After hours of intense grind, you finally cross that line… you have five or so blissful minutes in the finishing area to soak it up. Every ounce of energy has been drained on the course behind you and coordinating bottle-to-mouth is a task, let alone reflecting on the thousands of kilometers and sweat beads that delivered you to this point. You savour every precious second wrapped in the foil blanket - but is this moment the true reward?
I used to think that distance running was all about tolerating pain, sticking to a rigid routine and simply (or not so simply) hanging on through months of arduous training towards a fixed goal - all to experience that finishing feeling where the hard work would hopefully be justified. I was soon to realise how risky and damaging this narrow mindset may be. At the London 2012 Olympics it really hit home that the goal or moment we work so hard for may only last a couple of minutes, hours or days – which is miniscule in comparison to the time spent preparing. Given that we occupy the majority of our lives living out the cascade of processes between our goals, we should value and enjoy them equally - if not more.
Since a young age I have enjoyed setting goals and working towards them. I think this stemmed from Dad’s love for instigating a casual family goal setting chat on New Year’s Eve. My two siblings, parents and I would come up with some goals for the year ahead and I would get a real kick out of ticking off as many as I could. I assumed the big tick was the sole purpose of the exercise. It seemed pretty clear-cut back then - set a goal, plan the most direct path to reach it and follow that route.
Time and experience has taught me that the direct path cannot always be followed and sometimes the end point requires shifting. Deviations due to changing circumstances, injury and factors that may or may not be within our control can send us on longer route and a road less-travelled. A fascinating article by Brad Stulberg titled ‘why having big goals can backfire’, emphasises the benefits of “shifting your focus from the goal itself to the process that gives you the best chance of achieving it; and to judge yourself based on how well you execute that process”. He makes a valid point and this idea became more pertinent to me following an injury in 2014 and then again in 2016.
I bounced into the year 2016 with big goals. My grand plan was to undertake a training block at Falls Creek during the Summer prior to lining up with my Aussie team mates to race in Cardiff at the World Half Marathon Championships. I would then travel to Flagstaff in Arizona to live and run at altitude for the month of May, to further develop my aerobic system and strength in the company of other passionate runners. This schedule would prepare me well for the Olympic Games Marathon in Rio, where I hoped to be in career best form.
Whilst I was able to tick off the January Falls Creek camp, the rest of my plan required some major adjustments due to a
foot injury. A couple of years ago this would have sent my stress levels soaring and my mood on a roller coaster ride. Fortunately, previous experiences had taught me that it’s not worth dwelling on frustration and instead to embrace the challenge, focusing on one day at a time. I didn’t particularly enjoy cross training but felt consistent satisfaction from completing my daily session goals (even in Flagstaff when the most amazing trails were beckoning). A process-focused mindset helped me to maintain perspective and stay calm when under pressure, see opportunities when they arose and cultivate optimism. Despite not achieving my initial performance goals for 2016, the self-awareness, resilience and strengths I gained are sure to be an asset going forward. The Rio Marathon was one of my most challenging race experiences both physically and mentally but it is nice to be able to reflect on the 2016 Olympic year with a sense of happiness and satisfaction.
When you take a wrong turn on a run (common practice for me), the mistaken route is sometimes where the gems and are found. You have to wonder whether our most obscure journeys towards a goal better equip us to experience life at its fullest and realise our potential. Whilst it feels fantastic to place a big tick beside a goal and I believe it is very important to celebrate our successes, my childhood view of goal setting’s role has expanded. Goals guide us towards a purposeful, meaningful and ultimately more fulfilling journey. Reaching our destination is one marker of success but the manner in which we travel there is the key. In answer to my initial question, it feels amazing to cross the line (even better under a goal time) but at the end of the day, this purely marks the completion of one chapter in a long story.
REFERENCE: Stulberg, B 2016, “Big Goals Can Backfire. Olympians Show Us What to Focus on Instead.” http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2016/08/why-having-big-goals-can-backfire.html?mid=fb-share-scienceofus. [Accessed June 2016].