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Thoughts on the Run: Tuning in or tuning out

Andy Shearer
Andy Shearer

“Runners, 90 seconds until the next wave start. Please stay in line, keeping your masks on until you are located in your race box. Masks must be placed back on your face immediately after exiting the finish chute. Listen for the starting instructions and good luck.”

Just recently, the racing world has started to slowly open again. And I have started to take advantage of some cross-country races. The first was in New Jersey and the most recent, on a Civil War battlefield in Virginia. Smallish events (200 or less participants, lots of social distancing protocols, etc…) have allowed us to pin on a race bib again and test our mettle. The above paragraph indicates the new race protocols that must be followed. With great rights come great responsibilities. Otherwise, it might be “race over” again.

Have you ever wanted to crawl inside the brain of a runner while they raced? There are essentially two kinds of runners. The first are those who tune in and the second are those who tune out. In other words, tuner-iners associate with the action, discomfort, etc… and really “feel” every step. The tuner-outers, on the other hand, do everything possible to disassociate from the action and discomfort. I’m a tuner-iner (who has a propensity for inventing words).

My tuning-in, “30 seconds. Relax. Breath. What’s the run line? Any chance I can catch someone from the last wave? Any chance someone from the wave behind me catches me? Gun up. Get out comfortable… hills to start.”

There were 44 other runners in my wave: 45 started before us and 45 behind us. I was in wave three of five. Wave one was the speedsters (of which, I no longer am). Wave five, the doers and mostly the tuner-outers. My wave was mostly high school kids and a few 20- and 30-year-olds. “Well this is gonna be interesting.”

“Off… let ‘em go, let ‘em go. Uphill for 600m. Breath. Stride. Eyes Up. Wait, that kid can’t be older than 12! You’re mine in about 2 kilometers. Four minutes per K. Four minutes per K. Shoulda grabbed my spikes. Four minutes per K.”

Associating in the race (tuning-in) allows a racer to assess, make changes, adjust to the competition (even the 12-year-old surprise bolting away up the hill). I’ve never been one to tune-out during a competition. That’s more of a “the sunset is gorgeous, I hope there are bananas left at the refreshment table, what time is dinner tomorrow” thought process. Neither is better than the other and both have tremendous benefits and value, especially in pushing down that “STOP PLEASE” feeling we all get when the body is in discomfort.

“4’05 at the K, uphill. Good. Now settle. I must be in 46th place out of the 45 in my wave! Around the bend and gently accelerate. Gently accelerate. Pass on the right. Run the tangent. Good down, now use that momentum… up and over.” And yes, these are actual thoughts in my brain. Most tuner-iners probably has similar tactical and assessment conversations as well.

Oddly, in a race setting, the miles (or kilometers) often whiz by faster than your mind can process the conversation. Even the tuner-outer often finishes before they realize they’ve just run 5k or 10 miles. Before you know it, you are barreling down the finishing straight and ready for the finish.

“Last K, last K… don’t settle now. Take those three. Need a 3’40 to break 20. MOVE. Downhill. Damn this is a long downhill. No no no no… I didn’t hear him! Okay, where’s my mask?” Annnnnnnd we’re done. 20’15.

It feels great to be racing again. Oh, and yeah, the 12-year-old… passed him just before 3k. He gave me a little resistance but then, I’d like to think he tuned-out.

I hope to see you on the roads, tracks and trails.

Former standout Lock Haven University runner Andy Shearer is a member of the Middletown Athletic Club, the Greater Philadelphia Track Club and USA Track and Field.