In the past year I started running again.  In October I ran a half marathon and by following a pacemaker to about mile 8 I managed a pleasing time of 1 hour 48 minutes with a lot of optimism that I could improve on that. With the competitive streak in me being given full rein I entered what was billed as a flat and fast half marathon in spring with the aim of getting a better time. In fact I had a spread of target: worst case 1:45, best 1:40.

Unfortunately an injury restricted my training over the winter, with barely any running at all until February and only then with caution.

A week before the race a friend commented that I was obviously ‘…very serious in doing that race.  It’s very competitive and full of really good athletes, all proper runners.’ My injury had flared up again and just getting to the start line was my current target.

On the morning of the race, with rain sheeting down, my injury aching and my wife telling me that ‘no one was making me do this’, I set off with many reservations.  It was clear at the start line that indeed everyone did look  like ‘proper runners’.  However the rain had stopped and despite a cool breeze and overcast skies it now looked like a good day to run.

In distance running, as in many things, pace is everything.  If you set off too quickly you might ‘blow up’ and end up with having a terrible time in all ways.  Running at a even pace is desirable and a ‘negative split’ i.e. the second half faster than the first is highly sought after. Yet it is notoriously hard to reclaim the time lost by setting off too slowly.

I had a decision to make.

Being more than a little competitive I decided to race it and hope to get 1:45 by running at just under 8 minutes a mile.  I’d do the first three miles at that pace and if all was well I’d hang on, if not I’d drop off at three miles to a steady and pain free rate.  The gun went off and there was the usual shuffle towards the line and then we broke into our stride.

Running has been transformed by technology.  In shoes I feel it is a bad thing but in providing data it is superb.  I was able to check my GPS watch to monitor my pace and in the early miles I did so frequently.  The first mile was 7 minutes 30 seconds.  Too fast, that would be good for a 1:38 race.  I slowed to 7.45 in mile 2, around the 1:41 mark.  This was still faster than planned but felt good. Given that I might well slow in the latter stages and the distance covered is usually more than 13.1 miles as you weave around other runners etc. I decided that this would work well for me. The next mile was about the same.

By now the field was strung out and I was running in a small group who were all running at the same pace.  I stopped checking my watch and settled into a rhythm, matching pace with those around me. A guy in those foot glove things pulled away from us easily and I wondered if it was faster barefoot, I let him go and stayed in the comfort of the group.  At the next mile marker a quick glance at my watch showed that we had slowed to 8.15.  I hadn’t noticed but I had slowed considerably.  I now had to push hard to get back up to my desired pace and doing so put me in no-man’s land between groups.  Over a mile or so I caught then passed the next group and saw foot glove guy up ahead.

By mile 8 I was running just behind foot glove guy and was having to work to hold the pace, whilst he looked effortless. We chatted about barefoot running and past races.  Then I noticed that again the pace had slowed.  Now I had a real dilemma.  I could run with foot glove guy, we’d no doubt hit the 1:45 target I’d settled for at the start and it was tough enough holding this pace even though we were slowing.  Or I could push on, pick up the pace and venture into no man’s land again, risking really struggling later on.

I pushed.

I could barely manage a sprint finish  at the end, but with a time of 1:43 I was very pleased.  With no injuries and better training 1:40 is likely – in fact I am thinking about 1:35 as a target!

Back home I could barely stay awake.  As I lay on the couch with a celebratory bottle of red I reflected on the event.  I could have cried off , I had good reason.  I could have turned up but taken it easy.  I could have settled into a nice steady pace and ‘raced’ in the first group, maybe feeling good about a nice pick up in the last mile to break away and beat them all.  I could have stayed with foot glove guy and achieved my target.

It struck me that in many things the targets we set and who we compete against affects our results.  Hitting an easy target is hardly an achievement.  Racing in a slow group is good for the ego and hurts less, but leads to mediocre results.    As our performance fluctuates we have to adapt our targets and who we see as the competition. It would be stupid of me to have tried to race the winners (1:12), but I can hold them up as examples of excellence to see what I might learn from them and one thing they do is keep pushing themselves.

The truth is that in life and business we have to run our own races.  If we seek excellence we have to set tough goals and compare ourselves to excellent competition. We have to keep pushing. We must take calculated risks. And we have to continually review how we are doing against our targets and our real competition, not against those who just happen to be around at the time.

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

And you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death

Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over, thought I’d something more to say

Time Pink Floyd