Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 20 Jan 2007 06:05:58 -0500

Running the Good Race


(rerun from January 2004 RW)

It's not what you want to hear with more than half a race left to run. I hadn't yet made the turn on an out-and-back course when a runner headed for home shouted to me, "If you know so much about running, what are you doing way back there?"

You might think that after hearing such a comment that I wouldn't dare show my face at another race. But I keep coming back. I've tried to stop many times, yet couldn't stay "retired" for long.

Racing still attracts me, though for different reasons than in my years of chasing PRs and prizes. Those aren't the only possible payoffs on racedays.

My PRs stand like tombstones -- monuments to the racer I once was. The youngest all-time best mark is older than my oldest child, who is into her 30s.

I don't contend for any age-group prizes, and probably never will again (unless it's in the 90-plus category by outlasted instead of outrunning most of my competition). In my 60s I'm easing back through the field.

My race times are slower than they've ever been. Race distances are shorter than they've been in a long time, usually 5K to 12K.

So what's the payoff from racing? To find other rewards, I had to get out of the PRs' shadow and past the search for the perfect race.

The personal record is one of this sport's greatest treasures. It gives every runner a way to win.

But like any item of great value, PRs are scarce. They don't fall consistently, and they don't keep falling forever.

Another name for personal record is lifetime best. The life of a runner is long, you can hope.

You probably will outlast your PR-setting. After you've run your fastest times, then how do you judge a winning effort?

The perfect race is even more scarce than the personal record. You'll have but a few racedays -- at all distances, over an entire racing career -- when health, talent, training, experience, enthusiasm and circumstances of weather, course and competition converge perfectly. I haven't had a perfect day since the 1960s.

Someday your most perfect races will have been run already, too. After you've found perfection for the last time, then how do you measure success?

You revise your standards. You don't let the old times haunt you.

Instead of aiming for the perfect race, you go for a good one. Instead of striving for a lifetime best, you shorten your sights.

You might, for instance, start over with your record-keeping in each new five-year age group. Or you might pick an annual race and try to run faster there than a year ago. Or you might aim to run a particular distance faster than last month.

Or you simply could compare what you do on raceday with what you would do on a normal training day. Racedays are magic. Their infectious excitement carries you farther or faster, or both, than you could go alone.

I count on running twice as far at a certain pace in a race than I'd normally. Or I expect to run at one minute per mile faster for the same distance.

Sometimes both effects come at once, farther AND faster. That's when racing is truly magical.

How much you outrun your everyday self helps defines a good race, but extra distance and speed aren't the only definitions. Consider two others.

One standard is pacing. A good race finishes faster than it starts, ideally with the first mile as your slowest and the last one your fastest.

The other standard is passing. In a good race hardly anyone passes you after the opening rush. You do most of the passing, not because you aim to beat any individual but because your pacing is right.

All-time great races are rare, but running a good one is possible anytime. Which doesn't mean the good ones are guaranteed. There are no guarantees in racing, and that element of uncertainty is one of its most enduring attractions.

What am I doing way back in the field? Same as anyone ahead or behind -- finding out what's possible today.

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