Lots of runners have great big marathon time goals, like going sub-4:00, qualifying for Boston, going sub-3:00, or running an Olympic Trials qualifying time. I used to daydream about goals like these. I fantasized about coming through the finish chute, seeing a particular time on the clock and weeping in elation as the confetti fell and a rainbow broke out across the sky.
That’s right; I used to dream about crushing a huge marathon goal like that. But this year, I’m throwing my marathon time goals out the window.
Process Over Outcome
After years fixated on the numbers on the finish clock, I’ve decided I want to focus on the process rather than the end result.
A marathon time goal is an outcome goal, but the marathon is a finicky beast. So much hangs on the weather, the terrain, the fueling, and simply whether or not it’s “your day“. There are so many variables that having a single goal time is just about pointless.
A little history: I ran my first marathon in well over six hours, then spent the next couple of years working to go below five. For a while, I was shooting for 4:30, but cramped every single time. I’ve PRed by over an hour. I’ve PRed by one excruciating second. You’d better believe I had my eyes on the clock for a long, long time. Maybe I’d say I wasn’t concerned about time, but the finish time would still stress me out and drive me to frustrated tears, proving that my words weren’t completely honest.
And frankly, I feel like I’ve wasted enough energy fretting about time goals. For years I’ve dreamed about hitting this or that time. I’ve wasted enough of my life in simmering resentment that I may never qualify for Boston while another runner might waltz in on her first try. I’ve spent too long dreaming and not long enough doing.
So this year, it’s more important to me to identify my biggest weaknesses and tackle them with process goals. I typically cramp near the end of a marathon, so I’d like to strength train two days a week through this year, even if it means shorter weekday runs. Other process goals for the training cycle might include self-care, like stretching and massage, or improving your nutrition. They even include tackling your mental weaknesses, like if you give up midway through a tempo run when the going gets tough, what strategies can you invent to stay in the moment and complete the run?
How to Stay Motivated Without a Goal Time
But, wait! You might interject here. If I have no time goals, I have no prescribed long-run goal pace. If I have no goal pace, how will I know what my training paces are? Here’s what I’m doing. I’m going really old-school: entirely by feel.
Instead of staring at my watch, I’ll ask myself if I can talk in full sentences or whether I’m pushing so hard I can only spit out a few words. How long does it take me to catch my breath? How do my feet and legs and muscles and bones feel? And of course, throwing out race goal times doesn’t mean I’ll stop wearing my Garmin altogether. I’ll still wear it, and I’ll be able to see what different paces feel like.
On race day, too, I’d like to focus on process goals. Can I stick to my race plan and not get carried away? What happens if I start to feel bad during the race? Can I set out in advance my threshold for discomfort, and practice, through visualization, how I’ll respond? And most of all, can I find joy in the moment and make memories out of that?
I find that when I’m racing for time, I don’t have the mental bandwidth to capture those moments: the jokes shared with random strangers on the shuttle to the start, the surge of the crowd as the race begins, the surprised pleasure on a volunteer’s face as you thank them. These are the things I want to carry with me when I think of my marathons. I want to smile at the memories. I don’t want my longest races to be just another training-run blur.
I won’t be the first runner to do this, but I do believe it’s a personal journey. You can read about it, as I had before, but not accept it or want to try it until you’re ready. For the marathon, at least, I’ve finally learned to let go of those time goals and just trust in the process, come what may.
Do you make specific time goals when training for a marathon or do you focus on the process?