You know that saying, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”? I got to thinking about that slightly truncated quote from Emerson after the race I ran Saturday, though the first thought I had about it was how needlessly perplexing it is. What exactly is a hobgoblin, and how is it different from a regular goblin? Does a hobgoblin hobble? How is a hobbling goblin more consistent than a goblin that strolls along at a steady pace? Yes, I know none of these questions is relevant, and I know generally what the saying means—the perfect illustration being the person who puts the kibosh on any glimmer of creativity or innovation by announcing “We’ve always done it this way.” At the same time, as with most pithily profound sayings, there’s a lot that complicates the problem of consistency.
There are situations where being successful demands being consistent. With any endeavor that involves muscle memory, for instance, consistency is gold. You want to sink that putt, ace that serve, or park that ball in the upper deck, your body needs to move a certain way that you’ve practiced again and again until you can do it under pressure just as easily as you could in rehearsal. Problem is, sometimes consistency isn’t a sign that you’ve reached the goal but that you’ve reached your limits.
The race I ran, you see, was a half marathon in central Washington State. I hadn’t run a half marathon in nearly three years, in part because I wanted to focus on longer distances during that time but also because the finish times for the last three halfs I’d run were all within a few seconds of each other. I felt like I’d plateau’d, like it would take serious training and hard work to push beyond that 1:51-and-change mark, and when I thought about how crazy tired I was after those 1:51s, I didn’t relish the thought of pushing beyond. Instead, I went long: marathon, 50k, 40m, 50m. It sounds nuts, but a 50k on trails is a lot easier and more enjoyable for me than a half on roads. And yet there I was, trail shoes left at home, staring at these big ol’ mountains and wondering why I believed the race director’s insistent claim that the course was mostly flat. Note to Midwesterners: never believe any description of topography coming from anyone who lives in or west of the Rockies.
I was there mostly to test my speed training efforts over the past few months—and to see how ready I was for my BQ attempt at Indy next month. A 1:51, my half PR, is about an 8:30 pace. To BQ in November, I need at most an 8:55 pace. I figured if I could run the half at an 8:20-8:25 pace, I’d not only PR but also feel reasonably more confident about the possibility of a BQ. Why’d I pick those numbers? They are a tidy 30 seconds faster than my BQ pace, and somehow that just seemed right. Because I wasn’t able to connect my Garmin with a satellite, I ended up having to do math every time I got to a mile marker—i.e., when I got to the end of Mile 1 and saw 8:20 exactly had passed, I knew I’d want to hit the next marker by 16:40. That got difficult the farther along I went, and by mile 10 when my blood sugar was tanking, I started to see the beauty of a 10 pace.
Well, you’ve probably guessed what happened: I hobbled, goblin-like, across the finish line at 1:51 and change. Again. For the fourth time, even after a three-year hiatus. Consistent. And disappointing.
I didn’t fail, but I didn’t quite succeed, because I hadn’t improved. Any teacher will tell you that the student who starts poorly but shines at the end is always going to be more impressive and gratifying to work with than the one who stays dully lit the same way the whole time. Every runner knows, even if they don’t want to admit it, that the day will come when they can’t go any faster or any farther or increase the number of races they do in a year. You never want to cut short your potential by assuming you’ve reached your limits prematurely, yet at some point, consistent results may be telling you something: this is it, the highest you’re gonna go, so park your keister on this plateau and enjoy the view.
I did enjoy the view during my 1:51-and-change on the road—any type of actual topography is a treat to eyes that see straight to the horizon back home—but I also really, really wanted to stop enjoying the view and fall down and stop moving fortheluvagod, because moving was really, really exhausting. And so when I crossed the finish line and checked my accursed Garmin, I decided: this is it. No more halfs. Quit while you’re…well, if not ahead, at least not falling behind. I don’t feel like I’m limiting myself unduly. I wanted a PR as badly as any runner wants one, but not so badly that I want to turn running into a chore. Ultras are fun. No, they really are; they’re like day-long picnics on your feet. Half marathons? Imagine a picnic that lasts an hour and fifty one minutes and only serves Gatorade. No thanks.
Of course there’s still the matter of the BQ attempt, and in this regard I’m a lot less certain of what to make of my half. All that speedwork merely got me back to where I was three years ago in terms of racing a half; will it be enough to get me where I want to be in terms of racing the full? Yes, my pace can be 25 seconds slower, but the distance is twice as far, and even more important, there’s something seriously deceptive about the consistency of those half times. Consistency implies intention. I didn’t aim for 1:51 any of those four races; I aimed to get a PR. For one of them, the first, I did. For the other three, I didn’t, or only did by a handful of seconds. In all four cases I ran until my heart and lungs exploded in my chest. If your internal organs explode and you still don’t get what you want, well, it’s hard to take that as motivation to aim for something even harder.
I know, I know, I have to try anyway. Consistency may be a hobgoblin, but ambition is a fire-breathing dragon that eats hobgoblins for breakfast. The beast must be appeased, even if you get scorched in the process.