15 September 2008

A Race Tale: Going Deep on Goals

Goals are a funny thing. They’re a great motivator – if, of course, you’re a goal-driven kind of person. Or they can depress you if you don’t reach them. Setting them is tricky, since you often have no idea where you’ll fall in the spectrum between way too easy and depressingly unreachable. (Not at all that different from the crap shoot of setting sales quotas that I’ve seen in my career, but I digress…) And what do you do when you do reach them?

I ponder this on the occasion of reaching one of my goals this weekend, a target 5 kilometer time. The event was the local Marlborough Police Chase (I tell you, the place was positively crawling’ with cops!). Hometown crowd, small field, plenty of friends (duly smiling in the pictures!), good beer and even a game of horseshoes afterward; in short, race or not, a good time. The course was custom-made for a fast time – literally, because we (our running club) set it up that way. Home course advantage, and that makes a difference in your race strategy. It’s on the most familiar turf in town, mostly on our local rail trail. Two miles of gentle uphill, the kind you can work without really slowing down, a short downhill screamer to shake the climb off, then a gradual downhill all the way home, carrying you over any late race fatigue. To me this is God’s Perfect 5K, since to me a 5K is a sprint, way too short, way too fast, and I’m way too old for that stuff. I need that late race gravity boost.

Though it was a small race (~130ish), an area school sent their entire boys & girls cross country teams, so there were a bunch of young speedsters to make it interesting. Sure enough, one took off out the gate, another youngster (not a schoolboy, but still a youngster) gave chase, and I hung in the considerable chase pack. By a mile in, one other schoolboy and I had broken from the chase pack and began a dance for 3rd place. At about two and a half, I figured it was now or never. At my age, you simply can’t let it go down to a finish line sprint with a 17-year-old. He’s going to kick your butt. You’ve got to play the psychology and experience and I-Know-This-Course cards. I put him away early, to stave off any finish line challenge.

At the final turn, a bystander gave me the ‘all clear, 30 yard lead, relax signal’. No way, dude, it’s not about that. We’re in personal record territory and smelling that goal. And it’s all downhill from here in this race, and perhaps starting next week in life, too, you never know. Go for it now.

Scream into the parking lot, dive down to the lower lot, hard left, push, push, over the line! The 3rd-place finish and masters’ win was sweet, but the time was sweeter, nearly a half-minute PR, and just below a full-minute boundary that had been my goal all year. (The exact time is irrelevant, but suffice to say it’s still two minutes slower than my best way back in the First Lap days. Speed is the first thing to go…)

So, now what? What’s the next goal? Another minute off a 5K? Seemingly unreachable. Is the next goal always the PR? With 50 just a few short years off, realistically, it can’t always be. Similarly, my goal for this year in the marathon was to break 3 hours. To my surprise, it happened early on at Boston, and again a few weeks later at Buffalo. So now with Wineglass approaching, what’s a reasonable goal? There are physical limits, somewhere, and we can’t let reaching them be the end of our competitive or even general running life.

Is running a microcosm of life? And what’s your goal in life? A 60” plasma TV? A Lexus (or fill in your favorite overpriced status-symbol vehicle)? Retire early with a pile in the bank, so long as it’s not invested in Fannie Mae or Lehman Brothers? Become the epitome of the Renaissance Man? Or peace, love, happiness, and a rousing chorus of Kumbaya?

George W. Bush would be no fan of me, since I’m not one to keep the economy going through purchases of major consumer goods (other than running shoes in bulk, of course). But I’ll gladly take the early retirement on the pot of gold. Chasing Renaissance status is kind of fun. And I tend toward the peace, love, and happiness, and perhaps some nice folk-acoustic music (we don’t have to go quite so far as Kumbaya, now, do we?). So why do I push for faster times, a game that must be nearing its zenith before the inevitable decline, just like that 60” plasma that will fail upon expiration of the overpriced extended warranty?

Is it because they’re there? (Sorry, Sir Edmund, a bit of a bastardization I’d say, ol’ chap.) Or maybe running is indeed a microcosm of life. Trophies and medals are our plasma screens and sport luxury vehicles. Some get them, some don’t, and they’re nice, but after a while they too will lose their luster. The memories count much more. Our pot of gold on which we retire is a healthy body that lasts longer. Our Renaissance status – always striving for a higher plane – are our racing and training goals. And our peace, love, and happiness are, hopefully, our state of mind knowing that fast or slow, we’ve done what we can for ourselves and had a good time.

So, goals make this fun. Goals make this a challenge. Goals can be anything we want them to be. I’m thick-minded enough that I’m not convinced I’ve hit that zenith yet, so I’ll still push for a little but faster. But when it’s obvious that’s over, I’ll think of something else.

Deep stuff, isn’t it? Now, lighten up, and go slice 15 seconds off your 5K.

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