Picture this: after training for months, dedicating both your time and your body to run miles on miles, psyching yourself up for a good race (or a good season), it all falls apart in the end. Your race goes horribly. What could be worse? If you’ve been racing for a while you don’t just have to imagine — you can recall. Every runner has been there, whether it’s one bad race or a whole crummy season. But what do you do to bounce back after the blow?
How to bounce back isn’t something that I’ve figured out entirely. Even though I’m still learning, this past year I did learned a lot — I was anemic during cross country, and after one very promising meet to open the track season, I contracted mono which greatly affected the rest of my season. Basically, it was a year of dissatisfaction with my races. But injury or illness isn’t always what leads to a bad race — sometimes nothing in particular can be pin-pointed as the reason. On the other hand, a million little things seem to be at fault, and they all build up into one big catastrophe.
How to get over a bad race is a real issue for runners. Running is a mental sport. A bad race can affect your mental performance and how you deal with it can play a role in how you race mentally in the future. The subject is on my mind again now that my training partner has just ran the Portland marathon and done not nearly as well as we’d hoped.
It’s made me think ‘what would I tell someone who’s trying to get over the blues of a disappointing race?’ To be honest, I don’t believe that there’s an exact science to it — I think that as you grow as a runner you learn how to get your head back in the game after a let-down. But I do think that there are a few fundamental steps to getting over a bad race that most runners would agree upon, and some tips that might be useful, but the particulars are up to you.
The first thing is to give yourself time to grieve. That may seem dramatic, but running takes a lot of dedication, and months of training culminating in a bad race is something worth being bummed over. Something I learned this past year is that after a bad race it’s okay to not be okay with it, and that doesn’t meant that you’re being a poor sport. While positivity and the ability to bounce back are vital as a runner, so is ambition, and part of that ambition is fueled by not being satisfied when you know you were capable of doing better. So while your non-runner friends might wonder why you’re being so mopey — you do have a right to mope… for the time being.
After you’ve grieved, you’ve got to get over it. Stop dwelling on the race and move on from it. At this stage you are no longer allowed to think “if only I had gutted out that last mile (or last lap), then I would have achieved [insert goal here].” This stage is probably the hardest—I know, because there have been nights where I’ve ended up awake, making all the excuses for myself, or telling myself what I would have done differently if I were transported back in time to “that race”.
But really, all that did was make me sleepy during my workout the next day, which is what I should have been focused on at that point anyway. As hard as it is to put a bad race out of your mind, after a day or two you’ve got to focus on what you’re doing at present, rather than what you would have done.
Even though you’re not dwelling on the race anymore, it’s not like you can completely forget what happened, so use that to your advantage by using the memory of your bad race fuel you to better performances. If you still feel frustration at the occasional thought of it, let that motivate you. The danger here is to not let revenge be your main motivator. In a sport as particular as running, where you can have a good day or a bad day so unpredictably, viewing a new race purely as revenge for an old one is risky business.
If the second race, the revenge race, goes poorly as well it could be even more of a blow mentally than the first time, so bring new and positive hope for your new race, or new racing season. Also, it’s tough to be a fierce competitor if you’re preoccupied with hoping that you don’t flop like the last time — that doubt can’t be there. Build your confidence based on what you know you’re currently capable of, but let any lingering agitation give you some extra kick when it’s called for.
To give a personal example, during my first 800m back after my worst race in history (a very depressing 800m last spring), the thought that surfaced in my mind as we rounded the final curve was “there is no way I am letting that happen again.” The determination not to repeat the past brought me to a much better close during that race than the last one. On the flip side, if I had gone into that race thinking only of not doing poorly, I probably would have psyched myself out of a good race by permeating on a bad one. Not to mention that thinking about such an awful race again would have put me into a state of depression that no one should attempt to race in.
In addition to using failure as your catalyst, you can also learn from it. Sometimes it’s really not your fault — you did everything correctly and things didn’t pan out in your favor. But often times there are small things that can be learned from in every race, successful or unsuccessful.
These sorts of things include whether you went out at too fast or slow of a pace, or whether you warmed up properly and such. It should also be noted that (with the exception of tracks, of course) race courses differ, and if you’re purely looking at time as an indicator success, you need to account for whether it was particularly hilly, or had an insane amount of twists and turns, and other things that can affect your time.
The last thing to do is realize that this sport is cruel, but we love it, and that’s a major lesson that this last racing season has taught me. Running, especially with the inevitable good days and bad days, and unexpected illness and injuries, can lead to some heart break. Running itself does not know or care about the miles and months.
It is a sport that requires true dedication and emotional investments in order to succeed, and those emotional investments make it all the harder when you fail. But the ecstasy of a great season, or that one (or two or three) perfect race(s), make any heartache worth it, and the hope of this is why we keep going.
Until next time, I’ll see you on the trails!