Tell Me Tuesday: How to Run a Smart Race

When the best part of a bike ride is shooting the sheep, you might need to refocus.
When the best part of a bike ride is shooting the sheep, you might need to refocus.

I ran the New York City Marathon in 1997. And a short 10 years later, I ran my second marathon: Nike Women's.

I did my first half-Ironman in 2002, the spring after I had a miscarriage, to prove that I had control of my body. I did my second in 2004, after having my daughter, to prove that I had control of my life. And then, a short eight years later, did my third in preparation for Ironman.

Oh, and in 2011, I threw in the Mt. Taylor Quad, a crazy race up and down a New Mexico mountain, mostly for a magazine story.

I did my one—and probably only—Ironman in 2013.

Brief recap: 1997, 2002, 2004, 2007, 2011, and 2013 (a double-whammy) were big event years for me.

My definition of big event? Something that is going to take me at least four hours to complete, if not more. While a half-marathon is definitely significant, the training and race don't drain me, physically and mentally, like a marathons and long-distance triathlons do.

This year, this is what I have lined up: Half-Ironman in Boulder in June (70.3 miles that, on an ideal day, will take me 5.5. hours); Pikes Peak Ascent in August (13.1 miles and 7,000+ feet of climbing that, on an ideal day, will take me 4ishhours); Philadelphia Marathon in November (4+ hours with Kelly, my 26Strong Runner; although I'm there to run her pace and cheer her on, I'll still be going 26.2 miles).

Brief recap: I've done seven big events over 16 years, and this year, just 365 days after the biggest athletic year of my life, I'm going to do three.


Um, to paraphrase Dr. Phil, how is that going to work for you, Dimity?

Answer to the bald-headed self-help doc: "Well, not super well, actually. I've been feeling particularly enervated lately—and I haven't even crossed a starting line yet. No idea how I'm going to do it all."

There was no rhythm or rhyme to my big events in previous years; I only used my gut and heart to guide me. Did I really, really want to do that thing? Then do I would do it, and be content for another couple of years until I found another thing I really, really wanted to do.

But somehow, when I finished Ironmother—which I really, really, really wanted to do—last year, I got swept up into the "if some is good, more is better" mentality. I certainly relished the race I put together and the finish line feeling for months and months, but, along the way, I convinced myself that it wasn't enough. I had to keep pushing hard.

2014: Big event followed by big event, followed by another big event. Huh.

Planning this year, I didn't listen to my gut or heart. I only listened to the voices that said, "You can go faster. You should train harder. You're a fast swimmer and cyclist, and you should see what you can do at the half-Ironman distance." Those stubborn, hard-core voices tuned out the sensible ones. The ones that reminded me, "You aren't into this. You have no desire to swim or ride fast right now. Every workout feels like a chore. You've got no spark."

What I want to do besides train: eat big breakfasts and read the NY Times like SBS.
What I want to do besides train: eat big, yummy breakfasts and read the NY Times like SBS.

My gut and heart finally got my attention about a week ago. I was on a bike ride in Boulder, one of my first true outdoor rides this year; I should've loved letting my legs spin and my quads work and my speed climb. Instead, all I could think about was getting home and and just being home. I wanted to clean my closet. I wanted to play Clue with my kiddos. I wanted to make a good dinner and eat it with Grant. I wanted to connect to my family, my marriage, my home—and I can't do that in from the saddle of my bike.

And go mini-golfing with my boy on his 8th birthday without worrying about what my week of workouts looked like. (We played 90 holes: that's a workout, right?)
And go mini-golfing with my boy on his 8th birthday without worrying about what my week of workouts looked like. (We played 90 holes: that's a workout, right?)

It wasn't just a bad training day. I know how to get through those. I hadn't had a good training day since I started focusing on Boulder. Deep down, I knew I didn't want to do any more long training rides. I knew I didn't want to swim in a wetsuit, nor did I want to figure out how I was going to pull off a half-marathon after swimming and biking for ridiculously long distances.

I (happily) went through all of that last year—and it feels way too soon for me to be doing it again.

And go to the Shakespeare Festival with my 5th grader, who refused to turn around for a picture. (She was a fairy in a Midsummer's Night's Dream.)
And go to the Shakespeare Festival with my 5th grader, who refused to turn around for a picture, and have some energy since I didn't just ride my bike for nearly two hours at 5 a.m.. (She was a fairy in a Midsummer's Night's Dream.)

Brief recap: I'm not going to do the Half-Ironman in Boulder in early June.

After I made that decision, my mental load got about 1,000 times lighter. To actually decide for myself not to do a race—and not let an injury dictate my fate—felt surprisingly empowering, if a little sad. I have the skills to do this thing, I have the equipment do this thing, I have the race bib to do this thing, I have the muscular power and aerobic capacity to do this thing...why don't I want to do this thing? I'm honestly not quite sure, but I know one thing: I should not do this thing if I know what's best for me.

Some people can get fired up to race big year after year (or month after month), but I'm clearly not that person. And the more I accept that that, the less time I'll waste listening to random voices that don't resonate with the person I am.

How do you decide when you're ready to take on a big race? Do you ever race when your heart and gut aren't into it? 

(By the way, my heart and gut are still intrigued by Pikes Peak; let's see if they feel that way when I start huffing and puffing up the hills for training. And I'm all in for 26Strong with Kelly. "Yes! Yes! Yes!" chant those voices.)



51 responses to “Tell Me Tuesday: How to Run a Smart Race

  1. I’m feeling much the same way right now. I signed up to do a triathlon in July simply because a friend of mine begged me too. I am NOT a swimmer. Try as I might I can’t master the timing of the breathing. I even hired a swim coach who told me after a few weeks there was nothing more she can help me with until I can master that. I completed an Iron Girl swimming the backstroke. That was my bucket list accomplishment. The last time I was in the pool I cried. My heart isn’t in this.
    But how do I tell my friend I’m bowing out?

  2. I’m debating trying a marathon. I’m not afraid of the work, physical work that goes into it — it’s the time factor that scares me.

  3. way to go. I know that was a hard decision. Sounds like it was definately the right thing to do.
    Good for you! I have been caught in that cycle and it is tough. Great job Dimity!

  4. I am totally on the fence about doing a marathon in the fall but I just finished a training cycle and I’m thinking I want to spend some time with family. Thanks for sharing your ‘brain-heart struggle’- many can relate!!

  5. Yay! Thank you for this! Sometimes there is so much pressure to train and race (people I know are always pointing out races I should do), it’s nice to hear the other side of it- choosing to spend more time with family and just doing what you love- not just going big all the time. So refreshing! Thank you!

  6. I’m so glad you made peace with your decision, I’m sure it will be the best for you and your family. The worst thing is coming to the decision and then second guessing yourself.

    Right now trying to decide if my heart and gut would be in another full for fall……

  7. I just love this post for so many reasons. I ran my first half marathon in 2012, and got so wrapped up in the further, faster, run it all that I immediately jumped on board with running #13in2013 – all half marathons. By the end of the year, I was burnt out and running became work, not something I enjoyed. I changed it up this year and after a few months off and just a couple short races, I’m finding my love for the run again. Actually, I really MISS the running community, and I’ll run some miles to be part of that tribe any day. 🙂
    Wise decision making on your part. In the long run (ha, see what I did there?), your kids will remember that you were present, not how many big events you tackled.

  8. Thanks for keeping it real! I consider myself and mom and wife before a runner, and it is important to keep that in perspective and to remember that we are human and we can’t do it all. Thanks also for giving me motivation. Yesterday I had planned to run 7 miles and I really felt tired. But I was thinking of this post and I got my butt in gear and had a really nice run along the Eagle River in Edwards before my son’s track meet. It was cold and trying to snow, but it turned into a really nice run!

  9. Wow! You have no idea how much I needed to hear that I am not alone in some of the thoughts that go through my head! Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in what I feel like I should do (sometimes to feed my esteam), rather than what I want to do. It takes A LOT to simply admit that right now is just not the time, and even more to actually act on that. Family time is precious and is a gift that we can’t take for granted.


  10. I have completed three halfs in the past four years but will complete three in 2014 only. The final two will be just two weeks apart. What was I thinking? I’m the girl who usually doesn’t run for an entire month after a half, because I just don’t feel like running, or walking for that matter, anywhere. I can ride my bike, I can swim in a pool, I will even go to my regular boot camp class, but ask me to go for a run or a walk after a half, and I think, ‘Ugh!’ So it’s good to know I’m not the only one who wonders, ‘what the heck was I thinking?!’ I’m going to do them; I might not ever do another, but I’m okay with that.

    The ‘surprise’ race I signed up for is in my hometown and runs past some of my old stomping grounds, if you will. My family has all moved away, so I rarely have reason to return. I’m not fast anyways, so I’m not looking to set any land speed records, and I don’t really plan to shoot for a PR. All I want to do is enjoy that half and take it all in. I wasn’t a runner until I was 36, so I’ve never run in my hometown. I want to see the city from a runner’s eye, something I would have never imagined when I was younger. I think that alone will make running two halfs almost back to back doable for me.

  11. This post resonated with me and couldn’t have come at a better time. I spent the winter training for my first HM of 2014 last weekend, which came and went and was a real lackluster performance for me. After evaluating the stuff that was in my control (training, conditioning, nutrition) and out of my control (this winter’s weather, parents who are not healthy right now, race day weather) I decided against not doing a second half marathon in 5 weeks. What purpose would it serve? I know what I need to focus on — quality over quantity (hill repeats, anyone?), getting my eating habits re-aligned, making a serious dent in the pounds I gained over this long winter (It’s like I started carbo loading in November and didn’t stop). I’ve set my heart and mind on completing my first marathon next fall and I want to get there. Taking 4-6 weeks “off plan” but still very much focusing on nutrition and conditioning will help me get my spark back. I just couldn’t get excited about another Saturday “long run” for awhile. But 4-5 miles with hills and a new scenic route? Yeah, that sounds fun. Who wants to start a marathon training plan in burn-out mode? Recipe for disaster and injury. My new mantra: BUILD THE HOUSE, BRICK BY BRICK.

  12. I so totally get where you’re coming with this. I had big race and time goals for myself this year, and I changed them. There’s a lot I want to do, but I also want to enjoy it. I’m still training and doing races, but I’m sticking to half marathons this year (or, as you put it at the Tink Expo, focusing on half marathons)rather than pushing for a marathon I don’t want to train for. I’m super excited that my 10 year old wants to do a 5k and I’m training my puppy to run with me 🙂
    Sometimes I have to remember, I started running to fight depression, and I refuse to create my own anxiety just to hit a goal.

  13. Great Post, Dim! I saw SBS tweet about this and came over to read it…so glad I did! I’m a few years ahead of you with the kiddos (one leaving for college, one applying, and one heading into HS) and I can say that somewhere over the past two years my heart changed with respect to racing. As you know, training for rowing means early morning time on the water, and that means never being home for breakfast or seeing them off to school. Plus, if we start with sprint races in the Spring and end with HOCR, it means 11 months of training nonstop, every day, every week, every month. It was sometime on a dark and cold Saturday morning in mid-October when I realized I just wanted to make banana bread and actually attend one of their hockey games. So, I just turned the alarm off, texted my partner I couldn’t make it and curled up next to my husband. Ironically it was the one leaving for college who just this past winter asked me to back off my training and “just be present” before he leaves. SMACK! There will always be races to run/bike/swim/row, but these years with the kids can not be rescheduled, and no matter what they or Grant say, they all would prefer that you were “present” (in every sense of that word) to go through it with them! Run for fun right now, don’t worry about proving stuff to yourself until you actually have time to fill with such stuff 🙂 xo-K

  14. I felt exactly the same way after my IM in 2012- no burning desire to train for a big event; just wanted to catch up on family time. It took about a year of lower-key training before I wanted to take on something big, and that felt right to me. Take all the time you need- you have nothing to prove, IronMother!

  15. I totally get this… BAMRS should run because they WANT to — not because they have to, should or might feel guilty if they don’t. This little healthy habit is supposed to be fun! (not make you crazy) If you want to be with your kiddos playing board games, DO IT. If you want to make dinner for the hubby, DO IT. Atta girl. Proud of your decision, Dimity. Smart lady you are. Thanks for setting the example for all of the tribe.

  16. Good for you for calling the ball. We had the goal to run a Half Marathon every month in 2014 – except June and July. I had run 2 Halfs a week apart in mid December. By the time our January Half came up on Jan 4 I was over it. Not interested. Hostile. But I had set the goal and so I felt I had to run the race. Had my husband not been there to psychologically and sometimes physically DRAG me through the course I would still be sitting on the side of the road refusing to move. Our race at the end of Feb was MUCH more pleasant. Racing when unmotivated is no good for anyone.

  17. Are you Kim from Utah that used to call in to Running with the Pack? I’m so glad to hear an update from you! And you WON! Way to go!

    Aside from Kim’s post, I loved this blog. It is so easy to get carried away and to lose sight of why we do what we do.

  18. Amen, sister! I’m not nearly as experienced as you. I ran my first mile Feb 23, 2013 and my first marathon Feb 23, 2014. I had thought I’d do a 50K in April, but I just couldn’t do it. I’m ok with that. It’s nice to be validated by a badass!

  19. I”m totally on the same page this year. I ran 8 marathons last year. Course PR’s in all of them. Won the Utah Grand Slam and won my first marathon. Even placed in the top 10 at the St. George Marathon with a 2:51. I’m proud of those accomplishments, but mentally exhausted. I’ve done very little training this year. No speed work. Ran Boston simply because my heart wouldn’t let me skip it. It was just what I needed. I was a bit undertrained, but my spirit was lifted. I ran for the joy of it, not the PR of it. What a difference it has made. My priorities are shifted. After last year’s bombings, I just wanted to hole up with my family and be together. This year I’m going to do just that. I plan on running the Eugene Marathon (the town I grew up in so long ago) and Berlin with a friend who grew up there. Aside from that, who knows. Life is short. Listen to your gut.

  20. Growth past, Dimity. I’ve been struggling with the same thing, feeling like I need to balance getting healthy again with this stupid obligation to do at least 1 tri a year because I have the bike. I don’t love triathlon. I really hate open water swims. I’m not a great cyclist. What I know is I want to be a good runner again & finish my 2nd 26.2 this fall. I decided this week to scrap the 2 tris I was looking at. Detroit is my focus this year.

  21. This post really rings true for me! Thanks for writing it. I ran the New York City Marathon last year and after some convincing from friends I signed up for it this year, even though I had planned to skip this year and run in 2015. And while I know I should be base training I have no Umph! I just want to hang out with my family and bake brownies and relax. Wake up when I want and do runs and not feel like the runs are looming over me…I too loved the training last year but I feel like I may be pushing it to run this year…I am still undecided but it is nice to know that someone else was in similar shoes and that its okay to just bake the brownies sometimes.

  22. Great post, Dimity. I love that you are doing what is best for you. Only you can make that call. It’s gonna be a great summer and fall!

  23. Congratulations on knowing your heart and doing what is best for you! The older I’ve gotten(I’m 49), the easier it has become to say “no” to the things that I don’t want to do, and not let anyone (including myself) guilt me into doing them.

  24. Well said once again Dimity. Your words, your thought process,and your honesty all give a great perspective on a reality that hits home to so many AMR’s. I’ve never been a big event kind of person for many of the reasons you listed: time, money, family obligations and I’ve been envious of those who have found the way to make it happen in their lives. For me it is all about finding the balance and setting my own goals (big and small) without outside influence and then figuring out how to negotiate it all within the confines of my family system. It’s a great way to model to my children how to handle successes and disappointments and achieve great things whether it’s a marathon or getting out on a daily run and feeling happy and healthy.
    Thanks for your insight!

  25. Balance is a good thing. If your heart is elsewhere then your body needs to follow. I can’t imagine racing if my heart wasn’t into it. It’s a hard enough mental challenge to train when your heart is excited!

  26. I think it would be easier to DNS a race that I hadn’t paid $200+ for, like a 5k or a half marathon.
    That being said, I so appreciate your perspective, on signing up for and competing races that you really, really want to do.
    I’m racing the states, and my “plan of attack” has changed each year. Sometimes I’ve rushed through a state or two, just to get it done. As the last half of the states are on my radar, I’m more like you, finding races that excite me and make me want to get out there and run them.
    Thanks for an insightful post.

  27. Many times during my 30 years in the AF as I mentored younger women I would tell them “You can have it all but just not at the same time”. You are the only one who can decide what works best for you and your family….and don’t worry what others think as long as it’s right for you.

    (I began running races about 10 years ago but didn’t run my first marathon until our only child went to college 5 years later — marathon training was my “empty-nest” project)

  28. I dropped from the Pgh full which I was signed up and paid for, to the half b/c of lack of training, and my heart wasn’t in it. I felt like a weight was lifted off me after I switched! Will do a full again some day, but only when it feels like the right time to train! YetAnotherSusan is right, it’s the training time that you have to make room and be ready for! If you’re not feeling it, don’t do it! You made the right decision!

  29. Great post. You know what’s great about being an adult? Making your own choices based on what you need. For any AMR, it’s important to be okay with priorities shifting/growing/changing…it’s life:) Enjoy that breakfast, NYT, and kiddo time…

  30. Thanks for the tears this AM. I can feel your emotions in the blog and totally get it. I remember when I committed to my first 1/2 marathon in 2007. I asked my hubby for his support both mentally and kid duty. He was a trooper. Now he runs full marathons while I continue to run 1/2 marathons. The kids and I miss him when he has long runs. This weekend will be his 3 marathon and my 9th 1/2 marathon, but the best part is that I get my hubby to myself from noon on Friday to mid afternoon on Monday.
    Thanks for reminding me to listen to my heart and head and sticking with 1/2s.

  31. wow! what a difficult decision to come to. but sounds like it was really the right one. remember: it isn’t just the actual hours doing the event, it is more so all that time training for it!

    oh, and thanks for teaching me a new word today. I had to look up “enervated.”

  32. Such a great post. Knowing when to say NO is such a hard journey for all of us, especially when we are typically YES people.

  33. Oh, thank you for that! I really appreciated that. Life is not about more and more and more. I’m trying to relish my life and relationships and prioritize!

  34. Congrats on getting into NYC! I applied, hoping it would be my first full, but did not get in. I spectated it last fall (my hubby ran as an Achilles guide to a disabled runner), and it was electric!

  35. I loved this. I think you’re an awesome mom and an inspiring athlete. I am on the OTHER side of this. Having run 12 half marathons since Dec 2011, I *just* decided to take the plunge and train for my first full marathon, something I swore I would never do. (I also swore I would never run unless someone was chasing me…)
    My oldest two will be in school full-time in August, and my four-year-old will be in preschool, the Y daycare, or the stroller enough for me to be able to do the TLAM Marathon: Finish It plan.
    I think you have to just know your life and your limits and what will keep your family the healthiest and happiest. My husband is a marathoner, which works out great for us. We each respect the need to follow through on scheduled workouts.

  36. You are speaking to my soul today Dimity. I ran my very first marathon in October. I was new to running but the stars aligned and the training just “worked”. The race was not wonderful but I finished it. I have been training for a 2nd marathon at the end of May. A few weeks ago I was accepted into the NYC marathon lottery. A long shot, I thought. Suddenly the looming long runs in the next 2 months and then starting all over again to prep for NYC was weighing me down. And my quad was strained from a hilly half at a fast (for me) pace. I felt all of those things. And the pressure to not let down a training partner. I took 6 days off. I decided to let go of the pressure of meeting a certain goal time for long runs. I paid attention to my pace but gave myself permission to just run. Letting go a little bit renewed my energy just enough. I’m not going to stress so much about meeting every single mile. And I’m not going to stress if the pace on my long runs is 10 minutes instead of 9:45. And I will try my hardest to be happy for and supportive of my training partner who does meet those time goals, that’s her training and not mine.

  37. I didn’t start running until my youngest was 13. I didn’t start racing until he was 15. I have repeatedly said I do not know how women with younger children do what I’ve done or what you are planning to do. Dropping one item is wonderful. We all need to feel at ease with our plans, our lives.

  38. Thanks for sharing your feelings with such honesty! I doubt you will regret not doing the 70.3, and it may help you get more excited for the events that remain. Hopefully this will allow more family/spouse time and renew you for the rest of the year.

  39. I am very proud of you. It is hard to realize you need to back out and even harder to do it with an audience. Great job!

  40. Dimity… not totally surprised by your decision, but happy for you to have made it. Having listened to the podcasts, you alluded to these feelings. I think we all go thru those moments when you want to just call it a day. And the real test is knowing the difference between a bad training day & truly not wanting to race. Add in the guilt of ‘giving up’ – which you aren’t doing, you are just changing priorities & perspective.

    I GET where you are, having been there these past 2 yrs. I am not your typical reader/Mother Runner, in that I am a grandmother/Masters trackie (NEVER have run a marathon but have raced a number of halfs – 5Ks). In 2011, after spending 6yrs building & faltering (thru injuries), I was finally healthy, fit & ready to race my heart out at the World Masters Track & Field Champs (which happened to be held in Sacramento, CA instead of half way around
    the world). Everything came together that week, and I doubled gold in my events (800m & 1500m). I was on top of the world happy!

    But, it has taken me over 2 yrs to feel any enthusiasm towards training hard again. Something finally clicked last November, and I’m back at it & (mostly) loving it! Not sure about Worlds, but definitely racing this summer. Hoping to keep it together for the next BIG age group.

  41. I’m so happy for you that you made this decision!
    I have done this: This Saturday, I’ll be running the Wisconsin HALF marathon. I was originally registered for the full marathon. My daughter’s been sick with Guillain Barre (though almost fully recovered now 🙂 ) and I had a ton of non-running related demands. When she’d find me running, it would depress her (because she could barely move). So I tried to minimize any running done during her waking hours, which would make marathon training long runs impossible.
    I was still able to keep up my mileage, just spread out across more days for shorter distances each day, but that lends itself better to a half marathon.
    So I e-mailed the race people and asked them to switch me. It felt like failure. I’m REALLY stubborn about my goals so this was a huge thing for me. But it felt so right.
    And it turns out that this Saturday has 4 different events going on and that skipping any of them would have caused a lot of disappointment to some member of the family, so it’s best that I only be running for 2 hours of it.

  42. This has been one of your most relatable posts for me. Thanks, Dimity. I too, only do “big” events every other year or so. I run during off-years and race shorter distances, but the commitment and energy required for a marathon is just more than I’m willing to give. And that’s okay. As I get mentally ready to face down marathon training again, I wonder if I wouldn’t be faster if I hadn’t waited a year and a half to race 26.2 miles again. Then I remind myself–running is not life; running is part of life.

  43. Thank you for this post! I think that while we are all so excited for one another to do races, it is very hard to decide not to do a race. I trained for an ultra marathon that was cancelled the day before the event last year and I’ve had a hard time being excited about running and racing since then. I ran and ran and ran some more and the nothing. I signed up for races afterwards, but wasn’t excited. I ran a marathon last year, but my head wasn’t in it and I was just off. This winter was horrible for my running – I’m a run outside or not at all girl living on the East coast. I signed up for a marathon to celebrate my big birthday this month and could not get one ounce of excitement about training. So, I cancelled. I have not really given myself permission to be OK with that decision, I just felt like a failure, until now. Thanks Dimity for being reminding me that more and more is not always good – physically or mentally. Oh, and by the way, I did just sign up for another ultra in October because this is a finish line I want to cross. Like you, I also want to do fun things with my kids, clean my closets (well, I don’t really want to clean my closets, but I need to), and make dinner from those Cooking Light magazine that are piling up. Thanks again.

  44. Wow. I appreciate the honesty and seeing that y’all feel this way sometimes, too. I, too, would bail on my Ironman 70.3 in June if I were not a relay runner and would be letting my teammates down if I backed out now. I am glad you’ll be there in November cheering me on in Philly. Oh, and it might be more like 5 hours to finish the marathon so don’t stress too much about that one! Pikes Peak will be tough, for sure, but sounds amazing.

  45. I love your post! You are so good at putting into words exactly how your are feeling. I already really respect you and all you’ve done, but now I respect you even more if that’s possible. I understand how you feel. I let my heart lead me with racing. I think it’s good you put the half-ironman aside if you’re hearts not into it. I go by what my heart wants to do. If I’m not enjoying the training and want to focus more on my family I just do sprint tris instead of longer ones. When the fire starts to burn bigger, then I’ll see what my heart wants, and this year I’m training for my first marathon.

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