REALLY! WHAT IS THE BEST I CAN DO?

11.30.2015
The Best I can Do? This was the night I ran the fastest I've ever run: 5:59/mile for 6 miles!

The Best I can Do? This was the night I ran the fastest I’ve ever run: 5:59/mile for 6 miles!

Interesting title, and like more than a few, inspired by something I saw on social media. So many times we talk about just wanting to run the best we are able. I know I say (and believe) that is my core goal and philosophy. As I have been writing and editing on the go, a supplemental question popped into my mind. Who cares? Well, I can deal with that one straight off: ME. I’m the only one who cares about what I do and how I do it, as it should be.

So, what does ‘the best I can do’ really mean? What does it mean to all those other people who also say it?

I ask that because I am a member of both Marathon Maniacs and Half Fanatics. The specific comment that got me started was a reply to someone worrying about how fast they were going in a marathon. The reply was along the lines of “well maybe right now, the best you CAN do is six hours”. Click! The light went on and I actually jotted this title down so I wouldn’t forget about it. That was a few days ago, but here I am ready to explore this.

I guess the first thing to say is that everything is relative. EVERYTHING!

I am very privileged to know a number of former and current elite runners. If you want to see excellence these are people of great note. Some of these people wrote for Running in the Zone, the book! Canadian distance runners are not at the moment, as fast as the best of the best. However, I am pretty certain that they are doing the best they can do. On any given day, even their ‘bests’ are not necessarily of the PB kind. That is racing. They ARE doing their best on that day under the conditions of the day and course, relative to the competition and relative to their physical condition (healthy/sick, a bit injured, in a build-up phase, etc.)

Finishing up my Marathon PB (1988)

Finishing up my Marathon PB (1988)

Naturally, I got thinking about myself and my own racing (and necessarily, training). What I do now on a best effort looks pretty lame compared to what I did at my peak, even to my best of five years ago. My best in 2015 is not, I feel, the actual best I could do under different circumstances, age notwithstanding. However, when you consider everything else in my life this year, maybe my race efforts have been my best under the circumstances. The funny thing is that I’ve had more podium finishes this year than ever before, but that has a lot to do with my ever advancing age and a new category. In 2015, I was the ‘young guy’ in M70-74. I also insist that after about 60, OK maybe 65, each year is more like dog years than human years. So, as a 70 year-old in that category, I am waaaaay ‘younger’ than some guy who is 74. Whatever, it has been fun, but I don’t kid myself that I’m getting better!

One of the things we all have to watch is comparing our ‘last race’ to our best ever. If your best ever was the race before last, well then, OK. However, if as is the case with me, your true best was some 27 years ago or so (see photo to the left), you are just silly to do anything but bask in the memory and let it go. That covers age, but there are a good many other factors that influence any given performance and whether or not you may have been doing the best you could in any given race. If you didn’t have to race until everything was just perfect, it might be easier to score PBs, but sadly, they insist on staging races on a given date, whatever the conditions and whether you or I are ‘ready’ or not.

And, the first race IS done!

And, the first race IS done!

If you will indulge me talking about myself for a bit, I want to use my last year as an example of how your ‘best’ fluctuates according to the conditions and situations. I suppose of the 10 races (actually, still have one of those 10 left to do) I did run one at someone else’s pace. That was my wonderful first race with my eight year-old (at the time) grandson. He even gave props to the old geezer when he told one of his friends that he ‘couldn’t have beaten me if he tried’. Trust me, that isn’t going to last much longer! We have already agreed to run the same race again in 2016. I imagine we might run our best efforts at just about the same pace, and then it will be done. Anytime after that, Charlie will have to wait for me.

So, what about 2015 and my string of races where I will claim I did do my ‘best’, even if the results don’t much look like it, taken in isolation?

Medals from the races that made me a Level 4 Fanatic

Medals from the races that made me a Level 4 Fanatic

The year started with a Half Fanatic goal to ‘moon up’ from the base level of ONE moon (Neptune) to FOUR moons (Jupiter). In both Marathon Maniacs and Half Fanatics, it is volume that counts not pace. All level criteria are based on X races in Y days or months. You can go as fast or slow as you want or are able. In my case, I selected four half marathons (actually, the last one was a 25K trail event) completed in 15 days. Two of them were back to back (Saturday for the Half and Sunday for the 25K). The races were BMO Vancouver (Half) Marathon, Eugene Half Marathon, Sage Rat Half Marathon and Dirty Rat 25K. First race was Vancouver on May 3 and the fourth was the Dirty Rat 25K on May 17.  I am pretty sure that anybody setting out to race four half marathons in that short a time would need to adjust pace a little. I know that anybody my age would!

Adjust I did. Oh, and because I knew that these four races had to be done with a little less aggression than normal, I had to be ready to accept that even the first result, would be much slower than the last half I had done only a few months before, in late 2014. Uuuumm, and then there was the ever so tempting first 5K, deliciously downhill, at the Vancouver Half. I intentionally raced for my split time (knowing full well that I would pay for it later, which I DID). Something that I did find interesting was that the first three actual half marathons were a week apart in each case and in each case I lost almost exactly four minutes on the previous race. We won’t count the 25K as it was longer and there was a 1000ft vertical in the first couple of miles on that one. Talk about apples and oranges!

In any case, I actually did a calculated ‘best’ effort in each race even if the times taken alone for each event would hardly look like it. Circumstances and a longer term goal.

2013 Marathons and Ultra for Silver Level Maniac Status

2013 Marathons and Ultra for Silver Level Maniac Status

I could go back to 2013 too, when I decided that the base level for Marathon Maniacs (one star or Bronze) was not quite enough and set my goals to run six marathons in six months to move up to two stars or Silver. (FWIW there are ten levels in both Maniac and Fanatic criteria.) In case you might be wondering, I am now done with seeking higher levels in either group, but I am officially a Double Agent, so there’s that. The point is that running six marathons (one was a 50K) in that period of time, again meant that each was a little compromised to the greater goal.

Moving on, later in June of 2015 I decided it was time to see how a shorter distance might work and ran the 5K associated with the Scotiabank Vancouver Half Marathon. I felt I had recovered from the half marathon crusade and could push my 5K effort. I feel I did give it everything I could, but it was a rather warm day. The time was decent but not as fast as it might have been in more ideal conditions. Circumstances.

Big Cottonwood Marathon

Big Cottonwood Marathon

Oh, and just to make the year interesting, I had two bouts of eye surgery to remove cataracts, a fabulous thing, but each time it cost me three weeks of total inactivity where it came to training. In September I decided to get back to racing and that took the form of the Big Cottonwood Marathon. Now, the event had actually been booked way early in the year, but at half marathon distance. I do love me a downhill course and the Big Cottonwood Half just rolls down, the whole way. Everything was fine until my eye surgery got moved up by three or four weeks. All of a sudden, I had (minimal) time to train for the marathon. AND, they took some four (difficult) miles or so out of the lower part of the marathon course and pushed it about 1500ft further up the mountain! I won’t go into more detail. If you really want to hear more, you can look HERE. Anyway, I decided that since the race was so far away (Utah) and I probably wouldn’t be doing it again, I would go for the full marathon and accept whatever happened. I knew I could have an amazing half marathon result but wanted a really special marathon finish in this year of being 70. Didn’t happen. Combination of circumstances, conditions and situation, but I DID do my best and don’t regret the last minute switch. I knew I was taking a chance on the outcome. My actual half split was 2:21:13 and if I teased out my best 21.1K (because the official time includes about 5 minutes of porto-potty stop time), it turns out to be about 2:15, but run within the context of a marathon, i.e. with some constraint. In other words, my original plan for a good half was definitely justified and speculatively might have been around 2:10 or so. We’ll never know. I made a different decision, and that is part of this whole thing, too. We all make decisions from time to time, to run one race vs another, to run in less than ideal conditions, to run without optimal training, or with too many races already in our legs.

A little damp it was, this day!

A little damp it was, this day!

Well then I turned my sights to a couple of 10K races I’d never done before, starting with the Granville Island Turkey Trot. This one was OK for time (would have liked a minute or two faster) but there was that marathon done less than a month previous and the rain. The RAIN!!! I don’t know that I’ve ever been much wetter in a race. So, circumstances and conditions, and yet the best I could do on the day.

And, I’m not making excuses. I’m trying to point out that hitting that sweet spot of training, course and race conditions isn’t all that easy to manage. Still, I can honestly say I did my best in each event, and if you can say that, you can be satisfied with your result.

Enough of that, or at least, enough about me.

Going back to the on-line comment about the six hour marathoner (a ‘she’ as I recall), I don’t know much more about her circumstances or how she came to the race in terms of previous exertions (she is a Marathon Maniac) or even what her goal was. She could have been injured or just coming back from something (no such info was included). However the fellow who commented that maybe it was her best on that day hit it right on the head, at least from a philosophical point of view.

Lead Women - Boston Marathon 2009 - Being Fierce

Lead Women – Boston Marathon 2009 – Being Fierce

Sometimes the focus, moving now to the competitive racer (I was going to say ‘elite’ but it applies more broadly), is on winning. Time is something we all focus on in judging our results, but when you are competitive, winning can often be more important. When you find yourself in a relatively balanced field, in a race you want to win, race strategy is more important than time. Your ‘best’ becomes something else and judged on a different scale. As I noted earlier, my podium placements this year have been quite fun, but as a mid to back of pack runner, seldom do I know who I am actually racing. Most often I just have to lay down my best and let it be what it is. A few times over the years I have either known (or thought I did) who the competition was and could race head to head. Those races were kind of fun! The easiest example to understand the difference between PB or even record time and going for the win, is something like a runner chasing Olympic Gold or winning the Boston Marathon.  The WIN is everything. Running fast (relative term) is secondary. A heroic effort that leaves you second or even right out of the ‘money’ means nothing. Make no mistake though, strategic races do involve a best effort.

Everything is relative. At the top end we have the world elite runner. Results are pretty ‘pure’ and simple to understand. Everybody runs as hard as they can and somebody wins or sets a new World Record. What about the rest of us who will have an asterisk beside anything we do? I’m thinking of the best Masters runner. I’m thinking of Age Class winners or Single Age record holders. Raw time is not in the same class as the ‘Open’ elite runner, since we undeniably fade with time. What about an Ed Whitlock? He recorded times in his late 70s, early 80s that when age graded, rated higher than the then World Marathon Record. A friend and local runner here in Vancouver, BJ (Betty Jean) McHugh pretty much sets a new single age record every time she runs a half or full marathon. BJ just turned 88 and is gearing up to run the Honolulu Marathon in a few days. She will take more than five hours I would think, but remember how all this started? I was talking about a much younger woman wondering if her six hour marathon was OK. I’m pretty sure she was a long way shy of 88! The important thing is that BJ respects the events and trains and will turn in her best effort in Honolulu and I assure you that you can count on that regardless of what her actual time turns out to be. As I recall, last year it was 5:36. But, of course, last year she was only 87.

New York City Marathon

New York City Marathon

Some people run with disabilities. Some aren’t so very athletically made and just run for their own satisfaction. That doesn’t mean they aren’t being the best they can be. To me, that is what makes running so compelling. I don’t need to beat anyone else to know I’ve done my best. Some say you only need to ‘beat yourself’. That can be true, but when you reach my age and you are still going, you have to ask “which self would that be?”. It certainly isn’t the ‘self’ that recorded his PB marathon (OK, PB marathon, half, 10K, 5K) back when he was 43/44. Having decided to keep track of 5-year records, it probably will seldom be the ‘self’ that recorded records for the previous 5-year age grouping. It could be the self that ran the last half marathon or 10K or whatever race he did. It also isn’t totally impossible to better previous times. When I was 65 I was on a racing/training roll that saw me do my third best (raw) marathon and second best age graded. It was a stellar year because of good health and hard training and maybe, just maybe, doing the right race on the right day.

Personally, one of the main ways I keep up with a ‘better me’ is the % Performance value you get with age grading. I figure if my annual bests stay in the same range, I am doing well. This year was not great on that basis, but I don’t know if it was the circumstances described above, or just me getting older and more feeble.

I intend that next year’s racing be quite selective, so we will have to see if my performances improve or if the ‘fade’ continues. It should keep me amused, if no-one else.

 

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