I remember my first road races. I'm privileged to have road raced both on motorcycles and on foot so I had two first races.
I was a bundle of nerves for my first motorcycle race. The first time I went out on track as a provisional novice racer was to follow an experienced racer around the track with the rest of the newbies and I distinctly remember feeling like I was going to hurl in my helmet as I rode through the gap in the pit wall, entered the hot pits, and accelerated onto the track. It was just a slow lap, but it was faster than I'd ever gone before and after only a couple of laps I was left to my own devices trying desperately to hold my line as I was strafed left and right by riders that were much faster than me. The entire weekend I was a bundle of knotted, nervous exasperation as I realized how slow I was and how far I had to go to even catch up to the back of the pack of other newbies. It was horrible and I seriously questioned whether I'd ever return.
The Capitol 10k in 2004 was a completely different experience. I'd done track a little in high school, just enough to realize I had no talent for it, but I'd never once raced competitively. I was heavy and slow and I knew it. Coming into the race the farthest I'd run in training was 6 miles so I knew I could complete the race without problems. I had a target heart rate and I just ran at a pace that kept my heart beating at that pace. Sure, little old ladies were passing me, but I was pushing my personal capabilities and I wasn't even last. I had no expectations and no nerves. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience that I shared with over 10,000 fellow runners of all ages and abilities.
One of the attractions to running right now is that I really can't fail. My goal isn't to compete with anyone. It's not really even to compete with myself. The goal is really to try to find my potential and reach it. That potential changes every time I run. As I age, my potential naturally decreases, but as I train my body it increases. So far at least, the increases are out pacing the decreases and I continue to get faster. But I feel great satisfaction at the end of the race knowing I did as well as I could that day. It isn't alway a PR (personal record), but I always learn something that I can take to my training and the next event. Success is just going out here. Success is putting on the shoes and running, whether its training or a race. The only way I can fail is if I don't do it.
One thing has changed, though. When I ran that first race I didn't really have a target time and I didn't have any expectations. That's the beauty of the first race; nothing to compare yourself against. But for the upcoming marathon I'm a bundle of nerves. I have a goal. If all goes well I think it's achievable. But there are so many variables and the marathon is such a long event it's difficult to know what exactly to expect. I've also done a marathon, so I'm also entering with a pretty good understanding of what is required to reach my potential and it entails a pretty extended dose of pain. Last night I kept running the race in my head, envisioning the finish, imagining the middle, trying to mentally calibrate the amount of effort required in the closing stages. I didn't sleep well.
The experts recommend having three goals: a best case, an achievable, and a fall back goal. My best case goal is 4:00. I think 4:00 is achievable, but not overly aggressive; I've trained for it, but it will require everything to go right and it is simply uncharted waters. I was on 4:00 pace for the first 19 miles of the Dallas Marathon in 2006 before the wheels came off. My achievable goal is a PR, which is 4:17, because I'm quite sure I'm in better shape than last year and this course is easier. My fallback goal is just to finish, which is a major accomplishment by itself in the marathon.
Pressure. Nerves. I love it.