A race is a dedicated short period in which your actions are extremely goal-oriented: you give your all to finish as fast as possible. Such a focused sprint to the finish line presents itself in various areas of life, and the same effects apply as in running. Think of the last days before the deadline of an important assignment in your studies, the last months people spend planning their wedding day, or an artist preparing for a show. The clear end goal brings pressure that changes your thoughts and actions. This helps you realize way more of your potential than you usually would. I rediscovered the beauty of this phenomenon while running last month’s high-paced race at the Marathon Zeeuws Vlaanderen.
Right from the start of a race, your goal is clear. You want to cross the finish line, usually within a certain time. You have to hit your target pace every km/mile. When your watch beeps and displays that you’ve made it this km, you have to keep up that demanding pace for the next km. The race doesn’t yield. It demands all of you and leaves no margin for error. In this process of closing in on your goal you find your mind straightening itself out, leaving you with an unusual clarity. You know exactly what you have to do, so you do that and nothing else.
Strangely enough, this clarity brings a sense of belonging. You signed up for this challenge, and now you’re here fulfilling it. You’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to do. We live in a world where we’re constantly bombarded with information, and notifications are constantly vying for our attention. This leads to a life with a scattered focus, and the moments we experience this sense of belonging are sparse. But moments where we have clarity to act on what’s most important to us are moments of meaning. Having clarity invites a feeling of fulfillment.
Do you recognize those moments where you’re running in nature, pondering the meaning of life? Or those pensive runs under an open sky, where solutions to all sorts of problems just fall in place?
None of that happened during that marathon. When discussing the race with friends, I jokingly said that anyone who’d get a transcript of my thoughts of those 3 hours would think I was a very simple man. Besides endlessly calculating my splits and occasionally acknowledging the surrounding nature’s beauty, there wasn’t much thinking. The physical effort was so demanding that it somehow consumed most of my mental bandwidth as well. The relentlessness required a narrow focus and removed any room for distractions. Thoughts about other daily activities weren’t relevant. I couldn’t act on them while racing and while far away from home, so the brain just shut them out. In that moment of running, life had suddenly become simple. I believe this distinction between relevant and distracting thoughts is different from the clarity effect described above. But they are complementary and can be layered on top of each other to assist a period of dedicated focus.
Another great characteristic of a race is that it creates urgency. There you are, nervously toeing that starting line, finding yourself in a moment that you’ve trained weeks or months for. Maybe you’ve even changed your diet or sleeping habits leading up to this day, to be optimally prepared. You feel the weight of all this effort on your shoulders. You want to make it count and the moment is now, so you take full responsibility to leave nothing on the table.
This is different from the usual training day. You can always delay a training a little, or even postpone it to the next day. Or when you’re not in the mood you decide to only give it 80%. But on race day this is simply not an option. You have to give it your all and you have to do it now. In the past I have felt the same pressure during live shows with the band I was in. You make mistakes and hit the wrong notes during band practice, but when you’re on stage facing the crowd there is an urgency to deliver. Suddenly you play every song perfectly right. Sometimes a sense of urgency helps us perform at our best.
As usual, this post actually isn’t about running. The word race can be exchanged for any period of focused, dedicated work towards a specific outcome. Running is just a metaphor. In running and in life, it’s worth signing up for or creating your own race every now and then. You might be surprised to see what you’re capable of once you feel that clarity, remove distractions and create your own urgency.