Do You Really Want to BQ, or How to Set SMART Goals

Monday, April 16, 2018. Mile 12 of the 2018 Boston Marathon.

All eyes and TV cameras are on 2017 New York City Marathon winner Shalane Flanagan as she says something to Desiree Linden, breaks off the pack and runs into a porta-potty. Linden slows down and waits for her.

Best running story already, right? But wait. It gets better! 

Over the next miles, the two American women work together to catch up to the pack, pummeled by sheets of rain, gusts of wind, and - is that sleet? Lord. What more will Mother Nature hurl at those folks today?

Mother Nature cannot stop Linden, however. By Mile 22, she has picked up the pace and, in true Desi style, started ticking off her competitors. With each mile, running stronger. She confidently overtakes third, and, just like that, runs into the lead. Eyes wide open. Gaze straight ahead. Five-feet-one and 97 pounds of determination, forging towards the finish line.

We are now treated to some of the best moments in running history, ever. The glee on her husband's face as he sees Linden run down Boylston street. The emotional group hug and her manager's honest sobs. Her chapped-lipped smile and hypothermic shivering, yet unmistakable happiness and pride as she takes in the national anthem in celebration of her victory. The first American woman to win the Boston Marathon in 33 years! 

You can't help but be inspired by this performance, this race. 

You watch thousands of runners brave and persevere the truly insane Boston weather and can't help but want to set a goal for yourself. To run the Boston Marathon one day!

No doubt, it is a goal worth pursuing. But before you print out those advanced marathon training plans and set out to chase a BQ, let's take a step back and determine if you are ready for the goal you're about to set.  

Smart Goals.

You know how they say goals need to be S.M.A.R.T.: an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time limited?

The good news is, a "BQ or bust" goal perfectly meets the first two criteria:

1. Specific

Hell yes. Qualifying for Boston is all about how old you are and how fast you have to run a marathon. Fill out this simple form and you will know right away how many minutes away your fastest marathon time is from a Boston qualifying time. 

{And if you have not run a marathon yet, may I suggest setting a completion goal for your first 26.2, rather than a time goal? You can download and follow my free 24-week Beginner Marathon training plan and get started.}

2. Measurable

For sure. The BAA's qualifying standard is clear and non-negotiable. Based on that, you know just what is the maximum pace you can run in order to qualify. And since each year, more runners qualify than can get a spot in the race, you should really be at least four or five minutes faster in order to be fairly sure in your success. 

3. Achievable

It's funny how many runners are quick to point out that a BQ is something they can never achieve. For you, I have three words:

Never say never.

Cliche, but absolutely true. Even if your current marathon PR is 5+ hours, you are separated from a BQ dream by three things: time, desire, and persistence. (Well, all that, and good health.)

It may take two years, or five, or ten. If you want it badly enough and are ready to work for it - it will happen. And if Desi Linden's and Shalane Flanagan's stories did not convince you of that, I don't know what will. 

On the other end of the spectrum are runners who throw themselves into a BQ goal before they are ready for it. So while a BQ will become achievable for them after a time, going after it prematurely would only result in disappointment (or injury). 

Which brings us to the next part of the goal chase:

4. Realistic

Is running a BQ time realistic for you right now? The answer to that is fairly simple, actually. If your latest marathon finish is just minutes off and you are injury-free, and ready and willing to train smartly, then yes. 

If you need to shave half an hour or more from your marathon finish time - then it becomes tricky and dependent on your fitness, how you have trained until now, and how much more you can handle. If you go from "I barely trained and ran a 4:25 marathon" or "I ran all the miles, but never did any structured training, and finished in 4:15" to properly building your base mileage, then adding the necessary strength, speed and goal race pace work, you could very well knock out a 3:40 or 3:45 BQ. In theory. (I do have anecdotes that support this.)

For most people, however, marathon PRs usually come in increments of a few minutes at a time. A more typical example would be starting at "I barely trained and ran a 4:25 marathon" to "I trained better this time and ran a 4:15 marathon." A 10-minute PR is nothing to sneeze at! 

Bonus "R": Relevant?

I want to add my own "R" here, because much too often I see runners who set the wrong goals, for the wrong reasons. Why do you want to BQ? Do you know enough about the Boston Marathon to truly respect it? Do you know enough about running culture to understand why we revere the Boston Marathon? If the answer is yes, then that is a relevant goal for you, proceed.

But if your answer is, "Well, I saw it on TV, and I was inspired, and now I want to do it too...," or "I heard that it's the hardest marathon to get into, so I want to try," or "I'll never say it out loud, but I really just want to post about it on Facebook and Instagram," then a BQ is likely not a relevant goal for you.   

OK, back to our "regular" show now. If you determine that a BQ is realistic for you, there is only one more piece of the puzzle to solve:

5. Timely

This is actually the most important piece of all, and it goes back to the idea that we have a "Yes" on the Achievable front, given enough time (and dedication). A solid BQ attempt, assuming you are ready to give it a go now, will still take at least four to six months of hard work. Marathon training adds a lot of stress to our already overbooked lives, and even when you are not training, you will be thinking about it. You will breathe, eat, and sleep marathon training. In fact,  you will sleep at least eight (but ideally, more!) hours a night, so your body can absorb all the training and make the necessary adaptations. So if you are going through a stressful time at work or in your personal life, this might not be the best time to add one more stressor to your schedule. 

But, if your answer to all five criteria was "Hell yes, bring it on!" -- then go forth, chase that unicorn and make the Boston Dream yours!

Coach Aleks