One of the best pieces of advice I ever got came from Olympian Steve Scott. He was talking to a group of us warming up before a long run and asked about our time goals for an upcoming marathon.
“How many of you just want to finish?” he asked.
About 50 hands shot up.
Then he oh-so-diplomatically told those folks that’s not a good goal. Runners shouldn’t show up at the starting line of a race planning to just finish. There’s far more challenge to reaching a realistic target time.
Most experienced runners know to go into training with three goals: an optimal time; a probable time; and an if-all-else-fails time. Variations between the three can be several seconds to many minutes, depending on the athlete and the distance. Time goals are easier to track if they are based on pace per minute, not just an overall finish time, whether you plan to run miles evenly or in “negative splits” (where you run the second half of a race faster than the first). You don’t need a fancy watch to count your splits, either. Simple math or a pace wrist bandwill do.
For many runners, their top goal is a personal best or, if they are marathoners, whatever it takes to qualify for Boston. A great deal of discipline is involved at this level. The middle time goal is tied to what your training truly tells you, given our minds and muscles aren’t always in synch. That’s why pace runs are critical. If you have been averaging 11-minute miles every weekend, you won’t magically run a 45-minute 10k or 4-hour marathon. You’ll frequently hear that long runs for marathons should be done at 1 to 2 minutes per mile slower, but that advice is not meant for back-of-the-packers who already are out there longer than everyone else.
Finally, there’s the third goal, which is where too many people let themselves down. Training may not have gone smoothly and now you’re heading into a big race just healed from an injury or having skipped touchstones in the training program. Your confidence is shot. But that doesn’t mean your inner-competitiveness should evaporate with it. Plan to finish within a respectable time for your abilities, based on pace charts. For instance, if you planned to ideally maintain 9-minute miles for a half marathon, shoot to not slow beyond 9:30 pace.
Extreme weather on race day may mean quickly adjusting expectations. Or, you may get hurt or sick on the course and instantly modify plans. But don’t sell yourself short. Finish up by the time you said you would. And declare what that time will be on your blog (if you have one) and to your friends. Even if you finish dead last, if you hit your most conservative goal, you’ll have won.