Provision #402: Personal Bests

Laser Provision

It’s time for another Provision in my peripatetic series on “Running as a Metaphor for Life.” In the past few weeks I’ve run two races with clients and friends • a marathon and a half-marathon • each of which has resulted in a number of “personal bests.” If it’s been a while since you’ve experienced a personal best in life, then perhaps you should read on to learn the secret of how and why they happen.

LifeTrek Provision

We’re going to take a break this week from our series on spiritual wellness in order to reflect on two of my recent running experiences: three weeks ago I paced a friend to his second marathon finish in Birmingham, Alabama while one week ago I ran the Colonial Half Marathon, here in Williamsburg, Virginia, along with a client. In different ways, both races represent personal bests from which we can all learn valuable life lessons.

The Birmingham marathon was a challenging course, to say the least. My review of the elevation maps for three different marathons, two of which are legendary for their hills, suggests that Birmingham may be a more challenging course than either Boston, on the East Coast of the United States, or Big Sur on the West Coast.

From mile 3 to mile 7, the Birmingham course rises 300 feet (or 91 meters), most of which comes between mile 5 and 7. From mile 19 to mile 21, it does the same thing all over again: different hill but more or less the same distance and grade. Just as challenging, when it comes to a runner’s quadriceps, are the steep downhills which immediately follow each ascent.

To compare and contrast, Boston • which is famous for its “heartbreak hill” at mile 20 • has only one such monster climb, from mile 16 to mile 21, again of about 300 feet. Big Sur, on the other hand, throws in its one big hill from mile 10 to mile 12 • climbing about 500 feet (or 152 meters) followed by an equally quadriceps-killing downhill over the next three miles.

All three races have their share of smaller ups and downs along the way, so I would at least put them on a par with each other with, perhaps, giving Birmingham the “toughest-course” nod because of its two big hills. Throw in a little inclement weather, such as too much heat or wind, and any one of these courses can set back even the strongest of runners.

You can imagine my friend’s nervousness, then, as he prepared to run his first marathon after a seven-year hiatus. The course was challenging, and the weather forecast predicted both wind and rain. When we woke up in the morning, at 4:00 AM, to have our traditional pre-race bowl of carbohydrates, we had no idea what to expect weather-wise.

Fortunately, the predicted downpour didn’t materialize and we experienced only occasional sprinkles and wind gusts. That gave us some confidence as we prepared to run 26.2 miles (or 42.2 kilometers) through the streets of downtown and suburban Birmingham. As if finishing wasn’t motivation enough, the race sponsor • Mercedes Benz • promised to raffle off a brand-new car among the finishers. What a refreshing change of pace from having all the prizes go to the fastest runners.

So at exactly 7:03 AM • how’s that for an official start time • we took off along with 2,600 other runners in the full and half marathon races. Our goal was to maintain a ten-minute per mile (or 6.2-minute per kilometer) pace. Had we been able to hold this pace throughout the race, we would have finished in 4 hours and 22 minutes • an improvement over my friends’ last marathon seven years ago.

Everything was right on track through mile 16. We got through the first hill and the half-way mark within seconds of our goal pace. At mile 16, we were still going strong when we hit a “little hill,” climbing 100 feet in 1 mile. We lost about a minute there and the big hills were yet to come. Up we climbed through miles 19 to 21. By the time we came down, at mile 22, my friend’s calves had started to cramp up and we decided to walk in rather than to risk a DNF or “Did Not Finish.”

It was a tough final few miles, since our running apparel was no longer able to keep us warm against the wind at our walking pace. But press on we did, lifting our spirits high through conversation with each other, interactions with other runners, thanking volunteers and spectators, and, of course, enjoying the occasional entertainment that would pop up along the route such as a great Elvis Presley imitator.

We finished in about 4 hours and 52 minutes, receiving finishing shirts and medals (but not winning the new car). A few days after the marathon, I received the following note from my friend: “As you know, I ran one other marathon and finished with a better time, but I think that because of your involvement, this was a much more positive and meaningful experience for both me and my wife.”

“The fact that you elected to stay with me at the end, rather than to run ahead and finish in order to get out of the cold, meant more to me than you may know. It helped me to ‘enjoy’ those final miles more than I ever would have on my own and to finish with a smile. Thanks for coming and making such an investment in our lives. By the way, I think it’s a hoot that I crossed the finish line before you • oh, if they only knew!”

Now that’s what I call a personal best. I’ve been there, more than once, at the end of a marathon where the body breaks down and the legs stop running. It happened to me, less than one year ago, at the overheated Big Sur marathon. I walked in, dehydrated and tired, after more than five hours on the course.

It’s hard to enjoy that experience, let alone to finish with a smile. Most runners dream of finishing strong, so when the mind says “Go!” and the legs say “No!” most runners have to deal with at least some measure of disappointment.

But that’s what our combined forces were able to avert over the final 3.2 miles of the Birmingham marathon. We kept our spirits high and the run in perspective. He was finishing his first marathon in seven years and there was every reason to celebrate the experience. There was no need to ruin it with the crush of expectations. Better to simply embrace the experience for what it was: a day of two personal bests.

Two weeks later I ran the Colonial Half Marathon in Williamsburg, Virginia to yet another personal best and yet another lesson in expectations. This time I had a client come in for the event who can easily push me and who is a more natural-born distance runner than me. His low resting and aerobic heart rates enable him to get stronger as he runs longer, as evidenced by his recent 60 kilometer (37.3 mile) ultra-marathon in little more than six hours.

The half-marathon event is just short enough to keep me in the game with this fellow and there’s nothing like a little competition to sweeten the pot. The day before the event, the two of us went out for a warm-up run of about 5 miles (8 kilometers) and I effortlessly posted a couple of 6:45 miles. Now that’s fast for me, and the ease with which they came emboldened me to change my expectations and race plan for the next day:

I would pace myself for a personal best time, even though I had not come close to this time in almost five years and even though this, too, was a challenging course with plenty of elevation.

Of course there was more than just a couple of fast miles to make me alter my expectations and change my race plan. In the past six months, I have lost weight, thanks to the Paleolithic diet Click, I have increased my strength training, thanks a new home weight-machine, and I have ratcheted up my aerobic training, thanks to my dream of qualifying for and running in this year’s Boston marathon.

But was I ready to run a half-marathon at a sub-7:30 pace? Expectations formed over years of slower running said, “No.” Indications from recent training said, “Let’s go.”

So I let go of both my expectations and of my plans for a slower race. I replaced them with inspiration and a 3:15 marathon pace band that I never thought I would wear again. A pace band indicates where you should be in a race, mile by mile, based upon your projected finish time. The best races are run at an even pace, with your fastest miles being run in the second half of the event rather than the first. A pace band can keep you from going out too fast at the start.

To my delight, I was more or less tracking to the pace band for the entire race. Talk about a confidence builder! When you are working a plan, and when your incremental targets are being met, it becomes a self-fulfilling, self-reinforcing prophecy. The “can-do attitude” becomes more than just an attitude; it becomes a reality-based description of what’s going on. Each mile feeds on every other mile, as you put together a string of personal bests.

At mile 9, I experienced a spontaneous act of generosity. My wife was scheduled to meet me at that point and to hand me a new water bottle. But I came through before she had the water bottle ready, and I was not willing to stop and wait. Saying something about not seeing the water bottle, I waved and ran past.

Feeling badly, my wife picked up the bottle and tried to catch me. But I was going too fast for her. Seeing this scene, one of my running buddies, a woman who had just run 20 miles the day before in training and was not running the race, offered to lend a hand. She took over where my wife left off, grabbing the bottle and picking up the pace until she chased me down.

Talk about unexpected blessings! Neither one of them had to do that. They could have let me finish the race relying upon the too-few water stops. But between the two of them, they enabled me to stay on pace to the end, fully hydrated, with the bottle I was planning to carry.

Isn’t that what we all want out of life? To string together training and plans, effort and experiences, achievement and camaraderie into a chain of personal bests? When I crossed the finish line in little more than 1 hour and 37 minutes, I had much to celebrate and appreciate. Everything and everyone had come together for one perfect run. To be running as well as I have ever run, at the tender age of 50, is, indeed, a personal best.

My client also had a perfect day, achieving his goal time even though he had stretched his left Achilles’ tendon and calf muscle during our run the day before leaving him a bit uncomfortable during the race. He was pleased to finish strong and he was especially pleased, after the race, to weigh in at the most optimal weight of his entire adult life. As in Birmingham, it was once again a day of two personal bests.

Is this stretching the definition of “personal best?” Between two races and three runners, only once did one of us cross the finish line as fast or faster than ever before. But to limit the concept of “personal best” to the time on the clock at the end of a race is to succumb to the results-only, “winning-isn’t-everything-it’s-the-only-thing” orientation of our entire culture.

What about those who endure and keep on going through injury, pain, and difficulty? What about those who stay together through thick and thin? What about those who notice the highlights and the lowlights of each and every step? What about those surprising and delightful moments of spontaneous generosity? What about all those other things make up the trek of life? Don’t all these things have to be folded in to any viable definition of personal best?

Of course they do! So stop being so focused on the bottom line. Take off your blinders. Eliminate tunnel vision. Look around to see the entire field of view. Do that, and you’ll be surprised at just how many “personal bests” come your way.

Coaching Inquiries: When was the last time that you had a personal best? Does a results-only, winning-is-everything mindset interfere with your attitude and performance? Are you training to be successful in the game of life? How could a coach assist you to get on track?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..

I am a law student in Nairobi, Kenya. Your Provision to “Avoid Unexamined Thinking” amounts to nothing less than matchless scholarship! I can’t just wait for another day! I feel obliged to write a congratulatory message in show of the overwhelming gratitude harbored by my heart. If only I had another way to thank you, I could have! But I humbly beseech thee to take this as it is: the “exclusive’ way at the moment. May portentous blessings of our Lord God flow liberally into your life. 

I’d been receiving your newsletter for a long while but never came around to reading it due to paucity of time. However, this time it was different. I’m going thru a difficult phase, and your Provisions came just in time! ‘Rule No.6’ made me realize that most of my troubles are actually self-inflicted. ‘Got Feedback’ was great too and I plan to implement it with my juniors and my husband with whom I had a massive row last night! The Potassium / Sodium Balance is going to benefit my Mom and family. Thank you for sending such wonderful and practical compilations. I’m keen to read about your Provisions on parenting (my son is turning 1 two days later) and honestly can’t wait to receive your next newsletter.

Thanks for your Provision on anxious thinking. I’ve been an “anxious” thinker for most of my eighty years • particularly about my family. Every life has its share of anxiety, but I find myself always taking my anxieties to God in prayer. I don’t always get the answer I want, but I feel better having done so. I feel better facing my anxieties, although it probably doesn’t feel that way to anyone else. I believe everybody faces their anxieties in a different fashion. I vocalize mine (and probably make everyone in my family nervous}, while my husband doesn’t show his anxieties very much, and that makes me nervous. Life is a question, isn’t it?

Thanks for your encouragement to Avoid Anxious Thinking. I hope at some point you will also reflect on the dangers of Pollyanna thinking. Many of the low-income folks I work worth know that “everything” will probably not be alright until Jesus returns. We need to remain positive in the midst of it, and also be realistic. It reminds me of the frequent mistranslation of Romans 8:28. Paul does not claim that a deterministic God ordains everything that is. Paul affirms that even in the most horrific contexts God is working with us to secure the good. This feels more affirming than claiming that “everything is going to be all right.”

I’ve really been enjoying the last few weeks’ of Provisions. They have been very helpful for me. I thought you might enjoy this comic which jokes about anxiety!

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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