I’ve always felt that I was born anti-competitive. I never liked the idea of being compared, I never wanted to win when playing games, I never felt comfortable as the center of attention. I still don’t, most of the time. But sometimes, when I pin a bib to my chest and try to run as fast as I can up and down hills, through mud and on pretty trails, I do…just a little bit. It still scares the crap out of me to toe the line, don’t get me wrong. Only, it kind of feels good too, in that hammering heart of mine, when muscles are working and nature is flying by and everyone is creating memories for themselves.
As the years have gone by, I’ve come to realize my anti-competitiveness is just as much a deep fear of failure. Heart-achingly deep. Overwhelmingly deep. It’s been a journey, trying to befriend this fear. Grabbing its hand, whispering comforting words, rocking it back and forth. But we’re getting there, one race at a time.
It’s September and I’m about 14 years old. On trembling legs and with a huge lump in my stomach, I’m walking towards my most dreaded day of the year – our timed 5k run in PE. I can barely talk to my classmates who are chatting away around me. I’m in a cold sweat, panicking, looking for an excuse to go home. How can I get out of this? Fake falling had been tried and tested before. Limping, I would return back to the starting line and say “I’m sorry, I can’t finish – look here at my bleeding knee.” I would have saved myself from my least favorite thing in the whole world: being compared to others.
Additionally, every time there was a test in school, whether it was math or English or biology, I’d hide my results and keep them to myself. I didn’t like that every time we’d have a challenge, there would be boys (always boys) trying to beat me with all that they had, and then make a big deal out of it when they did. Why is it so hard for men and boys to lose to a girl? To get lower grades, run slower, throw shorter? All of my life, they’ve been there – from the youngest of boys to fully grown men, struggling so hard with the idea of performing ‘less’ than a girl. Why are women thought of as weaker, or anything less?
It’s not that I didn’t like running. I loved it. I’m tempted to say I’ve been running all my life, to be honest. After school, I’d run like there was no tomorrow. Fast and light and with a happy heart beating in my chest. But in school, or in any other situation where there would be timing and comparisons involved, I would freak out (albeit quietly on the inside). Every time someone would ask for a measurable performance, I’d find a reason why I couldn’t do it. Fake falling is what I ended up doing this one particular September day.
Despite all of this, running has remained my jam throughout life – and since I was around 20, my approach has gotten a little more serious every year. The runs have gotten longer, the training more thought through, the load a little heavier. But measured? Not until very recently.
When I first met my husband, Michael, he was amazed by my running. I gave him a rough idea of how much I ran, and he couldn’t believe it. I didn’t like the idea of being measured so I wasn’t using any sort of device to track my activity. The thought of having something tell me how far and fast (or slow) I’d gone stressed me out. I had no desire to know.
When Michael asked me about racing, I just kept saying – I don’t like competing. The idea of revisiting my childhood nightmare of toeing a line and having someone telling me my time afterwards freaked me out. The thought had me straight up panicking, as silly as it may sound – even as a happy 26-year-old with life seemingly under relative control. And with that, Michael just let me be. He would proudly tell our friends and his family about my relentless galloping, but nothing else.
One weekend in the spring of 2014, Michael asked if he could join me. I decided to give it a shot. We lived in Manhattan, NY, so we ran along Houston Street down to East River Park, then south along the water. As we were jogging next to each other, I realized I’d never run with company before. Scared of not being able to keep up, intimidated by others’ techniques – I guess I had millions of reasons.
Anyway, running there next to Michael, a teeny tiny piece of me softened a little. I found myself…liking it. Michael quickly got hooked, and we steadily worked our way up to some longer distances. It became one of our favorite things to do together, and our runs often took on the shape of a therapy session. It seemed whatever was burdening one of us – work stress or whatnot – was easily vented, talked about and let go of as we rhythmically chugged along the Manhattan waterfront.
Being a gadget guy, Michael wanted to buy a watch for training. Aware of my sensitivities, he asked how I would feel if he did. I said (almost truthfully) that I’d be fine, as long as we didn’t talk too much about pace, distance and whatever information would be collected. It was a deal.
As the following year went by, I found myself inquiring more and more about the runs we’d done. Very casually I’d say, “How far did we go today?” Sometimes Michael would say, “Is it good that we talk about this?” and I would tell him (very truthfully) that, “Yes, I think so.” There were still many untracked runs that I did and I felt that knowing a little about a few runs per week wouldn’t hurt. And it didn’t. It really didn’t.
After Christmas 2017, Michael suggested that we run a race together. I panicked. If I’d never run a race, I could just safely rest in being that girl who runs a lot. An identity I felt comfortable with. What if I’d do terribly? What if I’d be the slowest one out there? Logically, I knew it wouldn’t change a thing. Logically, I knew I wouldn’t lose someone’s love because of it. But that’s not what I felt. I felt as if that were to happen, the whole world would laugh at me and tell me what a sham I was.
But we signed up anyway. Michael had to promise our goal would just be to have fun. No time goals, no performance goals. Just make it around in one piece and not let my nerves take complete control.
The event was a half marathon trail race that took place up on Bear Mountain in New York. Knowing that the course would come with roughly 800 meters of vertical gain, we moved our weekend runs from ridiculously flat downtown Manhattan to the parks and nature reserves of Westchester county. We started planning our training in a way I’d never done before – and it was rewarding.
As race day was approaching, I found myself actually looking forward to it. The weather forecast was promising a beautiful day, and I felt strong and confident. Michael was super excited. The nerves didn’t really hit until the night before. I kept it together though, as race morning was inevitably around the corner.
Michael and I put ourselves in the last starting group. We saw group after group taking off and disappearing into the woods as we waited. We fumbled a little with the bibs and randomly jumped up and down to keep warm. As we finally toed the line, my heart was racing and sweat trickled down my spine. I remember my kneecaps shaking and that overwhelming feeling of wanting to curl up into a ball and hide underneath a blanket. But off we went – and the nerves were replaced by an eagerness to go fast, fast, fast.
To this day, I don’t really know what got into me. It wasn’t competitiveness as much as it was this all-body desire to show myself what I could do. We shot up the first hill, splashed through the mud puddles other runners were trying to tiptoe around, and flew by the first aid station. Michael asked from behind me, “Are you ok up there?” probably thinking I was running for my life, sprinting as fast as I could just to get to the finish line and be done with it. But I wasn’t. I loved it.
Michael and I had so much fun out there. We laughed a lot. Heck, even talked a lot. I remember chugging along as a part of a long train of runners up a technical and steep trail, telling Michael about this one podcast episode I’d listened to recently. The guy in front of me mumbled to his friend, “Who’s this person who’s up for talking right now?” I felt alive! We tumbled down a steep downhill, throwing ourselves from tree trunk to tree trunk in attempt to slow down the pace. We crisscrossed over slippery rocks and had to focus hard to not slip and fall. And we laughed. All of a sudden, and all too quickly, we were zooming back to the starting area. We sprinted to the finish line and crossed it hand-in-hand. Medals were hung around our necks, and there were orange slices, bananas and refreshingly cold water. We were muddy from top to bottom, and had Michael’s mom take a picture of us. There was endless of joy.
As we hopped in the car afterwards, I felt a new level of happy. We put the windows down, turned the radio on and opened a bag of potato chips. Right then and there, I laughed all my demons straight in the face. I said to the ones who told me I was fat and ugly and should go die – you can go die. I said to the ones who told me I wasn’t good enough – you’re not good enough. I said to the ones who told me I didn’t deserve any attention – you don’t deserve any attention. The wind was blowing through my hair, making it a total mess. And I felt like I had totally just conquered the world.
In July that same year, we moved from New York to Sweden. We celebrated our arrival by traveling up north to the mountains, where we ran another race. My emotional experience leading up to this second one was a little different than the first. There was more excitement, more of a pumped up feeling. More focused training, more planning. But I was again, endlessly nervous when the day came. I wanted to pull out, for the race to get cancelled, or for my ankle to roll. But none of that happened, and we toed another line. This race took us across boggy grounds, up double diamond ski slopes, down into deep mud and through breathtakingly beautiful landscapes. All the while our hearts were beating fast and we were feeling, again, so full of life. And after we finished, instead of eating potato chips in the car with loud music playing, we positioned ourselves in reclined chairs on our little balcony, faces facing the beaming late August sun. Oh, the wonders of life!
In August this year, we ran our forth race – a 90k/57 mi long journey that left us in awe of what the body can withstand and the mind endure. The usual set of race anxiety was there before we took off, only to be replaced by utter joy as soon as the starting signal went off.
Finally, this past weekend, we ran race number eight. I had actually won a race just two weeks before, but I was yet again creeping out of my skin due to nerves on the morning of. How I’d been hoping for recent successes to calm myself down, to give myself a self-confidence boost – but no change. This weekend was a 50k trail race, which happened to start literally 100 yards away from my high school gymnasium and kicked off by taking us on the aforementioned, dreaded 5k loop of my childhood. This whole chronicling back in time made me feel empowered and in charge. As silly as it may sound, it made me truly feel like I’m the master of my own life now. I chose to go back, I chose to conquer my fears. And I did.
What have I learned from these seasons of racing? That fears are meant to be challenged. That overcoming fear trumps all other achievements in the world. That racing still makes me sick from nerves, but that it will all be worth it afterwards. That really, as soon as I toe the line, it feels worth it. That racing makes me feel so alive, so capable, so brave. I know now that running is my joy. It’s my lifeblood, my happy place, my favorite thing to do. In overcoming my fear of failure, racing has helped me untie yet another knot in my chest. A tie harder and more complicated than most other ones I’ve carried. A tie that’s held me back and said no, you can’t do this. Now, although nerve stricken and on trembling legs, I feel – yes, I can.