Did track really mess with my brain this much?
Did track really mess with my brain this much? (Photo: Gonçalo Viana)

Why I Still Have Stress Dreams About Running Track 

I'm approaching 30 and haven't competed in years, but that pre-race dread is much bigger than running

Did track really mess with my brain this much?

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About every other week, I have the same dream: I’m on a hazy, hillier version of my college campus, and I still have another semester of school to complete. With that semester comes another season of indoor and outdoor track. Spoiler alert: It goes very poorly.

Sometimes it’s September, other times January, but the dream always drips of first-day anticipation—that intangible feeling of a fresh start, when you show up and learn whether your off-season training was enough. Teetering on the edge of opportunity, I’m excited for new semester. But I’m also anxious, knowing I’m getting my ass kicked today. I get to practice, and because I’m my real-life age of 28, I’m woefully out of middle-distance shape. I have to complete some workout involving fast 200s and 400s on an indoor track, and I can’t do it. I invariably think to myself, “I could’ve been training for this. What have I been doing since graduation—sitting on my ass?” Even in my dream spikes, I’m sluggish and pudgy and weak, like the air is molasses and my muscles have melted off my bones. There’s no one yelling at me, just an internal pressure—the knowledge that I will never be able to move my legs like I could six years ago. My teammates always smoke me. I wake up and start the day off-kilter. This has been happening for about the past three years. Jesus, did track really mess with my brain this much?

Running dreams, for runners and plebeians nonrunners alike, are totally common and take myriad forms with boundless interpretations. Most of us have had at least one during our sleeping lives. There’s the common slow-motion running reverie, where you’re trying to move forward but can’t—this apparently indicates a lack of self-confidence. Then there’s running from something (you’re afraid to confront a real-life problem) and running toward something you can’t reach (which represents a childlike fear, a need to be carried). If you’re running from a thief or a killer, in particular, this apparently means you’re going to solve your current problems, which doesn’t really track for me, but sure.

I don’t believe in the all-knowing power or even potent symbolism of dreams. Trust me, I’m not above the occult—I’ll try to decipher your sun, moon, and rising signs within ten minutes of meeting you. But dreams, to me, are simply our mind’s way of sorting through recent events, refiling the cabinets and schlepping the boxes of our brains from one end to the other. In our sleep, we get a glimpse of our brain’s rather chaotic rearranging routine. But the sheer consistency of these track dreams, both in content and timing, sticks with me.

It’s very common to have anxiety in the nights leading up to a big race. An eagerness to PR, just like the anticipation of an important test or interview, morphs into taking a final for a class you never attended with your jaw wired shut. But this isn’t the kind of stress dream I’m talking about. The extent of my current racing schedule is an annual fundraiser 5K, which entails jogging three miles and then striding/bounding Super Mario–style for the last 160 meters. All things considered, the dreams are pretty realistic—if I had to, for whatever reason, compete in a season of collegiate track, I’d be absolutely destroyed. The mere thought of being asking to complete 3×200-400-200 at goal 800 pace makes me want to dry-heave, then wet-heave until I dry-heave again. Assuming that’s enough heaving to get out of doing the workout. I haven’t raced on a track since I graduated college; these days, I just run to stay in shape. (Oh god, am I a jogger?)

Which is to say, considering its minimal role in my current life, these dreams aren’t actually about track. Competitive track and field is not, at this point in my life, what gives me anxiety. Rather, track represents my recurring sense of dread. Perhaps these dreams are, in part, flickers of nostalgia lapping at the back of my brain—I miss competition, and my teammates, and prancing around the dining hall in spandex shorts post-workout, a habit I’ve lamentably aged out of. But mostly, they’re a place for my latent anxieties about work, love, and the future to run endless laps around my brain.

Competitive running and anxiety have always gone hand-in-hand for me. About ten minutes before every cross-country race in high school, I’d throw up. The seven varsity girls would be on the line, doing strides, and I’d feel a lurch—I’d stride over to a garbage can, barf, and stride back to the line. I’d feel more centered, like I had just physically shed my pre-race jitters. It was objectively gross and probably deeply unhealthy, so just be happy you didn’t know 17-year-old me. My point is that pre-race dread takes on all kinds of forms for each runner and often becomes its own little ritual. I kicked the puke habit in college, when I decided distance running was boring (and too hard) and pivoted my energy to middle-distance track, which I was better at anyway. But that pre-race anxiety never let up, regardless of distance: the stomach-churning buzz from heart to fingertips, when you know you’re about to be in a lot of pain and find out whether your best is enough.

Around age 20, I started feeling that pre-race unease during times other than pre-race. In the off-season, or in the middle of the night, or on a gorgeous fall afternoon, for no discernable reason. I started discovering the ways in which anxiety was debilitating to my life in late college and the years following graduation. I’ve since gotten it under control with medication and therapy. But I’m an Irish Catholic Scorpio, so I don’t exactly wear my insecurities on my sleeve. Instead, twice a month, I wear them in the form of Nike spikes on an indoor track in my sleeping mind, and also I’m maybe running on Jell-O or I’m underwater or something.

Part of why I fell in love with track as a teenager is the sport’s reliance on numbers. Success is black and white. Did you hit your goal time, mark, distance, or not? There aren’t judges or refs making bullshit calls; there’s only a sliver of room for subjectivity in the sport. And while cross-country running has hills and mud and a giant log right before mile three that you have to hurdle, track is just a track (shush, steeplechasers) and a click. I used to think that was such a beautiful metaphor for life—you get out what you put in. Now I realize that such crystal-clear metrics are a rarity.

Six years out of competition, my subconscious is using the simplicity of track against me. “Remember this?” it roars, in the form of the fuzzy, nostalgic wash of Massachusetts winters. “Remember when success was clear-cut, and you’d figure out whether you’d succeeded that week in less than two and a half minutes?” Little did I know, half my life ago, when I started running competitively, that this sport would rattle my psyche well into adulthood.

Now I’m approaching 30, and measurements of real-life success couldn’t resemble a track PR any less. What is success, even? Having a job that satisfies me, one that pays well, or one that does both? Is it having a stable relationship, or a solid friend group, or Twitter likes? Is it a 401(k), or a Roth IRA, or, at the very least, being able to articulate the difference between those two things? Is quantifiable success achievable when I sort of have all of the above things, or just half of them at 100 percent? The answer, of course: No such recipe exists. But that realization hasn’t quite clicked yet with my dream-state self.

I guess somewhere, deep down, I probably miss the candor of working my entire body to its limits, when it felt like every organ in my body was about to fall out of my butt. You know, when things were easy.

Lead Photo: Gonçalo Viana