Monday, August 17, 2009

A Bittersweet Victory*

I had my last pre-marathon tune up race on Sunday. It was a 10-miler. I had been looking forward to it for a while. I've been feeling really good in my training and ready for a mini-breakthrough. After much thought and discussion with mrp I decided that my A goal time was sub 1:05:00 (6:30 pace) and B goal time was sub 1:06:40 (6:40 pace). I knew on a good day I could go under 1:05, especially because E would be racing with me. We are right at the same fitness level these days and have been pushing each other to race well. It's weird being great friends competing against each other. We always finish close, but we have never really raced-raced each other to really really push it to the finish. I was hoping we'd have the guts to work with each other to push each other to a break through performance at the 10-miler!

But it didn't quite turn out that way. It was hot and humid--low 70's and 70% humidity. At the starting line, E's friend was there and there was chatter about E pacing off of him. I had about 5 seconds to react and decided that if E should pace off of him, so should I! So, I did. We ran in a pack with 2-3 other women and about 4 dudes. Two of the other women were sort of playing games with each other ahead of us, but E and I kept our cool and let them wear themselves out. I was kind of disoriented because I had planned to run my own race, but at the same time it was nice to run with my buddy and it felt like we were finally working together in a race. At mile 4 I was in the middle of the pack and when we hit the water stop I got shut out of water. I said a bad word, but I rolled with it. What was I to do? Around this time we lost one of the women from our pack, so it was down to three of us: E, me and the "other woman," one who used to always just beat me!

Around mile 5 I got an itch to break away from the pack, but I knew at mile 6 the course starts to veer back downhill and my plan had me picking it up at 6, so I decided not to go. I should have gone.

Then around 5.5 I started taking a gu that mrp insisted I needed. It was a new flavor and I haven't been using gu in training and I have to say it didn't sit well. Just before the 6 mile mark, E's friend peeled off. Wha?! I realized he had just jumped in to pace E. Hmmm. Oh well, seems like a bunch of us used him so no biggee. I hit the water stop at 6 and needed a few seconds to let it settle before picking it up. However, E and the other woman started to inch away from me. Then the other woman started to gap E. "E, get up there!" I yelled. I really wanted me or E to win over the other woman. One of my goals this year has been to beat that other woman and if I couldn't do it I wanted E too! At that point I was still confident I was going to catch them, but just in case if E stuck with her it was a little insurance. (PS I like the other woman. This is race talk).

E did get up there and they got a good gap on me by 7, but I started the claw back. Every race lately, I come from behind and have to ungap myself. So, there has been a time in every race where I have to ask myself how bad I want it. Is it worth the effort it will take to close the gap and make the pass? It takes me a couple of minutes to resolve this inner conflict most races.

Just as I was going through this thought process I saw ahead that pacer friend jumped back in with E. Wha?! Great! I thought. There I was struggling with that inner dialogue and she had a friend to fill her head with positivity. And then pacer friend looked back. He looked back to see where I was! At that moment I felt like he was there just so E could finally beat me once and for all (I had come in ahead of her in every race to this point). Normally when I race someone and come from behind I watch them for cues that they are tired and then I use that mentally to go after them. This time I just saw the pacer friend--I was so distracted by that. I did not expect him to jump back in the race. If I would have known I could have decided to stay with E so I could use him too.

I know having someone setting the pace is very helpful late in the race and what is even more helpful is someone giving you encouragement the whole way. Mrp ran with me in a race once and he kept me so calm and encouraged me while hardly saying a word. Just having that kind of support helps tremendously. But here we were, three of us battling for first place and one of us had a clear advantage.

I made another mistake. In arbitrating my inner dialogue I said, "You know what, if she's going to have help what's the point. Screw it. She can have it." I take responsibility for this. I used the pacer friend as an excuse to back off. But. BUT! Would I have backed off if he wasn't there? Would we finally have raced each other to push each other to that big break through? We will never know.

Shortly after pacer friend jumped back in, he and E passed the other woman. Some time later up a small hill I passed the other woman too, who had seemed to have given up. I was just cruising at this point. Sort of numb by what was transpiring. Just when I had resigned myself to a second place disappointment, with about 1 mile to go a woman came blowing by me! It was my friend LM. Where'd she come from?! I let her go for a few seconds before gathering my wits back and then I fought to catch back up. I did with about 600 to go. At that point I was reengaged in the race and suddenly realized that I had bent over and given away a win that should have been hard fought. I saw E's coach and I felt him smirk to see E ahead of me (at least that's how it seemed at the time in my race-induced paranoid brain). I saw the owner of the shop I race for and I felt like I let him down. I suddenly felt the RACE bug bite me, but it was much too late. I saw pacer friend peel away. Then I saw E make the final turn alone. I pushed to the finish but E had already beaten me there by 13 seconds. I came in second with a 1:05:21.

It's really hard to compete against a very close friend. It's even harder when something like this happens. It's such a gray area. I wanted to be happy for her and feel like she beat me fair and square--I've been the first to say I'd be happy for her to beat me for a long time now! But, this victory left a bad taste in my mouth. Right after the race I still hadn't processed it or made sense of it. E joked she should be DQ'd and I said that's silly. I wasn't overjoyed for her like I wanted to be and I definitely felt very disappointed in my own race.

It really didn't start making sense until later in the day. I started to wonder what would have happened if pacer friend wasn't there. Would E have run as well as she did? Would I have given up the fight? Would we have both run faster? Would the other woman have run better too? Who knows. But I longed for the race between all of us girls. The way it should have been. The 4 top women were within 45 seconds of each other without one man in between us. That's very unusual. We were all very close. Was it a coincidence that the woman who came out on top had help while the rest of us didn't?

In the end I take the blame for not reaching my A goal or getting the win myself. I let myself off the hook and I was weak. I made a few tactical errors and let something bother me that I should have been strong enough to ignore.

Late last night while I was waiting out peanut's crying spell I wrote E and explained how I felt. I felt like we lost out on a chance to race fair and square and that the race was plagued with an asterisk. I wrote how I felt that she had an advantage, even if it was minor and it bugged me. She's my friend first and I didn't want to resent this.

Ultimately she chose to DQ herself. I really didn't want her to do that. That was not the point for telling her how I felt, but she felt that was the right thing to do for a variety of reasons and not solely because of me (not even mainly, it seems--I hope!) and I respect her decision and I love her for being the kind of friend that I can talk to about this kind of stuff and who I can look forward to beating the pants of me in many races in the future, but doing so with only her own talent and skill to rely on.

So, yes. The question of having a personal pacer. What do you think about that? Is it a DQ-worthy offense or perfectly acceptable? Am I just a whiner who took it too personally? Please, don't hold back!

To read E's take on this, go here.


E-Speed said...

I think it is interesting that two people so close to the subject can have two very different perceptions. I feel like every race we ran this year but this one I had the gloves off, you just prevailed. This one I was so excited to be working together in such a big group for most of the race and I was disappointed when the pack broke up at 6. I would have liked to work together to go faster. We obviously have two very different race approaches despite being at similar fitness levels.

You ran a great race and I feel like if you take away the pacer issue you wouldn't be beating yourself up and instead congratulating yourself on coming so close to your A goal on a less than perfect day. I feel badly that my actions took away from your accomplishment.

JenC said...

As a middle of the packer, I don't see the big deal of having someone pace another person especially when you can use it to your advantage too (you both were gunning for similar times). At the end of the day, you have to run your own race and not let other people interfere.

Kate said...

This is a very interesting issue, but I think even at the head of the pack it's OK. It was obviously OK for the two of you to run together as friends and work off each other. Someone who isn't lucky enough to have a female friend to work with should be able to have a male friend step into the same role. And in this case, the pacer was "fair game", and everyone benefitted.

I DON'T think it's fair if the pacer does anything to interfere with another racer (i.e. blocking access to water stops etc, though I don't think from reading this that that happened here)-but that's wrong whether you're pacing or racing or whatever.

Quinto Sol said...

Hmmm, I know that you are very competitive, and while "pacer" might have given "E" an edge, her legs ultimately did the work. Remember why you're doing this... to have fun I hope. The moment that ceases to be true, then it's work.

The Salty One said...

I have a couple of follow-up thoughts.

- I feel I need to clarify. it's not the pacer per se, but that he started the race with all of us so we could all use him, but then he jumped out at mile 6. Then he jumped back in after the pack had broken up to just pace E. By then the real race of the race was under way, so only E could really use him as a pacer. The rest of us were on our own to actually set our own pace (which takes energy) and to deal with the mental aspects of the race (deal with inner conflicts without the aid of a friend who can tell you how to feel or even just provide calm company which can be much more relaxing at the end of a race than perhaps it's getting credit for. Obviously this takes energy too). Perhaps I am just a more "mental" runner than some or even most?

- Also again, It wasn't the pacer per se, it was that I did not know about him (this is where I think the friendship colors the situation--I felt hurt at the time that E didn't tell me she was going to have someone there. She later told me she didn't really know he was coming until the last minute but I did not know this).

- Perhaps the fact that E is my friend colored this for me and made me feel worse about it than I otherwise would? For instance, would I have said "screw it" when the pacer jumped back in if E was not someone who could affect my emotions as much as a friend? Is this more about feeling hurt and less about what's fair?

- I still don't think she needed to DQ herself. That was never the issue for me and I specifically asked her not to do that. I just wanted to get my feelings off my chest. I think the issue has taken on a life of it's own and I am afraid I am going to be viewed as the big whiny jerk who complained and caused a DQ or took away from E's accomplishment. I ran a second place race and made decisions about how to handle what someone else did. I have no one to blame for not meeting my goals and not "winning" but myself.

- I think E DQ'd herself and I think I felt bad about the pacer thing because it's not quite ethical. I'm still interested in other's opinions on that. It's not something I had given a lot of thought to prior to this race--in fact, like I said, I've been paced before myself, although not in as competitive a situation (I came in 7th or 8th in the race). If it was clear cut either way (right or wrong) I don't think we'd ever be having this discussion.

Ok. That's it. Thanks everyone for weighing in!

Mindi said...

Sorry, but I think you got this one wrong. I don't see any ethical problem with a pacer - particularly in this type of race. Realistically speaking, if E's pacer had not been there - you two would have paced each other. Is that something the third woman should get upset about? It seems like the point you were upset about (i.e. that you didn't get to run with her only). ANY race is easier to run if there are people running at your level and pulling you along.

While having a pacer may theoretically be an advantage - in reality, she still had to keep her head in the game and do all of the work - he didn't do that for her.

Finally, so what if you all had him at first and then he jumped back in? I wasn't there, but I can't believe it was some calculated move. Had you still been running with E, you could have still used him.

I think she made a mistake by DQ-ing herself. I am frankly surprised the race director thought this was disqualifying behavior as well.

The Salty One said...

I just want to clarify again--I don't think she should have DQ'd herself and I don't think the RD should disqualify her. I think there is something slightly off ethically about having a personal pacer, especially when the pacer jumps in and out of the race. That's my position!

This position got muddled with feelings of hurt because she is my friend and she didn't tell me he'd be there and in the middle of the race I misconstrued a lot of what was going on. So I think it went from hmmm, that kind of sucks to a personal thing that needed to be aired out between us. But again, I don't think the DQ was necessary or righted some wrong. That's a choice she made and from what I understand it was not because the pacer thing bugged me. I think she was getting flack from others before I even said anything.

In sum, I do think having a personal pacer is more of a benefit than a lot of people apparently think, but again I do NOT think she should be DQ'd!

The Salty One said...


The difference if we paced each other is that we started and then finished the race together so anyone else had the same advantage: could choose to pace with us or not. Plus, it's a race and we're competing so presumably however we choose to do that is fair since you know, we're racing.

When E's pacer friend started with us, it was fine and no one complained (except one guy, but he just likes to complain apparently). When pacer friend jumped out at mile 6 no one complained. It's when he came back with about 2.5 miles to go that is the problem because then he is only providing the pacing to E. Even if we all would have known that he'd come back to pace again wherever E was then even that would be better because we could have made the decision to stay with her.

The USATF allows pacers if they start the race and they are not allowed to start at any other point--meaning they can't jump in. Presumably it's for this very reason. At the same time, the USATF band headphones and we know that's not exactly a settled ethical issue either!

Sorry to go on and on about it. But again I'm worried I'm being misunderstood. Plus, I like a lively debate :)

Mindi said...

Oh, I guess I didn't realize the guy totally jumped out. I figured he sped up and then later fell back to help her. That would be irritating - and is frankly a bit off. Although it is hard to necessarily blame E for that if she didn't know he was going to do it.

It sounds like you have a handle on your feelings about it all. The good news is that you and E talked about it and don't appear to have any hard feelings.

Kate said...

I think the in and out thing does add to the situation. Thanks for your honest take on this!

Kate said...

I think the in and out thing does add to the situation. Thanks for your honest take on this!

Quinto Sol said...
This comment has been removed by the author.