT of rust to bust off, I didn’t hit it quite right. At mile 8.5, after coming off the last hill, my legs turned into rubber. I had never raced on a trail before so having to worry about tripping over rocks and falling on your face because your legs are not quite working anymore was totally new to me. Wow. I knew I could still get under 1:20 but I had to keep rolling. I tried to completely turn my mind off and just focus on the trail and on my running form. When my form stays decent and I can tune out the muscles screaming and wanting to die from oxygen deprivation and being too acidic – I can usually maintain a decent pace.
I kept my pace and finished in 1:17. 2nd in the Master’s, but what was way more important was I had fun. I learned that you CAN RACE HAPPY and push yourself no matter what level you are racing at. Whether you run a 5,6,7,8,9,10 or 11-minute mile, it just plain doesn’t matter. What matters is that you do the best you can for that day.
For me, this day marked the realization that racing is an incredible gift. It’s a wonderful testing of your own limits. It has nothing to do with where other people’s limits are. As an athlete, sometimes winning was my ultimate goal – and once I did win and enjoyed a great day the grind started over again until racing became more like a chore.
Injury like nothing else helped me to realize what an incredible privilege it is to be able to train and to race. For me, it’s more about the process, the training sessions, the people who train with me along the way, the people I meet on the course, about ditching my pride and putting it all out there and realizing how lucky I am to be able to do that!!!