"Don't wish it was easier. Wish you were better." -- Jim Rohn
My wife and I are sitting in a pub, setting up my race season for 2014 and discussing which races she is planning on doing also. She's not as competitive as I am, and runs for the joy and social aspect of the sport versus the drive to break PR's and clobber a course that once clobbered back. There's a fair amount of local races lined up for the coming year, and it's exciting to see what the opportunities are to break new ground with virgin races, and return to starting lines to see how much quicker the finish line arrives!
To this end, we end up discussing training philosophy, and an interesting thing happened as I started posting events and official races to our running group We Run Mas' facebook page: a few of our members who are eagerly looking for races also to challenge themselves start asking questions. Questions such as, "Am I ready?", "Is this course too hard?", "I haven't done that distance before, what happens after I pass my furthest kilometer?". Things like that.
On the way into work, I was listening to Ultrarunner Podcast and they had Dr. David Horton on. For those that don't know, David has been running Ultras for longer than many Ultrarunners have been alive. He did his first 100 miler in 1981. He made a few points on how he saw the evolution of the sport, and what has changed over the years. I'll come back to his references later, but much of what he said speaks to the point of this article.
Over the years, there is a change in sport to allow everyone to participate: competitive and non-competitive alike. This is great, as it supports better lifestyles, gets people moving and provides the opening to maintain active, hopefully non-medicated, living for lasting health. The downside of this scenario is an "everybody wins" mentality, and the median of sport capacity goes down. Is this a law of averages, a bias in numbers because of the greater number of active participants, or a drop in overall trained skillset?
Before the late 70's the number of "aid stations" in most marathons was minimal, let alone 5k's or 10k's. The goal of the participant was to show up trained to the starting line, and it was their responsibility to get to the finish, not the Race Directors. As the general population started running (again, a good thing) the requirement for Race Director's to ensure the safety of participants grew, and Aid Stations started spawning like mushrooms on rotting wood. Some marathons have some sort of support station every kilometer!! Suddenly RD's were playing with their races to help the athletes. Adding aid stations, extending cut-offs, changing elevation profiles or offering shorter outs to finish. It's a little odd. Dr. Tim Noakes has much to say on the topic also.
So that brings us to the bar. How high is the bar, and what is the best way to ensure it is where it needs to be. The simple answer is: set the bar and expect people to reach it. There are "hard" races, and "easy" races, and in between races. Of course, easy for one person may be a grind fest of pain for another. So what changes the outcome of the journey? Answer: Training.
It's a simple idea, but our discussion (my wife and I) went a step further and it came down to a semantic which in essence has a huge impact on the outcome of one's effort.
"Train to achieve your goal. Don't set your goal based on what you have already trained."
Coming back to some of the questions that were being raised, both online, in person, and in my own head when I started undertaking running as a "serious" endeavor, put's it all in perspective. The danger of stating "Am I ready?" is that if you're not, you may not try. You ideally, if the race is several months away, and it currently exists beyond your past accomplishments, are not ready. However, this doesn't assume that you won't be ready!
It's gonna require a plan.
Set the goal, sign on the proverbial dotted line, register for the event, and work our ass off so that once you reach the start line, you have done everything in your power to make the finish line.
Train for the goal. Not the other way around.
The danger of doing the opposite, of setting the goal based on what you have already trained (aka your "today" self) is that you will sell yourself short. The aspiration of pushing just that one step past the comfortable and already known is what allows us to achieve greatness. Does greatness assume a first place finish or a PR every race? Not at all. For some, greatness if getting to the finish line. Even a DNF can be great, as long as the best that could have happened on that day occurred. The experience will let you shine in the future, as we all know that mistakes are the greatest of lessons. If we allow ourselves to only do what we know is capable today, for tomorrow, then the apathy and stagnation that impedes growth is certain.
Once the goal is set, understanding the reality of what needs to happen to get there is paramount! To some, perhaps this comes naturally and with years of experience and success has become habit. For others, perhaps it's a new way of looking at future races and, while being realistic (don't go run 100 miles with little to no past Ultra experience), start pushing the envelope. Maybe it's a faster 10k or marathon, or a return to a race that once left you destroyed. It could be branching into new distances, or new terrain (roads to trails or -gasp-, trails to roads).
But at least do one thing . . . set your eyes on something new. Something that is currently not within your "today's you" grasp and push.
Push just a little. And most importantly, train for it.