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What makes a "Great Race"?

Posted by Ty Velde  March 14, 2013 11:11 PM

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100ty_velde.jpg Ty Velde is a regular contributor to Boston.com's Marathon blog.
Every marathon I have run is an experience unto itself. They each have their moments. There have been highs. There have been lows. I’ve have good days. I’ve had bad days. There are times when everything “clicks”.

Unfortunately, there are times when everything just seems to fall apart. In short, no matter what I’ve done to prepare, there are elements of unpredictability associated with running a marathon and its these factors that make each experience so challenging and yet also so rewarding.

While not every marathon I have run has been the ideal experience, I’d like to say that I’ve had far more good races than bad ones, and every so often I have what I consider to be a “great” race. These are the races that stick in my mind and have defined me as a runner. These are the races where I’ve truly come to see the potential of who I am and what I’m able to accomplish.

But what makes a great race?

When I reflect upon what I feel to be my “great races,” while each experience is unique unto itself, there are elements that seem to consistently reappear. It’s these factors that for me constitute the difference between a race that is “good” and and one that is “great”.

Meeting your goals
Most everyone approaches race day with an objective or goal in mind. Whether it’s achieving a certain time or just crossing the finish line, most everyone has a vision for what they are looking to achieve the moment that the gun goes off and the starting line is crossed. It’s these goals that keep us motivated during grueling training runs and provide us with the vision for why we are doing what we are doing.

Within in the context of the marathon, many of the goals we set are months, even years in the making, and when they are achieved, it is an incredibly rewarding experience. Therefore race day is the moment that it's all put to the test and when you achieve what you've set out to do, for many if not most, this is a sign of having a great race.

The environment
There is no denying that the environment in which you run can have a huge impact on your perception of the race. Great crowd support is a huge motivator. In the case of Boston, this factor can be summed up in three words “Wellesley Scream Tunnel”. A beautiful course or backdrop can turn a race into an awe inspiring journey. While I’ve never run the Big Sur Marathon, there is certainly a reason why it’s consistently rated “most beautiful.”

Of course there is also the weather. This can certainly make or break one’s race, and all one has to do is look at the weather at last year’s Boston Marathon. For me personally, this single factor made it one of my “worst” races of all time. With this all being said, there is clearly no denying that the environment in which a race is run can have a huge impact on your race day experience and its associated perception of "greatness".

The zone
This component of a great race is not so easy to define, but I can guarantee that any of us who feel that they have run a great race have been here. When I’m in the “zone”, the last thing I am thinking about is “running.” Sure that’s what I’m doing, but my mind is somewhere else. When I’m in the “zone”, I’m not thinking about the physical challenges that come with running 26.2 miles, rather I’m soaking up the energy of the experience and living in the moment.

Ultimately when I reflect on my “great” races, you will not hear me tell a single story about pain and discomfort, but rather I will talk about how good everything felt and the energy of the experience. These are the moments when the physiological and the psychological seem to go their separate ways, rather than come together. Yes, it’s hard to explain, but when its occurred, I have always described it within the context of running a great race.

Exceeding expectations
One of the true beauties of the marathon is that in many ways it’s a test. While it can be a “confirming” experience it terms of demonstrating what you know you’re capable of, there many times where it brings out and showcases potential you had not yet discovered.

As I noted earlier, most of us approach race day with some sort of goal or objective in mind, but there are also those moments where your race day performance goes above and beyond anything that you thought was possible. It's moments like these that truly constitute a great race, as you’re not only achieving what you set out to do, you’re discovering and demonstrating potential that you did not necessarily even know existed.

For me, this happened with the very first marathon I ever ran – Chicago 2000 – and is chronicled here. My goal was to finish in less than four hours and I ended up running it in 3:01:00. The fact that I had not only achieved my goal but also so wildly had exceeded my expectations, is one of the core reasons I am still running marathons today. This “great” race was truly a life changing experience for me, as it unearthed potential that I had no idea even existed.

If things had turned out differently that day and had I not run a great race, would I likely be getting ready to run my 24th marathon and 12th consecutive Boston Marathon? I doubt it. However by exceeding my expectations and running a great race, on that day a fire was lit that continues to burn within me to this very day.

Ultimately, when it comes to running a great race there are many factors that contribute to it and what constitutes a great experience is something that is unique to each and every one of us. However, a wonderful factor about running a great race is that it’s something that we all can achieve. It’s not something that is exclusive to the elites, or those who have qualified.

Running a great race is a common goal that we all can share, because no matter where you have come from or who you are, the potential to run a great race resides with us all.

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Look for updates, news, analysis and commentary from the following.
  • Steve Silva, Boston.com senior producer, two-time Boston Marathon sub-four hour runner.
  • Ty Velde is a 16-time Boston qualifier who's completed 12 consecutive Boston Marathons and 25 marathons overall. Ty is now training for his 13th Boston run and will provide training tips for those who train solo and outside, no matter what temperature it is.
  • Rich 'Shifter' Horgan is a 19-time Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge team member who runs in honor of his father, who died of colon cancer. He will provide updates on local running events with a focus on the charitable organizations that provide Boston Marathon entries for their organization's fund raising purposes

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