January 02, 2009

Managing Expectations

As a runner I am a goal-driven person. Everything is about expectations: meeting them, exceeding them and unfortunately also about falling short.

I started off 2008 by exceeding expectations in the 10km Chilly Chase. My time was 39:51, the first time I broke 40 minutes – a very big personal deal. While I had no reason to doubt the accuracy of the 10km course, I felt that a 33-second improvement on my last 10km was a lot. So rather than celebrate my big personal victory, I wondered if the course had been short.

But when I finished another 10km a few weeks later in 39:55, I trusted that I truly was a sub-40-minute 10km runner. While it boosted my confidence in my training and my ability to keep improving, it also raised my expectations.

Big expectations can create big results – such as when I finished the April Fools’ half marathon in 88 minutes, a PB of more than one minute. My confidence was high going into this race and so was my willingness to test my mental willpower and physical fitness. That meant tolerating a bit more pain than usual and it paid off in the form of a PB and even more confidence.

But lofty goals can also increase pressure and create much distress when they are not met. That’s exactly what happened the following month in my Vancouver marathon. With a previous PB of 3:08, set a year earlier on the undulating course of the Canberra marathon, I was convinced that sub 3:05 was doable in the best case scenario and at least a PB, however tiny, in the worst case.

And my recent 10km and half marathon times suggested those goals were realistic. But as much sense as they made on paper, they simply didn’t work in practice on race day. I ran the first mile perfectly on target and felt good.

But by 10 miles I was already struggling to stick to my pace. As the miles went by I slowly but surely saw my goal time slipping away and become unattainable. I felt more and more distressed as I was racing exactly according to plan.

My pace should have felt comfortable but it simply didn’t. I didn’t understand why as my preparations had gone so well. Eventually I had to accept that this marathon was not going to be what I had expected and threw me a different challenge. I could either reject it and give up, or accept it and rethink my goal on my feet.

I did the latter. The most immediate goal I set myself was to keep running, no matter how slowly. I knew that if I allowed myself to start walking it would almost be impossible to resume running again. It was no longer about testing how much faster I could finish this distance than I had before. It was about pushing away the overwhelming sense of disappointment that I was not going to meet any of my original goals, not even the worst-case scenario one of simply going one second faster than my previous PB.

Eventually the sense of failure gave way to a sense of pride that I was dealing with an unexpected challenge and the fact that I did stick to my revised goal – simply keep running, no matter how slowly. My expectations had been lowered dramatically which allowed me to still meet or surpass them. My mental distress subsided.

As I finished in 3:12, and was passed by three women in the final 200 metres, I was struggling to understand what had gone wrong. But I also was able to feel a sense of accomplishment because I’d refused to give in.

The months after the marathon I kept struggling with my running. While I enjoyed my training, the times in my speed sessions were the slowest they had been in two or three years. I raced one 10km and barely finished sub-42 minutes, nearly two minutes slower than earlier in the year.

So when I lined up for the Victoria marathon in October, my expectations were different. Most of all, I wanted to enjoy the marathon. Sure I was willing to be uncomfortable but I didn’t want to feel distressed as I had for much of the Vancouver marathon.

I had a secret hope of finishing slightly faster than 3:08 but I told myself that running faster than in Vancouver would be good enough. So perhaps it was the lower expectations that helped me exceed them – I finished in 3:07, a PB.

Most importantly I finished feeling good, at least in marathon terms, and I ran the second half a few seconds faster than the first half. I had pretty run the perfect marathon.

Two months later, just two weeks before the end of 2008, I also raced another 10km and was very happy to finish comfortably in 40:26.

So as I start 2009, I've begun training for the 2009 Vancouver marathon. Partly I want to lay to rest the demons of last year’s race. But most of all, I’d like to go back on that course and remember that I accepted a different challenge than anticipated and came out on top.

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