Four miles into the Amica Iron Horse Half Marathon, I knew a PR was out of the question. My pace was only off by a few seconds -- I hit the four-mile mark in 26:12, compared to a goal of 26:00 -- but I knew it wasn't going to happen.
And that's perfectly fine.
Many of us set race goals with pure intentions but unrealistic expectations. It's not that the goal itself is unrealistic but, rather, that the circumstances necessary to achieve that goal may require proverbial planetary alignment -- zero missed workouts, a cooperative tummy, temperatures in the 60s, a bit of cloud cover, a watch that doesn’t malfunction, a forgiving course and cooperative calves, hamstrings, ankles, quadriceps, knees and hips.
There's no shame in failing to achieve a goal if you know why you missed the mark. In the case of the Iron Horse Half, the answer's easy: It was hot. Sunday was cooler than the previous three days had been, but it sunny with temperatures in the 70s when the race started and the 80s when I finished. On my way to get post-race refreshments, another runner looked at me and said, "Go get some ice."
Admittedly, part of the reason I’m OK with missing the mark is because of where I finished -- 11th overall and 3rd in my age group with a time of 1:29:40. This was totally unexpected. All the fast people must’ve either stayed home or struggled with the heat even more than I did. (And you all know how much I hate the heat.) This was the swag I brought home:
So, getting back to my point: Missing a goal isn’t that bad, especially if it's an ambitious goal. Mine was. I intended to break a four-year-old PR by more than a minute, which meant maintaining a pace that I hadn’t even achieved during a 10K six weeks ago, and doing so in an unfamiliar race an hour and 45 minutes from home. (OK, maybe "insane" is more appropriate than "ambitious.")
Goals aren’t for everyone, but I think they play a valuable role in making you a better runner. Goals are admittedly easier to set, and achieve, when you’re just starting out. In your first few events, a goal of "finish the damn race" is perfectly fine -- your have few expectations or preconceived notions about what you’re doing, after all, and unless you’re a prodigy you know better than to plan to come home with a big glass beer stein.
As you continue to run, though, the race goals you set should become increasingly challenging. Simply finishing should not suffice, even at a new, longer distance. You should be pushing yourself to run strong, faster and better than before. You shouldn’t fear failure, either; all runners experience failure, and the way we respond to it and overcome it is a big part of what separates us from the general non-running population.
That’s why the goal I set for the Smuttynose Rockfest Marathon will be an ambitious one. I haven't done it yet, and I probably won't announce it when I do, but it will likely be a lofty goal that I'll achieve only if the planets align.
And if I don't do it? I'll learn from my failures, as I have before. I'll stretch, drown my sorrows in a giant coffee, drive home, take a long shower, stretch, nap, stretch, eat everything in sight, hobble around for a couple days and set my sights on my next race. Missing a goal sucks, but it's not the end of the world as you know it.