A Matter of Time

We all want to be this gal, smiling at the finish. But even she has had to wait years for her goals
We all want to be this gal, smiling at the finish. But even she has had to wait four extra years before she reached her goal.

We all know of someone who worked her tail off to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Trials Marathon or 2016 Boston or to break 23:00 in a 5k before she reached 35, but then didn’t make it. Despite having the heart and putting in the work, she heartbreakingly fell short of her goal. Maybe you can relate a little to this or maybe this has happened to you.

We make a big race goal and expect to work toward achieving it in 12 – 20 weeks and if it doesn’t happen, we end up wondering what went wrong. We assume something went wrong because we believed if we followed the plan, it would work. The reality is that sometimes one training cycle is enough time to make the fitness gains we need to achieve our goals, but often it’s not. And what’s really hard to stomach is that there really was nothing else we could have done differently to achieve our goals in that time frame. There was nothing wrong with our training, our race day nutrition or ourselves. We just didn’t give it enough time.

Despite how nice it would be if it were, running gains are not as simple as following a training plan. In baking you follow the plan and you get a cake. In running you follow a plan and you get whatever your body is capable of on the day you chose to test it. That uncertainty can be maddening.

Instead, training is a physiological process, a process which may or may not lead to the results you seek on a given day and may never lead to those results. There are no guarantees. Our bodies are like machines in many ways, but unlike them in one critical way: they can’t always be programmed to do things on command. If any of you reading this has tried to get pregnant, you know no matter how much you want that baby by a certain date, there’s no way to guarantee it will happen. It might happen perfectly easily on the first try, there might be years of frustration before it finally happens, or it might never happen. There are some things you can do to increase your odds, but many factors are out of your hands. Achieving mental and physical fitness is similar. Some people do the training and … BAM! Nail it. Others struggle with frustration and setback for years.

If you knew you’d eventually run that 2:45/3:30/3:59 in six years instead of next month, how would you feel? Would you be able to let go and enjoy the process more? Does it matter if it happens next month or in six years? Are you maybe, just maybe, driving yourself crazy by expecting it to happen now rather than allowing the process to do its thing and … gasp … enjoying that process in the meantime? And the crazy thing is, if you let go and take away the time pressure, I bet you’ll be more likely to meet that goal.

If Amy knew in 2012 that she'd win the 2016 Trials, would she have been as upset about 4th place? Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images North America.
If Amy knew in 2012 that she’d win the 2016 Trials, would she have been as upset about 4th place? Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images North America.

Think about it: deadlines mean pressure and stress. When you line up at a race with the belief that it must happen now or never, the pressure can be overwhelming and way counter-productive. It’s hard to run relaxed and at your best when you believe that you MUST. RUN. A. HUGE. PR. RIGHT. NOW! and do not see the future beyond the finish line. And then, perhaps worse, it’s hard to feel the run-love after the race when you feel perpetually disappointed. Why do we keep doing this?

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with hoping to achieve a certain goal by a certain date. Sometimes having a firm date to achieve something can be just the kick in the pants we need to go for a big-dream kind of goal. That’s great, but instead of heading into your next big race with an I-Must-Run-My-Goal-Time-TODAY, instead say to yourself:

I will achieve my goal; it’s just a matter of time.

How about you? Do you put deadlines on achieving your running goals? 

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. Thanks, Salty!

    I just had a “practice” 50k where the wheels fell off and sent me spiraling into a week of heavy doubts. This read was just what I needed to re-focus.


  2. Great look at things. My fall marathon did not go as planned. Like, at all. My goals are reachable, I know that, but not necessarily on my timeline. I just need to enjoy the process.

    1. I’ve been there … many times. It’s so much easier said than done to enjoy the process, but I think it’s worth the effort to get there. Good luck!

  3. Love, love, love – “I can achieve my goal, it is just a matter of time”. I used to put so much pressure on myself to get a certain time or PR and it just took the fun out of racing. Running for me is more of a release, to help me feel free from stress. I have so many stressors in my life already that I don’t need running to be one too. Lately, when I go in to races with no expectations other then to have fun and do my best – I end up doing just that. With age, I have also become a realist when it comes to my time goals. I have always wanted to break 20:00 in the 5K, but for the busy life that I lead, it isn’t on my radar. I used to run a sub 21:00 5K all the time and haven’t done so since before I had my 5th child. Right now, a goal of mine is to break 21:00 again, and for me, that is very realistic. I wasn’t able to do that this past spring or summer but I came so close, within a few seconds. I have two half marathons on my race calendar for May. In typical runner to runner jargon I always get asked what time I hope to get. Honestly, I don’t really care. My PR at that distance is 1:35 and I know I am no where near trained for that time. I am happy to have gotten that time a few years ago and I don’t really aspire to break that. Is that me not being motivated of having goals? I don’t think so. I plan to put in a solid effort and I hope to get maybe a 1:37 -1:39 in those two spring marathons. I would be happy with that. My next marathon will be Boston 2017. My plan for that – pure enjoyment of the day. I qualified at Columbus this past October with a time of 3:33 and that was 7 minutes faster than what I was even hoping for. It’s just nice to be living in a state where I am satisfied with my running. To plan for races, run hard, but not be devastated because I didn’t get a certain time. And being a “master’s runner” is where its at;)!!

    1. Yes, back before I was pulled in 1000 different directions I could stress about running a little. Now? It puts me over the edge. Just can’t deal with that. It needs to be my time to reflect and relax. If I could just figure out how to train with that attitude life would be good!

  4. I like this, and many many other articles, comments and blogs on this site. In particular I loved following the run up and reflections on the US Olympic Marathon trials. In training for my BQ (I ran Boston in 2014) after two prior marathons, I had targeted a marathon BQ attempt 6 months out, but ended up putting that on hold and re-focussing on one 12 months out, when i knew i would be more ready. However, I still had to focus & follow a plan. I had several months of summer ‘base’ training before heading into the 16 week marathon training plan & build up. The 16 weeks were hard, focussed and specific; increasing mileage weekly & increasing effort on intervals and speed work over time. They culminated in the race where I did achieve my BQ time (yay!) That race was followed by some recovery time before Boston itself, over 12 months later! What I’m getting at is that I understand that goals may not be achievable in a specific time period, or even at all, but I guess I need a time goal or a race goal in order to define and follow a training plan. Without those goals I would just meander along and likely get slower! I think there are training cycles that can & should be followed, usually linked to goals, races or race season. To think you can just magically achieve a PR at some point in time without having worked hard for it, isn’t realistic. I don’t think you’re saying that, but what I’m saying is that goals still need to be trained for… it might take two or more training cycles and two or many more attempts at that distance, for that time, to get there.

  5. Such a good reminder, I need it! On the one hand, having a goal with an expiration date keeps me honest and focused. I don’t like giving myself an out, especially mid-race when it’s getting tough. But on the other hand, I definitely could use some better patience!! I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately in my post-race processing and trying to work on it…

  6. I agree wholeheartedly with the article and comments. As someone who got serious about running at 41, I’ve followed a gradual process and set incremental realistic goals. I think age and failures at other goals (fertility and ultimately marriage) have made me realize that I need running to be a positive factor, not a negative one in my life. I’ve went from strong halfs (not always PR-ing as I learned hilly courses require different training), to BQ on first attempt and disappointing performance in the actual race (2014). I re-entered again, still under-trained but ran more conservatively and PR’d in 2015. I’ve learned to set multiple goals for racing because I’m at the point where I’m still improving. I recently PRd a 10k training race by 3 mins (1 min better than my A goal) but I still went out too fast and my form deteriorated. So, I’m totally happy but I know I can improve even if my PR doesn’t jump as far next time.

    Having multiple goals (negative split or fade by no more than x secs/mile, fast finish mile, etc) enables me to achieve progress from a training cycle and not be disappointed. Right now, My training and race performance says I “should achieve”‘ a certain marathon time, but as past posts have said, those race predictors are just calculators. I’m setting my marathon goals (still a 10 min PR gain) to be achievable under the variety of conditions the marathon (and Boston weather) brings. And if I fail, there’s 5k, 10k and half marathon goals to tackle, even timed work at the track (my own brave mile). Maybe I’m sand bagging my potential, but the gains will come in time and my incremental approach leaves me with a positive attitude rather than crushing defeat.

  7. I’ve said it a lot lately in talking to other runners. I wish I hadn’t placed such pressure/timeline on some of my earlier running goals (mainly, BQ). I feel like I didn’t enjoy my first few marathons or even shorter races during that time because if I wasn’t meeting my sub-20 5k goal or my BQ marathon goal, everything was a failure. I tied so much of my running happiness to these arbitrary things and in the long run the timeline didn’t matter in the least. I try and remember those feelings now a days with goals. Yes I have some big goals, but I try not to tie them to a set time because I want to keep the enjoyment aspect just as important as time success aspect.