The challenge for the competitive athlete is finding the right challenge for you, in your mental and physical wheelhouse, that satisfies and provides enjoyment.

Starting blocks? Starting blocks. Are you kidding me… starting blocks? There I was, trying to figure out the most foreign of all things to a distance runner.

As distance runners, we don’t get to play with a lot of “stuff,” unless it’s rehab-prescribed, and even then, we are usually supervised until we get it right. Foam rollers and stretch bands and massage balls, etc. It’s a rarity that we get to play with stuff. But starting blocks. Those things are complicated!

But there I was, fiddling with which leg was my power leg and which was my trail leg and where the settings for each foot should be and how far behind the starting line I should start and hand placement…. HAND PLACEMENT? Wait, what? I was beginning to realize why in cross country, somebody yells “GO” and most of us just follow someone else and all we need to do is remember a color pattern.

I was on event four of the five-event Runner’s Pentathlon. This unique event uses age grading and event grading scores to evenly pit older versus younger, sprinter versus distance. The events were the 3,000, 200, 1,500, 100 and either 400 or 800 to finish (your choice). After three events I was in fifth place. The 100 was next and I was looking for every advantage I could muster, even starting blocks.

The typical new-to-the-sport runner can expect somewhat rapid improvements over a period of a few years, typically six to eight. After that, your training usually needs to adapt to new stimuli or you need to adapt to new events and challenges. I know tons of runners who have moved from the 5k to the marathon (or even ultramarathons) or have become triathletes, cyclists, swimmers or other just to keep growing and competing as an athlete. Moving from the marathon to the 100-meter dash, albeit rare, has happened.

The challenge for the competitive athlete is finding the right challenge for you, in your mental and physical wheelhouse, that satisfies and provides enjoyment. I’ve been asked more than a few times why I gave up marathons. Honestly, I’d accomplished all I could ever hope to and, at this time and place, I kinda stink at it. By the way, same with the 5k.

Although the competitive landscape is pretty bleak these days, with events being postponed, merged or outright canceled, most runners find themselves aimlessly training. I am not a fan of ‘virtual’ races (too many variables and GPS watches are woefully inaccurate) and time trials are just that – a trial and not a race. I have been participating in a challenge of sorts, running five different trails of various distances over a period of weeks and comparing times (and in some cases, course accuracy, too). But even that lacks appeal.

Now might be a great time to start reinventing yourself as an athlete. Just like with running, there is a period of time necessary for adaption and adjustment to the kinds of training necessary. Moving up in distance, moving down in distance, moving off-road, moving to cycling or rowing or swimming – they all have different elements that “just running” doesn’t. More weight room, more technique, more equipment (or less).

Now is also a good time to start watching You Tube videos, researching books or coaches, talking with other athletes, and even checking out past “big time” events on TV. (Is Kona Ironman still covered every year?) If you’re going to take up triple jumping, you might wanna know the three steps in triple jumping… just a suggestion.

My starting block debacle was a one-and-done. Well, two-and-done since I did the Pentathlon two years in a row. I did spend some time prepping with blocks for year #2. Oddly it didn’t help since I ran the exact same time both events. But after that event, I spent some time dropping down in distance and attacking shorter track events. It re-energized me as an athlete and as a competitor. But I still don’t like “stuff.”

I hope to see you on the roads, tracks and trails!

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.