Monday, March 23, 2015

Without Feedback: A Roundabout Race Report

As anyone who has gone through the Clinical Pastoral Education process knows, “feedback” is one of the crucial concepts. Feedback can be positive or negative, helpful or unhelpful. Feedback can help you see what is in your blind spot in the way you function and minister. Feedback can also be painful, exposing something you would prefer to keep hidden, opening up wounds that you thought were already healed. Throughout my CPE process, I learned to value the feedback that I received from my supervisor and my peers. As a priest in parish ministry, I have continued that process by taking feedback from my parishioners and parish leaders and discerning where God might be calling us in ministry together.

As a runner and pseudo-triathlete, I also rely heavily on feedback, mostly the digital kind. My fancy watch spits out my mile splits, my heart rate, my pace, and pretty much anything else I would want to know. On the bike, I get numbers for my pedaling cadence and power output. In the pool, I get strokes per length and pace per 100 yards. All of this gets tracked and input into training logs and analyzed for hopeful improvement. This data tells me when to push harder and when to back off, when to step on the gas and when to rest.

It had been a while since I’d raced a 5K. I’ve run a few for fun or with my husband or for charity, but I hadn’t really pushed myself in that race distance in almost a year and a half. My PR in the 5K was over 4 years old. So I signed up for a 5K on March 7th. Last year, I PR’d in the half marathon at the same event, and I knew it was a well-run event and a flat course. What we didn’t expect was the snow and ice a few days prior. While the roads were clear by Saturday morning, a large part of the half marathon course was not safe, so the race director cancelled the half marathon and let everyone run the 5K.

I arrived at the race start, got my packet and t-shirt, and met up with my parents. When we went to warm-up, I turned on my watch. *Beep* *Buzz* Nothing. I tried again. *Beep* *Buzz* Nothing. The batteries were dead. The watch I rely on to give me my paces, my heart rate, my time was dead. My mom and I jogged a few miles to warm-up while I tried to reconfigure my strategy for the race. I’d told a group of friends earlier in the week that my strategy was basically to go out hard and try to hang on, but without my splits and my pace, how would I know how fast? How would I know if I was running too hard or not hard enough? My mom suggested using a tracker on my phone, but I didn’t want to mess with starting and stopping it, nor did I have a good place to put it while I ran. Mainly, I wanted to focus on running hard, not fussing with my phone.

As we lined up, I felt more nervous than normal. Most of my training has been at a slower-than-usual pace; am I even capable of running fast? The doubts flew through my mind, amped up by the anxiety of the anticipated discomfort I knew I was about to experience. I shouldn’t have worn this heavy of a pull-over. I should have worn a lighter pair of shoes. Why didn’t I bring sunglasses? Then the gun.

I passed the start line with about 25 seconds on the clock. I took off at what felt like a “suicide pace,” to paraphrase Steve Prefontaine, and today was a good day to die. It felt uncomfortable and unsustainable at first, but my body settled into it. I had hoped for time clocks at the mile markers with no such luck. After the first mile market, I backed off a little to catch my breath on and out-and-back section but still kept the effort fairly high. Without numbers for feedback, I had to constantly evaluate my body – how were my legs, my breathing, my heart. Was I tensing up my shoulders or did my arms swing freely? Did I have enough at this effort to run another two miles, one mile, half-mile?

On the last two turns heading to the finish line, I could feel my stomach clench with the effort as I turned up the burners, letting my legs fly. My lungs were on fire, and my heart felt like it was going to burst out of my chest. Even without knowing my official time, I had earned myself a PR as the clock time was faster than my previous PR. When the results were printed, I ran a 26:01, an improvement of over 40 seconds. Naturally, my first thought was, “If I’d known how close I was, maybe I could’ve broken 26!”

Maybe I could’ve, who knows? But I was wrong about one thing. I had feedback the whole time, feedback that didn’t come from a watch beeping at me with numbers that I would arbitrarily decide were too slow or too fast. The feedback I relied on was internal – the lactate burn in my muscles, the constant evaluation of my systems, my stride, and my effort. That feedback was there all along.

I can’t say I’m giving up my gadgets for good. It’s hard to imagine running a longer race with a more complicated pacing strategy without that numerical feedback. But maybe every so often I’ll go out and run a 5K as fast as I can. No watch. No heart rate monitor. Just the wind in my hair and the sound of my heartbeat in my ears.