An Expert Novice Runner: 6 Factors for Setting Practical Race Goals

In contrast to Central Park’s natural surroundings on Monday, I decided to do a total 180 and run the Queensboro Bridge on Tuesday morning as the last of my “tough runs” before this Sunday’s 10k, the Get Outside on Governors Island 10k, sponsored by The North Face and Paragon Sports. (There are apparently still entries left into this small, intimate race, so if you’re looking for a great and sweaty way to spend your Sunday morning, I highly suggest you sign up!)

I had wanted to make sure that I’d covered the distance, or more than 6 miles, at some point this week prior to the race. Knowing that the course is essentially flat, I figured that I could add hills to my training run to make Sunday feel like a piece of cake. (Does it work that way? I guess we’ll find out.)

The run from my apartment and over the Queensboro Bridge is a relatively nice and pleasant one; the course is made up of 2 shorter legs (the distance to the bridge and over the bridge, and then the distance back over the bridge and back through the city) in each direction, which breaks up the morning really nicely. In terms of scenery, it’s not exactly green or clean, but as a lifelong New Yorker, there something so industrial — so quintessentially Manhattan about it — that I can’t help but love it to pieces.

While the way to the bridge was definitely harder than the path back (no surprise there; I always have difficulty waking my legs up first thing in the morning), I felt generally confident in my overall performance and, looking ahead, in my potential for Sunday’s race.

Then, after a nice and cool, less humid morning, came Wednesday — the first of 3 90+ degree days set to hit New York City this summer. Knowing that there would be a good chance that I’d use Thursday morning’s workout, the hottest of the 3-day heat wave, for strength training or yoga to avoid the outdoor sweat-fest, I figured that I’d at least attempt to make Wednesday morning’s count.

I set out for a full 5-mile run around the lower loop of Central Park early enough so that the temperature hadn’t yet climbed into the 80’s, but even 74 degrees felt like a swamp. The streets of Manhattan smelled particularly undesirable thanks to the somewhat stagnant air, and needless to say, I was on a serious mission to cross the threshold into Central Park as quickly as possible.

To my surprise, Central Park was as crowded as ever despite the heat, although maybe everyone there had the same idea as I did in trying to squeeze in one last run before Thursday’s near-100-degree temperatures. (For those of you actually running through the park on Thursday, godspeed. And stay hydrated.)

While the run was certainly tough with the strong sun beating down, I simply tried to maintain a slow-and-steady pace and a laid back attitude. Don’t push it, breathe, get through the heat. Play it safe. Use your brain. Don’t take this run for granted.

The plan worked, and I was home before I knew it, though not without appearing as though I had run through some imaginary set of sprinklers. (Spoiler: I did not.)

Of course, that made my post-run snack even more satisfying: whole grain Wasa crackers with cinnamon raisin peanut butter and smashed fresh raspberries. Screw jam, when you have overripe berries.

So with my 2 longer runs for the week behind me, that brings me to The Race. I’ve obviously been thinking a lot about it over the last week or so, though I had sort of vacillated for some time about what my goals should be.

Do I even set true goals for the race?

Do I establish some “ideal” time to hit?

Or do I show up without any expectations for my performance?

The closer we get to the weekend, the more hyped up I’m beginning to feel. I’ve been putting a lot of hard work into my runs over the last few weeks, with speed work (at least more than I’ve ever done before), with hill work (aka, not avoiding them), and with otherwise taking care of my muscles by attending yoga and foam rolling.

The only conclusion I could come to based on these factors is, why not see what I’m made of?

That said, because I’ve never been much of an ambitious goal-setter in terms of racing, I’ve decided that, before actually establishing what it is I’d like to accomplish, it’s important to first consider all of the important elements that need to be factored in to my goals. As a self-proclaimed expert novice runner, here’s what I’ve come up with, and the goals I’ll set for myself based on them.

1. Consider the distance.

This is my shortest race so far. Since beginning to participate in races in August of last year, I’ve signed up for 3 half marathons and a 10-miler. Not once have I stood at the start of a 10k, and I have to say, I’m a little excited about not reaching that point during the event where I’m all is this over yet? Have I finished?

At the same time, I feel a little pressure to exceed what I think I’m capable of, since I’ve pretty much managed to PR during each of my races since this past summer (easy to do when you don’t have many races under your belt).

My goal: First, silence the pressure! Then, simply run my heart out, since that’s something that can often be difficult when facing miles 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15. Presumably, I should be able to work hard for all 6 miles, but only time will tell.

2. Consider your typical speed.

This is my most serious consideration for the race. When I first started running 6 or so years ago, I was clocking 11-minute miles through the streets of Ann Arbor. By the time I started racing last summer, I was consistently running 10-minute miles — but no quicker. 9:40 is my comfortable pace as of today, but when I really get into a groove, I’ve been known to hit 9-minute miles for up to 5 miles. (Ok, I did that once, but it’s possible at least!)

My goal: Since the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler in D.C., I’ve done speed work, I’ve run long, I’ve crushed hills. If I can break 58:00, I’ll be more than happy.

3. Consider the weather. 

I find this one kind of funny because I once joked that I put the hex on race day, but this hypothesis hasn’t been proven wrong yet. My first half marathon was a scorcher; my second half marathon was in a snow storm; and my third half marathon was on a freakishly hot day in April.

My goal: Now, granted, I knew it’d be hot when I signed up for a race at the end of June. All I’m hoping for is moderate temperatures and a nice breeze off the water. If those two elements can be obtained, I think I’ll be okay.

4. Consider the terrain. 

The 10k course was supposed to consist of 3 laps around some portion of the island, but that’s since been modified to 2 larger laps and some shifty surfaces. On Wednesday morning, I received an e-mail from the race director that contained this:

The 3 challenging areas:

Sloping Brick Path – TRIP HAZARD – 1,000 feet after the start line.  The path is bumpy, some bricks are missing and loose. Go Slow!

Sloping Cobble Stone path – TRIP HAZARD – .25 mile into course.  The path is bumpy, uneven and slick. Go Slow and watch your footing!

Stairs – FALL HAZARD – close to mile 3 on course and at the entrance to the Fort.  So its the Fort, they have a mote and these are the stairs to get you into the mote.  Its kind of cool but also dangerous. Walk This Section!

My goal: Based on the aforementioned hattrick of hazards, I plan to try not to fall — or break an ankle.

5. Consider the crowd.

Sunday’s is set to be a small, intimate crowd. In fact, I’ve never run a race of such small proportions, capped at a mere 1,500 runners. On the bright side, there should be no problem with settling into a nice and comfortable pace since I shouldn’t be dodging too many people. On the not-so-bright side, there will also be less spectators to fuel me along the course.

My goal: Take advantage of the lack o’ runners. During the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler, having to weave resulted in crazy bad calf cramps for the duration of the race. Ideally, it’ll just feel like another day at Central Park — but on Governors Island, and with less hills.

6. All else considered.

As any athlete knows, you can plan and plan and plan as much as you want, but it’s a real crap shoot come race day. From uncooperative stomachs to out-of-nowhere pain, there are a billion things that can go wrong once you approach the starting line. Knowing this, give yourself a break! There is only so much you can do, so just go out there, and have fun with it.

My goal: If all else fails, I will catch a tan.


Well, that’s all from me for the weekend since no one needs to hear about whether or not I strength train, do yoga, or drown in a pile of my own sweat on Thursday. For now, I’m off to enjoy the rest of the week, some nice wine, good company, and a Kale margarita. (No really, I’ll provide photo evidence after the weekend.)

As for anyone running in the Governors Island 10k or the Achilles Hope and Possibility 5-Miler in Central Park or any other race around the country, good luck, crush your goals, and be sure to consider what’s important to you and you only when establishing your personal objectives come race day.

Bring it, Govna!

  • Are you racing this weekend?
  • What goals have you been toying with, and what do you account for when setting them?
  • How many buckets of sweat have you filled up in the last 2 days? Personal count: 5,320

11 thoughts on “An Expert Novice Runner: 6 Factors for Setting Practical Race Goals

  1. I always have a goal in mind on a run, even if I don’t necessarily voice it. Setting a goal ensures that you’re “running with a purpose”. When I ran a 1:57 half-marathon, that would have been really exciting anyway, but since I knew I’d made my goal of breaking two hours, I could be even more proud of myself.

    I also consider the terrain, the size of the race, how hard I’ve been training, what I WANT to achieve, and also what other races I have coming up in the future.

    Good luck on your run this weekend!

    • Thank you! Those are all good things to consider – similar to my mindset. Maybe one day I’ll be able to set a 1:57 half marathon! My next goal is to work toward a sub 2 by next year I think.

  2. These all sound like great tips for setting goals. It’s kind of hard for me too! I havent done too many races, so when I do them, I want to make them count with a PR. So yes, I always have goals heading into runs. That may change this weekend though. I’m doing a 5k with another blogger who is also trying to sub-30 in the 5k, but I havent really had a quality run since last week’s five miler. Im going to head out tonight and see how things go, but this weekend might just be an “enjoy the company, push each other as much as possible, but dont freak out if its not a sub-30” scheme.

    • Good luck! See how you feel, assess your physical and mental mindset, and establish your goals from there. I bet the race will be fun either way since you’ll be with a friend.

  3. Pingback: Get ready, get steady… Go! « Run for 2012

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