Back in the day I used to pin all my hopes and dreams and goals for the year on one or two races. It would be, say, March, and I would say, "I am going to run x race in October. My goal is ____. Between now and then I am going to work my ass off and when that day comes, I will KILL IT."
Here's the problem with that, at least for me. If that day came (which, remember, I've been working towards & fixating on for 6-8 months) and I didn't meet my goal, I left incredibly disappointed. Not that I couldn't find anything redeeming about the experience, but ultimately the bottom line felt like 'You gunned for x, and you didn't do it.' 6-8 months of training, and I hadn't done it. Not that it felt like a total waste; just a disappointment. There was a 'win' column and a 'lose' column and that was about it.
2011 was really the first year I stopped doing that. Not intentionally, mind you. At Kaiser in 2/10, I'd vaguely wondered if I could break 1:40 & ran a 1:46. As soon as registration opened I signed up for RNR San Jose in 10/10, certain that eight months was plenty of time to knock off six minutes, and we all know how THAT went down. (what's that? you haven't committed to memory the outcome of every race I've ever blogged about, you say? phhhbbbbttt.) I began 2011 still fixated on 1:39:xx and with the advice that, if I wanted to improve my half marathon, I needed to work on my 10K.
Willing to do pretty much whatever it took, I dutifully mapped out five 10Ks between April & September, reasoning that by the fall I'd have nailed the 10K & would be ready to smash 1:40 at Clarksburg in November.
And over the course of that summer, a funny thing happened.
It occurred to me, for the first time ever, that there was something to be gained from a race other than meeting a singular big goal. Initially, I was running these 10Ks because I felt like I was supposed to, because it was part of the plan, not because I had any particular goals for them. Which freed me from the whole win-or-lose mentality I'd been stuck in earlier. After running my last 10K of the year in August (and winning my age group), it dawned on me how much I'd grown as a 10K runner since April. How much more experienced and skilled I felt at it. This idea had never crossed my mind back in April.
My times had improved dramatically, which at the time I chocked up to the fact that I'd finally gotten my hip taken care of & was able to run consistent, if not particularly high, mileage again. I'm sure that had something to do with it, but in retrospect, I just don't think you go from a 7:24 pace to a 7:12 pace in four months on 20-30 miles a week alone. The more I thought about it, the more I became sure that part of my improvement at that distance had to do with skill -- with learning what it feels like to run a 10K, with practicing it over and over until my body and subconscious mind knew exactly what to expect and how to execute as efficiently as possible.
I'm even more convinced of this after running the Bay Breeze 10K in February (essentially the exact same race as Summer Breeze 10K I'd won & PR'd at in August). In August I was in great shape and ran a 44:42; in February, in okay but considerably less good shape, I ran a 44:49 on the same course in basically the same conditions. While there's no substitute for fitness and solid training, what this showed me was that experience and skill at a certain distance probably has a bigger effect than I'd ever considered it could.
This revelation has played a huge role in how I'm approaching my sub-1:40 goal this time around. Yes, training is absolutely critical. To give myself the best chance, I've got to be more consistent about sticking to the plan and getting the miles in. But I don't think that alone is enough. Much like I taught my mind and body to consistently run solid 10Ks last year by racing them regularly, I think I have a lot to gain in the half by taking the same approach. Rather than targeting one specific 'goal race' and approaching it with the attitude of "This is it!! This is the one where I will finally do it & all my hard work will pay off!!", I need to just run halfs, maybe once every couple of months or so, with the main goal being to practice, both physically & mentally, the skill of racing a solid 13.1.
The next half I've got on the schedule is Windsor Green Half Marathon in Windsor, CA. It should be a pretty flat course (the worst 'hill' looks like about .75 miles of a 2% grade), the timing is good, and a few other folks I know are already running it. Now that the Oakland cycle has gotten me back into some semblance of half marathon shape, my plan is to use the same program again (perfect, because it's a seven week plan). Who knows, I may actually be fit enough now to do the half marathon pace runs the way they're written (ie, 6 miles at planned half marathon pace vs 3 x 2 miles at planned half marathon pace, with 4-5 minute rest breaks)! Two weeks before race day, the plan calls for a 5K race or time trial, so I'm hoping to also run a local 5K on 5/6, assuming it doesn't conflict with anything.
I'd sort of assumed I would run Summer Breeze again because I like the event, but if I want to do a half around that time, I'm not sure it's the best choice because of the gravel (the 10K & 5K barely have to deal with any, but I know there's a bunch on the longer course). On the other hand, Windsor Green has a sister race on August 12 -- Water to Wine Half Marathon in Healdsburg. Yes, it would be more expensive ($65 before 5/1), but it does look like a nice course, and the timing is right.
I'm not calling any specific one of these races sub-1:40 attempts -- all I want to do is become more and more skilled at racing this distance, and as long as I continue to steadily improve, I have faith that the time will eventually happen.