Goals, Failure, Success

I’ve been thinking lately about the effects that goal attainment and failure have on performance, results, and tenacity. A few months ago, I chronicled my November 2019-November 2020 journey with weight loss and fitness. https://woundedwonders.com/2020/11/06/a-year-of-losses-and-gains/

To be honest, since achieving my target weight goal back in March of 2020, I’ve been living with a low grade anxiety about loss of discipline and motivation. I’ve been through enough cycles of the fitness merry-go-round (it’s really not very merry) to know that achieving short term weight loss and fitness goals cannot be the ultimate target. Because those targets are relatively easy to hit. Maintaining a desired body composition and fitness level is a much greater challenge, one that nearly everybody chasing improved health seems to fail at routinely. While I have remained faithful to my weekly training plans (and thus have maintained my desired body composition), I am reluctant to release myself entirely from fear of failure as that fear is one of my sources of motivation to persevere with training on a day I would prefer to remain sedentary. Thankfully, after my first race in over a year yesterday, I’ve found something better than fear as motivation to train: competition!

My fitness plan for the year of 2020 revolved heavily around race registrations. I wasn’t in any type of condition to be entering races for competitive purposes. Rather, I was using race entries as a form of personal motivation and accountability. I’ve always been one to slack off on routine training if there’s not some kind of event to prepare for. As I think we all know by now, pretty much every race was postponed and cancelled in March 2020 and onward due to the global pandemic. I’m grateful that this didn’t derail my regular training. But I’ve also been desperately missing the experience of participating in a race.

So, after a full year of no opportunity to measure myself against other athletes, the 2/20/21 Fort Ebey Kettles Trail Half Marathon appeared as one of the first races I could register for in our region, and so I enthusiastically signed up.

Throughout the fall and winter of 2020, I had been getting out into the rugged hills and trails of Capital Forest (most frequently above the Kennedy Creek area) for extended trail runs so I knew I had the requisite fitness to safely participate in this race. Trail running is an entirely different level of challenge compared to road running. Even the most challenging of road race courses will offer a mere fraction of the total elevation gains that trail races provide. You’ll never find a paved road with grades as steep as are commonly peppered throughout the singletrack of many trail race courses. My entire running experience has been with various forms of road racing: triathlon, 10k, 12k, half marathons, marathons: I’ve competed in each form of road running and have a good sense of the kind of pace I’m capable of at each fitness level when the surface is uniform. I had no idea what I could do in a competitive trail race setting.

As a novice to competitive trail races, I set the following goals for my 2/20/21 baptism into the sport:

  • Goal 1: Finish the race without slowing to a walk
  • Goal 2: Finish the race without falling
  • Goal 3: Finish the race without injury

I felt like these each of these goals were achievable given my early season fitness level, and would be entirely within my control regardless of weather or other competitors.

Over the first four miles of the race, I found I was running at a much faster pace than most of the other runners out there. I was feeling good, and was still slowing considerably for each section of technical descents in order to avoid tripping or slipping over roots. This meant that my pace suffered greatly every time the trail started to look sketchy. Which was quite a lot. I had already completed one of the three worst climbs of the day and wasn’t in any danger of needing to slow for a breather, so I felt like my first goal finish the race without slowing to a walk was well in hand. It was time to set a new goal: maintain a consistent effort that keeps my heart rate above 150 bpm for the remaining 8-ish miles of the race.

The realization that I was running the race at a faster pace than most of the other runners tempted me to consider additional goals. What if I can finish top ten in my age group? I had recognized the faces of several masters runners who I knew to be quite capable. So a top 10 finish in my age bracket felt ambitious yet possibly attainable.

As soon as the notion entered my head, the decision was made. I was no longer considering this a mere training run with a entry fee and participation medal. This was now a race. And so, my approach to each sketchy section of trail shifted from don’t fall don’t fall don’t fall don’t fall to more of a Luke Skywalker vs Storm Troopers on Endor sort of thing. You know, the part of the movie when Luke has stolen an imperial speeder bike and weaves in and out of trees and other hazards and ludicrous speed?

Pace quickened, I found myself whooping and hollering in exaltation over how freakin’ fun it is to speed through danger with disaster just one moment away. I had no processing power available for the sort of meditative thoughts I usually partake in whilst running. All of my senses, all of my focus, all of my movements were united and channeled exclusively toward the fastest line possible through mud, over root, under/over fallen tree. I found myself wishing for ninja climbing spikes or a grappling hook as I grabbed onto various saplings and tree branches to slingshot myself around switchback descents. I was one with the force as I did the speed-limbo under fallen trees too high to vault, and as I put my long-dormant hurdling form to good use over lower treefall: barely considering those trees wouldn’t give way like a hurdle should I clip one with my foot or knee.

It wasn’t the death-defying stuff that caused me to fail at goal 2: finish the race without falling. At about mile 9, the trail opened up into a broader section that seemed free from roots. So I took my focus away from my footing in order to do a quick check of my heart rate and pace data on my watch. That moment of mental laziness allowed me to miss a rock that awaited in the middle of the trail, jutting up just high enough to catch my toe. Down I went in a muddy face first tumble that left me bruised and bloodied. A quick bodily inventory told me I was free from injury (goal 3 intact!) but the violent herky-jerk of the fall had trigged some calf spasms, the precursors of the dreaded calf cramp.

And so, I spent the remainder of the race at a markedly slower pace as I battled impending calf cramps. I knew from painful experience that once I get a full-on calf cramp, there’s no more running or jumping in store for that leg for the rest of the game or race. I managed all the way to the finish line before the calves finally cramped, which is alright with me: the race was over.

I later learned that my efforts that day made me the 4th place overall finisher, the 3rd fastest male runner of the day, and fastest finisher in my age bracket! My initial reaction was to discount these results due to what must have been a shallow field. But there were 150 runners in this event, many with running resumes I once would have considered out of reach for myself.

A closer study of the finish times informed me that, had I avoided my fall and subsequent diminished pace to avoid cramps, I could have finished 2nd overall. I’m done with thinking of myself as one slip-up away from overweight couch potato. It’s time to embrace that wild part of my heart that was kindled over the most hazardous sections of this race: the part that exalts in chasing a runner down and passing them. The predatory instinct that revels in the knowledge that a competitor is flagging and I am closing. It’s time to commit to training as the champion I secretly yearn to become.

Lessons Learned

  1. to borrow from one of my favorite Harry Connick Jr. songs: Safety’s just danger out of place. I didn’t fail at my no-fall goal because of the breakneck pace I took through the obviously perilous sections of the race. I failed at that goal because I was lulled into complacency by the appearance of ease after finishing what looked and felt more dangerous.
  2. when it becomes evident that one or more goals will be easily achieved, the creation of additional, more rigorous goals, can result in achievement beyond imagination. Looking at the running histories of my field of competition in the race, I would never have considered an overall top 10 finish to be possible. Mostly because my internal self image remains that of an overweight and out of shape guy with arthritis. While I still have arthritic joints, I am capable of more than I imagine I am.
  3. start carrying a couple packets of yellow mustard on these races. A squirt of yellow mustard under the tongue actually works to alleviate muscle cramps!

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