Today I want to talk to you about goals.
No, not life goals and all that self-improvement stuff (though I must say I’m still enjoying the taste of all the Tony Robbins Kool-Aid I drank at a fantastic seminar this weekend). Instead, I’m talking about the goals you bring into a race, particularly a marathon or half. And sometimes, the goals you invent during that race.
A Sure-Fire Way to Ruin a Race
Ever wonder how to wreck a perfectly good race, and make a day that could have been wonderful turn out to be miserable?
Easy. Here’s how.
- Start with a reasonable time goal in mind.
- Get all pumped up when your adrenaline surges a few miles into the race.
- Change your well-thought-out goal to a new, faster one, based on the fact that you “feel good today.”
- Crash and burn, shuffle/walk the last few miles, miss your original goal, and have a terrible memory of the day.
Seriously, I’ve done that so many times. And I bet most of you have too.
A Rule of Thumb Worth Remembering
I learned something interesting while reading Run Less, Run Faster that’s helpful in combating this all-too-common occurrence.
Here’s the idea. Imagine that on race day, all your training has resulted in a single race time you have inside of you that you’re capable of running, if you pace yourself perfectly and nothing goes wrong. Let’s say, for example, that you’re running a marathon and your true (but unobservable) ability is a 3:28:00.
Here’s the interesting thing. According to Run Less, Run Faster, for every minute you run the first half of your marathon faster than that pace, you’ll lose two minutes in the second half.
Let’s put this in terms of a real race. (Any similarities to the Marine Corps Marathon I just ran are entirely coincidental. Really.)
So we’re saying your true ability on a given day is a 3:28, but you don’t know it. You just know you have a goal of 3:30. Let’s say the first few miles of the race go well, and your adrenaline convinces you to that you’re far more awesome than your “modest” 3:30 goal would indicate, so you decide that today is your day to run a 3:20. You run that pace for a while, and hit the halfway point at 1:40 (four minutes faster than the 1:44 you should have run it in based on your true ability).
In these terms, the two-minutes-slow-for-every-minute-fast rule means you can plan on running the second half in 1:52, eight minutes slower than your ideal 1:44 pace.
The result? You hate yourself as you shuffle/walk/limp/crawl through the second half, crossing the finish line in 3:32 (missing your original “modest” goal) and kicking yourself for letting your adrenaline get the best of you like that. Oh yeah, and your whole day sucks.
One Goal and One Goal Only
I have no idea how many people’s races, especially first ones, are ruined this way. Even with some experience, I still do it, almost every time I race. The one time that sticks out in my mind where I didn’t make this mistake was when I qualified for Boston.
Why? Because on that day, qualifying for Boston with a 3:10 was the only thing I cared about.
I couldn’t have cared less that day if I ran a 3:05 or even broke three hours entirely; that wasn’t why I was there. If my head were some kind of weird video game where qualifying for Boston was worth 100 points, then running a 3:05 would have been worth 101 points. Almost no difference.
But a 3:11 would have been worth absolute zilch, and that’s why there wasn’t even a hint of temptation to run faster than my goal pace. My half splits were almost identical, and I crossed the line in 3:09:59.
So that’s your solution: Pick one goal.
Pick one goal and care enough about it that there’s zero temptation to go faster and risk f’ing it all up because you get swept up in the excitement of race day.
Pick a time that matters to you, and that you think you’re capable of, and just stick to it. It’s so funny how easily convinced we are to run faster on race day when we’ve been planning on something else for months.
If it’s your first race and all you want to do is finish, a time goal is a pretty terrible idea. (That’s how I ended up walking the last eight miles of my first marathon.) Make finishing your goal, take it easy, and if you have a bunch of energy left to sprint the last three miles, well, you’ll be one of a select few whose first marathon ends that comfortably.
If it’s not your first race and you have a time in mind, but there’s nothing exceptionally meaningful about it, then think ahead about how much risk you want to take. If you think you can run a 4:05, but breaking four hours would mean the world to you, then trying it might be worth the risk, if the idea of bonking and running a 4:20 doesn’t sound all that much worse than a 4:05.
But in most cases, I’d say err on the side of slowness in the first half of the race. Think about it: Knowing you held back too much early on is still a pretty good day. You finish strong, kick the ass of the last few miles, and can’t wait to get back out there and see what you’re really capable of. When you consider the alternative of going out too fast and hating every minute of the last six miles of your marathon, even if these two strategies happen to result in the same finish time, the choice is pretty clear.
What do you think? Do you play it safe, or always push it no matter what you decided going into the race?
This post is part of a series of posts designed to teach you how to run long and strong. Go check out the rest!
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