There is a mindset that I sometimes find in my best races, where the world becomes simple. Ephemera drifts away as my mind becomes quiet and intently focused but not thoughtless. Physical discomfort becomes something I can intellectually control, something I can simply choose to succumb to or embrace and endure. It's an intense feeling, full of contradictions - at once relaxing and painful, frantic and peaceful. A cathartic escape.
But its not just about meditation and introspection. Having others around to race against adds excitement and a layer of competition that sometimes helps me to push my limits. Even more so, chasing best times on courses I know has led to some of the most satisfying racing experiences I can remember, even alone on a mountaintop celebrating a successful time trial. I think this is the reason why I've gravitated toward longer and longer races. I love a challenge.
When I finished my first 50 kilometer trail race, my first thought was "that took such a long time," and it had - just under seven hours. But my next thought was "and now its just over." No matter how big the goal, you build and build and then the event comes and the goal is either achieved or missed; there's a moment to dwell on the disappointment or enjoy the accomplishment, and then its done.
That's why it's important to embrace the process, not just the outcome. Every day there is something to be accomplished and some satisfaction to be found, not just race day. Endurance athletes often emphasize this. The US Nordic Ski Team talks about #enjoythehardwork. Carrie Tollefson says "Get After It!". And it truly is important - finding satisfaction in the every day grind is where the true joy is; there are metaphors about this across all of life, not just sports.
But the thing that people don't talk about as much is that the daily grind mostly sucks. In the late fall, when the only time that it isn't dark is work time, and the training choice is either a headlamp run in drizzling rain, or intervals on indoor cardio equipment in the cold basement, its hard to #enjoythehardwork. In the heart of the summer, at the end of a long day of sitting at a desk, stepping out of the air conditioned office and into the humid 90+ degree full sun to run laps of a hilly 1-mile mountain bike loop is not any fun at all. When these workouts end, I don't feel accomplishment - I'm just relieved to be done.
For the last month or so, we've had the warmest summer weather I can remember, so I've had a lot of time to think about this stuff. What I've come to realize is that for me, in these times, its not about enjoyment or accomplishment, or really anything logically fulfilling. These are times when I bite my lip and take it for no real reason. Sure, having a goal or event I'm working toward helps, but for me that's really secondary. Mostly, I just dig in.
After winning the women's cycling time trial at the 2016 Olympics last week, Kristin Armstrong was asked why she wanted to race again in these Olympics at the age of 43 - after temporary retirement from 2009-2011 to have a child; after which she won her second Olympic gold; after another retirement from 2012-2015 during which she had multiple hip surgeries and started working as director of community health at a hospital in Boise, Idaho. She responded simply "because I can." Most of the time, on the suckiest days I go out and do my thing. Just because.
And because of that, when everything aligns and I head out for a long run on a perfect 70 degree August day with not a cloud in the sky, I'm ready to bask in the joy of the process, and when race day comes, I'm ready to get after it.