I’ve done quite a few racing events (running, biking, etc.) over the years and at this point am even Race Director for my own Trail 10K/5K event (going on its 6th year now), and people have sometimes pinged me for advice on how to get into something, whats the best event, how much training did it take etc.

My response is always to just go and do whatever thing you can, don’t wait for some perfect scenario, or training or big amount of preparedness. Too many people get caught up into thinking they can’t participate unless they train hard, or unless the circumstances are right, or that things are too hard. Frankly unless you’re talking some big event like the Boston Marathon which has qualifying standards, then the only barrier to taking part in most events is the entry fee.

1st ever mountain bike race 🙂 totally crashed twice… still had a blast

Some people worry about “embarrassing themselves” or not being good enough at an event that they dismiss participating. They forget that the rankings for any sporting/activity based event actually go like this:

  1. Top Finishers
  2. Top Half Finishers
  3. All the other finishers who did their best
  4. People who just showed up and mosey’d through the event to get their finisher medal and T-shirt
  5. People who watched the event
  6. People who did none of the above

I tell people that it doesn’t matter where in the participation rankings you come in, because #1-4 all outrank #5 and #6. The reality is that I spent most of my life in ranking #6, in my mid 20s moved to #5, then finally #4 for a while, and only recently in the last 7-8 years did I cross into #3 and #2 territory. I don’t think I’ll ever get to the #1 group but never say never I guess 🙂

It wasn’t until I moved out to D.C. and was 27 years old that I signed up for my first ever 5K. Through college and my early 20s I lived in Louisiana near my brothers. We all played sports all our lives and as a result, our post-school lives didn’t stop so we mostly stayed in shape by finding leagues for flag football, softball, basketball, or playing tennis, racquetball. In addition to that I played in a band in a lot of hot crowded spaces, so you sweated off a lot of pounds as a nice workout.

The only bike I’d ever owned was a Huffy from Wal-Mart as a generic do everything/travel bike, I’d only swam in a pool for recreation aside from swim lessons as a kid, and the only running I did was as a part of sports I was playing.

When my wife and I moved up-country to D.C. in 2008, we basically lost this active part of our lives without even realizing it. I thought of myself as a decently fit guy, but suddenly I was up 20+ pounds; and also bored just sitting on couches watching TV every night, so I started looking around for leagues I could join. Sadly most leagues require you to bring a full team, you can’t just drop into someone else’s, and we moved away from just about everyone we knew.

One of our friends however, actually moved from Louisiana to D.C. around the same time as us, and he was an avid/competitive runner. We’d often go out to his marathons and cheer him on and he eventually moved up to triathlons and even got sponsored at one point, translation: he was very good at this.

Watching our buddy do the D.C. Triathlon 2010, I’d probably drown 🙂

You’d get inspired watching races and he kept recommending we try out running as not only no teams required, but mostly because it was so easy to get into. Which is really the important point I’m going to make early and often on this topic of participating in events and doing active things.

So eventually we signed up for the “Race for the Cure 5K” in D.C. which had like a gazillion runners and that was our first ever race, it was crowded, and a pain to get to logistically, but fun.

I wouldn’t say we were “hooked” on running, in fact over time it just continued to mostly be a thing where we’d only sign up for cool races if there happened to be some interesting angle to it. A 5K on the Baltimore Grand Prix track, a 5K on an airport runway, 5Ks with music/beer at the end, Turkey Trots with friends etc. but never anything “serious” that required training or was simply about the running. It was our joke actually, we were the non-runners running group, we did maybe 3-4 5K races a year at best, never training for anything, never competitive, plenty walking breaks in there.

That’s fat me dying to finish a 5K…

As we started having kids I was probably about 40 pounds up by this point, and it finally dawned on me that I needed to do something about that. With the day-job, and newborn(s), the only spare time I could really find for a workout was was in the 8pm-midnight time-frame. I wasn’t a fan of paying a monthly fee to a gym so we got a treadmill, and I just committed myself to simply replace watching TV on our couch with watching TV while on the treadmill. I wasn’t sacrificing any entertainment I had before, I was still watching sports, TV shows, Netflix whatever, but was just on a treadmill mostly trying to run during commercials and then walking during the show/sport, whatever I felt like, but I committed to doing that instead of the couch.

A few things changed very quickly for me; the most obvious, some of that weight was coming off, firstly because I was working out which burns calories but secondly and maybe more importantly because watching TV on a treadmill simply prevented me from eating/snacking. That was an intended consequence, but there was also a big unintended consequence of the treadmill, I noticed the next time I did a 5K just for fun, that I was suddenly able to run more of it, and the next one even more, and my finishing times were coming down.

Then I’ll always remember, one Friday night my wife went out for a girls night, and after I had the kiddos in bed I figured I’d just do a quick run on the treadmill until one of them woke up or the game on TV was over. I don’t even remember what game I was watching but I just remember that I must have really gotten into it because when one of the kids finally woke up, I looked down and apparently I’d run 10 miles without stopping, by accident… and I wasn’t even overly tired, I could have kept going if not for the kiddo waking up.

10 Miles!? I just ran a 10 miles without stopping, the guy who said he’d never do anything more than a 5K for fun, how the hell did I do that? I was just 3 miles short of a half marathon, my legs weren’t dead, I didn’t have to push my body over some kind of edge… I just remember thinking… that in the grand scheme of things that it was… easy.

I’m not saying I set the world on fire, or did it in some kind of pace that would win an Olympic medal, but without a trainer, or some kind of strict training plan or regimen, I just went from couch to running 10 miles non-stop completely by accident.

1st Sprint Tri, much skinnier, less dead at finishing this than that 5K 🙂

That’s when my “pin in a map” mentality kicked in; I’d already checked off “show up at 5K.” Now it was time to try something new, so I set some achievable badges to collect for myself: do a race without walking, beat my personal record for a distance, finish in the top half, beat that 1 guy in front of you every time, etc. Now the difference between this and just showing up is that it was starting to take a little work, but I’d never say any of it was improbable or even hard, just mostly a mental roadblock to get yourself to realize you can do some new things with a little effort.

The bigger roadblock for most people is usually worrying about “embarrassing yourself.” To that worry I’d say two things: A) no one cares; and I mean that in a good way; no one is going home talking about how someone else did at events like this, mostly because they’re too busy worrying about themselves. I once tripped over a tree root and face-planted during a trail run (it was snowy so I also slid like 7-8 feet penguin style), not only did people quickly help me up, but they immediately made sure I was ok then encouraged me to keep going. After the race not a soul embarrassed me about it, in fact many of them shared similar experiences they had, we’ve all been there, that’s life.

B) Always remember that someone else is still just “showing up” so you still rank higher than them and that’s the point… The difference it takes between doing nothing and showing up, from showing up to fully participating and pushing yourself isn’t that much, just gotta get over the mental roadblock.

I’ve watched many races over the years cheering on family/friends and that’s great, but now having done 10Ks, half-marathons, Adventure Races, Tough Mudder, and recently now my first Sprint-Triathlon, I can say for sure participating is better that just showing up 100% of the time.