January 10, 2009

Reviewing 2008

At the start of January resolutions are never far away. Unfortunately the word resolution has connotations of aspirations that are considered annually but rarely accomplished and soon forgotten until the following month of Janus.

Janus is a Roman god presiding over doors and gates and over beginnings and endings, commonly represented with two faces in opposite directions. I, and no doubt many other amateur and professional athletes, am like Janus at the start of 2009: looking back to review the accomplishments of 2008, and setting goals for the next year.

Goal setting creates purpose for our endeavors, or a resolve to succeed and perform. The latter can be a word runners shy away from as to many it implies beating others. However, to perform simply means to begin and carry through to completion.

Sometimes finishing what you start is the toughest challenge we face as runners. My 2008 Vancouver marathon was a case in point. I had high hopes for this race in May after lowering my personal best for the 10km to 39:51 four months earlier.

It was the first time I’d managed to break that monumental 40-minute barrier, and only the second time that I’d finished the distance in less than 41 minutes and 18 seconds after 12 years of running. Truly a personal milestone and – I hoped – a turning point towards my quest for the sub-3 hour marathon.

(In case you are wondering, as I did, about the accuracy of the course: I ran the 10km on another race course in March in 39:55 which eased my doubts whether I truly had held 4-minute kilometers for the distance.)

April brought another PB, which lowered my fastest half marathon time by a minute to 88:13 on the certified April Fools Half course.

I was on such a high and expected nothing less than another PB in the Vancouver Marathon a month later. My best time until then was 3:08:48, set a year earlier in the Canberra Marathon in Australia. (It also the first time I won my age group in a marathon.)

But the line between brimming with confidence and putting pressure on oneself can be a fine one. I hit my race pace comfortably in the first mile of the Vancouver Marathon. But after 10 miles it was hard to keep up with what should have been a reasonable pace. Perhaps the weight of my own expectations slowed me down. Perhaps it was something else.

In any case, the result was that in the second half of the race my goal had shifted to from aiming for a personal record to crossing the finish line, regardless of time. I was distressed, and struggled to push aside thoughts of quitting. But I’ve never failed to finish a race – even when in one triathlon the SAG wagon was on my back wheel throughout the entire bike ride.

I was upset as I didn’t understand why my body felt the way it did. My planned race pace was a responsible one based on recent race results and even based on a marathon pace of 12 months earlier. It was also recommended by my coach, who always sticks to the conservative side. Whatever the reason was, I had to deal with the result and push aside the overwhelming desire to pull out of the race.

It took me a few kilometers before I was able to accept that it was not going to be a personal best performance and that that was OK. For me, it was not a valid reason to give up entirely. I wasn’t injured or feeling unwell, just upset. I could still finish this race.

So finishing became my main goal. My most immediate challenge was to keep running, no matter how slow, and avoid giving in to the desire to walk. Slowing your running pace can help you recover, and you are still moving much faster at a slow run pace than you would walking.

When challenging yourself, especially over a 42.195km distance, you will most likely at some point feel like you cannot keep it up. You should first try to mentally deal with that feeling. If truly that doesn’t help, you can ease off your pace slightly. It takes the mental and physical pressure off.

For my final 10km of the Vancouver Marathon I had refocused on performance in the truest sense: finish what you start and appreciate that accomplishment alone. I reached the finish line in 3:12:26 after running the first half in 1:33:17 and the second half in 1:39:10. Initially I was devastated. It had taken me 4 minutes longer to complete this marathon than it had a year earlier.

My expectations had been closer to 3:05, based on my recent 10km and half marathon performances. But with the help of friends, and particularly my partner Tim, I realized it was still my second-fastest marathon then. And most importantly, it was silly to feel disappointed about a 3:12 marathon time when it had taken me five marathons to even break 4 hours.

After a recovery period that for me typically includes one week without any running, followed by one to two weeks of unstructured easy runs, I looked to some new races and asked for another training program from my Australia-based coach Pat Carroll.

He’s been my (online) coach since June 2005. I love the training programs he’s designed for me, as well as his positive and encouraging responses to my questions and feedback about training and race times.

The sluggishness I felt during the Vancouver Marathon didn’t go away for a few months. I felt physically fine and enjoyed my training. But my speed just wasn’t there in training sessions and the 10km race I did in the summer. I finished in 41:43, nearly two minutes slower than in January and March.

Whatever the cause of my sluggishness, it prompted me to lower my expectations for the Victoria Marathon in October. While I did secretly hope for a tiny PB, even one second would have been fantastic, I also reminded myself that my body and/or mind just needed a break from high expectations.

And then I did a 3-km time trial nine days before the Victoria Marathon. My time was surprising, and very close to what it was before the Vancouver Marathon.

Perhaps it was a physical recovery, or maybe I was mentally more relaxed. The result was that I ran the Victoria Marathon in 3:07:10, improving my best time by 98 seconds. I felt great, both physically and mentally, throughout the race. (Though feeling great in the final 5km of a marathon is a relative term.) I even managed to run the second half slightly faster than the first half.

In December, I did a certified 10km race in The Netherlands in 40:26.

So as I review 2008 it has been a great year despite some struggles:

Most importantly, I remained injury-free.
Overall I enjoyed my training.
I improved my times on all distances, ie 10km, 21.1km and 42.195km.
I managed to break 40 minutes for the 10km, a long-held dream goal.
I raced two solid marathons.

That bodes well for 2009.

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