That is the big question now isn't it.
So what has my recent 3:29 marathon time taught me?
I am a better runner than I thought I was. Sort of. Obviously, one of the objects of daily training is to get a handle on current fitness levels and overall ability. The past couple of months my training has been spotty and significantly less difficult than I had originally planned. this, along with my steadily declining performances in races, (not that they were terrible, just that I felt that I peaked around July) led me to believe that I was not ready for a fast marathon. Going into the race I had planned on hitting somewhere between a 3:40 and 3:50 and had no allusions of trying for PR.
So naturally I was surprised when I managed to take 5 minutes off my best time. The question is, how? I think part of it may have been the weather. As cold and as rainy as it was it was, well, not hot. It sounds like it sucked but other than losing feeling in my fingers, and occasionally my thighs, the weather was good for pushing the pace.
But that alone can't account for my performance, after all I was expecting a much slower race based purely on my training runs. The fact that I hadn't been able to run farther than 18.5 miles in months was a sure sign to me that I just wasn't ready for a fast marathon. So it was quite a shock when not only did I run a new PR but I actually felt good. No muscle cramps, no serious fatigue, and I ended the race feeling like I could have gone a bit faster. What made this different.
Maybe it was the rest. Because of my niggling injuries I hadn't been able to put in the mileage I wanted to. Perhaps that translated to muscles that were more rested and able to run better. Combine this with the steady increase in training and racing over the last year and that could account for a strong run.
But all of that is almost a moot point when I start to think about the mental aspects of the run. This was my third marathon so I now know what to expect and what it is going to feel like. Each race builds confidence and allows me to hone my technique and strategy. Going into BayState I had no plans at all about how fast I was going to run so I think that this removed any pressure there may have been about what pace was needed, whether or not I was hitting my splits, etc. I could, in essence, just run.
By also deciding to completely hand control of my pace over to another runner I was able resolve myself of any responsibility for how fast we were running. I became a sort of traffic cop, other than making sure we weren't running too fast I didn't have to worry about what our pace was. This was completely liberating. It didn't matter what I did, I could just enjoy and make sure I stayed next to Tracey to get her to the finish.
Could be the reason why I did so good? Without the distraction of pacing, and finish times, and pressure of trying to hit a certain time could I have been in that good mental state that allowed me to run faster than I would have thought? Maybe many of my issues are completely mental. One thing I have been thinking about is the fact that I have never not hit a target goal in a race. Never. I wanted to do a 1:35 half, I ran an exact 1:35. I wanted to do Boston between 3:30 and 3:40; I did exactly in the middle of that range. I began to believe that I was in tune with my training and that this was evidence that I knew what I should be running.
Then some anomalies started to make me think that maybe I was wrong. One month after the Boston Marathon I ran the Boston's Run to remember half-marathon and knocked a minute off my PR. Without trying to. It was just easy. I did the last mile in 6:29. In August came the Marshfield 20K during which I managed to suffer a bad calf injury half way through. But once again, I ran the last mile and a half in less than 9 and a half minutes. Then came BayState. These were all instances where I was running significantly better than I thought I was capable.
So perhaps the reason I am consistently hitting my target goals is simply because they just aren't difficult enough. Not that they need to be difficult for the sake of being difficult but more that I have been underselling myself and setting goals that I know I can achieve. Maybe I have been holding myself back this whole time by setting goals that I can reach in order to feel better about myself when I do so. Perhaps I need to revise my goals to challenge myself. Right now the only one I have that is questionable is qualifying for Boston but even that is more of a "one of these days" type of goals, not something I have a definite plan for.
BayState has made me stop and think. I had planned on just coasting for a bit and taking things as they come to get back in a rhythm. Now I just don't know. I am tempted to start planning for my next marathon and soon. I want to see what I can do. But then again, I don't want to get caught up in the pressure and anxiety that comes with setting a tough goal. Part of me believes that I have done my best when I had no preset plans, so maybe that should be my plan for my next big run.