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I’ll be in Salida tomorrow participating in the Run Through Time Marathon. I can’t really say I’m going to “run a race” because my mindset isn’t one of racing. Instead I’m just planning to use this event as a training run. Given my foot concerns and really low mileage over the past two months, I don’t want to do any damage to myself by putting too much stress on a body that can’t bear it.

Of course, the notion of using a race as a “training run” is probably one of the biggest lies we tell ourselves as runners. There are times when, for any number of good reasons (near-future races that are more important , a low level of fitness, coming off an injury, feeling like there’s some type of illness or burnout coming on, etc.), we WANT to do the right thing and hold back our effort while running in an organized event…. But then we huddle together at the start line and the gun goes off and all those plans go out the window. And then we might have to face the consequences of that inappropriately hard effort, and beat ourselves up a bit because we didn’t stick to the plan of just “running” instead of “racing.”

Maybe the problem arises because it can be difficult to know what exactly the differences are between “racing” an event and merely using it as a training run.

Some people might draw the line at how the presence of other participants affects their own running pace. Perhaps if a person is competing against or trying to finish ahead of fellow runners, then they’re in more of a “racing” mindset. But plenty of us compete against others on group training runs, too (whether we admit it to ourselves or not), so maybe that distinction isn’t particularly helpful. (For me, even if I’m in a “racing” mindset I usually don’t key off other runners – I don’t know their pacing strategy, their level of fitness, or how mentally strong they are – their speed as motivation when I don’t know if doing so is going to help me get a better time, or is going to lead to me crashing and burning.)

Another way I could try to figure out if I’m truly using a race as a training run is whether I set a specific goal time. For example, I might try to “race” a 10 mile distance in under 85 minutes, but my “workout” goal on the same course might be 95 or 100 minutes (or even no time goal at all).

The problem with that is I usually try to “race” without having a time goal. I’ve slowly realized that I don’t have a good set of data about my fitness level, or the expertise to translate that data into information, so trying to set a time goal often feels too much like guesswork. Sure, if I’ve raced the course before I could try to beat that prior time, but is that goal reasonable? Doing that doesn’t take into account my current level of fitness, whether I’m fighting off a cold, whether I’m tired from the past couple weeks’ workouts (whether I notice it or not), how the weather and other conditions at the race this year might be different from last, any differences between my diet in a few days leading up to the race, the fact that I’m another year older, and countless other things I might not even be able to identify. As a result, I often come to the conclusion that setting an unreasonable (whether too fast or too slow) time goal for a race might be worse (in performance terms) than having no time goal at all.

So since my real goal is to run this as a workout, I’m going to set a “feel” goal of getting to the finish line with something left in the tank.

And maybe that’s the best way for me to consider the difference between racing the race and using it for a workout. When I “race” I anticipate getting to the finish line feeling completely spent, being relieved I’m done, and thinking that it would be difficult to run even a single mile more. I know after a “race” that there will be some true recovery time needed, and I might not want to run the next day.

So in trying to do the Run Through Time as a “workout” I want to finish the marathon still feeling like going a couple extra miles wouldn’t be much of a problem. After all, isn’t this how we want to do long workouts anyway? That is, tired from the time spent on the feet, but not so tired that we couldn’t keep running, and not so tired that we wouldn’t want to go out for a couple easy miles the next day…

I’m going to try really hard not to get caught up in the spirit of racing moment when the gun goes off tomorrow morning. I’m going to run within myself, and let everyone else blaze past me if their pace feels too hot. I’m going to ignore my watch and try to get to the finish line with plenty of energy left. But no promises.