Setting the bar

When they find out how much time and energy I devote to training, friends and family (and sometimes strangers) often ask why I’m running xx miles a week, why I’m trying to run 1:29:xx in the half-marathon. Will anything special happen if I run a lot of miles? Will I win a prize for setting a PR? Nope, probably not. In fact, assuming I actually run sub-1:30, I’ll probably already be thinking about what I can do to become better and faster for next time.

In running and in life, too, I think the most satisfying aspect of achieving your goal is actually the process of self-betterment (is that a word?). How many of us have run a PR and said “Well, I’m glad that’s done! Hanging up my running shoes now!” Not too many of us, I would think. Of course, achieving something feels good and I’m usually able to savor the moment, but I’m also left wondering how much further I can push myself, how much more I can do.

Before I even started training for marathons, the thought of merely finishing the distance left me awestruck. To run 26.2 miles without stopping seemed like the ultimate accomplishment. And then I started training…and I began thinking that maybe I could run 3:40 and qualify for Boston…

And I did! I ran my first marathon in 3:38:41 and it was (and still is) one of the proudest accomplishments of my running career.

Vintage Megan Alert! November 2008

By fall of 2010, I had a new goal – sub 3:30. The combination of training, good weather, and a lot of luck helped me to beat that goal and run 3:18:17.

I’m not sure what my time goal will be for Boston in April, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to PR. The same thing can be said for the Philly half next month…I want to run sub-1:30, but even then I won’t be finished. Next, I’ll want to run 1:28 or 1:27. The thing about running is that it provides such a concrete way to measure the process of self-improvement. Every time I PR, it’s like getting an A on a test. Proof of my hard work.

My running goals are probably less practical than many 20-somethings goals. What’s the point of running 80 miles a week? Of running a fast race? Shouldn’t I be using my time to study for the GRE’s? To climb the corporate ladder? To start thinking about a family? Those are all worthy goals too, but they’re just not mine. Thinking about going back to school or being promoted or getting married doesn’t excite me right now, but running does. Sure, it would be easier (and probably make my parents happier) if I had more practical aspirations, but I don’t think you can always choose what fulfills you and makes you happy. Sometimes it chooses you.

On a similar note, I also think that your goals will correspond to how high or low the bar has been set. When I first thought about qualifying for the Boston Marathon back in 2008, the standard was 3:40:59, so that was my goal. Certainly, no faster. If the standard had been 3:35 or 3:30, I most likely would have tried to run that.

Just this week, the New York Road Runner’s announced new qualifying standards for the NYC Marathon (beginning in 2013). The standards are drastically faster (too fast if you ask me) and will likely put guaranteed entry out of reach for many people. I think that’s unfortunate. I also suspect that NYRR races will become more and expensive and close out earlier (with more people trying to do the 9 races + 1 volunteer event for guaranteed entry).

However, I do think that setting the bar high will result in a shift in goals. And that’s a good thing. Having tougher standards, means that it will take a lot more effort to meet them. Until now, I had never even considered the possibility of running a 3:00 marathon (or a 1:27 half), but now that the bar has been set…the wheels are turning. Could I do it? What would it take (and how many years) to get there? And if I never run a 3:00 marathon or get into the lottery for NYC again… Well, I’ve had my chance at running it (twice). It’s a great race, but if the goal is to race a marathon, well – there are plenty of awesome, cheaper, and less crowded 26.2 mile races that I wouldn’t mind signing up for.

What are your goals for the next 6 months? The next 5 years? Are they running related? 

And what does everyone think of the new NYC marathon qualifying standards? Ahhh!

  • I was just waiting for someone to write about the new INGNYC standards! As someone who does not live in NY and is just starting to enter the marathon world, it is heartbreaking to see NYRR tightening the standards and dropping the 3Xdenied and you’re in rule. Although I do understand their reasoning as described on their website, I still feel that there is now a .00202% chance to get into the INGNYC marathon.
    I find it funny that in as much as we all talk about the BQ, no one ever talks abou the INGNYC qualification. They’re both ridiculously popular races, but not many people seem to talk about trying to time qualify for NY, perhaps because they times seemed out of reach (well and now are very out of reach for many). Guess i’ll just have to keep running 🙂

  • Devon Crosby-Helms

    I am excited that I will be running the NYC marathon this year. I have been pretty clueless about the qualifying standards to be quite honest. But I am happy to be in when I don’t have to think about it.

    As for the next 6 months, I have some serious running goals like top 25 at the Olympic Trials for the marathon (ha, I am so funny) and a few ultra related goals. In the longer term, running goals make way for bigger life goals like opening a cafe/bakery which means that the running goals will be more secondary. I never really was a “where do you see yourself in the next 5 years” kind of person until I realized that some of my goals will take active work for the next 5 years to make happen. The thing I love about running is that there is always another goal or challenge to take up. I want to run for the rest of my life and always have something to work towards.

  • I am right there with ya.  Running goals keep me moving forward, they make me feel like I am doing something with my life.  Since work isn’t satisfying and I’m unsure about grad school I have to do something to fulfill my need to continue progressing. 

    To be honest, living on the West Coast we just don’t talk about the NYC marathon much.  Yes it’s on my wish list of races, but I’ve never looked into the guaranteed entry requirements.  Now that you brought them to my attention, WOW are they tight.  My hope is there will be an increase in non-guaranteed slots with this change.  While it will be just as hard to get in, I like more regular (or first time) runners receiving the opportunity to run in one of the best marathons in the world.  🙂 

  • katie

    i will say i was a bit disheartened to hear about the new qualifying times last night – i had thought with some hard work i’d be able to get 1:37 for a half next year, but 1:27 would definitely take a lot more time to get to, if ever. i understand their reasoning [supposedly 7,000 runners got in through time this year] but 75% AG times are pretty tough to reach. but i also should consider myself lucky to live in nyc and be able to do the 9+1 and get in that way.

  • Elizabethhyer

    Hmm…6 month goals…totally non-running related, but I hope to be in a healthy, awesome relationship and be close to bikini ready.  My running goals, sub 2:00 half. I think all 3 are totally attainable!

  • Laura

    Megan, from now on I should go directly to you for questions…just yesterday I had an email response from NYRR saying they had no idea what the new times would be or when they would be up!

    Seems like these goals could be attainable for you…something realistic to work toward – it just really raises the stakes for hitting those times! I, on the other hand, am relieved that I will at least get my one year of time-qualifying!

  • I can totally relate to the first part of this post. Even though my training was decent last year, I set the bar pretty low for myself with a 4:30 goal time. (I finished NYCM in 4:09:22, even after hitting a major wall.) Since registering to run it again, my initial thoughts were “sub-4:00, thought it would be cool if I BQ’d by some fluke!”. I don’t know why or how, but my training has gone a lot better than I expected this year. I think if I ran the marathon tomorrow, I could finish in around 3:45. But I’m shooting for a BQ time, which would be 3:35 for my age group. I definitely believe it’s within reach, but it would undoubtedly be a challenge. A good part of the race will be mental, so I think I just have to dig deep and think positive! I’ve gotten a lot of my new work friends into running over the past few months and while I’m sure they don’t “get” why I want these specific finish times, they’re supportive, which is what counts. 🙂

    As for the new NYCM qualifying standards…I got in both times via the NYRR 9+1 plan. I get so annoyed when I read about locals bitching about the lottery not working in their favor when they have this at their fingertips. The races are cheaper for members if you register early enough and they’re a good way to focus on getting faster! NYCM is growing more and more popular, so obviously something had to be done. In the end, you can’t please everybody.

  • Dad

    2 cents worth from the ole man…

    This is one of your best blogs yet; really touches on important questions.

    For what it’s worth, running is a very personal endeavor, especially in terms of success metrics, ergo “the bar”. From what I see you’re on the cusp of elite status. This hasn’t come about because you’re a “natural runner”. It’s realized as a result of dedicated perseverence, determination, guts, many many miles of pounding pavement, and the most challenging of all, competing against youself. You’ve built a strong physical and mental base from years of running. The high milage is only going to make you stronger and faster. How fast you run a race in is now mostly mental. How bad do you want to hit a given time. How deep are you willing to dig within yourself to chase the beast? Cutting to the chase, you have potential to ruyn the Philly 1/2 in 1:15 and Boston in under 3. IF you want it bad enough, leaving everything you’ve got out on the course. Yep, the gauntlet has been thrown! Believe in yourself and your capabilities. YOU ARE AMAZING! You are Super Meg!!! Luv ya….

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Dad 🙂 I’m not sure 1:15 is in the cards for next month, but maybe someday!

  • I totally get what you are saying in the first part of this post. For whatever reason, despite being fairly new to running, running is what I am interested in now. Yes it might be more practical to focus on other things. Sometimes I look at some of my friends and wonder what I am doing with my life by spending so much time on energy on running when it will never pay the bills, but at the end of the day it is about what makes you happy (and I am still have a “career”/”job?” and am making money to live…not being totally unrealistic.).

    Standards are good benchmarks to measure success, whether it is breaking 4 hours, BQ, NYC-qual, OTQ, etc. I do think that people train harder to meet the qualifying standards so I think there will be a decrease in people’s time overall. Most people won’t be able to acheive the new New York times but people will try leading to faster times overall. Same with Boston, although those are much more attainable. It is interesting to me to see with the new tiered system if people will try to be as fast as possible or if the drop in qualifying times will ensure all get in so people will aim for just a BQ.

    I BQed under the old standards just before they changed the times. In the next 6 months I’d like to run under the new standards and hopefully under 3:30 by next fall. So that is a running goal. As for five years… five years is a long time..I wish I knew where I wanted to be in life in 5 years!

  • Sarah

    I’m running my second half marathon this weekend (eek!) and my goal is to take 10 minutes off of my previous time. It’s really ambitious and a lot of it depends on the circumstances on race day, but I’ve been training much more than I did for my first race (as in, going to the track and running a tempo run every week, whereas for my previous race I just ran and hoped for the best). I’m also registered for a marathon next spring! I’m pretty new to running but I’m totally addicted. All I want to do is run longer and faster. I’m sure it’ll wear off eventually, but right now I get a thrill out of everything that is making me faster and stronger — every tempo run, every hill repeat, I’m astonished by what my body can do, and how much better it felt than the week before. It’s awesome!
    And my goals in the non-running related world? Graduate from college. That’s about as far ahead as I can (or want to) think about. 

  • I’m running my first marathon in November (the Rock n’ Roll), and my goal is to just finish without dying…seriously. I’ve only ever run 20 miles before, and the thought of running that last 6.2 just seems crazy….here goes nothing!! 🙂

  • Frances Killea

    My goals are all over the place. Right now, my running goal is simply to start again- I’ve been out almost a month with an ankle sprain. I hope to go out for a jog today, though..

    other than that, I aim to finish my BA (8 years in the making…) and get myself emotionally in shape- because the 20’s seem to be about feeling all over the place, and I’m tired of it!

  • AR

    I was actually pretty excited when the “new” Boston times came out since I could start looking at 3:15 as something other than a “somewhat realistic” goal and actually call it “first day registration!” Because let’s face it: there is a huge difference between the old NYC 3:23 and your “next” goal down because I’m sure as hell am never going to be running the OT standard. 

    That said, I was pretty annoyed with the NYCM change since ultimately I’m hoping to eventually move closer to the city and there is NO WAY IN HELL my old fat ass will ever break 3:00. The 1:27? In theory I guess that COULD be possible, but being pragmatic – I can’t even think about that seeing that my PR is a fucking 1:33. 

    Let’s see…goals for the next 6 months:

    1. Eat more pizza
    2. Don’t break my knee again
    3. Don’t murder anyone THIS WINTER

    Five years from now:

    Hm. I don’t plan on living that long. KIDDING. 

    But seriously, I’m old. <3

  • Anonymous

    ahahaha, I love your goals. there is some good pizza in BK. also running routes. just sayin’

    come visit me for a long run this winter!!!

  • Dad

    Follow your heart, trust your intuition, and your dreams will come true. Think positive! Believe in yourself, your potential and capabilities, and everything is possible.

    BTW, would you consider running the Western States 100? Your tough enough to do it.

  • Anonymous

    haha oh goodness….i think 26.2 is long enough for me right now. maybe someday! just read the autobiography of Pam Read, two time Badwater 130 mi winner (among other accolades). Very interesting!

  • I just want to PR. At anything. I hate being the older, slower version of my younger, faster self!

    The new qual standards are an interesting turn, I guess. What’s their endgame? To be able to give out more open lottery slots? How many people were taking the guaranteed entry slots under the old standards, I wonder? Hmm. It’s a big jump, definitely.

    (I suppose I don’t really care because even though I was seconds away from getting in under the old standards, like you I’ve already been there and done that when it comes to NYCM. But still. It was nice to have that number to chase when running a half!)

  • Dad

    It would be awesome if I could egg Andy out of retirement to run the WS 100 one more time and have you run it with him. Check out this article in The Union about him:

  • Anonymous

    i think i saw somewhere that 7,000 people got in this year through time qualifying (out of a field of about 45-50,000 runners). nyrr claims that if they didn’t make changes, the automatic entries would soon leave no space for lottery entrants. i would like to see stats on that though!

  • RunTheLongRoad

    so very true!  once i BQ’d i thought i would run boston for fun…ya know, a 26.2 mile victory lap.  but now that boston is a few months away, i definitely want to break 3:40 and re-qualify for 2013!  i guess i get greedy 🙂

  • 6 month to 12 month goals are to sign up and run a marathon. I’ve only run one half but I have added a few more races to my docket and am super excited to train and run. I have personal goals too but I like that with running a goal is attainable within the foreseeable future. 

  • Immediate goal – NYC 3:35! Ahh, it makes me nervous writing that. I’d love to run a sub-1:45 half, too.

    For my running goals, you know, I kind of make them as I go because some of the goals I’ve set, I’ve never dreamed I’d pass. At first, just surviving a marathon sounded like a challenge. While it still is, if you’d have asked me two years ago if I was training for a sub-3:35 marathon, I would have said you had the wrong girl!

    There are crazy goals I have (like a sub-21 min 5K? umm I don’t think I can run that fast) – we’ll see if I get to the point to realistically train towards those.

    In terms of the NYC standards…I don’t have much of an opinion on it as I never saw myself reaching the old standards anyways! It does make me feel very lucky to be running it this year and makes me want to enjoy the experience even more seeing as I may not get to do it again.

    My professional goals – to match into a good residency, to get published, to get a fellowship spot in 2017…

  • Megan M

    Let the destination races begin (CPTC takes Disney World?)

    Or at least Sleepy Hollow.


  • Christine at These Happy Miles

    i relate so much to your thoughts about goal setting! i’ll always wonder if i’ll ever really be able to get to ___ goal (right now, a sub 2hr half / sub 4:10 marathon) but it’s still something i am setting my sights on at this point in my life. i don’t think i’ll ever qualify for boston and that’s OK. i am still out there and doing my best and always hoping to get better!

  • Anonymous

    I love this post. I have lots of running goals for the next 6 months, year, 5 years, etc. I’d love to BQ at some point in the near future and run Boston 🙂 I love goals and the fact that running can be very goal-focused, and there’s always ways to get better. 

    Wow. I think the new qualifying standards are crazy! I definitely think they’ll have implications on other NYRR races for the 9+1. But at least they didn’t nix the 9+1, because I really want to run every year that I can!

  • Thanks for posting this. This is the first I have heard about the new qualifying standards…

  • Galka

    I love your blog. Always inspiring, makes me think and you have a good healthy relationship with running and life! My goal the next six months is to finish the NYC marathon with a good strong effort and not die and then do a half marathon in March. I’m a type ‘A’ stay at home mom who took a break from the corporate world for a few years and if I don’t have a goal related to running I’ll go crazy!

  • I don’t live in NYC and am not fast and am not too keen on running for charity. I’m fine with others doing it, but it’s not for me. My chances of ever running NYC are pretty slim with the lottery system. I think I’m okay with that since there’s plenty of races I can do in LA and I’d rather travel for fun than races that leave me super sore.

    As for goals, running is definitely part of it, but I have other stuff related to academic/professional life and family. I totally blew getting a PR my goal. I’d like to fix that, but not sure if it’ll be in the next 6 months. 

  • kayeanne

    I really enjoy reading your blog!  Great thoughts and writing!  I think you are right about chasing the next PR… It keeps us moving and motivated.  Kara Goucher said (about her love of running) needing, Patience, Passion, and Persistence.  I believe that.  I’d add Positive Attitude to the list.  If you keep those 4 Ps going… you will reach your PR goal… and then set a new one. 

    I’m trying to go sub-3 this fall. I ran 3:01:01 at Boston’11 🙁   …. I was so close! 
    But I am trying again in 2012…. perhaps we can meet up for a photo! 

    I’m on my 4th training cycle with the Advanced Marathoning book.  It works!!!
    Good luck in Philly! 

  • I like this post a lot. Since my demise as a runner, I’ve been focusing more on professional rather than personal goals, but one day – if my body allows – I know I’ll get back into it. It’s cool though to see how I can re-channel my energy into different facets of my life when necessary. Since my femur injury, I’ve been more focused on my career than I ever was before – it’s almost as if I had to channel that energy and drive for success into something else because what I consider fast/ competitive running just wasn’t (and at this point still isn’t) happening. For now, setting the bar on a professional level is my thang… maybe one day, I’ll channel it back into running. Time shall tell.

  • Anonymous

    i’m so proud of you for getting your lmsw! i remember the first time we met – you had just left your job at the law firm and were heading back to school. i know how hard you’ve worked these last 2 years and you inspire me to make professional goals. now, if only i could figure out what exactly i want to do….

    i’ll work on the running for now…you work on the career…maybe in a little while we can swap. deal?

  • I love this post, and can relate (as a bit of a slower runner though!). I had been training to break 3:40 to qualify for Boston and then I realized a little too late I picked a fall marathon that is too late to qualify before the standards change. I realized I still want to stick to my goal and break 3:40 (would be a PR for me) and that will get me one step closer to my ultimate goal which will be to break 3:35 and actually qualifiy! I just ran a 1:45:16 half in Philly (my PR) which puts me just about on target to hit my goals according to McMillian!

    Good luck with your goals! I like to know I’m not the only 20-something who spends a good chunk of my time planning my next race, and running goal!

  • aww thanks lady 🙂 once you do “figure it out” (at least for now) i’m sure you’ll be just as passionate as you are in “getting there,” as you are with running. but for now, yeah, let’s do a little trade! 😉

  • Page

    Great post – it’s something that isn’t in everyone, but definitely in runners. Once we achieve a goal, you look towards the next one and I think that’s a great attitude not only for runners, but for everyone. I’ll be virtually cheering you on as you race Philly – go get ’em!

  • Love this post! I also think that’s the great thing about running. There is room for constant improvement that isn’t always possible in other areas of life. You can only get so high in titles at work, only reach certain levels in relationships, etc. Running is something in your control and the harder you work at it, the more it’ll pay off. Not always the case in work and love!

    I am still trying to digest the new NYC marathon standards. They are fast!!!!! As someone who used the old standards to autoqualify for the marathon, I loved that it made the race accessible to those who wanted to take it seriously and ‘earned’ it. The lottery does make it a bit more fair, but also gives the chance of someone walking it equal odds as a more serious runner trying to race and PR. I’ll post my thoughts in a few days…

    Can’t wait to see where November (and beyond!) takes you!

  • i love this post so much (and can see some recent conversations in the beginning part!).  i’m with sofia in that injury really transformed the way i looked at exercise, and i’ve channeled that energy into professional and academic goals instead.  right now i am definitely hyper-focused on moving myself forward in my career and developing as a writer, but who knows – once i get myself on this crazy path, maybe i’ll need more fitness related goals to keep my head on the ground.  i know that setting specific goals for my yoga practice in the past has been incredibly rewarding and just as valuable.

    i’ve said this before, but i think your dedication to your running goals is amazing.  a goal is a goal no matter what kind it is, and just because some people you know are pursuing career goals or going to school or whatever, it doesn’t mean you have to.  you do you.  you are kicking the s*** out of running lately, and i can’t wait to see you break 1:30 in philly!

  • peter_bbt

    I’m aiming on getting a BQ next year, it would be only my second full marathon. The NYC standards look way to stringent, but I understand the lottery aspect will remain.

    “Sometimes it chooses you.” So true.


  • Great post-totally relate!!  I just feel running is so fulfilling in a way the working world never has been.  You put in the effort in training?  It shows up in your races.  You put in the effort at work?  It may or may not be recognized.

    Right now the running-related goals are to keep improving but stay uninjured…nothing original 🙂  I’m hoping to get the sub-3:40 in NYC…that time has eluded me for the last 2 years!!  Though if I run the under-35 BQ time I wouldn’t cry either.

    As for the NYC standards-I have a whole post of thoughts.  Thank god the 9+1 is still around…

  • I love this post! And I can completely, 100% relate. I’ve had similar conversations with others in my life, even some who are runners themselves, who just don’t understand the point of the competitive drive – and my need to keep achieving more with running. I know I’ll never reach elite status or make a career out of this sport, but that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to keep pushing. When I first started training for marathons, the thought of finishing one seemed like enough of an accomplishment. But then I, like so many other runners, got tempted by that goal of qualifying for Boston, so that became my new bar. And when they changed the registration process last year, I set my bar higher once again. Reaching those goals feels amazing, but you’re right – once you get there, there’s always a new goal to work toward. It’s what keeps us going as runners. I may not have aspirations to climb to the top of the corporate ladder, but that’s because it doesn’t fulfill me like running does. So what if it doesn’t make me rich (and actually leaves me poorer than I would be if I didn’t love running so much)?

    As far as the new NYCM guaranteed entry standards – I think they are too fast! But then again, if that’s the new bar, I’m sure you’ll have more people working even harder to achieve it. I actually didn’t know you could qualify for NYCM until last year (I’m slow sometimes) and ended up qualifying with both my half marathon and my full marathon times. I guess this means I better run it next year while I still can…. 😉

  • You should join Lauren and me in our crusade to run 3:10 at Boston!  Both of our PRs are 3:18 so you would be right there with us.  🙂  We could get a great group going!  I’m chasing 3:10 (for no other reason other than I made it up…), and I’m hoping to get there sooner rather than later.  In reality, no one else cares how fast I run…but I think it’s great to set goals for ourselves and it gives us something to work for.  We need that push in life to make us feel like we’re working toward something and achieving something in life…whether it’s at work or in running.Don’t ask me what my five year plan is, I can barely think about next week…I think the new NYC standards are a bit ridiculous.  Sub-3 for women?  I only know maybe two people who can do that!  It definitely shuts out a huge crowd, myself included.  I’ve never tried to race a half so 1:27 might be achievable, but it would definitely require a lot of work…and I might have to add it to my list since 9+1 is definitely going to make NYRR races out of hand next year!

  • The goals posts do move don’t they as one progresses in improving our running times. Like many people the satisfaction of just finishing is soon replaced with another goal. I too set a BQ goal missing it by 50secs on the first attempt, my next attempt was satisfying. Having moved into to triathlons Ironman distance my cycling has goals too. But now I’m soon to have my miniscus repaired, and look forward to those running goals again. I love the large crowds. I ran my first Chicago two years ago – I wished I had a someone to share the experience. It is why we run. It is uplifting in a strange way. Now having just seen the 2013 NY marathon times are insane. I’m 47. To jump from 3:21 BQ to NY sub 3hr is a huge investment….but perhaps the goal. I guess my training will have to be focused on the MAF method. It would be cool to say I ran sub 3hrs though. The other point I think here is they are trying to raise money rather than be a runners race…why make the time so much harder. To squeeze out the runners and make room for more fund raising potential. Keep on running. AussiemikeinSD