Earlier this year I picked running a marathon in under 2:37 as my challenge for 2016. Because this challenge is very specific, I wanted to spend some time discussing my thought process behind it. I think it will help add context to this particularly goal and how I approach goal setting in general.
Deciding On A Level of Difficulty
The first thing I do when setting a goal is decide on how difficult I want it to be to achieve.
I am an extremely competitive and motivated person so I like to pick challenges that will stretch me. I like to be scared that I won’t be able to achieve it so that I have to be resourceful in order to succeed. I like the process. Standing at the peak isn’t the end that justifies the means for me, it is the means for me justifying the end that is the hard work, ingenuity & learning along the way.
Levels of Difficulty
The problem with setting really challenging goals is that they can eat up a lot of time, money and other valuable resources. Last year I discussed the problem with escalation and it was something I thought about again this year. I wanted to have something that challenged me but that wouldn’t eat exorbitant amounts of time, my most limited factor right now.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, the problem with setting goals that are too easy is you don’t take them seriously enough. I realized about two months into my Ironman training in 2014 that I could have finished the race right then. Without a higher goal in sight, I would have had a hard time justifying more training. I would likely have just done a bit more casual training until the race and then retuned a mediocre result. I’ve done that before with other things, and learned that doesn’t satisfy me. It misses out on the process, which is the best part of setting goals that are often arbitrary and ultimately meaningless.
On top of all of this, when setting a challenge it is important to consider context. What else do I have going on this year? How will this be affected positively or negatively by other efforts I’m undertaking. For example trying to have a baby, launch a new product at work, surf Mavericks and complete an Ironman all in the same year would be unwise. (also known as 2014)
2016 Level of Difficulty
For this year I decided I wanted my challenge to be really difficult, no matter what it was. The main reason being that I’ve succeeded at my last three. That might seem strange, but the measure of good stretch goals is that you periodically fail. If you don’t, you’re likely not stretching yourself to your maximum. I’ve decided that failing 1 out of every 4-5 is a good litmus test. That means that if I succeed at this, next year’s challenge will have to be impossibly hard.
I narrowed down my list to a few challenges but ultimately decided on running a marathon due to a few things:
- The fact that I’m turning 30 this year and 30 is considered the peak age for marathon running. I figured that given the flexibility, it is best to do things when you are best at those things.
- I am currently living in Seattle which isn’t great for surfing due to proximity to the beach but is great for running which is much easier to do in the dark & rain than many other activities. (Seattle has lots of dark & rain)
- Wanted something physical to compliment my other activities which are not as physical
Having decided on running a marathon & wanting to take full advantage of my marathon running peak, I decided to shoot for a really fast time. This might be the fastest I ever clock.
So what should I shoot for?
Understanding My Potential
For some context, I’ve never raced a marathon before. If I had, I would likely have based my goal on my past performance – perhaps aiming to improve by 5% or something.
Without the benefit of that experience I have to use other methods to first understand what was reasonable for me, and then to set a goal that would be a stretch.
Reference Any Relevant Experience
Thought I haven’t raced a marathon, I did complete a 26.2 mile run at the end of my Ironman in 2014. My time for that leg was 3:45:11. Keep in mind I did this after swimming 2.4 miles and biking 112. I know that is my local maximum.
During the training for that race I did a 20 mile run at 7:30/mile the day after a 90 mile bike ride. Had I done 6 more miles at that pace it would have put me 3:16:30. I was confident I could do that again if I got into similar shape. If I was running fresh off of a taper, I would estimate being able to break 3:00.
Reference Scaling Approximations
The second thing I looked to was information to help me compare past races I had completed to this distance. Fortunately there are some great tables, unfortunately, there are a few and they don’t always disagree.
My friend Josiah, a great runner & coach, recommended the following one. The times boxed in red are the closest times to PRs from when I was in college & the orange are the closest times from my PRs during non-peak races. The green seemed like a reasonable target.
Benchmark Against Peers
The next thing I did was similar to the above but more anecdotal. I thought about a few friends I had raced a lot with and their peak performances.
Josiah, referenced above was always a few notches faster than me, ~20 seconds a mile in the 5k, and recently ran a 2:29 marathon. Chris, another college teammate, is someone who I still argue with about who was/is faster (I’ve got the PRs, championship races, and local newspaper cover on my side). He ran a 2:46 a number of years ago (though I misremembered it as 2:43 when I was planning).
This puts my target somewhere between those two times, likely closer towards the latter.
When setting goals, it is always nice if there is a significant milestone to aim for. The New York Times showed that people really like aiming for arbitrary round numbers, which has its pros and cons, but clearly affects performance as indicated by the various spikes.
As I looked at the marathon, a few milestone times came to mind for me
- 3:05 – Boston Marathon qualifying time. Considered one of the most prestigious races to qualify for, hitting the appropriate time for their age group is a goal for many marathon runners.
- 2:59 – Sub three hours is a round number that puts you in the top of the pack
- 2:53 – New York Marathon qualifying time. The hardest major US race to qualify for due to having fewer spots available for qualifiers. A race I’d really like to run.
- 2:46 – Chris’ PR – beating him is one of my favorite hobbies
- 2:37 – Sub 6:00 miles
- 2:29 – Sub 2:30 puts you in a very elite group of runners
- 2:19 – Olympic Trials qualifier. Though only three of ~300 people make the US Olympic team, getting to the qualifier race is a major milestone for many.
As I reflected on this list 2:59 felt like a safe bet – something I should be able to do barring any injuries or unplanned setbacks. 2:53 and 2:46 an appropriate challenge. I would be excited to hit between those marks. 2:37 to me is a major stretch – I will probably not be able to do this in my first year racing marathons. That is why I’m so excited about this year.
As I shared this goal, I got some comments that shooting for too fast of a time might hinder me – that being more realistic would ensure I didn’t crash.
I wanted to emphasize two things.
- My goal time doesn’t necessarily mean I will attempt to go that pace on race day. If based on my training I see that I’m not in that shape, I’ll aim for something more moderate and let my body sort it out in the last half.
- My training plan doesn’t have much to do with my goal. I will be running a pretty set schedule and using periodic time trials to adjust my spot on the pacing table.