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Setting the sail

As runners, we need to cut ourselves some slack to ensure smooth sailing.

I'm sure there are times when the magic of being pushed across the water by the power of the wind is exhilarating. But every time I've tried to captain a sailboat, the wind has nearly pushed me into the rocks. Clearly, I'm not much of a sailor.

My problems have to do with leeway, or, more precisely, the lack of leeway. You see, a sailboat has two sides: the windward side, which faces the wind, and the leeward side, which is away from the wind. A sailboat doesn't ever really go in a straight line; it gets pushed to the leeward side. So, you set the sail, then point the bow slightly windward via the rudder, with the important part being to leave yourself plenty of leeway. Are you with me so far?

This would all be fine if the wind never changed and your course was always dead ahead. But that never happens. Winds shift and courses alter, so you spend the better part of your day out on a sailboat fiddling with an endless array of turns, ropes, cranks and cleats.

Many of us think that running, like sailing, is simply a matter of selecting a goal, devising a course to reach it, then sitting back and watching our dreams come true. But running, too, is fraught with changing winds. Which is why we often need to create our course anew on a daily basis. Yet, as runners, we rarely give ourselves the leeway to fail.

This is most obvious to me at the finish line of races. So many runners of every age and description cross the finish line, look at the clock and frown. They're disappointed. The 16-minute 5-K runner wanted to run 15:45. The 40-minute 5-K runner yearned to break 35:00.

Their disappointment might be justified if precisely the same set of circumstances could be created over and over again. But that can't happen. Our lives are linear. You're in a different race as a different runner each time you toe the starting line.

To be sure, you can set the sail - and the rudder, too. You can train effectively, warm up carefully, stay within yourself and follow your race plan. But you're still at the mercy of the fates. The day, the course, the runners around you and a host of other factors outside your control will affect the outcome.

So you'd better give yourself some leeway.

In my running, as in my life, I've often given myself too little leeway. I've logged miles I shouldn't have, run races I wasn't prepared for, set too many impossible goals and willed myself to go beyond my capabilities far too often. Sometimes I get away with it. More often, I crash into the rocks and am set back for days, weeks or months.

Deciding to be a runner is only the first step. Actually being a runner is a daily commitment. It's running when you should and not running when you shouldn't. It's paying attention to yourself as you are today and choosing a course that leads you toward tomorrow. It's a matter of endless fiddling - with schedule, distance, pace and a dozen other things that affect every run.

You may not be able to control the wind, but you can set, and reset, the sail.

Waddle on, friends.

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