The first step in running as a sport is deciding what you want to do. If you've been running for years, it's not as difficult as when you start, but setting goals is a challenge in itself. I believe in having a reasonable short-term goal and a completely unreasonable long-term goal and I hope I can explain the reason.
Races have gone from competitions to participatory events and it's difficult to bridge the gap between the two ideas. At Afton this year, Chad said, "I didn't realize people raced these things." In long trail races, it's common to have someone who finishes year after year in about the same time and they're there because it's a chance to see friends who also run it every year just to be there; they never wonder just how fast they could do it if they really pushed - it's a very different mindset from those who compete. In the competitive runner's world, the night after a race, the thoughts start, "I think I could've shaved some time off by... I think I need to do more (whatever) in training... I got passed by so-and-so, but I think I can beat them at the next race if I just..."
"A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or else what's a heaven for?" - Robert Browning.
If you don't strive to do better than you've done before, you'll never know what you're capable of doing; on the flip side, you're also a lot less likely to spend your life frustrated and injured. I know someone who's incredibly consistent in her races and also in her training and she's quite content with trotting easily through a marathon, knowing that it won't interfere with her 10 miler the next day. I prefer that when people think of me, they say, "When he's on, he's unbeatable. It's really something to see. But it doesn't happen often, so you probably don't have to worry about him. Still... you can't write him off." Two different worlds.
So, I think one should aim really high and, when one doesn't quite make the goal, one's still way ahead of everyone who never tried. I'm always a little embarrassed that my official best marathon was a 2:41, done when I was in 2:25 shape (I fell apart late in the race and thought I'd have many more chances to break 2:30), but few people thought I could run as well as I did and 2:41 is far better than most people will ever do. If I'd been satisfied with the 3:20 and 3:17 of my first two marathons, I could've run that fast forever.
My thought is, "You didn't train perfectly for your last race, so if you train to do better what you already can do, you'll improve." If you can run a 10K in 40 minutes, don't train to try to run one in 38, but in 40; just train smarter. There's some obvious problems with this; for example, you need to race before you train for the race you're training for - it's a vicious circle! You can race right now; it probably won't be pretty, but you can finish a 5K without training and there seems to be one every weekend, at least in this area.
But... what if you want to run a 100 mile race? You can't just run 100 miles without training. You can race acceptably well (i.e. finish, usually) a distance twice as long as you train to do. So the process starting from scratch would be to run a 5K, train to run 5K, race 10K, train for a 10K, race a 1/2 marathon, train for the 1/2, race a marathon, train for the marathon, race a 50 miler, train to race 50, race 100. Then you can train to run a fast 100. Generally, upon hearing that, people stop listening to me and find someone else who'll tell them what they want to hear.
Breaking my own rule
I'm training without starting with a race to find out what kind of shape I'm in. That's because I push so hard in races, even races I try not to care about, that I run a really high risk of injury. If I'm injured, I won't be able to train at all. Fortunately, decades of training allow me to be able to assess what kind of shape I'm in from my training. Last week, I ran up my favorite training hill 5 times in 47.5 minutes and I figure that puts me at about 6:27 for 1 mile on a track. Yesterday, I did the same workout in 44.5 and that equates to 6:19. That one workout doesn't tell the story, though. Each hard run and the weekly averages paint a more accurate picture, one that would take forever to explain. For most runners, if you keep a training log you can compare training sessions to the races that followed them and, if you run consistently for several years, you can make predictions of the type "I'm running the same interval workout I did last year, but the times are 5%faster, so I should be able to race 5% faster."
So, right now my goal is just to generally improve in the workouts I'm doing, without trying for any specific goal. That's reasonable. I'm also thinking about running fast again, perhaps uncorking a fast indoor mile this winter. Maybe 5:30, maybe under 5 minutes - and that's completely unreasonable, given where I am now. But, without the dream, I'm just a guy running hard for no reason.
My Dog Didn't Bite You, That's Just Slobber"
12 hours ago