Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sisyphus Gets Smart

I've always loved Greek mythology, especially the myths surrounding King Sisyphus. Not that I liked or identified with the character of Sisyphus (he was an unscrupulous, although very clever, ass), but I have always identified with the overwhelming futility of the final punishment meted out by Zeus (arguably, also an unscrupulous, megalomanic ass). To endlessly roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down just before reaching the top is just such a fitting analog to the mindless, soul sucking, daily grind of modern life. More importantly, or rather more to the point of this blog, it's also a perfect analogy for learning how to run races.

Iris' latest race experience, and the lessons learned from it, got me thinking about the lessons I've learned over the past few years when running long races (marathons). By no means do I know everything, or even much of anything really, but I have learned a few hard lessons while rolling my boulder up the hill.

Lessons Learned?

So, what have I learned about racing, especially long races, the last few years?
  1. Have multiple goals for a race, and have some of those goals function as fallback goals for the others. Don’t be afraid to set a lofty goal, but don’t invest so much emotion in the goal that not achieving it robs you of the joy of the event, or worse yet, knocks  you right out of the race.
  2. Always, always, ALWAYS practice, and then stick to, a fueling plan for a long race. You may get lucky and skate through on occasion, but when you aren’t lucky, it's disastrous.
  3. Categorize the races you plan during a particular season. I have 3 categories for my races: 
    • A - most important, with one hard inflexible goal and perhaps a couple of fallback goals
    • B - would like to do well, but goals are totally flexible
    • C - just have fun 
  4. Limit yourself to ONE "A" race per season, a sprinkling of "B" races, mostly used as tempo training runs for the "A" race, and as many "C" races as you like (as long as they fit into your training schedule).
  5. Practice the last miles of the long training run. They are vitally important. Concentrate on those. Practice your target race pace at the end of the 20 mile training run. Let your body and brain become accustomed to the *normal* pain you will experience during those miles. Come to terms with the fact that things will be unpleasant if you are pushing the boundaries of your ability.
  6. Don't be a slave to the training schedule. Give yourself permission to take a day, or even a whole week, off from training. Of course this means including a couple of weeks of padding in your training plan for the "A" race, but that's a smart thing to do anyway.
  7. Trust in the training. I know this seems to contradict number 6, but it really doesn't. By "trust in the training" I mean to not fret about achieving your race goals because the training doesn't seem adequate. As long as you've chosen a sensible, tested plan that can get you to your goal, try not to worry about the details. Just because none of your training runs have you running the entire race distance at your goal pace doesn't mean you won't be able to do that come race day. Adrenaline is a helluva drug.
  8. Beware adrenaline! I know, again this seems contradictory with number 7, however adrenaline is a double edged sword. It can carry you through to a great finish, or totally blow your energy reserves in the first few miles of the race. Practicing your race pace in shorter training runs will help you keep adrenaline in check at the start of the actual race. Then, once you are into those final miles of the race, unleash the adrenaline dogs of war, and let them run!
  9. Learn from your mistakes! Everyone makes mistakes, so don't be afraid to admit them. All mistakes are opportunities for learning. How you deal with them says a lot about how successful you will be the next time you step up to the line. If you failed in making your goal, figure out why it happened and keep that in mind when training for future races. I know, easier said than done.
  10. There's no shame in a DNF (Did Not Finish) or even a DNS (Did Not Start). Your health, your family, and life in general sometimes serves up the unexpected. Don't stress about it. There will be other races. Life is short, and precious. And running is a gift, not a right.
Is any of that really useful? Hell if I know. But next time you are pushing your boulder up the proverbial hill, and it starts to roll back down just as you reach the summit, hop on that thing and enjoy the ride down! In the end, the fall can teach you just as much as the rise.