A couple of weeks ago, I spoke at a track and cross country coaches clinic in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and met the current coach at the high school I graduated from in New Jersey. He gave me the school’s track/cross country racing singlet, and yesterday was the first chance I had to race in it. It was the first time in 25 years I had worn a Marlboro High School racing singlet. It was pretty cool.
As I wrote in The Inner Runner, when you pin that race number to your shirt, you make a promise to yourself and to the other runners around you to give your best effort. And when you cross that finish line, you’ll know whether or not you kept that promise. I kept that promise yesterday. Even though I’m not as fast as I used to be as a teenager at Marlboro High School, I can still promise to give the race everything I have.
When I first started running track and cross country in school, and for many years after, I defined myself by how fast I ran my races. If I didn’t run as fast as I wanted, I would get down on myself. I would mope around for days after a disappointing race. My identity was tied to my race results. Although I still get disappointed when I don’t run as fast as I want or think I should, I’ve slowly and reluctantly realized that I’m not defined by my races. I’m still a great person if I don’t run a 4:29 mile or a 2:59 marathon. And so are you.
Except for the few people who have the ability to win races, racing is not about winning. Sure, it feels good to win. I’ve been fortunate enough to win a number of races in my life, all of which were when I was younger and none of which were of any real consequence other than how good it made me feel. I fell far short of the Olympic dreams of my youth. No matter what level of runner you are, running is about how much we can put ourselves on the line, literally and figuratively, to measure up against our true selves and to shorten the distance between who we are and who we want to be. When we put ourselves on the line and pledge to run as fast as we can, we become vulnerable. We expose ourselves to the one person we matter most to—our self.
Racing is the best example of living through our bodies. When we race, we push our bodies to their limit. Or at least we hope to. We are given the rare opportunity to act like an animal in the wild, running free and showing our inner strength. Racing, if we do it with our whole heart, forces us to face what is happening right at that moment, in a way that few other experiences do. We give it our all, and we get even more back.
I always tell the runners I coach when going into a race that the most important thing is that they finish the race feeling like they couldn’t have done any better on that day. Regardless of the outcome—the time on the clock and the place you finish—what matters most is that you walk away from the race being able to say to others and to yourself that you gave it everything you had. That alone is something to be immensely proud of. That alone is worth the race entry fee.
Thank you, Coach Raymond Sypniewski, for the Marlboro High School racing singlet. I’ll wear it with pride when I race, and remember to always give my best effort. Go Mustangs!