By Stephanie Imig and Danielle Snyder
As we mark the dark 1-year anniversary of living in Covid-times, there are moments where it seems maybe, just maybe, we can start to see the light.
Is it more than a flicker? Who knows at this point, but certainly many of us are running (literally) towards the glowing ember, filled with hope. Excavate the layers of that “hope” and its granularity reveals start line fist bumps, aid station cheers, finish line festivals and plenty of highs and lows (mental, physical, mountains…) in between.
Photo courtesy of Steven Mortinson + Daybreak Racing
I am sure many of you share my current position of having a real race with a real start date in the not-too-distant future--a future that looks like it might really happen. With that date comes a host of real emotions, bolstered by a myriad of questions that do little to mask the doubts and jitters.
There are days when races take on a mythological shape in my mind-- a mythical wonderland of pure excitement and adrenaline; the thrill of competition; the vibrancy and love of community and friends; the sheer beauty of the natural landscapes we get to explore while racing. I feel the twinge of grief from a year of this world being closed to us. I feel the rising anticipation of its return. I cannot wait.
Then there are other days. Days when another version of me tilts the mirror and from this new angle, races crash from their mythological pedestal. I see potential failures. There are no cheers to be heard above my nerves. And doubts. So many doubts.
I feel like a kitten chasing a laser, pinging from one emotion to the next, from one version of me to another. Luckily, I have an amazing coach to help answer all of my questions and give each the attention and time they need, so maybe I can cease darting from one red dot to another.
I reached out to my coach, Danielle Snyder to unpack all my jitters leading up to race day and the start line. Here are her thoughtful responses to my pre-race questions.
Stephanie and I have been working together for the past two years. As a coach and an athlete myself, many of these questions reflect my own vulnerabilities as we restart the racing season! First and foremost, getting nervous/ anxious is completely normal. This is a result of caring which is a good thing! Caring about something we put a lot of energy, effort and love into makes complete sense and anxiety can be celebrated if we learn how to regulate and make it manageable.
Why do I race?
This is a great question to ask yourself. Each and everyone of us have a different relationship with racing. At the end of the day, racing is a choice and decision we make. When the anxiety starts to plague our brain, it can be easy to step into thinking about the negatives. I work really hard to frame it as an opportunity rather than a fear. When racing was stolen from us last year to keep the community safe, I remember thinking about all the races I had ‘wasted’ with my anxiety and not appreciating the race for what it could be. Our minds are powerful and we have the opportunity to channel anxiety into excitement.
Do I remember how to race?
YES! Our bodies/muscles and minds are so capable. Our muscles have memories of racing and pushing our bodies. Although we are out of practice, racing and pushing ourselves is a skill we can practice in racing and before racing. One of the ways I like to practice and have my athletes practice is through speed and climbing workouts. Even without races, I had athletes continue to do workouts to help them stay fresh in both their physical bodies and minds. Treat these workouts with the same intention as racing and lean into the anxiety with curiosity. We also have the ability to mentally prep for racing by visualization work and allowing ourselves to practice the same race day feels! Also, be aware of what and how you are talking to yourself about the anxiety/race/ running. If you step into the arena (or trail), with the belief you are not fit, this will seep into your brain when you are struggling. There can always be room for improvements for fitness, however, beating yourself up in the moment will not improve how you feel, how you do, or help in any way.
How do I set reasonable expectations for my first race in a year and a half?
As with any race in the beginning of the season, I use it as a baseline for my fitness. Rather than judging performance, I try to approach it with curiosity. What did I do well in this race? In what ways do I need to improve? This perspective will not take away from disappointment of not performing your best, however basing your entire relationship with running on one performance will set us all up for failure. Approach it with the C’s (curiosity, compassion and crunchy food ;) ).
How do I set reasonable expectations given that I am coming back from injury? How do I know when I am letting myself off the hook and playing it safe, and when I am making a smart decision to dial it back or set lower expectations?
This is a challenging question because there is not just one way to approach a race. First and foremost, the first race off of an injury, my main priority for an athlete is to stay healthy. This does not mean to run scared, however, it does mean to check in with your body as your racing. I don’t subscribe to the thought process of letting yourself off the hook-- racing is not that simple. Instead, I encourage athletes to show up, do the best they can on that day and listen to their body. If you feel good, push and if that injury is starting to flare up, pause-- check it out. I approach running with the thought process of longitudinal success and encourage each race to be a building block to the next.
How do I channel the excitement so it fuels me like a slow burn rather than a firework?
When we are able to verbalize our fears/excitement/worries, we have the opportunity to control and manage the feelings better. I often talk to clients about the concept of naming it to tame it. Start by acknowledging what you are feeling and where you feel it in your body. Breath work can be incredibly useful in order to allow the adrenaline to stay present but not take over your body.
Why do I get so nervous when none of this is that important?
It is important!!!!! Sure-- one race does not define you as a runner or individual. However, running is important to us and that is beautiful! We are allowed to cherish and honor activities outside of what is considered the norm (work, family, religion, etc). Many of us have developed a relationship with running and race that has kept us grounded throughout the years (especially during the pandemic). I am a big fan of not letting the race define my relationship with running, however, that doesn’t mean you don’t care.
Will the community feel the same?
Who is to say it wouldn’t be better?? Personally as stated above, I often overlooked the novelty of racing because it was at my fingertips whenever I wanted. With the loss of racing, we have the opportunity to channel those feelings into showing up and supporting our fellow runners in a different way. Will it be different? Likely. However, different doesn’t always mean negative.
What are some ways we can work through times when family or people close to us seem not to support our race goals?
Family does not have to understand running or racing to support something that is important to you. A lot of things we are passionate about in life don’t necessarily make sense to the outside (as my mom always tells me, you can’t stop for every ‘homeless’ dog, Danielle), she understands that it is a part of my soul that isn’t going to change. If running races starts to become so much pressure that you can’t function in life, it might be worth looking at and chatting with a professional about it. Life is about putting ourselves in positions in which we learn how to grow and thrive and racing is a perfect example of that. We are pushing our comfort zones to become more resilient people in running and in life. I would encourage families to consider how running is a part of growing the relationship with yourself and not necessarily about the competition we face on the start line.
Danielle has the amazing ability to quiet my mind; to turn off the laser so the kitten can stop chasing. Her coaching advice centers me; she inspires me to push myself, to embrace the adventure for whatever it is, to have fun, and to remember that change is inevitable--and whether that change is positive or negative is rarely a clean, predictable line. Our races come with peaks and valleys, climbs and descents, beauty and pain. Even the same course can be so different year to year depending on weather and other conditions. These extremes and uncertainties are some of the most profound and enticing aspects of our sport. As a coach, Danielle helps me navigate the terrain. It’s not so much finding balance, because that sounds like a constant, predictable middle ground free from the extremes. Instead she helps me be present and handle each moment; and hold each moment lightly, so that it does not become my forever-truth. With her calm wisdom, the kitten in my mind curls up (or maybe it grows into a courageous lion!), and I feel ready to race, as prepared as I can be, and open and excited to whatever the experience brings. Let’s do this!
Danielle Snyder is a therapist and coach based in Bend, Oregon. She created a program called Inner Drive Athlete in order to provide a place for athletes to learn how to manage their mental health, stress, transitions, self-esteem, and injuries. She works with athletes all over the world to cultivate within them a resilient mindset and an ability to find solutions in the moment of crisis, transition, or self-doubt.