Runners are often cautioned about pacing themselves in workouts and races, but once in a while I say, “Throw caution to the wind...and GO FOR IT!”
Runners are often cautioned about pacing themselves in workouts and races. "Don’t go out too fast." "Save something for the end." "Run an even pace." Those are all regularly heard statements from coaches, magazines and peers about races, workouts and even the regular 5-mile run.
But once in a while I say, "Throw caution to the wind; let your hair down (no jokes!) and GO FOR IT!"
Most runners know April as the month of the Boston Marathon. I have had the opportunity and joy of running in three Boston races in my life. My first was in 1987, where I finished in 2 hours 47 minutes. In 1988 I returned to run it in 2 hours 48 minutes. Both of those races stand out to me as great experiences and good races. However, both times I barely cracked the top 500 finishers.
In 1991 I returned, fully intent on pushing my limits and going for broke. Boston, being a downhill course, often leads runners to go out a bit faster than then should, leading to a survivor shuffle the last 5-6 miles. At 10 miles, I had already equaled my all-time 10-mile race time, and by the half-way point, I was secure in my ticket to the broom wagon. By 20 miles (Heartbreak Hill), I was done and had been placed on the T for transport back to the finish line; race-bib removed, humbled and fully exhausted.
So what was the point? I learned something about my limits and what I could and could not accomplish, based on my training and where I was in my non-running life. In other words, I was able to reset expectations so that future training would be improved.
I’ve often run and raced with people who never learn that lesson about training and racing expectations. A good friend from years ago used to race "crash and burn" style every single time. His reason? "I don’t need one more sub-16 5k. I’m looking for the sub-15 5k." He was searching for that perfect day for his breakthrough. His error, however, was that he was always searching and never learning.
In both training and racing, the concept of even pacing and saving something for the end is usually a good approach. But there are times when putting the pedal down well past your comfort zone can help teach you about limits and realities. Maybe you’ll learn you can go faster or further than you ever thought possible. Maybe it’s time for you to blow by that caution tape!
Runners need to give themselves permission to fail sometimes. How many versions of the light bulb did Edison create before he found the one that worked? Well, he started in 1878 and didn’t file the patent until late 1879, so I’d imagine it was more than three. Of course, due to some legal wranglings it wasn’t until 1889 that his patent stood.
I suspect it won’t take you 11 years to perfect your efforts, but in order to risk success you also have to risk failure, particularly if you are in a race rut. The "how do I get faster" question is pretty easy to answer, but it often sounds rather flippant to just say "trying running faster."
Try these – run the first mile of a race 10-15 seconds faster than usual and see how long you can hold on. Practice on a downhill somewhere (OK, so Middletown isn’t exactly chock-full of gravity killers). Add 20 minutes to your next long run (I’d recommend doing this one with someone or on a shorter loop course). The point is to push past the comfort zone and see where your body and mind can take you. And always remember to recover afterwards.
You never know when your running light bulb will go off unless you flip the switch a time or two. I usually counsel that a cautious, patient approach leads to success. But occasionally, let your hair down and go for it. Your breakthrough may be just around the next corner.
Former standout Lock Haven University runner Andy Shearer is a member of the Middletown Athletic Club, the Greater Philadelphia Track Club and USA Track and Field.