The Power of Low Expectations

As I write this, I’m just over a week out from the Black Canyon 100K, the longest running race I’ve ever attempted. My previous longest was a 50-miler that just about killed me. It’s fair to say that ultramarathons in general are not my strength. I think it’s because I land heavy. When I run really far, my legs get beat up long before I get tired. Another weakness of mine is downhill running, which exacerbates the tendency of my legs to get beat up by long distances, and the Black Canyon 100K racecourse features a ton of descending. It won’t help me that I’m a little underprepared for this one, a chronic groin issue having prevented me from starting to get serious about my training until 15 weeks before race day.

To topic it all off, I’m going into the race all wrong from a planning and logistical perspective. Recently, my mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, moved into my home so that my wife and I can care for her. This new situation has made travel very difficult. I can’t justly burden my wife by leaving her alone with her mother-in-law for long periods of time, so it is necessary that a professional caregiver be brought in to assist while I’m away, and that’s expensive. So, for this race, I’m going to drop in the night before it starts, catch as much sleep as I can, and leap into the abyss the next morning without a support crew, drop bags, or any idea how I’m going to get back to my rental car after I finish.

For all of these reasons, I don’t expect to be particularly competitive at Black Canyon, and I expect to suffer tremendously. But you know what? I’m okay with it. I believe the race can be a satisfying experience for me nevertheless, precisely because of these low expectations. As a coach, I often tell athletes that, while there are times when it is simply unwise to do a particular race, by and large, any race has the potential to come out as a success if you go into it with appropriate expectations. 

This is easier said than done for many. Too often, athletes start a training segment with a certain goal in mind for their “A” race and refuse to modify it—at least in their heart, if not in their mind—after subsequent events render that goal unrealistic. They thereby set themselves up for almost guaranteed disappointment. In these situations, it’s far better to come up with an adjusted definition of success based on current realities, because doing so gives you a chance to come away thinking, “Hey, that went pretty well, all things considered.”

Expectations are powerful. Psychologists use the terms “maximizing” and “satisficing” to refer to two different mindsets toward outcome expectations. Maximizers tend to seek perfection when making choices and decisions, whereas satisficers tend to be content with anything that is “good enough” or better. Research has shown that maximizers are more prone to second-guessing, disappointment, and regret, and are less happy in general compared to satisficers. 

True, maximizers are also more successful, by and large. One study found that, in a sample of recent college graduates, the maximizers among them took jobs with 20 percent starting salaries than the satisficers did. They just weren’t any more content with their bigger paychecks.

What are the implications of all this psychobabble for endurance athletes? It is normal and even expected, to a degree, for competitive racers to set lofty goals for themselves. As an athlete myself, I aim for nothing less than 100 percent realization of my potential on the racecourse, and as a coach I encourage my athletes to have the same mindset. But you can bring a satisficer’s mindset to the pursuit of ambitious athletic goals; it’s what I do, and I encourage this as well.

There are some athletes who essentially refuse to be satisfied with the outcome of any race unless they achieve their “A” goal, even if circumstances beyond their control make this goal impossible to achieve. For example, a runner might have her heart set on breaking 3:30 in her next marathon, but race day turns out to be hot and she runs 3:32 (still a PR) and is devastated. Or she might even refuse to adjust her race plan in consideration of the heat, blow up at 18 miles, and end up in the med tent. It happens.

There’s a want of wisdom in this attitude, in my opinion. To me, the greatest satisfaction lies in making the best of each racing opportunity. When circumstances are favorable, doing so may indeed result in achievement of an “A” goal, but when they’re not, there’s just as much satisfaction to be had in seeing what’s possible regardless—if you have the right attitude.

A small part of me wishes I were better prepared for the Black Canyon 100K, and could afford to arrive a day earlier, and had a support crew, etc. But it’s only a small part, I swear. Because I know that, even despite the imperfect circumstances, I have an opportunity to make the most of what I’ve got, and I’m excited for the challenge.