Sara Hall came to the 2020 Chicago Marathon with big ambitions. Goal number one for the ASICS-sponsored professional runner was to win the race. Goal number two was to break Deena Kastor’s American record of 2:19:36. Imagine Sara’s disappointment when she crossed the finish line in third place with a time of 2:27:19.
Except she wasn’t disappointed. In a social media post she shared after the race, Sara listed the positives, noting that she had “committed one hundred percent to the goal,” “executed the plan,” and “fought to the end,” concluding that although she’d hoped to do better, she rated her overall performance as “mission accomplished.”
Was she kidding herself? Not at all. Whereas most of us judge our races by whether we’ve achieved our goals, Sara judged her Chicago Marathon performance by the fact that she’d done the best she could. And she was wise to do so. The problem with basing race assessments on outcomes is that they’re not entirely within our control. I have a friend who fell short of achieving his goal of breaking three hours in a marathon because a freight train crossed the course mid-race and brought him to a dead stop. Calling the race a failure would have been absurd, and although he was disappointed, my friend came away from the race feeling good about his performance, much like Sara Hall.
Admittedly, this is a rather extreme example, but is it any less absurd to call a race a failure because a muscle cramp or a blister or just being a little off that day prevents you from hitting your goal? I think not, and as a coach I take pains to ensure my athletes focus only on the things they can control when preparing for, executing, and evaluating races. And the list of things we can control is pretty short, comprising three key elements: effort, attitude, and judgment.
Recently I asked my Twitter followers how often they finish their races knowing they’ve given absolutely everything they had to give and could not have gone any faster by digging deeper. Less than 10 percent of respondents answered “always,” proving what we all know—that it’s not easy to give a true maximal effort in a long-distance race. The reason, quite simply, is that doing so requires an embrace of discomfort that goes against our instincts.
Sara Hall was right to congratulate herself for “fighting to the end,” and she would have been right to criticize herself if she hadn’t. Giving a maximal effort doesn’t guarantee a great outcome, but because it is within the athlete’s control, it’s a better basis for evaluating a race performance than a number on a clock.
Here’s a tip for improving your ability to give a maximal effort in races: In some of your interval workouts, run the last interval at maximal effort rather than at the target pace of the previous intervals. For example, if the workout is 6 x 0.5 mile at 5K pace, run the first five intervals at 5K pace and the last one as fast as you can. This type of judicious exposure to high levels of discomfort makes it easier to give everything you’ve got on race day.
Successful race execution is largely the result of good decisions made throughout the event.
Maintaining a positive attitude during competition isn’t much easier than giving a maximal effort, and for pretty much the same reason. When you’re feeling a lot of discomfort in a race, and the outcome is uncertain, it’s tempting to feel discouraged. But it’s possible to stay positive even when things aren’t going as well as you would like, as Sara Hall demonstrated in Chicago with her “one hundred percent commitment to her goal.” And the rewards for exercising this control are significant. Win or lose, you’ll feel better after the race if you stay strong and focused mentally during the race.
Here’s a tip for improving your ability to maintain a positive attitude in races: Sit down and write out a few sentences about what it means to compete as the best version of yourself. Commit these words to memory and then lean on them when the going gets tough on race day.
Successful race execution is largely the result of good decisions made throughout the event. Oftentimes, runners fail to show their true fitness by starting too fast, skipping aid stations, failing to account for weather conditions, and other lapses in judgment. In “executing the plan” in Chicago, Sara Hall spared herself the regret that comes with finishing a race knowing you could have done better if only you’d made better decisions.
Here’s a tip for improving your ability to exercise good judgment in races: When posting your workouts on Strava, devote some space to analyzing your decision-making. Note what you did well and call out your mistakes. This sort of reflection goes a long way toward improving decision-making over time.
Be Like Sara
The important thing to understand about athletes like Sara Hall who judge their races on the exclusive basis of factors they control is that they not only feel better about their performance afterward but they also perform better in every race. Keep this in mind as you approach your next event. Focus on your effort, your attitude, and your judgment, and let the final result take care of itself.