In my short running career I have had more than my share of memorable races, both good and bad. There was my first road race, a 5k in 90°F heat, for which I carbo-loaded the night before like I was running an ultra. That fettuccine Alfredo did me no favors on race day, but I finished (the race, not the Alfredo), and I wasn’t last. Then there was the race where I collected my first trophy, the time I nearly died at Boston and the half marathon where I forgot to bring socks, but ran anyway and wore a hole in the top of my foot the size of a half dollar.
I’ve made just about every mistake you can make. But, as the saying goes, I may be dumb, but I’m not stupid. I’ve learned from (most) of my mistakes. Without a doubt the most valuable lesson I’ve gleaned from all of my misadventures is that there’s no shame in failing. A lot of beginning runners I talk to are afraid to enter road races or join a track club for fear of looking like a newbie. You ARE a newbie, and so was everyone else in the race or the club at one time or another, so don’t let that stop you. I’d been running for about two years when I joined my club, which is one of the more famous and competitive clubs in New England. I knew going in that I’d be in the bottom tier, but I figured the best way to get faster was to run with faster people. And it worked. I’m still slower than most of the guys and women I train with, but my times have dropped significantly and I’ve gotten to run with some really talented athletes. The benefits far outweigh whatever fears you might have at the beginning.
The same goes for racing. Most experienced runners can go out and run a four-hour marathon with minimal training, and that’s what a lot of people do. But what does that prove? Racing is all about breaking barriers and testing your body’s limits. I’ve been trying to break 20 minutes for 5k for about two years now and I’ve come agonizingly close. My PR is 20:08, run on a hilly course on a tough day a couple years ago. Since then, just about every 5k I’ve entered I’ve gone out with the intention of beating that mark, but I haven’t yet. I’ve been well ahead of that pace at 2 miles and then completely blown up in the last mile several times and ended up with times that were much slower than I could have run that day.
But what would I learn from running another 20:45? Nothing. I’d rather run my goal pace as long as I can and then make adjustments from there. It’s worth blowing up every now and then to finally make that breakthrough. This is a hard lesson for beginners to learn, especially when finishing is their most immediate goal. But once you’ve gotten to the point of setting time goals, you’re going to fail more often that you succeed. But those successes will be all the sweeter for it.