Friday, August 14, 2009

After the PR Dust Settles:
Where I’m Going

On my refrigerator door, next to postcards and holiday cards I hardly remember putting there, hangs a magnetized picture from last year’s NYC marathon with the race caption “What Does It Take?” written in boldface font decorating the left upper hand corner. Unlike other memorabilia I collected from that race, this is the only one that survived the move to my new apartment. Ironically, it is also the only running picture that I have allowed myself to put up so far in my kitchen/living room area. And even though I am usually not a sentimental person especially when it pertains to running clichés and commercialized messages, I found myself thinking about this question more than usual in the aftermath of my 5 mile PR race this past weekend.

To be honest, I’ve been pondering the possibilities and imagining unrealistic race goals ever since I crossed the finish line and realized my time. After all, to average 6:02 min/mi for 5 miles when even my 4 mile PR pace is 6:09 min/mi is pretty wild. Add to that a 5:52 last mile after somehow surviving the monstrosity that is Cat Hill in the previous mile (when my best last mile time for any race of any distance to date is an even 6:00), and I’m having difficulty believing that it was even me out there that day. Needless to say, it was a pretty special race for me and one that I won’t forget for at least a little while.

But then quietly and insidiously, after all the hoopla and excitement wore off, my mind began asking my body questions that it cannot answer. So what’s next? Shouldn’t you do it again to prove that it wasn’t just a fluke? Should you run a 4 miler or a 5K to make your PRs a little more consistent? What about a half-marathon or your marathon? Can’t you adjust your race goals for those distances now that you’re running a wee bit faster? And the questions kept going on and on. What if that was your theoretical best? What if you never beat yourself again? What if that is your last PR for this year, for next year, forever? What if that is the beginning of the end? How will you know when you get there? If you knew, would you walk away like John Elway (after winning consecutive Super Bowls) or just trample on and on as a shadow of your former self like Brett Favre, refusing to leave the game until you’re way past your prime and no one really wants you around anymore, not even yourself?!

I don’t know why I get so introspective after big races and big PRs. Maybe it’s because I’m so frightened by my own success, frightened to know that with each success brings bigger goals, and bigger goals brings more work and more training, and more training brings me closer to the line between performance and injury, until eventually the line is crossed, my body breaks down, and I’m left to either recover to repeat the cycle again or accept the fact that I’ll never be the same. Isn’t this the natural life cycle of the athlete? You make goals, train hard, have success, build new goals, and repeat the process until you get injured, get too old to train or care, and give way to the younger folks so the cycle can repeat itself again.

I was talking to a friend in my running club yesterday who I respect greatly because we run, share similar professions that deal with helping children and never fails to speak her mind with me when I’m in the wrong (which is pretty frequent). She told me that although training is going well for her fall marathon, this will likely be her last hurrah at this distance for a long while and maybe forever. She has run a fall marathon for the last four or five years and has, every year, suffered a bad injury during training. Although she loves running, she explained that the arduous preparation for the distance is long and painful for her and despite her best efforts, she is never healthy enough to run her best on race day. She just wants to give it one last try this year before switching to swimming, biking, and running shorter distances.

I listened intently and was mesmerized by how much her story reflected my own. Although I’ve been fortunate enough not to have suffered any catastrophic injuries during marathon training for the most part, I developed a major cramp at mile 19 of the Boston Marathon which kept me from achieving my goal of a sub-3 marathon. I was most frustrated not in the fact that I didn’t run my time, but in the fact that the injury happened so suddenly and without warning. In the aftermath of that catastrophe, while reviewing my preparation leading up to that point, I came to the conclusion that I had worked hard, trained really well, and had given myself the best chance I could of having a great race. And because of some inexplicable derangement in the muscular contraction of my hamstring in the late stages of the race, everything I trained for, all the miles I ran, every speedwork session I suffered through in the blistering cold, would now be for naught. It hardly seemed fair! I didn’t do anything wrong! I had a hard time coming to terms with that experience and convincing myself to saddle up for another crack at it again this fall.

So I understand where my friend is coming from, even though I don’t agree with her decision. I think she should just concentrate on getting through marathon training uninjured instead of worrying about what’s to come after. I told her that if she can make it through her 16 week program without injury, anything is possible and she may come not to hate the training as much.

I, on the other hand, am already preparing for early retirement. Despite this study which provides scientific evidence why running is not bad for the knees, I am ready to hang up the running shoes at some point in the not-so-distant future. I will not be the old runner guy who feels a need to preach to all the newbie runners because he used to be able to run a 2:50-something in some marathon once in the distant past. I also will not be the guy who is carrying his middle-aged beer gut around with him out on the road for a few miles just to keep in shape. I, unfortunately for me, but fortunately for the rest of the world, have a little too much pride for that. Instead, once I decide I’ve accomplished all I’ve wanted to accomplish in this sport without having to sacrifice my body to the extreme, I’ll exit stage right at the pinnacle of my running career (a la Barry Sanders) and move on to other leisurely pursuits. I might dabble in tri-s or maybe give golf a try (even though I’ve never played!) I just hope I’ll know somehow, some way, when the time comes, that I’m running the best I have ever and will ever run without injury. Although I don’t plan for this to happen for at least a few years, if I develop a hammy cramp in the middle of a certain marathon in the fall, I might have to seriously reconsider expediting the process.

Sorry for this long drawn out explanation of where I thinking I am going in this sport! If you have to blame someone, blame Nitmos for his brilliant retrospective review on the first mile as the gateway drug of the runner. I’m merely completing his thoughts and figuring out how my last mile is going to go down.


Running and living said...

Interesting post. Certainly, if running becomes all about PRs, injuries, and suffering, I can see why one would give up. But how about the joy of running, the self-imposed discipline that it brings (as opposed to the discipline that it is imposed upon us by work and family responsibilities), the freedom to just be as you are? Injury frightens me not because it would prevent me from PRing, but because it would keep me from...just running. Yes, I want to get faster, but when that will stop happening, I hope I will still enjoy running slow. It's all relative, correct? I hope you'll get your PRs, and also continue tying your running shoes when the PR will no longer happen. Ana-Maria

Morgan said...

Great post (as always) Lam!

runner26 said...

perhaps the beer was talking?? i doubt i could ever voluntarily give up running! but there is that balance between performance and enjoyment .. i promise to take it one marathon at a time .. one training run at a time .. one mile at a time .. before i revisit any of the garbage i might have spouted off after a few drinks ;)

Laura said...

I sincerely hope you don't plan to retire from running! One of my favorite things about running is that it gives me an excuse to travel and a chance to really SEE a town/city/state. We need to get you out to more races in different parts of the country!

Anonymous said...

I think people run various distances or participate in activites for all sorts of reasons. Over time these reasons change for example it may start off as fun or soemthing new, then competition, then to maintain fitness or to keep one sane, etc. I think the bottom line is that there are multiple reasons why we choose to participate and as long as you are at peace with that reason then that is all that matters.
Nice post as usual.

B.o.B. said...

Great post, and as usual very insightful. You've obviously put some thought into this and I think you'll know when the time comes to ease up or take a break from running.

Injury makes me very nervous as well because I am still pretty new on this journey.

I am thankful for all of you veterans who post things like this and help us newbies along.

Again, there is no doubt in my mind that you'll find the right run for you. Keep on truckin' and definitely keep taking us along for the ride.

Nitmos said...

Being competitive - as I can tell you are also - it is hard to know what to do down the road when the PR's stop coming and the motivation to chase wanes. Can you be content being a fun runner? Can you watch colleagues pass you by? Can you "settle" for a finish time rather than reach for something more? Hard to know what I'll do. Right now, my ego is still in the way. Maybe that shrinks when you get older?! That would be nice.

Jamie said...

Great post Lam! I definitely agree with everything D10 said :)

X-Country2 said...

Interesting post. When to stop is sometimes harder than when to start for non-running people.

matpedw said...

Did someone hack into your blog and write that post? It's as if you've gone to the dark side. The land where PR's and time clocks beat the soul out of runners.
I understand your post. I just hoped and thought you were immune to it. You're the most soulful runner that I've come across (at least in the blogosphere). This notion that a legacy of going out on top is more important than the love of participating in the sport doesn't jive with anything else I've read here. Running isn't the NFL. It's much more than a game or a race. It's a trusty friend that never let's you down but demands a lot from you. And for that we are grateful.
I learned this reading your blog before I learned it on my own. I hate being critical but this is the blog I come to when I get down on running to set me straight. If you're playing golf then I'm stuck with that old timers blog. Scary

NY Wolve said...

As one ages, and as life puts other challenges and thrills in our path, the joy of running will change also. PRs, speed, etc., remain important, but so too is the feeling that this os me, my body, my time, my effort. And no matter what else, today was a good day, a day for effort and to embrace being alive. I know I may never win an award, and will almost certainly never run a sub3 marathon, but that is not my goal. Injuries, cramps, bad days, they are all a microcosm for what we face in day to day life and learn to work through and prosper.

joyRuN said...

If it's all about the PR's & race times, then by all means, hang the running shoes up while you're on top.

I firmly believe you'd still have a lot to offer to this sport long after you've crested the PR wave.

lindsay said...

i can't believe you are already considering retirement! you are just too good!

i have had similar feelings after a good race and pr - wondering if i will ever run that well again. ok, really i've had it since the disney half in january and haven't given myself an opportunity to race since so i'm still quite nervous.

i think, for myself, one day running will definitely no longer be about pr's. but, i hope i will still find joy in just-running and still need a consistent dose of endorphins. even now i enjoy just getting out and running with no particular pace or mileage goal in mind, so i hope that when i 'retire' from the racing aspect i will still be able to carry on recreationally. i hope i don't grow to dislike running.

there is nothing wrong with retiring and i'm sure you'd continue to be active in some way. as long as you are doing what you enjoy, i can't fault you.

Betsy said...

When I read posts like this from you, my immediate reaction is to think, "Oh, he's young. He just doesn't have the right perspective yet." Then I remember that you are not some guy in his 20's chasing PRs; in fact, you are the same age as I am.

But a quick glance at your sidebar suggests that the difference actually is in age. You've been running since 2005; I have been running since 1984. Race times that are fast for me now would be mortifyingly slow for me when I was, say, 15.

I am completely at peace with that. Running a race for me isn't about runnign the fastest I ever have in my life; it's about running as fast as I can as the person I am now, with the body I have now.

And running is not about racing. It's about feeling healthy and strong. It's about taking time for myself. It's about challenging myself. And those things can happen at a number of different paces.

I'm taking a long way to say this: Relax, young whippersnapper. You've got a lot of great miles left in you, no matter how fast you run them.

J said...

We all question what is next for us - its hard to focus on just the next race. I have had those races where I am not sure it was me and I dont know how i did it - It leads me to believe that sometimes there is something greater that helps us run and achieve things! Anyway - as I have come to learn recently and I hate to admit, there is more to life than running and sometimes we do have to take breaks or even give it up.

aron said...

retirement already?? dont think about that yet :) you have lots of races to go before then!! plus i just saw your FB status from yesterday haha.

i think that if its all about PRs and time then eventually one should "retire" but i am finding the races i run to just run and have fun with are the best ones. it will be fun to get to a point where the times dont matter so much anymore and that pressure is off, i think anyways :)

Katie said...

Interesting, yet sad, post. I can understand where you're coming from. I ran in college. By the time I graduated, I felt like a hobbled ghost of myself. I gave up all competitive running. I just didn't see the point. I couldn't come close to my college PR of 18:24 in the 5K so why bother? But I couldn't give up running. I don't think I ever could. I really do love it, even without the competitive aspect. I spent a few years trying to get myself healthy again, and just enjoying running with no pressure. I've started racing again, but have had to come to terms with the fact that I can't train the way I once did. My body just won't allow it.

I fully intend to be the old running lady. That's part of the reason I try to be smart about my training now. I want to run forever!

Irish Cream said...

Whoa. Okay, don't scare me like this, Lam! I do get where you're coming from--I'm competitive too--but I mean, first off, I can't figure out how you would even get to a point where you knew for sure that you could not improve upon your PRs, you know? Let's say you DID retire in a few years. Wouldn't the "what ifs" of your running career just eat at you? Plus, I just can't imagine you NOT running; it's weird, but it just doesn't make sense to me. Your love of running is just too deep. I feel like you'd have a HUGE sense of missing something if you gave running up.

Whatever you decide, I'm with you . . . but it will definitely be a sad day for the running world if/when you decide to hang up your running shoes!

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