(This is the 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)
August 2001. Here are tales of two runners who show that a practice I’m about to propose isn’t as weird as it might seem. Neither runner is an underachiever, athletically or professionally. Christine Clark is a pathologist in Alaska, Jeff Hagen a dentist in Washington state.
Many American marathoners aimed higher in 2000 than Dr. Clark. None achieved more internationally.
When first spotted during U.S. television coverage from the Sydney Olympics, she lagged near the back. She might have appeared overwhelmed to be in this company.
But no, Clark calmly climbed into the top 20. Set a PR too, on a windy day and hilly course that worked against such times.
She was as surprised as anyone that she even reached Sydney. Winning the U.S. Trials didn’t figure into her prerace plans. She didn’t aim low, but realistically said she hoped to break into the top 20.
Before the race she had told an Anchorage reporter, “If you train really hard, you’re going to have a good day. And sometimes, for no reason you can account for, you have a great day.”
You can’t will such days to happen. You do the training, then take your chances on what kind of race day it will be.
Jeff Hagen takes a similar view on goals, though he too is no slacker. Few ultrarunners have won more often while aiming lower. In his 50s he does especially well in track races that last a day or more.
“I have always steered clear of setting lofty race goals,” he wrote in his club newsletter. “With them comes pressure, and if any little thing goes wrong – which is almost a certainty in any ultra event – I can easily become demoralized and perform poorly. By setting goals that are more achievable, if things happen to be going well, I sometimes adjust my goal upward during the second half of the event.”
Like many runners, I’ve never lacked motivation but am more likely to trip over the high hurdles of ambition. I caved in to the pressure of such goals from the start – two starts, in fact.
Here are tales of two miles. Race one was my first high school mile, where I aimed to beat the big boys. The only one beaten up by a too-fast start and quitting the race after little more than a lap was me.
Race two was my first college mile. I set as a goal breaking 4:20, though I’d never gone that fast and this event followed a season of slow training. The time fell short by a dozen seconds and left me despondent.
My best times nearly always have come as surprises, not as a result of hitting lofty targets. “Goals are stopping places,” I once wrote. You either reach them and stop because you’re satisfied, or you don’t reach them and stop out of frustration.
By setting high goals, you set yourself up for high pressure and a high probability of failure. Lower goals lead to lower pressure and surprising results.
Case in point: Boston 1967 was my marathon debut, and the longest training run had been 20 miles at eight-minute pace. A reasonable goal seemed to be holding that same pace for the extra 10K.
I started as planned but steadily nudged up the pace. To my shocked delight I averaged 6:30 miles in that marathon. The new goal became that pace or better, which I never averaged again.
If high goals become hurdles that trip you up, try this: Set “at-least” goals that are the least you will accept instead of the most you might achieve – goals that are floors to spring from instead of ceilings to bump into.
Divide the race into two parts, equal in size but very different in style. Run the first half like a scientist, with planning and restraint. Then switch in the second half to running like an artist, creatively and emotionally.
Starting cautiously will often lead to finishing with a rush. Running the second half of a race faster than the first is misleadingly called “negative splits.” In fact, few feelings in running are more positive than a strong finish with an outcome that far exceeds expectations.
2019 Update. My “at least” goal now is to enter at least one race a year, there to go faster (or less slow) than I’d do the same distance alone. I still can trust the race-day magic to shave at least one minute per mile.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Next Steps, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]