San Diego is my happy place. It’s hours from the L.A. grind and you can feel yourself unwind as you jet south and watch the smog shrouded strip malls give way to cozy beach towns like Carlsbad, Encinitas and Carmel. So when I received an email blasting San Diego’s Rock and Roll Half Marathon, I signed up within seconds. It would be the first time in over two years that I could race without also juggling work and graduate school. Usually I run a Sunday race and come home to project deadlines, unfinished stories and mountains of stress.
It had also been a while since I had run a happy, stress free race. I told myself that this one, this half, was going to be my race. Running the L.A. Marathon last March (in about 81 degrees) had really knocked my confidence. The experience of training for months and crying after I crossed the finish line, not from joy, but from frustration, was a tad scarring and had induced some kind of running anxiety that I had only yet begun to shake. That race mentally broke me. About halfway through, I panicked that I wouldn’t finish in my goal time, and my strumming nerves produced so much anxiety I actually vomited. Yea.
Fun fact about me—I have been battling every day, and sometimes debilitating, anxiety for most of my life. As I got older, it became a new kind of monster. I have tried everything, holistic stuff, therapy, yoga, meditation, breathing techniques, a handful of crazy psychiatrists and a few different types of daily medication that yield unwanted side effects and sometimes do more harm than good. I eventually swore off all medication and have tried to handle my anxiety all on my own.
Running was always my fresh air, my escape. But lately, running had been adding to the overwhelmingly negative, frantic thoughts about my own ability: “why is my pace off/my breathing is labored/I seem slow/ why are my legs tired/my friends are better runners than I am/ my friends are getting faster and I am not.” You get the picture. I had developed running anxiety and lately, races had become panic attack triggers.
So signing up for San Diego was a big moment for me. I wanted this race to be light; something that racing had not been for a long time. And as I descended into the crowded cusp of downtown San Diego, driving through streams of racers carrying Rock and Roll bags stuffed with samples and bibs, I broke into a huge smile. This could be good.
The expo (held at the San Diego Convention Center) was nothing special and I was in and out in about 20 minutes—but not before convincing myself to visit the pacer’s table.
Let me remind you, I had no training for this race. I had been running, but without a watch, a strategy, long runs and true grit, for about two months. Yet, because I always want to push myself harder and farther, I thought it would be a great idea to sign up for the 1:45 pace group. My half marathon PR is about 1:46:45, or something like that. I knocked that out while training for the L.A. Marathon, and it still was a beast to accomplish.
But deep down, I knew I could pull off 1:45 if I let myself. I have the strength and physical ability—and I was feeling confident and happy. I grabbed a 1:45 bib, swapped corral five for corral two and walked out of the convention center without a second thought.
Normally, I am a wreck the day before a race. My breath is shallow, nerves are bubbling. But not that day, because that day, I was in San Diego with Jimmy, my boyfriend, and we were enjoying the sun, a few drinks (what? The day before a race?! I know) and each other. As I said, the entire city parties for this race. The restaurants are packed with runners, “pasta specials” signs are taped on almost every window and the energy is electric.
Race morning. I stayed at the Palomar (so amazing) in the Gaslamp District, so I was able to walk to the start line along with thousands of other brightly clad, excited runners. At 5:45 a.m., San Diego was overtaken by a kind of runner-apocalypse. We were pouring out from every crevice—cabs, cars, hotels and trains, morphing into a huge throng of water chugging, GU sucking creatures marching uphill at dawn to the start line.
And then it started. The panic. Anxiety. Fear. The closer I came to the start line, the harder it was to breathe. Then I met Don—a 47-year-old Japanese teacher who was running his second half marathon ever and could not be more calm and thrilled. We walked and waited in the inevitable, epic porter potty line together, and he told me he would be content to race anything from 2:09 (his PR) to 2:30. He was just happy to be there. I marveled at how he put no pressure on himself, or the day. Before parting, he smiled, eyes crinkling and said brightly, “Have fun, Brianna San.” Fun. What I never let myself have at these races.
I found my way to corral 2 (there were about 35 corrals, no joke) and joined the 1:45 pace group. The gun sounded, watches beeped and we took off. I tried to find my stride, breathe from my diaphragm, listen to that one song that is supposed to lull me into a running trance, think of graceful Don but nothing was working. I panicked, feeling that I was going too fast, I would never hold this pace.
I averaged 6:57 miles for my first 10k, and then it happened. I felt it coming on. A panic attack. In the middle of the run. Just like L.A.
I cannot really explain what it feels like to those who have never experienced it. But just know, it’s awful. You literally cannot breathe. You are sobbing. Hysterical. The world around you is blurry and your thoughts are racing so fast you cannot process what your brain is doing. It’s as if you are sinking. I called Jimmy and his happy, groggy voice turned to concern. I remember saying, “I can’t do this,” over and over, hyperventilating. I stopped running, hand clutching my heart, listening to him say, “Just breathe—in and out.” I watched the 1:45 sign bob further and further away until I could no longer see the thin, black letters, or my dream of PRing.
Five minutes later, I was back in the race. My thoughts pinged back and forth between “take it easy, just run to run,” and “you need to PR, people are watching you, people are tracking your time.” This is what happens. I lose myself in my thoughts I forget why I am running. For me. For fun. Because it makes me feel good.
I don’t remember what miles one through eight looked like. But I remember the feeling. The feeling of the city and the crowd, of residents handing out licorice, water bottles and Jolly Ranchers. Of 12-year-old cheerleaders with red bows high-fiving and spinning. Of glee and race magic.
The last three miles of the race were perfection. Mostly downhill, winding through parks and packed crowds, my shoes gliding towards the ocean carried on a high that only runners know. Miles 11-13.1 were mostly downhill, and one of the best finishes I have ever had in a race. It’s as if the roads want you to go faster, to fly.
I finished in 1:49, and despite the beauty and happiness, I felt defeated, angry and utterly disappointed in myself. I had let my anxiety ruin my race. I sat down, burrowed my head in my knees and cried. I felt as if I lost another battle with my own mind, my anxious, doubt-ridden brain.
Looking back, though, I learned a valuable lesson. I cannot keep racing to erase the running anxiety, to cancel out the bad races of the past. I have to race for myself, and let everything else go. It’s a challenge I have yet to master, but I will. I have to re-learn what racing really is. The 1:45 will come, potentially a 1:40, a 1:36. But that is not why we run. As fantastic as races are, I attached too much importance and self worth to numbers that shouldn’t haunt, because they are just numbers and do not define me as a runner.
So what did I do Sunday night when I got back to L.A.? Looked up other half marathons—but this time, not for redemption. This time, for happiness. For me. Until I stop doubting who I am as a runner, and leave the anxiety scattered like crushed water cups across the pavement.