Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Aiming Low

(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 2000.)

YOU CAN’T fake a marathon. Maybe you can run a 10K without training for it, but not a marathon.

I wrote those opening lines so long ago that I now had trouble remembering them. Memory failed me in midrun at the 2000 Napa Valley Marathon.

I’d gone there without thinking of running that far. I wasn’t ready, having run no longer than an hour since a half-marathon race almost two months earlier.

My thought was to run the first 10 miles or so with Jan Seeley, the publisher of Marathon & Beyond. Rich Benyo, M&B’s editor, co-directs Napa Valley. He insisted I wear a race number even if not planning to finish.

The sport’s great thinker George Sheehan once said, “When you pin on a number, you pledge to do your best.” I didn’t consciously take this oath but now wore the evidence of having done so.

At 10 miles I told Jan, “I’ll run a few more.” At 13, “I’ll keep going as long as you do.”

Jan was running 16 miles that day to prepare for a later marathon, and she stuck to her plan. As she stopped, I told her, “I’ll go a little farther and then catch a ride.”

More miles down the road, no ride could be found. I was told, “You can wait for the sag wagon, but it might be another hour before the last runner gets here.”

Rain had started to fall. Running mixed with walking seemed a better choice than standing and waiting. This later became walks mixed with brief runs.

I finished. It wasn’t pretty, but my time wasn’t a PW – a personal worst.

Another truism of marathoning: The less you train before the race, the more you suffer during and after (and usually vice versa – more training equaling less suffering). My hurting was mild on race day compared to the after-effects that would strike later. I wouldn’t try to go this far again for another years.

SELDOM IF ever has my destination so far exceeded my travel plan as it did at that Napa Valley Marathon. I’m not quite ready to tell you to aim so low; that would sound anti-athletic. But let’s at least look at goals from another angle.

In an earlier Napa Valley Marathon, 1995, I ran the first few miles with Jeff Hagen. Since then, Jeff has taught me a lot.

First he has guided me through a medical condition that we share (vertigo episodes, unrelated to running). Later we learned that we share views on goals.

Both of us like to think of them as floors to spring from instead of ceilings to bang against. Instead of pointing to the highest target we’d like to reach, we try to see how far we can exceed certain minimums.

Jeff’s minimum standards are immensely higher than mine. He’s an ultrarunner who does especially well in track races that last a day or more.

Now living in Yakima, Washington, he wrote in his club newsletter, Hard Core Runners News, “In the dozens of ultramarathons that I have run, my basic approach has been simply to go out there and have fun. I do stick to a race strategy, in order to run as efficiently as possible, but I have always steered clear of setting lofty race goals.

“For some reason, setting modest goals seems to work better. With lofty goals comes pressure, and if any little thing goes wrong – which is almost a certainty in any ultra event – one can easily become demoralized. This translates to poor performance.

“By setting goals that are more achievable, I find that even if things don’t go exactly as planned, there may be a chance of meeting my original goal. And if things happen to be going well, I sometimes adjust my goal upward during the second half of the event.”

Before you conclude that aiming low is a sure recipe for setting PWs, let me share another Jeff Hagen story. He went into a 48-hour race, in 1999, aiming high.

“This was one of those rare times when I had a specific, and lofty, goal in mind – the North American record of 213 miles for men 50 to 54.” Before the race began, the course and weather conditions relieved him of that plan.

Jeff told his wife, “Well, that takes the pressure off. I’ll just enjoy the race and forget about the record.” He totaled 216 miles.

For my first marathon, I aimed low. For Boston 1967 my longest training run had been 20 miles at eight-minute pace. Holding that same pace for the extra 10K seemed a reasonable minimal goal.

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.

Goals can be stopping places. 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. Low goals lead to low pressure and surprising results.

Instead of reaching for the highest point you might touch, see how far you can exceed a minimum standard. Instead of straining to make things happen, relax and let them happen. Instead of thinking of goals as the most you might achieve, consider them as the least you will accept.

Photo: Jan Seeley led me into my unplanned Napa Valley Marathon. Later we would work together on her magazine, Marathon & Beyond.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]

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