I DID IT! (Now what?)

A reflection on how to achieve goals better, from one who failed to.

A few days ago, I finally checked off a box that had been floating in front of me for three years. A goal I’d spent the entire last year preparing for. An entire year of getting up early, eating leftovers at my desk, of missing my family for hours on weekends. An entire year of two or three showers a day, of wearing a bouncy annoying water bottle belt on long runs, of eating 5–6 times daily (and always within 30 minutes of finishing a workout). A year of running and biking 2,571 miles.

If the last 12 months of training were strung end to end. . . .

So what was it? I ran a marathon. Not big news in itself, since over 550,000 people in the U.S. ran one last year. But running one in under three hours (2:59:26)? That’s more special — the 98th percentile of marathon finishers
 Hearing my time, fellow runners give big smiles, fist bumps, and exclamation points. My training partner said I should frame the screenshot of my results. Even non-runner friends and family, knowing how much I’d put into this, prayed for me on race day.

So why don’t I feel better about it? I may never be 98th percentile in anything again. So why do I feel, instead of the warm glow of pride and accomplishment, a void inside? I’d prepared for the possibility that I wouldn’t make my goal. (I’d already had a letdown in December, when I got sick before my previous marathon.) But what I hadn’t prepared for was that I would succeed — but would not feel satisfied. So what can I take away from this emotional detour? Why am I making this unexpected stop in Bummerville? Here are my four main observations.

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1. Running Trek: Into Darkness
First, the star that I followed for so long has vanished. For years now, I’ve been the guy who was training to break three hours in a marathon. Training owned my early mornings or lunch breaks (sometimes both), claimed half my Saturday or Sunday — and sometimes gave an excuse to duck unwanted social obligations. But now, I’m not that guy any more — that thing that defined me is in the past. In a sense, part of my self-definition is in the past now too. I’m now a guy that broke three hours, but going from present to past tense has me feeling a little naked.

Now that it’s gone, I see how the tyranny of marathon training also gave me security. Something to stand on, cling to, or hide behind, depending on the situation. Unlike running shorter races, the bigness of marathon training impresses even non-runners. Running a five-minute mile may be just as hard as running a three-hour marathon, yet saying you’re training for the former draws blank stares, whereas the latter elicits impressed nods. I’ll keep running, of course; I’ll move on to training for something else. But it didn’t occur to me that I’d be giving up my small-talk way of impressing people.

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2. Goals: process vs. event
Second, my funk stems from hitting the goal — but not in the way I’d hoped. My running buddy and I had signed up together, trained together, and dreamed together. With each track workout and long run, each week without injury or illness, we got more hopeful that we’d finally be able to race together. Then two weeks beforehand, my friend got sick. So I knew I might be running the marathon alone, but on race day, he was feeling better. Up went my hopes again.

We raced together — on goal pace — through the halfway mark. He looked grim, but I still clutched at my vision of us finishing together as well. Not wanting to jinx us or discourage him, before the race I never brought up how we’d handle it if we had to split up. When he started fading in mile 15, we didn’t have time to adjust expectations — I just barked “Stay positive!” over my shoulder as we drew apart.

So what’s the lesson? To enjoy achievement, switch in that moment from being process-oriented to outcome-oriented. A process, or system, is what gets you there, and enjoying the process is the key to enjoying most of life. Yet when the process differs from expectations, the outcome can feel lacking. And with life, as with a marathon, it’s so rare that the process goes exactly as you hoped. So instead, achieving a goal should be like a sports team winning a title: if you win, the rest is footnotes. So just hoist the trophy, and worry about contracts, injuries, and the rest later.

3. Where’s the party?
Third, I’m in the dumps because I didn’t take time to celebrate. Between feeding kids, dropping off cars, cleaning up the house, unpacking our stuff, and working on a home project, there was little time after the marathon to bask in the accomplishment. Then the week started, we got tired and busy, and the moment disappeared in the slipstream of life.

It was a missed opportunity; I need to plan better next time. Big achievements are rare, and by failing to commemorate it I sold short all that went into making it happen. But another reason? Most of life is un-special, so people appreciate an excuse to celebrate with you. A celebration gives an excuse to put the mundane behind.

Almost 38 hours of training — just shy of another work week.

4. No rest for the weary
Fourth reason I’m crabby? I’ve almost forgotten how to rest. For years, because of running over lunch, I’ve been The Guy Who Never Eats with His Coworkers. The Guy Who Gives Half His Sundays to Long Runs (driving, warmup, ice bath, and shower). The Guy Who Watches TV while Gyrating on Foam Roller or Lacrosse Ball for Injury Prevention instead of Couching Like a Normal Person. (I roll at my desk too, perched atop my file cabinet like a fidgety toddler.) I was even The Guy Who Stretches His Hip Flexors in Bed before Falling Asleep.

Compared to casual joggers, this iron discipline set me apart, and gave me the pride of hard work. It’s what enabled minutes and miles to pile up injury-free. But now that I’m taking a break from it all, I feel a little lost. I need to enjoy the freedom of being able to choose if I’m going to run today. The freedom to just walk to the park over lunch and sit.

It’s not just compulsive runners, though, that have a problem taking breaks. If you’re also American, you may be one of the many folks who didn’t take all their vacation time last year. There have been many articles written about this problem. CNBC points out that Americans’ taking vacation time is at a 40-year low. The Guardian suggests that it’s not laws, but a workaholic culture. To quote activist John DeGraaf, “The United States has never indicated that as a country we take vacation time seriously. We are the only industrial country that does not mandate vacation days….” And is overwork even helping the economy? Comparing lists of GDP per capita and vacation days + public holidays by country is striking. Amongst the 15 nations over $50k per capita GDP, the United States is the outlier:

So while I have taken vacations from work this past year, I haven’t taken vacations from running, and I think the same lessons apply. So I will force myself to take it easy, and savor the break. When I feel ready, I’ll choose a new goal to chase. I’ll enjoy the process, but also the accomplishment. And just as important, next time I’ll take time to celebrate. See you out on the roads!

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