Recently I received a text message from Matt Chittim, host of the Rambling Runner podcast. In it, he informed me that he is several months away from turning 40 years old and he wants to mark the occasion by pursuing the goal of breaking 40 minutes for 10K. His purpose in texting me was to ask if I thought “Mastering 40” was a good name for the project, which he wants to invite other runners to follow.
I told Matt I liked the name. And not only that, but I also think the project is a great example of creative goal setting, as distinct from what I call selective goal setting. A selective goal is one that you choose from among a set of preexisting options, whereas a creative goal is one you make up out of thin air. Examples of selective goals are making the varsity roster of your high school cross country team and qualifying for the Boston Marathon. Oftentimes, such goals are almost chosen for you, lying dead ahead on your athletic path. For example, if you completed a 5K road race in a new PR time of 20:36, of course you’re going to try to break 20:00 in your next 5K.
Creative goals, by contrast, are ideas. They come to us from the same source that supplies musicians with original melodies, chefs with inspirations for new recipes, and so forth—call it the Muse. In the Age of COVID, endurance athletes who are naturally wired for creativity are better positioned to stay motivated because they are easily able to come up with creative goals, hence less dependent on the mass-participation events that supply most selective goals. It’s been fun to see some of the goals that such athletes have cooked up in recent months. My Facebook friend Zach Bush, for example, has taken to pursuing training PR’s such as completing his longest training run (40 miles) and his heaviest week of running (110 miles).
Observing the manner in which creatively minded athletes have rallied in the face of current constraints has also reminded me of the fundamental purpose of all goals, which is to motivate. The true purpose of trying to make your high school cross country team is not to make your high school cross country team; it is to make you want to run tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. The same truth holds for qualifying for the Boston Marathon and any other goal you can name. Whether or not a given athletic goal—be it creative or selective—is actually achieved completely beside the point. If pursuing the goal keeps you engaged in the process of chasing improvement, it’s doing its job. Even weird goals are good goals if they have this effect.
Recently I looked up the single-age 10K world record for 49-year-old women. (Yes, such records are kept.) I did so because I’m 49 years old and my training has been going well and I had a hunch this record, though not relevant to me qua record, would be close to my current 10K performance potential, hence that trying to beat it might be a fun creative goal to pursue. Sure, my preference would have been to test my fitness in a real 10K road race, but this alternative was still something I could get excited for.
You might be wondering how I knew that the single-age 10K world record for 49-year-old woman would be close to my own ability as a 49-year-old man. It’s simple, really: I’ve been competing against fast women throughout my entire athletic career. Indeed, the very first serious 10K road race I ever ran (I had jogged another one years earlier) was an event that took place in my home state of New Hampshire back in the summer of 1986, when I was 15 years old. I ran a well-paced race and was closing hard on the homestretch when I caught the lead woman, whom I dueled to the finish line and just barely beat with a time of 35:48, if I remember correctly. It’s been like that ever since. In my second marathon (Long Beach 2001), I ran several miles with the eventual women’s winner, trading turns as wind breaker, before I blew up, and in my second Ironman (Santa Rosa 2019), I caught and passed the lead woman about 15 miles into the marathon. Of course, in major running events like the Boston Marathon I get utterly destroyed by lots of women (including 2015 Boston winner Caroline Rotich, pictured above after she kicked my ass in a training run in New Mexico in 2017), and in most of the local events I do I’m well ahead of the top female competitors, but there’s been a clear pattern over the years of finding myself pitted against strong women runners and triathletes.
I want to make it clear that I don’t mind being beaten by women. All I care about is performing to my potential. If I run a great race and am passed by either a man or a woman in the final 50 meters and end up second, I’m happy. If another athlete of either sex is better than me, that doesn’t make me any less good. But it so happens that keying off fast women helps me stretch myself toward my full potential, and that’s why I do it. And, sure enough, when I looked up the women’s single-age 10K world record for 49-year-olds, I discovered that it was 33:38—very close to the number I thought I was capable of hitting at this time.
Nine kilometers into the time trial, I glanced at my watch and saw an elapsed time of 30:12. This gave me 3:25 to complete the final kilometer. I had been averaging 3:21 per kilometer up to that point, but I was on the rivet already, and I suffered as much in those last few minutes of running as I have in the waning moments of any real race. In other words, my goal stretched me to my full potential, just as it was intended to do. As it turned out, I stopped my watch at 33:25, but I would have been just as happy if I’d suffered equally and missed the mark by a second or two.
Something else that would make me happy (and proud) is if this article motivates a gifted masters runner somewhere in the world to lower the women’s single-age 10K world record for 49-year-olds to below 33:25.