On March 5th, Gordon Powell, a triathlete and runner that I coach, ran 2:54:03 at the Albany Marathon. With that performance, he set a big personal record, went well under the vaunted three-hour mark for the first time, and easily qualified for next year’s Boston Marathon. It was a fantastic race from an outstanding athlete, and we were all very proud of him.
In the weeks since Gordie posted that result, several people have asked me if I was surprised by his great performance. I was not. Gordie’s run in Albany came at the tail end of a perfectly executed build to the race. It was a prime example of how to achieve your potential, and there is a lot that we can all learn from him.
First, Gordie picked the right race. Albany is known as a fast course, but more importantly, it fell at the right time on his calendar. Gordie did Ironman Louisville in October, notching a great performance there in an extremely competitive age group. With its March race date, focusing on Albany gave Gordie enough time to recover fully from training and racing in Louisville before beginning a difficult marathon build. Whether it’s due to fear of missing out, a refusal to rest, or a misunderstanding of the importance of rest in a periodized schedule, a lot of athletes stack their yearly calendars with far too many big race efforts. The human body can’t sustain the high level of training and fitness necessary for peak performance year-round, and it requires rest to make the most of the work we do. Had Gordie chosen a marathon in December or January, he almost certainly would have underperformed. Now, he will have plenty of time to recover from Albany and build for Wisconsin, and I expect that he will do very well there, too.
Second, Gordie kept his focus on his goal. He was willing to let go of some of his cycling, swimming, and weight-lifting in order to pour more into his running. He didn’t try to hop into races every weekend or stick to his triathlon routine. He accepted that if he was going to run his best, we needed to really focus on his running. That didn’t mean that there was no place for cycling or swimming, but it did mean that when his friends and fellow ITLers were doing trainer workouts or long bike rides, he had to let them go without him. He made the right choices, but it took a lot of self-discipline.
Third, Gordie followed his schedule. As I’ve written in this blog and talked about on the Most Pleasant Exhaustion Podcast, training schedules are designed to (1) balance work and rest in such a way that you derive the maximum benefit from your training, and (2) prepare you to peak at your target race. Gordie went hard on the days he was prescribed to run hard, and he took his easy days easy. He went long when he was supposed to, combined workouts in the way that they were intended to be combined, and rested when I told him to rest. He didn’t mix up his schedule and run whatever he wanted to run based on what he was feeling day to day or what he thought was right. We took his life circumstances into account when building his training week; we balanced his training requirements with all of his work and family obligations. Once we did that, though, and the schedule was written, Gordie put his faith in the process and followed it to the letter. The only workout he missed or cut short in his build to Albany was on Christmas Eve, and let’s be honest, his Scrooge-y coach probably should have given him that day off anyway.
Fourth, Gordie stayed in close contact with me throughout the build. I told him that he would need to keep me aware of any aches and pains, any extra fatigue, any unforeseen life stress, or anything else that might compromise his training or focus. This was actually a bit of a struggle for him; often, his texts or emails would begin with “I’m sorry to bother you, but . . .” I was always glad to hear from him, though, and I was always willing to lend an ear, offer encouragement, or if necessary, change up the schedule. As I told Gordie prior to the start of the build, his marathon training would put him on a bit of a knife’s edge. He would come perilously close to the line between functional and nonfunctional overreaching, and it would be crucial that he not tip over it. With that in mind, he needed to tell me everything. He did, and it was one of the keys to his success on race day.
Finally, Gordie executed the plan on race day. While he was at times skeptical of whether he could run better than 6:40 pace for 26.2 miles, I was confident based on his data that he could. When race day came, with the excitement of the day and the fresh feeling of a tapered body, Gordie said the first few miles at the target pace felt easy. Rather than pushing faster, though, he remained patient, paid attention to his nutrition, and clicked off the miles. Of course, that pace no longer felt easy by the time that Gordie got to Mile 24 of the race—if your goal pace feels easy at Mile 24, your goal pace is too slow!—but he persevered and finished strong.
Picking the right race, focusing on the goal, following the schedule, staying in contact with your coach, and executing the plan on race day—that’s what it takes to reach your potential. Congratulations, Gordie, on completing a flawless build, on running a fantastic race, and on being an example for the rest of us to follow!