Thursday, October 30, 2008

Using My Head

Like most people, I thought setting goals was something one did prior to running, and was primarily reserved for organized events and races. Depending on the length of the race and how I was doing with my training, I always set a target finish time. Thinking back I really only had one goal. Fortunately it didn’t take long to realize that there is more to setting goals than choosing a pre-determined finish time. In fact my approach was arguably backward. Goals don’t dictate how I should run, but these days they are more often derived from a run.

Part of the problem is that there are too many factors to consider, many of which are out of my control, going into a race. How I feel on that day, physically and emotionally play a significant role. Did I get carried away with last minute training, worried I hadn’t been training hard enough, and inadvertently weaken my conditioning as a result of my panic? I’ve definitely paid the price for making that mistake, on more than one occasion. Weather conditions can also have a significant impact. My last organized race was 80 degrees prior to the starting gun. I was actually sweating before even getting out of the coral. That race remains to this day the only run in which I’ve felt muscle cramping in my legs, which I attribute to dehydration. Needless to say, I did not make my “goal.”

After hitting the wall in my first few marathons I learned that my primary goal should simply be “to finish the race.” On my feet, or hands and knees. No matter how discouraged I become late in the race, I’ve learned that after the fact I’ll take some consolation knowing that I followed it through to completion, regardless of the time.

My latest goal is the result of a recent learning experience when I was rendered nearly unconscious after becoming entangled in some wire on the side of the road and falling hard on my face during a routine five miler. I had to regroup with two gaping wounds above my eye, one that ultimately required stitches, and blood flowing from multiple abrasions from numerous regions on my body. Fortunately aside from the blow to my melon and my pride, nothing that I relied on to run (hips, knees, ankles, etc) felt twisted or injured. I was truly grateful that I was able to continue running, and not walk, since I was two and half miles from finishing. It was suddenly painfully obvious what my new primary goal for all running should be “don’t fall.” It’s that simple, and applies to more than race day.

These days I approach every single run with the same set of goals:

1. Don’t fall.
2. Complete the run.
3. Finish within a time that targets my objective for that run.

Goal number 3 applies in both directions. Quite often it means don’t exceed a certain pace on a run intended to be a recovery run. Even on a bad day meeting two out of three goals, and learning something I feel will help me achieve my goal time with more experience and smarter training, I walk away feeling good about my effort. Missing my third goal just gives me something to strive for on my next run, provided of course I manage to achieve goals 1 and 2.

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