The race was…
a strong effort.
a mental victory.
a brave racing strategy.
These are the merits that we ideally want to judge our races by as those are the things we can control. However, in the end, we judge ourselves against one thing: the clock.
With each tick, that judgmental, unforgiving, heartless mechanical bastard decides if we fail or if we succeed. Maybe it’s not a bad thing to judge against something that can’t ostensibly be swayed by emotion or circumstances. If not for the clock, whose judgment can’t help but remain impartial, would we define success with excuses and inspirational quotes? Perhaps the solution is to judge ourselves against the clock, tempered by our emotional, physical and mental growth.
We certainly can’t excuse away every bad performance with complaints about course conditions, weather or illness. Yet sometimes we need to look at the bigger picture and realize that succeeding is nothing more than doing the very best with the circumstances handed to you on any given day. Just as we can’t play the blame game every time a goal is missed, we can’t deem ourselves a failure when circumstances beyond our control stack the odds against us.
My current goal is to break 3:30 in the marathon and it seems that each time I run and don’t break that goal, I have failed. Why 3:30? Does it earn me entrance into an elite race or earn me an award or allow me to quit my job and pursue running as a career or get me into a secret society? Nope. My current PR is 3:33:17, so I think it would be cool to break 3:30. Yes, I’m serious, I am judging my ability and my success as a runner based on the fact that I can’t yet seem to break a goal that I arbitrarily selected because it seemed “cool.”
During the last year and a half, I’ve been struggling with more grief, sadness and stress than normal. Running has been my outlet, yet not my priority. I continue to run race after race, yet I feel that I have failed at most of them. I have good reasons why I haven’t cracked 3:30 at each of those races: It was too hot, I couldn’t breathe at the high elevation, the wind was insane, I was pacing a friend, I was worn out from back-to-back marathons, I was sick, I was sad, and I was simply tired of racing. A few of those races came awfully close to that 3:30 goal. Some races were in really nasty conditions where the time on the clock did not do justice to the strength and effort I left on the course.
The problem is, after so many races not resulting in the outcome I am looking for, I’ve started to believe that I am a failure and that my fastest days are behind me.
In the recent months leading up the Mount Desert Island Marathon in Maine, the pieces seemed to be finally falling into place for a good marathon. I had 12 weeks between races, which was much more than I’ve had in a long time. I chose to follow a plan from Pfitzinger’s Advanced Marathoning, and I was able to execute almost every run. I was looking forward to my favorite type of race here, a small marathon in cool weather.
I was certain this was going to be my comeback race, that this was finally going to be my day. All of that confidence faded into the New England fog as my husband and I drove the course the day before the race. We went uphill, we went downhill, then up and down again and again. And then, near the end, we just seemed to keep going up and up. We finally reached the rusty old scaffolding that marked the end of the course, and my stomach turned to knots as we quietly drove back to the hotel. I tend to run well on hilly courses, but I was worried this course was simply going to be too much to handle.
Race morning came, and I listened nervously as one of the locals tried to ease our fears by telling us that the first 5 miles and the last 5 miles were really the toughest parts of the race, as long you got through the rest of the hills.
Knowing the early hills would mess with my pace, I decided to ignore my watch and run by feel. That decision was cemented when the road rose up in front of me a half mile into the course. Mile after mile I ran up and then down, never really finding my stride, trying to use the downhills to recover and make up some time all while trying to avoid the side stitches that kept lingering on my right side. By the time I got to the halfway mark, where the only clock on the course was located, my legs were toast from the hills. I could see that unless the back half of the course was as flat as North Dakota, the best I could hope for was a 3:50-something.
A funny thing happened on the back half of the course. I was tired, but I didn’t lose my mind. I simply stayed in the moment, and I ran. I walked through a few water stops to refill my handheld, but otherwise, I simply ran, tired legs and all. I even began picking people off on the uphill stretch from mile 19-25. I sprinted the downhill stretch from 25 to 25.5, and I finished strong in 3:53. I only lost 2 minutes on the back half of the course.
According to the clock, I failed miserably. But did I really? I ran a strong, consistent race on a tough course. I kept my head in the game and finished strong. But was I just making excuses to pretend I had succeeded and to pad my ego? Perhaps. Maybe I’ve learned to look for the small victories and successes that come with running. Perhaps I know that if I was able to run strong on this course without falling to pieces, that maybe, just maybe, with the right set of circumstances, that 3:30 PR is within my reach. It seems I ran up and down all those hills to fetch something bigger than a PR.
Instead, I fetched a big old bucket of self-confidence and a glimpse of the runner I still have the capability to be. I’ll continue to chase that unrelenting clock, but I’ll stop and acknowledge the small successes along the way.
Do you define your success as a runner solely by the clock?