True story: I’m a failure when it comes to running marathons. I’ve run three marathons, and completed them all in under three-and-a-half hours but, frankly, I’ve let myself down every time. Why? Simple: I’ve failed to meet my target in every single one of them. See? Ignoble failure.
Except, of course, I don’t view any of them as a failure. Heck, just completing a marathon was an achievement I long thought was beyond me. Completing a marathon in under three-and-a-half hours? Wouldn’t have dared dream. Completing one in 3h 10m 58s? Never.
When it comes to my three marathons, I’ve matched or exceeded my goal in all three.
Hang on, how does that work? Allow me to explain. What running marathons has taught me is that there’s a difference – a small, subtle yet crucial difference – between what I consider goals and targets. You can still fail to hit a target, yet still succeed in achieving a brilliant goal.
I’m not sure the dictionary agrees, but I’ve developed my own definitions for what I view as goals and targets. For me, a goal is some form of broad challenge – for example, completing a marathon. I consider a target a more specific aim – such as trying to complete a marathon in a certain time. So you can achieve a goal, and yet still miss a target. Make sense?
It’s a concept I’ve developed to keep pushing myself when I entered my first marathon, the 2016 London Marathon. The goal – the only outcome I’d talk about in public – was simply to finish one. And that was a big challenge in itself: I didn’t know for sure I could.
Thing is, I didn’t want to sell myself short by running a marathon well within my capabilities just to say I could. So, privately, I set myself a target time. Working it out was complicated: I didn’t want to settle for a slow time I could hit easily, and then regret not pushing harder. But I was wary of failing to achieve my goal because I’d pushed too hard for an unachievable target.
Going completely against the advice of strong pre-planning, I didn’t decide my target time until I was minutes from the start. I took two pace bands to Greenwich with me, and at the last moment decided to target the ambitious one: 3h 20m.
Of course, I failed. I went too fast early on, felt the pain late on, and just held on to finish 80 seconds or so below 3h 30m. I’d failed to hit my target by more than eight minutes.
At the time, utterly exhausted, with my legs hurting like never before, it felt like a bit of a failure. By the time I’d recovered enough to limp out of the finish area and find my family, I was flush with achievement – and the joy – that came in having completed my goal: I’d run a marathon.
For my second marathon, Houston in 2017, the goal changed: I wanted to run the marathon I tried to run in London. That meant following a pace plan better, being more disciplined and sticking to my target time.
The target changed as well: with experience, better preparation and a higher level of fitness, I decided to aim for 3h 15m, which meant knocking the best part of 15 minutes off my London finish time.
Of course, I failed. I stuck to my pace plan brilliantly for the vast chunk of the race, but had a very slight wobble with around five miles left, from which I recovered to cross the line in 3h 16m 40s. I’d failed to hit my target by 1m 40s.
And yes, at the time it felt like a mild failure. But the realisation of how much stronger I felt at the finish, and how much better I’d run than I had in London, quickly ensured I was simply left thrilled at having succeeded – even exceeded – my goal.
Which brings us to this year’s Houston Marathon. Now this was a tough one to set both goal and target for. Honestly, with my busy build-up I knew I was, at best, in no better form than I had been the previous year, and most likely I wasn’t as well prepared.
Reflecting on my form, I simply came to the conclusion that matching my time from 2017 would be an achievement. So that’s what the goal became: to match my 2017 pace of 3h 16m 40s. And, for once, I thought my goal and target would be aligned.
But as the race grew closer, I began to question if that was enough. Would I really be happy treading water? Probably not. So should I set a target to run faster? Possibly, but wasn’t that crazy when I didn’t think I was in a state to improve on my pace?
I was still pondering that question in my Houston hotel on the night before the marathon, while digesting my pre-race chicken pasta (courtesy of Houston’s excellent Star Pizza), scribbling down the pace I’d need to average to achieve certain finish times.
My instinct was to run at the same pace I’d tried to do the previous year, and aim for the 3h 15m I’d set as a target. But, if I did that, my best-case scenario was essentially to nibble away at my previous time.
It was time to set a (relatively) bold target. I couldn’t settle for shaving a minute or so off my previous time. I owed it to myself to target more, even if I didn’t think I could achieve it. 3h 10m it was, then. That would knock more than six minutes off my time, quite a chunk given my pace. Yup, 3h 10m. Let’s push it. It was time to gamble.
Of course, I failed. By 58 seconds. But you know what? There was really no disappointment this time. Because I knew I’d pushed myself. At times, particularly early on, I was running faster than I was truly comfortable with, chasing that time. And while I failed to hit my target, my time of 3h 10m 58s was still nearly six minutes quicker than I’d achieved in 2017 – and I honestly wasn’t sure I could match that time.
Yup, I was happy. I’d reached my goal. Except… well, here’s the frustratingly addictive thing about running. Given time to reflect, you don’t look back on a race and reflect on how well you’ve done enough. No, you look back and think of where you lost time, of how you can improve. 58 seconds? Yeah, I can find 58 seconds. Can I find more? Possibly? I mean, 3h 10m would be great, but would 3h 5m be possible? Should that be my next marathon target?
Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Perhaps I should find something else to do. After all, when it comes to running marathons I am, by the targets I set myself, a failure…
It’s confession time. Actually, before I start confession time, it’s time for, erm, a confession. Here’s the thing. I started writing this last week, but then work, life and all that stuff took over, and I didn’t actually get round to finishing. Hence the delay between the events described here taking place and this post. Don’t think it really makes any difference but… well, thought it best to explain for anyone who really studies dates, or that sort of thing.
Okay then, on with that confession: I nearly didn’t do the Kingston parkrun
last weekend the weekend before last (that’s Saturday March 11, for those of you keeping count). Really, I didn’t. Which is odd, since a Saturday morning 5k had become a cornerstone of my weekend – and it’s not often I seriously contemplate sitting it out. I’m now very glad I didn’t.
Why was I pondering not running? Well, I’d had a busy week: my job had taken me to the Geneva Motor Show for a few days of long, manic hours, terrible motor show eating (think strangely flavourless cheese and cold meat baguettes, plentiful Haribo and other sugary sweets, pizzas and far, far too many deliciously unhealthy pastries, cakes and churros), and not any running at all. Were there Swiss chocolates eaten as well? Yes, there were Swiss chocolates eaten as well.
That combination of unhealthy living left me feeling all very worn down. I managed one relatively slow run on the Thursday evening after I’d returned from Switzerland, and had originally planned another on the Friday evening. But, by the time I finished work that day, I just felt drained.
I had a little more energy come the Saturday morning, but it still felt like the parkrun was going to be a slog. Especially since I’d arranged to meet some friends in central London by mid-morning. Making it to meet them involved a quick post-parkrun turnaround. So… perhaps it would just make sense to skip it. You know, just this once. Would that really hurt?
Eventually, I silenced the inner voice in my head. It was a nice morning, far milder than it had been lately. And since I’d had a week of eating terribly and doing little exercise, well, I decided I had to go and do the parkrun.
That said, I still lacked some enthusiasm. I left my house a bit late, and only just made it to the start of the Kingston course on time. I made it to the finish a little quicker… in 19m 39s. I’d only gone and set a new Kingston parkrun course PB.
That was… a surprise. And not just because I’d set a course PB on a day when I nearly didn’t do the course. It was a surprise because my previous Kingston parkrun PB, a 19m 41s, was set back in June 2015. I’d come close since then – there was a 19m 45s in mid-2016, but on most weeks I was 10-20s back from that. In fact, I hadn’t done a sub-20m run on the course so far in 2017.
Now, some of that was down to my recovery from the Houston Marathon. And some of it was down to the course: the Kingston park run’s out-and-back course features a nice stretch of Tarmac for the first and last 1.5km or so, but the bit in the middle is on a river towpath and field that can get treacherously slippery and muddy when wet. Which happens a lot in the winter in Britain, making it really very hard to set a time close to your best.
That’s borne out by my efforts on other parkrun courses this year: I set a 19m 45s on the Burnham and Highbridge parkrun, and a 19m 48s on the Tooting Common parkrun. Both those courses are smoother and, all-round, quicker than the Kingston one when conditions aren’t optimal.
Those two parkrun outings proved I could run faster than I had been on Kingston so far this year – and certainly, with my post-marathon conditioning, there have been a few times I felt I could have set a really good time, only to encounter far too much mud. So perhaps the course was just in better condition when I set my new PB. It was certainly in a better state than it had been for a few weeks, but it was still slippery and muddy in places – definitely not optimum conditions.
So… well, I can’t really explain it. Perhaps the week of very little running meant my legs were rested, and that overcame the impact of how badly I’d eaten in Geneva. Perhaps the fact I was so certain it was going to be a slow run meant I removed any pressure to perform and weight of expectation.
Or perhaps, the moral of this story is that running is voodoo. Perhaps how much training and preparation you do, how rested you are, how hard you try to eat the right things and all that other stuff doesn’t actually matter quite as much as you think it does.
Well, it’s possible. But it’s more likely this was just one of those weird freak things where everything mysteriously aligns in defiance of all running convention. I’m not convinced the long-term key to future success is less running and more unhealthy eating.
Although, reflecting on all those long training runs in the cold and rain, it’s a tempting thought…
Oh, and as a post-script, the fact that running is utterly unpredictable voodoo was borne out by my Kingston parkrun outing seven days later. I clocked a 19m 52s – a strong time despite being 13s down on my new course PB. But that time hides plenty of amusing drama behind it. But, well, that’s for another post. Promise I won’t leave this one so long.