Race Day Anxiety So Much More than the Jitters

CGAS Cape Code 5K - 1985
CGAS Cape Code 5K – 1985

A lot of you out there will not understand what the big deal is about race day anxiety.

You probably think of it as just bad case of pre-race jitters and are thinking – “get over it, running in a race is not a big deal – look at how many runners do all the time.

Well you are wrong.

If you have truly experienced an race day anxiety attack and an attack is what it is.

It is debilitating, embarrassing and not just just that you can simply “get over” and go run your race.

How do I know?

I ran one race in 25 years, because of how race day anxiety made me feel about running in a races.

Where did it start?

Probably back in high school.

I have always been competitive, but at the same time I was always very insecure about myself and if I even belonged with the “better” runners or the “cool” kids. Back then I didn’t fit in, a small nerdy guy who was trying to be one of the jocks, who didn’t have many friends, from a pretty rough and tumble family, etc.

I was so scared of failure, I just couldn’t bear to have my fantasies dashed against the rocks of reality, even though I was not a bad runner and could have done a lot better than I did.

I would fake being sick, sneak off to somewhere else, create reasons that I could not go (I had work, babysit, grounded, etc.), fake injuries and all the other tricks, I used to get out of doing something that scared the hell out of me – running in a meet against top competition, so you do not have to show others “how good” you really are.

Once high school was over, I didn’t race all that often (probably about 10 times), so my problems with race anxiety were not a real problem, until I moved to Connecticut in late 1984. Once I got there I started running with a bunch of runners, who were into running hard and racing a lot.

I started to get better as a runner, nothing great, but I was consistently breaking 6:00 minute miles for distances up to 10 miles, my times were continuing to get lower and I even had some of delusions of grandeur.

As I got better and had the potential to get even better, my personal expectations of what I should do at races and in training increased exponentially.

It got to the point where I had some very unrealistic expectations about what I should be doing and some fairly lofty goals for a “nobody” runner.

When I failed to achieve those goals during a race or even in training, I became miserable and was not fun to be around for days afterwards.

I became an asshat.

My running, especially my racing was negatively affecting both my personal and professional lives. Those unrealistic expectations for my real ability level, destroyed my enjoyment of the sport I had grown to love and increasingly caused me to hate competing.

Race Anxiety

Here are some of the things I felt the week before most races, especially ones that I wanted to do really well or was planning to race against a particular person:

  • All you can think about is how you are going to do in the race, from fantasizing about keeping up with the really fast runners, passing your primary competitor over the last few yards, to what your actual race strategy should or will be
  • your work suffers and your boss starts to annoy you with very reasonable demands,
  • you get moody and easily agitated – you snap at others, are cranky,
  • instead of sleeping you toss and turn for hours on end, which means you wake up bleary eyed and tired = even crankier,
  • you start to eat more and more comfort foods.
  • you have stress headaches most of the week
  • the bottom line is you feel like shit
  • you start to ask yourself if feeling this way is worth it

As race day gets closer, the stress only gets worse

  • you question if you even want to go
  • you start looking for reasons not to go to the race
  • if one of those reason does come up, you use the excuse and will back out to save face, but then you feel even worse, “I could’ve done it”, I could’ve been great” or from Rocky “I could’ve been a contendah”.
  • you are eating crap food for emotional comfort – you know the stuff you never eat unless you are totally stressed out
  • you are physically sick and feel even more like shit

Race day finally would get here

  • You don’t sleep the night before and more than likely the night before that
  • you are physically sick, nauseous, major headaches and really don’t want to get out of bed
  • you are really looking for any reason (big or small) to not go to the race
  • you look at your hands, they are shaking, trembling
  • you are don’t want to get ready to go
  • you finally get out the door and go back in 3-4 times to get things that you think you forgot
  • you get in your vehicle, grip the steering wheel with a death grip and say “I can do this”
  • while driving to the race, you try to find a reason to turn around (sometimes you do turn around and go somewhere else – anywhere else)
  • when you get there you sit in the car for 5-10 minutes getting your courage up to go to the registration table, get your number and swag
  • you don’t talk to anyone more than to grunt a greeting and then go find someplace to be by yourself
  • go to the bathroom multiple times, thinking to yourself, I still have time to get out of here
  • isolate yourself from other runners
  • do your warm-up and try to find a niggle that is big enough to walk away
  • go find a bush and puke
  • think again, I still have time to get out of here, I don’t have to do this

You line up at the start 10-15 minutes before the start of a small race (30-45 minutes of a bigger race); knowing that once you are at the start, you will not leave, except to go puke over at the side of the road

The gun goes off

  • Everything is suddenly fine, life is good, all you have to do is run and you run the race.
  • During the race, none of the crap you were thinking about bothers you, but you are tired, the stress of the previous week has destroyed your ability to run at your best and most of the time you miss your lofty goals.

After the Race

After everything is over, because you do not usually meet your expectations for the race:

  • you start to beat yourself up on things that you could have done differently, better or dug deeper during the race.
  • You leave without talking to very many of the other runners, not saying much more than a grunt and glare at them to say “leave me to f$%# alone.
  • you are becoming a total asshat and people who used to stop and talk with you are ask “what’s his f-ing problem?”
  • You just feel as though you have let the world down and
  • you feel like shit, because you did not live up to your expectations.
  • You don’t allow yourself to enjoy the camaraderie of the post-race celebration because you usually don’t have anything to celebrate

Did I experience all of those things at every race – no, but I experience most of them almost every time I planned to race. It went this way until a fortunate running related injury in the fall of 1986 and moving away from where I was living made it more difficult to be around that group of runners I was trying to keep up with.

Avoidance

During this down period, I became a normal person again, my first wife told me I was a lot easier to live with when I wasn’t getting ready for a race, my boss commented that my attitude at work was a lot better and both put a lot of pressure on me not to go back to racing.

After that, I would train for certain races, several marathons, but I didn’t make it to the starting line and stay there until the gun went off. Instead I didn’t get out of bed the day of the race – saying I felt too sick to run, turned around halfway to a race or left before the race started, even though I was at the race location, had pinned my number on and had even gotten through the warm-ups.

I can only remember doing one race – back in 2006 – The Spring Hill 5K at Good Will Hinckley and only did it because I worked there and a couple of the students said they would run if I did. It was like all those years from 1986 were gone and the week before the race I was miserable and that morning, I wanted to be anywhere else but on my way to or at that race, but I got to the starting line and did the race. Which re-ignited some of my passion for faster running and I wanted to beat one of the young stud teachers who soundly whipped my butt (I still haven’t caught him at the local races we have run, I will catch him someday 🙂 ).

While I trained hard the next year to be ready to go after my competitor, I didn’t have any interest in running in any of the other races that were constantly going on in the area. Unfortunately, at the last moment the organizers canceled the race and I felt a big sense of relief. I didn’t have to run.

Oh I kept running and had even trained for the 2007 Maine Marathon in addition to that 5K.  When I got a minor niggle the week before the marathon, I blew it way out of proportion and used it as an excuse to not run, when I probably could have run the race.

Racing again

The next race didn’t happen until January 2012. In May 2011 I had knee surgery and in June, I had started running again.

I had wanted to try a race again and had been looking online for a local January race. On a Thursday, I found out about the Central Maine Strider’s January Thaw 4.5 mile road race in Belgrade. You can read about my experience at that race.

The bottom-line is that I made it to the starting line and finished the race.

I made a promise to myself that I would race more, get involved with the local running community and not allow the racing to make me into an asshat again.

I have run in a quite a few races since then and each and every one has been a struggle to get to the starting line. Honestly, there have been several that I registered for that I did not go to, because – well I just couldn’t.

One of my problems over the past couple of years was when I participated in the 2012 Runner’s World Half Festival 5K and Half Marathon. I felt all of my usual race anxiety issues, but as a sponsored blogger, I knew that I had to do the races. I did quite well down there, which considerably raised my expectation of how I should do in future races.

During the spring 2013, I had a very good racing season and even though I still had some race day anxiety and problems with lofty expectations, I was showing up to races and doing well. Then I partially tore my Achilles in a race and things began to really go back downhill again.

In September 2013, I ran in the Rise ‘N Shine 5K in Augusta. However, in the weeks leading up to this race, I started to have many of the race anxiety symptoms that I described that caused me to stop racing back in 1986. I noticed myself retreating into my shell and I found myself looking for reasons to not go run the Rise ‘N Shine 5K, even though I really wanted to go – crazy huh! After the race I was disappointed with my performance and didn’t even stick around to gab or talk with other runners – I just left, I was becoming an asshat again.

Oh I put a positive spin on the race, but things were not all peaches and cream. After that 5k, I did not race from the end of September 2013 to January 2014 even though I had several opportunities and could have raced just about any weekend, My race anxiety had clawed its way out and was starting to take hold again.

I kept talking the good talk, attempting to move forward, stay engaged in my local and online running communities (which helps) and worked hard at not appearing that anything was wrong to anyone. After all, I am tough and it would make other runners think less of me, if I let anyone know what was really going on and why I wasn’t participating in local races.

The truth was that since I was not racing, I was definitely starting to miss seeing everyone that I usually see at the local races. Running by myself most of the time and not getting that camaraderie fix from the races was tough, the weekly CMS Group runs were not enough, but they sure did help until my recent knee and hamstring niggles.

I did run a race in January and had a lot of fun during the race because I just consider it a fun race, but still had to get through the hard part of getting to the starting line. I had planned to run a lot more races from February to April, but chose to not run in several others that I could have run in, and finally I ran in couple of races in April, where I completely bombed my expectations.

While I had gotten to the starting line for those last two races, I allowed my expectations over-ride the positive experiences that the races should have had. These two events forced me to re-look at what the hell I was doing and wanted from my running/races.

I did a lot of reflection and self-evaluation after these races, during which I acknowledged – to myself how much my false expectations and pre-race anxiety played in my enjoyment of those races.

Break Through

Last Saturday, I finally had a huge breakthrough for me. The strange part it was a race I had a Did Not Start. I registered for the Stride into Summer 5K in Gardiner a couple of weeks before and then this hamstring issue popped up. The hamstring niggle/strain/sprain/injury was the perfect opportunity for me back out and have a legitimate excuse to not run or even go there.

However, I still really wanted to run this race, even though my hamstring was bothering me. The night before, I slept soundly and during the drive there, I didn’t have that urge to turn-around that is the usual way I feel. When I picked up my race packet, I didn’t feel nervous and was laughing and joking around with other people who were there (even though it was pouring rain),.

When I started warming up and realized that I couldn’t run the race, I was pissed, instead of relieved.

I was mad at myself and my body, because I couldn’t run the race, instead of being happy about having a reasonable excuse not to run.

Even as I drove off, I trying to think of ways I could turn around and go back and run the race. I know/knew that it was the correct choice, I still wanted to run that damn race.

That was a huge difference and something I don’t think I have ever experienced.

Does this mean that I have re-solved all of my race anxiety issues – hell no, but it is a step in the right direction.

My Own Worst Enemy

I have finally figured out that I had become my own worst enemy when comes to racing. I put too much artificial pressure on myself to meet very lofty goals, many of which are or were unrealistic for me and not meeting those goals became a very stressful part of my life.

What am I Doing now to overcome it?

  • Writing about it – publicly. If I air out my dirty little secret, my race anxiety has less power over me
  • Continue my efforts re-join and continue participating in my local running community and online.
  • Writing at Ramshackle Runnah, after all you cannot write a running focused blog, without talking about races you have run in.
  • Focus more on the enjoyment and social aspects, versus the competitive aspect of running in a race.
  • I need to find a huge goal race, so that I have to keep practicing and going to races, so I just do not bail and stop racing again.
  • Eventually find a running coach to help me with my training/racing. Yeah me the guy who can’t follow a training plan and who is a complete cheapskate, finally admitting I can’t do it alone.

The reality is that

Let’s be honest this one race does not mean that I have solved my problems with race day anxiety. I know that I will still feel many if not most of the same feelings that I had back in 1986. Those feelings I get when I am getting ready to do a race have not magically disappeared. .

However, I am becoming more confident that overcoming my race anxiety issues is something that I can do a better job of in the future, especially since it is now a public beast, not just something inside of my head.

Is my race anxiety something that will ever go away completely – probably not. I am realistic enough to know that this is one of those demons that I will continue to battle to some extent, as long as I run races.

Three steps forward and sometimes two steps back is still progress.

Just trying to clean-up part of this Ramshackle Runner’s yard.

What do you think of race anxiety? How do you overcome some of these feelings?

2 thoughts on “Race Day Anxiety So Much More than the Jitters

  1. What a great post – and I think it illuminates your comments on my post from yesterday even more. It is like Marty McFly in Back to the Future – he has his music tape, George has his writing, and neither wants to share because the minute it is put to public scrutiny the illusion is broken. Reality could be better, but we always imagine (fear) it will be worse, so we avoid dealing with it if at all possible.

    Anxiety is definitely a real thing that is not just ‘being nervous’ or jitters. And someone else telling you to ‘get over it’ or ‘suck it up’ is never helpful!

    I am lucky to not have race anxiety – once I got past that initial fear that I would be dead last and everyone would laugh at me … I just battle against myself 🙂

    1. Thank you Mike, I have been writing this for a couple of weeks and needed to put it away every so often, because it was hitting pretty close to home in a few places. After the DNS on Saturday, things just fell into place and I could finish this post. Yeah the race anxiety has been scoffed at and laughed at by others that I know and it is just hard to explain what I felt/feel when I go to a race. I tried, but I don’t think that I really conveyed the terror that I felt/feel when I am going to a race. However, I am getting a better handle on it than I have in a long time :-).

      Battling against yourself is a huge battle and we always seem to want to do just a bit better than we did. That never being satisfied thing ;-).

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