Last night we found ourselves unintentionally in the midst of a speed workout. Yeah, it just sort of happened. The run started out unassumingly enough with just the right amount of coolness in the setting sun. I was focused on making sure Micah didn’t beat me to our meeting spot — I hate for him to have to wait for me — but as we entered the park my focus shifted. I was coming up on a couple of runners and passed one or two without a problem. I was about to pass another one when he saw the stroller out of the corner of his eye. I know this because his posture straightened and his stride quickened. And suddenly I had a Mark. It became imperative that I get by him, which I did. And then I had to stay in front, which I also did. But then I pulled off to meet Micah and the Mark got ahead. Blast.

But Micah and I had pretty great timing and we were back on the loop within just a few seconds. I kept the Mark in my sight and apprised Micah of the situation. “We’re going after the guy who just turned onto Center Drive,” I said. It wasn’t until we had passed him and were just about to turn back on to the loop that I realized we’d been booking it. I’d been so focused on the Mark that I didn’t even think about the fact that I hadn’t been able to talk. As I handed Micah the stroller leash and let him take the boys up the hill he said, “So, today’s a speed workout?” Uh, yeah. I guess so.

It felt good to find myself in that situation. We don’t have anything we’re training for, so our runs can feel a little purposeless, a little mundane. But I love pushing myself. It’s not always enough just to get out for a run. I want it to be faster or longer than the last one. I want to feel some aching in my legs. I want to have to focus so I know I’m not just running on cruise control. I want to get better. And I’m learning that the best way to do that is by truly concentrating on getting better — finding a Mark and sticking with it.

This article from the Times has some excellent strategies for pushing yourself to improve. The story is specific to running, but I’m pretty sure it can be applied to various aspects of life (you know: pie baking, watercoloring, spirituality, whatever . . . ). In a nutshell, to perform your best you should:

  • concentrate on increasing intensity rather than letting yourself zone out
  • find a mark — someone or something to beat — and keep that goal in your sights
  • learn to push yourself through pain and realize that it never gets easier, you just become better equipped to deal with it
  • find the balance between pushing too hard and not pushing hard enough (burning yourself out versus underperforming)
  • not be afraid to drool all over yourself. Seriously.

I plan to use these to motivate me in my running, but I’d also like to push myself to a “personal best” in something else. I’m not quite sure what that is yet, but I’m thinking about it. I’m looking out for a new Mark. What about you? Do you have a Mark? Something you’re dead set on getting better at? Do tell.

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