Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Redefining "best"

Nowadays many schools have "non-competitive sports days" which I think a bit "oxy-moronic". My wife and I don't quite see eye-to-eye on this one but, while she will tend to say to the kids "The important thing is the taking part, not the winning" I usually add that "As long as you feel you've done your best, that's all that matters". But always doing your best is quite a tall order. It never ceases to amaze me how the best athletes in the world are not only able to put out stratospheric performances, but they seem to be able to do it time and time again with extraordinary consistency (notable exceptions like Paula Radcliffe aside). I expect that this is no coincidence and that consistency - especially in training - is key to being at the top of your game.

I have never been particularly consistent. I have run 10 Marathons, approximately half of which I have been very happy with and half I have been disappointed with. My most recent Marathon - in New York last November - was one which fell into the "disappointing: could do better" camp. At the time friends and family couldn't understand my disappointment, and some even tried to convince me to be satisfied with my result but - after a few weeks of grouchiness I must admit - I chalked it down to experience and started to think of the next one. The odd sub-par performance is an inevitable result of my strategy to get as close to my optimum level as possible.

As long as it was just a question of the odd disappointment, it was no big deal; in fact, it made victory all the sweeter when it finally showed up. But I have started to suffer other negative effects that are perhaps not too surprising given that I am getting on a little bit (about to turn 44). I just need to search through my blog for "back", "neck" or "shoulder" to see just how often. I have continued to soldier on - most times without having to skip even one training session - but the stakes have started to get too high and interfere with other spheres of my life.

How can I redefine "best" so that I can still feel satisfied with my performance? I don't feel enough motivation to train just to fun-run a Marathon. One approach would be to just run for the pure enjoyment of being outside, the endorphins, and feeling good about my body - and forget about races altogether. I'm not sure that that is motivation enough for me just yet - although, right now, I'd do anything to be able to go outside for a run, however slow.

Being a mathematician, I think of my theoretical best performance as being a red line, rather like the red line on the rev-counter of a car. If you can train and race as close to that line without ever crossing it, then you should get your best possible result. Up until to now, crossing the red line has has fairly manageable negative consequences, but that seems to be changing. So, if consistency is represented by a bell-curve - the wider the bell-curve, the higher the inconsistency - to avoid crossing this red line means shifting the intensity of all your training downwards.

This is somewhere between my previous extreme of always trying my best and the other extreme of just running for fun. I tend to be a bit of an all-or-nothing guy, so I feel uncomfortable in that grey zone in the middle. I'd always ride my bike in the lowest gear to get started and then immediately shift up to the highest possible gear - what was the point of all those gears in the middle? I always used to listen to my Walkman at the highest possible volume and found the volume control to be a nuisance. Where do I set the intensity dial for my training?

I think the trick is to shift the time horizon out beyond the current training session, the current week and even beyond the race I might be training for. If consistent, problem free running is a must, then "doing my best" means "doing my best while minimizing the chance of crossing the red line". I'm not sure yet how this translates into a training program, but I can try doing all my training at an "easy" pace (not slack, mind you), scaling back the long runs and mixing in some cross training and weights, and I can try running races at a pace that feels lively but not demanding. If I cross the red line - which I suppose will happen now and again, especially as I get older - I just have to be prepared to shift everything downwards. I've got into Chicago with a qualifying time so it seems a shame not to take advantage as training for and running Marathons like this is unlikely to lead to qualifying times in the future (and, in any case, I have paid my $210 already).

More than anything else, I need a challenge that I feel that is just within my reach and is within my control. Work is a challenge but it depends on so many other factors and people; running has been a great complement (and indeed compliment) to my self-esteem in this respect. Running my best in the long run will probably be the hardest running challenge I have ever undertaken.

Probably the closest I ever got to that red line (since I took up running again) was when I ran New York City Marathon in 2:47:42 in 2013. I am extremely proud of that achievement because it was the culmination of years of training, of overcoming injury and low self esteem, not to mention the 5 years it took me to be get into the race in the first place. Many times I have thought of getting a discreet tattoo - somewhere where it doesn't look like boasting, but somewhere where I can be reminded of it - but it has felt too much like giving up and admitting that I will never run that fast again. Now I am thinking again of that tattoo but not as a resignation, instead as the closing of one chapter and the start of another.

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