I used to look at life as a crusade to “check the boxes.” Get good grades. Check. Graduate from college. Check. Start a family. Check. Make a lot of money. Check. You get the idea. My perception was that the more high-quality boxes that I was able to check, the better my life would be. For me, this meant that the key to happiness was to properly identify exactly which boxes should be on the list. Sounded easy enough. Set goals, check boxes, live happily ever after. It turns out, that’s not the way life works. But I think I may have finally figured it out.
On April 7, 2018, at 3:39 am, while most people were comfortably sleeping in their beds, I crossed the finish line of the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run. I was exhausted and elated. I exceeded personal expectations for my first attempt at that distance, and placed 25th out of the 266 runners that had started early the previous morning. I had done it! After nearly 10 months of grueling training, I could finally check the box. I was in the 100 Mile club! It had been the most ambitious physical goal I had ever set for myself (by far!), and now that I had accomplished it, surely things would be different. I was eager to get some rest and then revel in my new identity. I was a changed man.
Why Don’t I Feel Different?
Or was I? After being flooded with enthusiastic “congratulations” and “attaboy” posts from friends and family, the excitement passed, and I found myself staring into a black hole. The past few years had been a steady progression: a few marathons, a couple of JFK50s, 4:00 AM wakeups and countless training miles, all leading to the culmination at that 100-mile finish line. I had obsessed over it. I had visualized it. Even when I was focused on other races, my compass was squarely aimed at moving towards that moment. So now what? In a rather surprising, roundabout way, I suddenly felt lost. My purpose was gone. I had conquered Mt. Everest, and while the celebration had been sweet at the top, I just didn’t know where to go from there. And then it hit me. “I need a new goal!”
Fast forward 6 months.
“I’m not going to Masochist.” I cringed as I sent the text. Jeff and I were a few weeks away from the Mount Masochist 50 Mile Trail Run, a brutal mountain ultra with stupid amounts of elevation change and a reputation for being a total suffer fest. It had seemed like the perfect race to target when I was trying to climb out of my post-Umstead funk. It made logical sense. I had conquered 100 miles, but I had not tested myself in the mountains…so 50 miles of power hiking in November should do the trick. There was one minor detail. I had never really started training. I just couldn’t muster the motivation.
“I know,” came his reply. “I have been waiting for you to tell me.” Ugh.
It’s About “Becoming”
It has taken me some time to dissect what I was really going through, but eventually the light bulb came on. I had made a simple mistake, but an emotionally costly one. My impression had been that if I worked hard enough and accomplished this “thing,” I would be changed forever, and it would somehow make future endeavors easier. But the truth is that in order to accomplish it at all, I had to first become the person that was capable of such a task. And if the “becoming” was where the magic happened, where the grit and confidence and faith are developed, then it’s no wonder I had felt lost after Umstead. I had stopped “becoming.” I had abandoned the very behavior that allowed me to crush the goal in the first place.
Aid Station VS. Finish Line
I have thought about this a lot since then, especially during longer runs. It finally occurred to me that the only real “finish line” I will ever reach is the day I close my eyes for the last time. For obvious, selfish reasons, I desperately hope that day is many years in the future. But nonetheless, my life race will continue until that moment, and my hope is to come across that finish line having maxed my potential. I want to be able to look back and know I left nothing in the tank. I want people to celebrate my effort not just because of the results I post, but because of the impact I make on others along the way. Every step during this long, taxing, difficult, exciting, inspiring run is aimed at becoming the person I am meant to be.
And that is where I had gone wrong. I had envisioned Umstead as a “destination” rather than simply the next step in becoming the best version of myself. I had viewed it as the finish line, while it was just an aid station. Instead of giving my high fives, restocking my pack, and forging on down the trail towards the next stage of my journey, I had walked off the course. Big mistake. It was a hard lesson to learn. And it’s a lesson I pray that I will never forget.
Setting Goals: My New Philosophy
So, after much introspection, here are my key takeaways in regards to setting goals:
1. Focus on who I want to become, not what I want to do. I want to become the best husband, father, and ultrarunner I can be. I want to positively impact others around me by encouraging them to push limits and pursue dreams. I want to add value. All goals should support that journey.
2. I have more to gain from the discipline it takes to accomplish a goal than from accomplishing the goal itself. The accomplishment is a snapshot in time, but the discipline can serve me forever.
3. Treat every goal like an aid station, not a finish line. Each goal should be set and pursued as part of the bigger picture. My race continues until the day I die, so don’t ever expect to be able to quit after reaching a goal. It’s simply time to high five, restock, and head back out on the trail.
4. Don’t worry about cutoff times. Sometimes goals feel like pass / fail. But because “becoming” is about progress, if I keep moving forward, I am winning. The choice is either to continue or willingly take the DNF (Did Not Finish), but if the race is still going, I will not get pulled from the course. So never quit.
Go Be Awesome
If you are still with me, I am hopeful that my stumble following Umstead can benefit you in some way. It has changed the way I view setting goals for all areas of my life and has opened new doors for joy and fulfillment. The only path to lasting success is for me to work hard at becoming the athlete, husband, father, friend, etc. that it will take to leave the mark I want to make. And in the process, I 100% plan to Go Be Awesome!
Struggling with setting goals of your own? Or have some additional helpful insights? I would love to hear from you. Drop a comment below or hit me up on Instagram at @go_be_awesome. You can also shoot us an email at email@example.com Don’t forget to head over to our Video and Blog pages for more content!
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