5 Things the Marathon Taught Me About Goals

iStock_000002396437SmallLast November I ran my first full marathon through the five boroughs of New York City. Those few hours were simultaneously some of the most challenging and magical of my life. And while the aches and pains are now a distant memory, the lessons I learned have stayed with me and changed my approach to every seemingly insurmountable challenge I now encounter.

#1 Pacing Yourself Is Key.

I was a gymnast growing up; high power, low endurance. I could give you 110% for about 45 seconds (the length of my floor routine) before collapsing with exhaustion. This made running any kind of distance a near impossibility for me. The first time I ran a 5k, I had to walk half of it. I truly didn’t understand how people could run more than ten minutes. I decided running wasn’t for me and quit.

After graduating college and realizing I couldn’t afford a gym membership, I gave it a reluctant second chance. Maybe it was the wisdom from my shiny new degree or just that I was out of shape and slow, but I started to find my pace. With my newfound endurance, I sustained through two miles, then three, then on and on and on.

I’ve come to find that pacing is something we fail to apply outside of running. When we set new goals, we attack them with frenzied fervor, then burn out in a matter of days, or weeks if we’re lucky. 110% can only last so long.

After learning to pace for 26.2 miles, I began to apply a similar strategy to my other goals. I had to break each one down into a next actionable step. For instance, I set myself a goal of learning to code this year. My first action step was to find a resource. Once I found it, my next step was to sign up. Then I committed to using it, 2x a week. I usually work on my coding more often, but I didn’t want to set myself up for failure by saying I would do it every day. It’s the principle of pacing in action, one small step at a time, at a sustainable rate. A month later I’ve mastered the basics of programming and am continuing to move forward at my slow but effective pace.

#2 There is Power in Commitment.

Even after learning to pace myself, I found it hard to get past 10k. It was just so long, almost a full hour of running. When I ran my first half marathon, I threw up at the finish line. The thought of running the full 26.2 miles seemed insurmountable. But a year later I wound up winning the lottery, and so my marathon date was set. Up until that moment, it still seemed unattainable. But as soon as I had a date, a deadline for my goal, it wasn’t a matter of possibility any more, only a matter of HOW I would make it happen.

Having a specific target creates a remarkable sense of clarity. Suddenly, your goal isn’t some distant, intangible thing; it’s scheduled and you have to map out how you’re going to make it happen. For every next step you identified in your “pacing”, you now have to set a time frame. That time frame brings about a sense of urgency and intention to make things happen.

#3 Stay Present. 

The hours of my marathon run contained some of the only times of my life where I was completely present in the moment. To think about the race in its’ entirety was just too overwhelming, ESPECIALLY at the 16 mile mark. There was so much ground left to cover, to think of it in terms of 10 more miles would’ve made me stop. The only way I could continue was to focus on the step I was taking; that one breath, that one moment.

I often find myself racing towards an ending- the end of the work day, the end of a workout, the end of a task- rather than reveling in everything the present has to offer and embracing that I’m exactly where I need to be in that moment.

Once the work of defining the action steps and their respective deadlines is done, there’s nothing left to do but follow the plan; not anticipate what’s coming or worry about what’s next, just be whole-heartedly committed to mastering the moment.

#4 Hills Suck.

The New York City Marathon has a surprising amount of hills, but the one that really gets you sits right at the 23-24 mile mark and is very long and very slow. Even looking back now, I don’t know if there was anything positive about those 20 minutes, other than the fact that they ended.

I think it’s important to admit that some challenges and obstacles just plain suck. But no hill lasts forever. There’s always a peak, and if you push through, you’ll get there. Don’t give up cause it’s hard.

#5 You’re Only Racing Yourself.

Distance running is one of the few things in life where, unless you’re an elite runner, you’re only racing yourself. Nobody is out there to win; they’re running to achieve something for themselves.

I find that too often I measure my success, or rather, my failures, by the success of other people. I get distracted with jealousy rather than focusing on the goals and the journey I’ve so carefully crafted for myself.

I decided to take what I learned from the marathon and put it into practice. Rather than be threatened by those alongside me, I’m uplifted by them. They are my community and my support; we’re in it together. Success isn’t limited. We can all finish the race as we chose, because the only person we really have to please, is ourself.


5 Things the Marathon Taught Me About Goals — 7 Comments

  1. All great points, but pacing definitely resonates with me. I get burned out easily, so I need to reserve energy and pace myself to be able to reach my goal. I haven’t been able to apply that to running though since I still suck and hate running.

  2. Great lessons! I am definitely a sprinter in life, when most things are marathons! I love the ‘staying present’ point. A lot of times my off-pacing and burn-out comes as a result of focusing at the end of a thing (the end that is nowhere in site).

  3. It’a hard to stay focus on the task at hand, especially when you’re tired or sore or wanting to just be done.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this! Me and my boyfriend are planning to complete a marathon this year so I hope in next months I will be able to share the same point of view 😉 I’m trying to manage full time job with studies and trainings and it’s not always easy. But I believe, as you said, “no hill lasts forever”, right?

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