Monday, February 17, 2014

The freedom to fail

"Don't be afraid to give up the good to go for the great." -John D. Rockefeller
"But I wonder: would I be a better runner and racer if, at least now and then, I threw caution to the wind and just ran until I couldn't keep it up any longer? " -Alex Hutchinson
 It's Monday.  Let's get this week started off on the right foot.  How about a post on failure? 

Aren't you glad you stopped by?

I'm a little long on this one, so hang in there with me.

I've just spent WAY too long looking for a great quote I read recently from a T&F coach that prompted the idea for this topic...arrrggg, why didn't I bookmark it?

It sorta haunted me a bit.  The gist of it was this: the coach said he would rather coach an athlete willing to push themselves to the point of "failure"  from time to time (which I assume means something like blowing up in a race and losing) rather than someone who played it safe, enjoyed moderate success, but never reached their full potential.

Now, I don't think the coach was saying to be haphazard in training and racing and do whatever you want whenever you feel like it.  Harder is better all of the time.  Nope. 

But, it did get me thinking about how I train.  I tend to be pretty methodical and perhaps what some would call "safe" in my training.  I don't like to go hard from the start and prefer to try to run evenly or negative split.  Generally speaking, I think it's a solid way to approach long distance running and racing.

However, my methodical-ness (is that a word?) probably prevents me from going out on a limb more frequently to see what's possible .  How do you push to a new level without sometimes going hard from the start, really suffering, and seeing what happens?

"But...", you say, "I might blow up.  I might end up with a time a lot slower than I'm capable of.  How would that look?"

Yup. You might.  I might.

To the Kenyans, arguably the fastest folks on the planet right now, it's not such a big deal.

Alex Hutchinson had what I thought was an insightful post on this idea that looked at Kenyan training methods and how they can be quite different than our own.  Many go out hard from the start and simply hang on as long as they can, which often results in incomplete workouts and race DNFs.  Two points I found interesting:

  "Even second- and third-tier Kenyans will run with the lead pack for as long as they can, looking for glory—and a paycheque—or bust. Many will slow dramatically or drop out later in the race, but a few will hang on for an unexpectedly high finish."
 "According to conventional physiology, steady pacing is the most efficient way to ration your energy stores. Its logic has been taken for granted since Aesop and his tortoise. But it is inherently limiting: to run at an even pace, you have to decide on your final finishing time, and thus set a ceiling on your potential achievement, before the starting gun fires. As a result, even pacing may produce better results on average, but it is less likely to produce dramatic outliers: jaw-droppingly fast (or slow) times."
I'm not a Kenyan, not racing at the front of the pack, and don't have my livelihood depending on "jaw-droppingly" fast race times.  But I'd be lying if I said I don't want to be faster in my marathon running.  A lot faster.  Will I get there if I always take the methodical approach?

As recreational runners, is there a time and place when looking for "glory" in our running and going out foolishly fast in a workout or race is a GOOD thing?

Usually, I would say no.  I had a recent track workout that changed my answer to this question.

Our Wednesday track session was 4 x 800s and then 8 x 400s. I had a ballpark figure in my head for my 800 pace.  Coach Bill told me to not worry about the watch and just try to stay with a few of my running buddies faster than I am.

So, the workout started.  Even without the watch, I knew within 200 meters we were running significantly faster than I usually run my 800s.  When this happens, I usually back off for fear of not finishing my workout...a prudent reaction in my opinion.

Funny thing happened though, I decided to just hang on.  If I blew up, I blew up.  Freedom was granted to fail and really screw up the rest of my workout.

The first 800 was about 15-20 seconds faster than it should have been and was the fastest 800 I had ever done.  Foolish much?  If you run track workouts, you know that is not usually the right way to start a workout.  End fast, don't start fast, right? 

The rest of the 800s were a little slower, but surprisingly not by much and still a really good clip (at least for me).  It was hard, but I felt calm.  My times didn't trail off like I feared they would.  I didn't blow up.  My 400s were still on target at the end of the workout.  I was expecting some degree of failure, and instead, I think I had some (surprising) degree of success.

Please understand that I'm not promoting the idea of plowing through prescribed track paces like they don't matter, because they do, or ignoring a coach's advice to not go out too hard at the start of a race.  Generally speaking, even pacing or negative splitting is more ideal.

But, for those few times when the stars align and you feel good, dialing it up instead of down can be a breath of fresh air in training.  It changed my perspective on suffering.  I still don't like it, but I'm capable of more suffering than I realized.  You probably are, too.

That is powerful when it comes to race day and pushing through the tough miles in the middle and end of your race!

Every once in a while, assuming good training practices for the vast majority of your running, you might allow yourself the freedom to push hard from the start and see what happens on a training run.  Or perhaps a race.  The world won't stop if you blow up. Your running buddies will still be your running buddies.  Your ego may get a little bruised if things don't go well, but you may also learn a lot about what you're capable of if things DO go well. 

Perhaps failure isn't such a bad thing all the time?