A “Winnable Gap” is a realistic and tangible first step of progress in the context of a larger goal.It is something you can accomplish without requiring any significant shift in your own state of affairs beyond your capacity to focus and dedicate some time to moving towards it.
You might have a goal of being financially independent in the next 10 years, but the Winnable Gap might be eliminating your credit card debt or creating a system to begin paying down that debt if the sum is overly large.
If your goal if to complete a marathon and you have never “run” before in your life, your Winnable Gap might be to complete a 5K, even if it means walking the entire thing.
The ability to both set big audacious goals and also determine your Winnable Gap are equally important. Without accomplishing the things that are near-term and realistic, your lofty goals will remain a pipe dream.
For almost every race I have ever done, I had a good time during the race even if my time totally stunk. I can’t say that about the Portland Marathon yesterday. I finished it, but it was very painful and just not fun at all.
The one redeeming quality was that I saw how much work I need to do to get my lower legs healthy, as I am suffering from a bad case of Plantar Fasciiitis that hasn’t gone away since April. It has been bearable through my entire summer of racing Ironman, another 50 miler and a few other tris….and even seemed to be getting better of late – but it is far from gone. During this race my feet ended up hurting so bad that one point I thought I wouldn’t finish. Eventually I did but it was a miserable experience.
Here is the play-by-play:
Goal: I planned to treat this as a training run. Last year I ran 3:54 with little training after just getting back into running after many years away. This year I wanted to run 3:30, holding a steady 8 min/mile pace. It seemed totally doable based on my training runs and past races.
Mile 0: I started in the first “wave”. They had something like 6 waves, with the first being the fastest. I looked around and saw about 1500 people in my wave (there were 12,000 in the marathon and 3,000 in the half marathon that started in the same time). Looking around I saw a 3:10 pace sign and then a 3:15 pace sign….I realized quickly that the people around me would going far faster than me! I made a conscious effort to not get caught up in the hysteria of the race start and stick to a conservative pace.
Miles 1-6.2 (10K): 49 minutes…right on pace. Felt a little flat, but my feet didn’t hurt and was enjoying the run. The weather was cool (50 degrees) and it was threatening to rain.
Miles 6.2-10: Light rain started. Glad I wore my rain jacket. Taking splits I saw I was running a few 7:40 miles…slowed down a little to stick to 8min pace.My feet were still hurting a bit. I was waiting for this pain to go away, as normally it does on my longer runs.
Miles 10-13.1 (half-marathon) : Came through the half-marathon 13.1 miles…with a time of 1:44 flat. Perfect pacing. However, my feet were not getting better….instead they were getting worse. I started to think this run would be more challenging than I thought.
Miles 13.1 – 17: My feet got progressively worse….and at mile 16 hit the toughest part of the course…a 3/4 mile hill. My feet started to hurt so bad I thought they were going to explode. I stopped cold and stretched a little….which helped. The rain picked up and it got cold. Not having fun!
Miles 17-20: I walked 30 seconds and ran 4 minutes….and repeated that routine. My pace slowed to 9:30 miles. My feet were going numb and were very painful. My ankles started to hurt. I thought I might be doing real damage to my feet at this point (Note: I didn’t do any permanent damage after all)
Miles 20-25: I slowed even more…walking more and running less. Often I would just stop and not move at all…bending over and stretching my hamstrings and calves…hoping to take some pressure off my feet. I walked a bunch on the downhills and that hurts my feet more than flat running. My hamstrings were constantly threatening to cramp…something that never happens to me. My stride was totally messed up…as I was trying to land in different parts of my feet to take pressure off them. This was probably the cause for the cramping trouble.
The Finish: Looking at my watch I realized that I needed to run a sub 10 minute mile to break four hours….it took everything I had to run that sub 10 minute mile….my hamstrings were cramping like crazy….I finished in 3:59:something. Once finished I could barely walk for about 20 minutes. My feet hurt so bad, like they were broken (they weren’t). I couldn’t believe that running this marathon could feel so much worse than running 50 miles in July (at White River).
There you have it. Some races go well. Others don’t but are still fun. Some – like this one – just stink but I’m sure at some point I’ll appreciate having run it. Being cold and raining the entire time didn’t help. Now my goal is to figure out how to get my feet healthy. At the finish I wasn’t super thirsty or hungry…or even tired aside from my lower legs hurting so badly. I know that my fitness is great and my nutrition/hydration strategy was right on, once my injury is healed I think I’ll be ready to run a fast race.
Even more correctly stated, life is an ultra-marathon and not a sprint.
Ultra-marathons are often held on rugged terrain in all kinds of weather and conditions. It’s rare when you run an ultra non-stop from start to finish. Pacing is critical. You learn to take advantage of flats and downhills to run, and conserve energy on climbs by walking often. Fueling is also critical: with hydration, electrolytes and steady flow of calories.
You go through all kinds of highs and lows in these races…people talk about the proverbial “second wind”. In an ultra you will come across a second, third and maybe even fourth or fifth “wind”! Staying positive (through self-talk and encouraging others on the course) is key.
Life mirrors this.
Proper rest and nutrition are critical to performing well at work and in my ability to be aware during the day (nothing like low blood sugar to get me day-dreaming!).When I eat a lot of garbage I don’t perform well at work and my relationships suffer.
I push through the lows – challenging projects, conversations, etc. – knowing that things will get better if I just stay focused and keep making progress. It really does help to stay positive even when things don’t go well in the short-term…..knowing that the long-term successful outcomes are often preceded by bouts of short-term struggle.
Perhaps one day I’ll have the speed and luck to qualify and compete in the Boston Marathon. Today there were epic performances. A new world-best time and American-best time. It’s only a matter of time before we see a sub 2-hour marathon.
The pace is crazy fast. The men are running sub 4:45 miles continuously for 26.2 miles! Also, watch at how light and smooth their form is. Landing on their fore and mid-foot and the top of their heads are barely moving up and down (no wasted energy). Watch the men’s winner Geoffrey Mutai from Kenya, he is even more light and smooth than the others.
The second principle I mentioned in my first post is that aerobic fitness is rarely the limiter of speed. Again, I’m not a scientist but just stating what I learn through my own experience. If you happen to know of scientific evidence for anything I’m talking about (refuting or confirming) make note in the comments. Aerobic fitness does matter, it is just isn’t the be all end all.
In the past few months I’ve run the Portland Marathon (flat and on paved roads) and two 50K ultra-marathons (hilly and mostly off road). In these three outings, despite running them after just a few months of training after a long hiatus from running, I was never out of breath. There were a few times during the 50K’s when I was breathing super hard during steep climbs, but those were just a few isolated incidents. The majority of the time my lungs were not the limiter in any way. I was breathing fine, but still my perceived exertion was very high.
In the case of my Portland Marathon experience, after about 16 miles my legs just stopped working normally. I wasn’t aerobically fatigued in any way, but it felt like I just finished a billion reps of squats and my leg muscles just wouldn’t fire. During my 50K’s, I had a similar experience. My muscles were just exhausted, as if I finished a really demanding weight workout, but my cardiovascular system and lungs seemed fine. During The North Face 50K, there were plenty of long climbs on single-track trails. They took a lot of power to muscle up.
I wish I had worn a heart rate monitor during my races to prove this point. I bet my heart rate was right around 140 or so. Not super high. What also happened later in the races was that my form went to hell. I would slouch over and everything would just sag. My core and low back would tire. This would affect my stride and breathing.
My take away from these events is that muscular strength (across the whole body, not just legs) plays a massive part in endurance events. When I say strength I really mean power/weight ratio. Strength with a fairly lean overall mass. Strong core and strong back to support proper form over long distances. Strong posterior chain (calves, hamstrings, glutes, low-back) to support overall running form and power. Once a reasonable aerobic base is developed, it makes intuitive sense that working the other energetic and power-building pathways in the body is a smart thing to do.
This year I am getting back in racing. It’s been a number of years (since 2003 in fact!) since I’ve trained with any kind of regularity and raced while caring about place/time. It’s motivating to have clear goals again, and I’m looking forward to learning from many years of mistakes (I guess we call that experience?) and making this a fun and productive year training-wise and racing-wise.
Here are the primary events I have in the plan for 2011. IMCDA and the Portland Marathon are the major races. Aside from these events I might jump into a few Olympic distance triathlons or some 5K to half-marathon races as part of training efforts.
3/6 Copper Canyon 50 Mile Ultra Marathon (Goal = finish!)
4/30 Wildflower Half-Ironman Triathlon (Goal = finish and test race strategy for IMCDA, <6hours time)
6/26 Ironman Coeur d Alene MAJOR RACE (Goal = <11 hrs = <1:05 swim <5:45 bike <4:00 run)
7/30 White River 50 Mile Endurance Run (Goal = finish in top half of the field, <10 hours)
9/24 Black Diamond Half Ironman (Goal = top 5 in age group, <5:20 time would be nice!)
10/6 Portland MarathonMAJOR RACE (Goal = <3 hours and qualify for Boston Marathon)
11/5 Ron Herzog 50K (Goal = top 10 finish, <5:30 time)
12/3 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler (Goal = finish in top half of field, <10 hours)
I know many of you who read my blog also race…I’m interested to hear what you have on tap! Leave a note in the comments with your plans for 2011.
I’m super slow in sorting through all the wonderful pics and vids from my trip to the Galapagos and Ecuador. Hope to get a post up before the end of the year with a recap 🙂 .
Starting to do more strength training and speed-work; on the track, on the bike trainer and in the gym. It feels good! In my longer runs last fall (the Portland Marathon and both 50K races) it was clearly muscular strength holding me back not aerobic fitness, so I hope the heavy squats, deadlifts and track repeats will eliminate the bottleneck.
Running my last few races I learned that the mind is primary not the physical.
When I bonked after 16 miles at The North Face 50K last weekend there was a physical component but I know that the governor of the whole experience was my own head. There were plenty of times when I could have run when I walked. I walked because it felt better to walk and it hurt to run.
I also notice how when things get tough it can be all too easy to just get down on allow negative self-talk to creep in. Last week I actually got angry at the course for being so ridiculously hilly and muddy! Once the downward mental slide begins it is tough to stop until it runs its course. For me that took about 2 hours and 10 miles.
Mental training is very tough and something we are not programmed to do. We avoid it because it really pushed us past our comfort zone. It mandates that you intentionally do things that are uncomfortable and outside of your normal routine. If you are only doing the type of regular physical training that your are used to doing, then you are not pushing your mental boundary.
I finished the Portland Marathon last weekend. It was my first marathon in 10 years (not counting the Ironman‘s shortly after). Glad I did it but boy was it tough! Leading up to the race I had a lot of people ask me how I thought it would go. I really didn’t have a clue. I ran 3:10 in my last marathon on a tougher course. This time, running under 4 hours would be nice and I set that as a realistic goal. Having only run 16 miles in training leading up to the race it was really unclear what my body would actually be capable of doing. I ended up finishing in 3:54.
I definitely feel like I am far tougher now (age 31) than I was when I ran my first marathon (age 21). People say all kinds of things about how younger athletes are stronger, recover faster and have some sort of edge. I think it is completely untrue. While science shows that lung capacity and strength do begin to decline beyond the late twenties (some say the decline starts as early as age 25) there are so many other factors at play. I know for certain I am mentally tougher than I was 21 years ago. I know how to handle discomfort and pain much better. I know how to not go out too fast (though sometimes I still do!) in a long race. I focus more on nutrition and hydration strategy. I also have a more well-rounded approach to training. I’m not as fixated on mileage on more on overall fitness. This means I do a ton of cross-training (yoga, bodyweight exercises, hiking, etc.).
I think the biggest distinction that I’ve gained with age is the ability to just endure. For my marathon, the final 10 miles were incredibly painful – not just tiring. My feet were swollen and I was freezing cold (it was pouring rain the entire race). It felt like I was running on stumps due to the swelling (first time I have ever experiences this). My hands were also swollen and hurt. I am still not sure what caused the swelling – the cold, the fact that I was soaking wet or some allergic reaction to something I ate. I slowed down a lot in those final miles but was able to stay mentally clear enough to reassess how I was doing and change-up my strategy. Instead of trying to run non-stop, I decided to walk the aid stations and then jog at a consistent pace in between. I ended up finishing strong and with a smile on my face. 10 years ago I would have definitely pushed it hard and probably ended up with massive cramping (as happened in my last marathon 10 years ago, and at my last Ironman race 7 years ago).
Hydration and nutrition is also another benefit. I used to think that stopping for water and food was lame and just an excuse to take a break. I used to speed up at aid stations just so I could pass people who were slowing down to get some food and water! I take the other approach now. I think it will help me out in a big way as I start racing longer distances – I am doing my first ultra-marathon in December at the North Face Endurance 50K in the San Francisco area Marin Headlands park.
I am convinced that when it comes to endurance sports we improve with age – especially when you count things beyond just finishing time/speed. I don’t know how far this will go….but I do know that when I hiked the Inca trail in 2003 – one of the strongest porters (hiking the entire trail barefoot in shorts and a t-shirt with 70 lbs on his back) was also the oldest. Nobody really knew his age…but it was definitely well over 50. Everyone respected him. All the guides, all the porters, everyone. I want to be like that guy!