It has been a long time since I approached a race with more self-imposed pressure on me than is on me now as I approach Sunday's Palm Springs Half-Marathon. The nature of the pressure is mathematically simple. According to my favorite running calculator, my half-marathon personal best time of 1:13:31
which I set at the 2002 Palm Springs halfis my strongest personal best at any distance. And my goal for my return to that event is not just to improve upon that time but to shatter it by running under 1:13:00.
Since I have not come within 80 seconds of my existing PB in any other half marathon I've run, it might be more sensible for me to simply aim to better my time by however little. But my perspective is that a 1:13:20 half-marathon is still a 1:13 half-marathon. When runners are asked what their half-marathon PB is, they may or may not mention the seconds. Half-marathons are long enough that the seconds are not always considered worth quibbling over. So I won't really feel that I have improved my half-marathon PB unless I am able to say that it's 1:12. (If pressed, I will confess that it's 1:12:59 and then stare daggers into the face of my questioner when he or she says, "Oh, so basically 1:13.")
But that's not the full extent of the pressure. Additional pressure comes from the fact that I am approaching this half-marathon as possibly my last chance to post a lifetime best time. It is certainly my last half-marathon before I run the Boston Marathon, and after I run the Boston Marathon I plan to switch into triathlon mode to train for Ironman Arizona in November and, should I qualify, for the 2010 Hawaii Ironman. At which time I will be 39 years old.
I might get a chance to squeeze another peak fitness half-marathon somewhere in there, but I certainly can't count on it, so I choose to view Sunday's race as a basket containing every egg in my possession. (Indeed, after setting my PB in 2002 I never could imagined that my next real chance to better it would come in 2009.)
Does this self-imposed pressure increase or decrease my chances of achieving my goal? In general I will say that performing to the very limit of one's ability requires the sort of pressure that comes from aiming high. There are athletes who crumble under such pressure, at least sometimes (and I've been one of them), but you can't blame that on the pressure. You have to blame it on the athlete. To perform to the very limit of one's ability requires both the imposition of pressure and the ability and will to handle it.
There are, of course, various kinds of pressure, some of which are less helpful than others. Athletes who seem to experience less pressure even as they perform to the limit of their ability are not, in fact, I would argue, experiencing less pressure than their rivals. They simply know how to put only the right kinds of pressure on themselves and are skilled in handling it. The perhaps all-too-obvious example is Tiger Woods. He clearly puts more pressure on himself than any other golfer, with his outright expectation of winning, but he also handles it with astonishing nerve and accepts it on his terms.
There was some hoopla during last summer's Olympics about how lots of Chinese athletes were choking because they were under too much of the wrong kind of pressure: the pressure of coaches and government officials telling them, "You'd better win a medal or you will disgrace your entire nation!" That'll get you every time!
I am under no such pressure as I approach Sunday's race. I merely want to achieve my goal because I know I will be proud for life if I do. To be perfectly frank, I think my odds of achieving it are somewhat less than those of winning a coin flip, but my open recognition of this fact is, I believe, an expression of a healthy way of handling the pressure that will ensure I race to the very limit of my ability, succeed or fail. That much I can guarantee: I will run my very best.