The anxiety and satisfaction of race day

A writer traces the motivations that led her to run a half-marathon on the California coast.

“Running Free” is a column by Cassie da Costa, a Black runner and writer who examines the meaning of public space and community through the lens of traversing California’s beach trails, canyons and roads.

It’s time to get it over with. At 5:20 a.m., just off the highway, I kiss my girlfriend in the dark, then dash toward a red port-a-potty. The beginning of dawn seeps through the commode’s plastic walls. I hold my breath to avoid a whiff and hope to do more than pee. When I don’t, I exit, streaks of grayish light now illuminating the underpass where a corral of people shift in their various moisture-wicking apparel. Beyond them, several runners jog and skip along a frontage road. I join in, turning on my GPS watch for a short warm-up, then stopping to bend, swing and kick my arms and legs, easing blood into my muscles as I wait for the race to start. Today is the first time I’ll ever run more than 10 miles: 13.1 miles, in fact.


 Until a year ago, I never thought that half marathons — targeted, it seemed, toward adult runners enthusiastic about the self-imposed anxieties of low-stakes yet ambitious goal setting — would ever be my business. At track tryouts during my freshman year of high school, I showed some natural talent for the 200-to-800-meter distances. It was indoor season, and the coach said he wanted to put me in races, a flattering concept to someone alienated by the politics and favoritism of team sports. 

But he always awarded the spots to a few thin, white teammates instead. I, in my thicker Black body, received a speedy and underwhelming tutorial in shot put: Ball to neck, two revolutions, then a thrust. I competed at one meet and never quite figured out how I’d done. Some weeks later, I gladly quit the team, relieved to end those lung-burning sprints around the track day after day, and focused on soccer instead. 

Fifteen years on, with my 30s looming, I started thinking about that abridged track season. I had been pretty good at something, but never tried to cash in on my potential. Why not now?

I had been pretty good at something, but never tried to cash in on my potential. Why not now?

NEARLY A YEAR and a half into the coronavirus pandemic, I signed up for a race eight months away. Scrolling the Mountains 2 Beach Marathon website, I thought, “This will get me running again.” I told everyone I knew what I was planning, to hold myself accountable. I spent four months building my base, then four more training specifically for the race. I aimed to run it in under two hours, or just over a 9-minute-mile pace, a goal daunting enough to ensure adherence to my training regime. 

During the first several weeks, I felt as if my body was the inside of a pinball machine. Pressure points seemed to arise at random, one following ruthlessly after another. But I’m used to discomfort during exercise. When I was a kid, soccer had gradually turned into a masochistic affair: If you weren’t on the verge of crumbling, you hadn’t really played. Running, by comparison, is more of a mental game. If you don’t let your brain convince you you’re done, you can almost always keep going — and even finish faster than you started. 

Still, it’s easier to obsess over the physical hurdles. Some weeks into my half-marathon training block, I felt the whispers of an old bout of patellar tendinitis. I called up a physical therapist, and he gave me a long list of exercises. By this point, my girlfriend, Annie, was both impressed and exasperated by my fanaticism. Not only did I wake her at 6 every morning, stumbling through my routine before heading out the door to run, I also talked constantly about it — running the race, but also running in general. I got motivated by watching YouTube videos of elite runners doing track intervals. And I disappeared my professional identity as a film critic when I took a new job as an editor for a major outdoors retailer, overseeing, of course, running-related content. 

By the time race day arrived, I’d run the gamut of neuroses, doubting every decision I’d made in the lead-up. I’d been coaxed by friends, family, and (several times) by Annie — told that my anxiety was a sign that I cared, that I was challenging myself in a meaningful way. But I dreamed of the day after the half marathon, when I would finally be free of this absurd inner churn of doubt. In the midst of the turmoil, I decided that, after all this, I better just enjoy the race.

On the start line — or really several feet behind it, far enough back from the 2-hour pace group to run the opening miles according to my inner rhythm rather than in a rush of panic — I watch as a course photographer snaps photos of nearly everyone except for me and one other person. I turn to the woman, who’s around my age, and we laugh. Do we look that dour? When we finally take off, I keep her in view before eventually passing her. She had planned to run the full marathon, but contracted COVID a couple months before the race. Now, she’s aiming to finish the half. 

A driver honks encouragement from the highway up on our left. I channel the best of what I’ve learned while ticking off miles on the road, trails and track during training, all sans music. Despite being bisected by a highway, Ventura County has beautiful scenery, including the cascading mountains and bright beaches promised by the race’s name. Traditional Japanese odaiko drummers line the course, pounding their instruments to a stirring beat, and we get to pass them twice. 

In my relentless YouTubing, I’d noticed how pro runner Dakotah Lindwurm always smiles and celebrates during marathons, even while running a sub-6-minute-per-mile pace. So, at my leisurely trot, I pump my arms at cheering spectators, whether their signs are general or specific to someone who isn’t me. When I see other participants go to the dark place runners call the “pain cave,” slowing to walk with a huff of resignation, I sunnily encourage them on.

 I remind myself of some humbling wisdom: Nobody but me cares what time I run. 

Then, around Mile 8, my stomach starts to cramp, dull aches spread across the muscles in my right quad, and my racing flats start to drag over bumps on the road. Ten miles in, when the race veers into mileage I’ve never taken on in one go, and even as the aches accrue into sharp clusters, I find an odd kind of peace. The sun goes from pink and dim to orange and hot. Ventura’s downtown storefronts come into view, and I glance at groups out for Sunday brunch; they look back at us runners in amusement. 

As my sub-2-hour race slips away in the final, mostly uphill 5K, the rocky, glistening beach begins to appear — long surfboards and wetsuited bodies dotting the ocean. I remind myself of some humbling wisdom: Nobody but me cares what time I run. 

I hear the 2:10 group behind me and muster enough stubbornness to beat them even as their voices get louder. The bright sun obscures the onlookers lining the railing as I narrow my focus to the finish that I know must be coming up soon. I ignore my quad and push into the “nothing else matters” gear. Just before crossing the line, arms swinging hard, body airborne, I see Annie, grinning, with our dog, Sardine, and her phone out, recording me. To my surprise, my name blares from the loudspeaker: 2:09:22. My first thought, of course, is how glad I am to finish — then, how soon I ought to start again.

Cassie da Costa is a freelance writer and an editor for the outdoor retailer REI as well as the feminist film journal Another Gaze. She lives in Ojai, California, with her partner and dog. 

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